Money and Love
Senate Bill #208 brings up big questions for the river business in
(Or was that love and money?)
Fast motor trip full of great people, up early on
Havasu morning, everybody really humping it to help load the boats. What else ya
need, dude? asks Russell, a used car buyer from New Jersey, as he slings me the last
dutch oven. Money and love, I tell him. Not necessarily in that
Russell laughs. You know what they say, Lew.
Love cant buy you money.
I laugh back. Weve got this thing going: cynical banter about American
values. Before he started buying cars for dealers, Russell owned a repair shop that kept
eight mechanics busy full time. Its your muffler bearing, maam,
Russell said earlier, mocking excesses in that business. Im afraid itll
run you about $350.00. Could you wait a half an hour? We can get right on that for
I winced when he said that. And I wince again when I think about it now.
Welcome to the Ultimate Grand Canyon Experience says the brochure on this one.
(A five day, balls to the wall race against time?) Everybody in the boats, please.
We gotta go.
The truth is, Im in this one for the money. All the way. But love keeps
tripping me up.
GCRG got a pretty strong letter this spring from an old 20-year vet who
chided us for screwing around with the Glen Canyon Dam EIS so long and not confronting our
outfitters to get a bigger piece of the pie for boatmen. We need health care, better
wages, pensions, etc. The guy who wrote the letter is a good boatman and a sharp customer
too, so it made us think about all that stuff in earnest. Somebody said, finally,
The outfitters have enough to worry about right now as it is. They cant very
well take care of boatmen if theyre fighting for survival themselves.
The comment referred to S. 208: a bill introduced in the U.S. Senate by
Arkansas Senator Dale Bumpers. S.
208s concern is concession reform in the National Parks. What it mainly
seeks to address is the fact that some bigtime concessioners are realizing huge profits
thanks to advantageous positions in the Parks, but are paying back little in the way of
concession fees, or taxes, or good deals to the public.
To alleviate this, Bumpers wants to open up a more competitive bidding
process for all concessioners, big and small. Grand Canyon outfitters arent the
major focus here and the bill has understandably made outfitters, (and some of us at
The outfitters, through their national organization, America Outdoors, have
taken the stand that language reading something like ... all other criteria for the
permit being met, the Secretary may give preferential consideration to the existing
outfitters... be altered to read the Secretary shall give
For us at GCRG, a couple of points seem clear: without healthy, stable
outfitters, there cant be healthy guides. And without a solid, well established
river business that thinks long term, the public will never get good river trips.
Opening up a highly competitive bidding war, it seems, would only foster a
short term, cutthroat mentality, which would eventually hurt both guides and our
customers, not to mention our bosses.
Making the size of the concession fee returned to the government a primary
focus of commercial permit evaluations is counterproductive too. It buys into
Americas worst disease: myopic worship of the bottom line. And adopting it in Grand
Canyon will only pass higher trip prices on to our customers.
Those points notwithstanding, though, the question remains: In our industry,
is there a problem? Have we, (or our outfitters), gotten too greedy?
If so, what is the cure?
So far, the rate control in this business has been compellingly simple:
Whatever the traffic will bear. about sums it up. And right now that
translates to about $200.00 a day.
Why have we done so well in the past? Hard work and diligence, yeah. But
mainly its the Canyon. We lucked out and stumbled into a magical place that happens
to sell itself. And does the most important part of our work for us. The greatest value
our trips offer comes from the place, not us.
Most of us got into this thing for some kind of love: the Canyon, the
river, the boats... maybe just the attention, the pleasure of controlling (more or less) a
Whatever the case, we loved it. And wed have paid them to let us go.
The icing on the cake was that our people loved it too. They came back more
than happy, feeling like theyd gotten a screaming deal. And that was how it should
The love problem I have now is complicated. (Arent they all?)
This trip Im doing is with a great company. Excellent management and
crew, very dialed in. Terrific boats and system. Good pay and benefits.
But the problem is threefold. One: The guys who count the money and sell the
trips dont live here anymore. (And some of them never did.) In the place where they
count the money they charge the going rate and never bat an eye. Theyve shaved the
schedule down to the bone and they will sell you that all-American trip and never think
twice about, or even understand, the pleasures theyve gutted out of it. For the lack
of one or two extra days on the schedule weve cheated thousands of customers out of
some of Grand Canyons best: Saddle Canyon all to yourself; Nankoweap in the evening;
a half day at the Little C when its clear; sleeping in at 114; going all the way up
at Elves; the long, glorious afternoon at Deer Creek; Matkat; Beaver Falls... the list is
The argument for running the fast trip is always the same: America
wants it. Thats the trip that sells. And the answer to it remains
the same too: People buy what we sell them. If we told them the longer trip was a better
deal, and why, theyd believe us. Theyd understand instantly.
Part two of my personal problem is a little credit card situation. Great
winter, but things did get a little out of hand and now here I am, doing some money
counting of my own.
But part three is Russell and everybody else on this trip. Theyre all
totally cool, is the thing, and it breaks my heart to have to beat them up so bad just to
get them down the river on time... to smile and tell everybody were doin great, even
though we just had to blow off Elves, Stone, and Deer Creek because of congestion or
dwindling options on the schedule... impending darkness.
Russells in the used car business now, but hes gearing up to make
a change: counseling for couples. I laugh at this one. Dude, I do my Russell
imitation. Youre going to have to hustle up a lot more green stuff if you want
to hang on to this action. Catch my drift?
Russell howls. He means it, though. He really doesnt keep score that
way anymore, and everything he does on this trip is a testimony to that. He helps the
stragglers up the trail; sits in front of the boat when no one else wants to; stays up
late to help me fix a malfunctioned spare motor. In short, he constantly exhibits the
exact opposite of your basic Whats in it for me? mentality.
Did Grand Canyon bring about this spiritual shifting of gears? Nope. Just
My theory is Grand Canyon was put here to remind us of one salient fact: life
is short and wed better spend our time wisely. Part of which means doing good work,
not being greedy, giving back to life as good as we get.
How am I going to reconcile that with mercenary boating? I dont know.
Maybe write an article about it and try to get it printed, whether it gets me run out of
the river business or not. Get out of bed a little earlier, quit futzing around so much,
pick up the pace.
S. 208? Not perfect, but maybe wed better take a hard look at the
issues it purports to address: excessive profits made at the expense of our National
Parks. In GC its not just the fast ones, either. Its the expensive ones too.
(Is $900 a head for a three day Whitmore reprieve a good deal?).
Our job in this instance is essentially the same: the U.S. Government, the
NPS, and the Grand Canyon river business all have the responsibility- dictated by the old
laws and the proposed new one as well- to facilitate the best visitor experience possible,
at a reasonable cost.
The burden on us today is that we are headed toward a Grand Canyon river
experience that is pared down and sanitized; accessible only to the worlds richest
people. And nobody in their right mind should want to see that. Its a situation that
runs directly counter to some of the most basic lessons the place has taught us.
The fact is, however S. 208 shakes out, if we cant keep our trips good
and their price affordable and in line with the services provided, then we dont
deserve to be there- outfitters or boatmen either.
Well keep an eye on S.208 and keep you posted.