is hard lately; not even close to what most of us would call fun.
The pressure is on from every which way, and no one is immune. The
winds of change gust and swirl... the summer of ‘95 does not slip
gently into autumn.
Early September: In the pouring rain at Lees
Ferry an unusual mixture of people stand, paying stunned respects
to the memory of our good buddy and classic old Grand Canyon boatman
“the Whale,” always the life of the party, who studied his cards,
surveyed the table at large, and abruptly cashed out. We sing “Shall
We Gather at the River,” followed by “How Great Thou Art.” Lightning
splits the sky; the rain falls harder. An unspeakable sadness hangs
heavy in the air. It feels, among other things, like the death of
That same week, 16 Grand Canyon outfitters and
the competing public send in new applications for commercial river
permits. Everybody bids on their own company, some bid on each other.
Mystery players ante up with multiple offers, and rumor has it a
few are pretty big. The Prospectus, or call for bids, was theoretically
designed to foster competition in a way that will do justice to
the Canyon and somehow provide better long term service. It contains
some strange language from a guide’s perspective, though. Who wrote
it, and what they were really thinking when they did is somewhat
obscure to us, as is who will actually award the new contracts and
what they’ll be thinking when they do. The spectre of big (or bigger)
business looms dark in the background. Until the new contracts are
awarded, our entire community will twist in the wind.
Back in D.C., the pendulum keeps moving. The
last two ideological swings have been so hard, so fast, nobody knows
what’s next. Rapid, unpredictable change is the order of the day.
A bill making the rounds in Congress—H.R. 260—considers the closing
of 315 different National Park units that fail to measure up. The
Grand Canyon isn’t one of them, but the basic foundations of the
NPS may be under the hatchet, along with God knows what else. “Government”
is a hefty word these days—fraught with tension. The worst of it
is, more than ever, it’s hard to see what’s right anymore. The American
Dream keeps slipping somehow, but we don’t know how to fix it.
Back to that same weird week in Arizona: lower
down on the food chain, the process of guides, outfitters and private
boaters co-operatively helping the NPS write the Commercial Operating
Requirements, having simmered along all summer, suddenly boils over.
The new Pres. at GCRG takes the tiller from ex-Pres. Murphy and
instantly runs full cob aground on the shoals of an untimely emotional
outburst. The rocks that took off his lower unit on the way in were
the Coast Guard; the application of an urban Health Code to the
river; drug testing; a huge pile of paper, growing ever bigger;
and, mainly, a regulatory ethic that seemed to say that if somebody
wasn’t there to force commercial boatmen into doing a good job,
the old rape and pillage days of the late 60’s would’ve never ended
(absent the fear of Big Brother, we’d be passing out drunk in the
middle of the day and drifting unchecked into eddies, or burying
our human waste in the sand and stirring the spaghetti with greasy
But even if the obstacles are gnarly, and scary
to contemplate too deeply (both for the bullshit and the traces
of truth one might find), that doesn’t mean you’re not supposed
to steer around them if it’s your turn to lead. And the truth here
is, this particular wreck isn’t the least bit pretty. Later on it
feels about as suave as hanging up in the middle of the Paria Riffle
in plain sight of the whole world; and telling the brand new people
on your boat “Ok, no big deal. We’ll just have a little lunch and
wait for the water to rise;” then lifting the cooler lid and realizing
you’ve left all the cold-cuts back in Flagstaff. At which point
the thin-lipped executive sitting toward the front says “there seems
to be a problem with this tube under the frame up here, it’s losing
air.” After such a terrific beginning, the whole trip itself (one
more year of service to GCRG—which wasn’t looking all that easy
anyway) starts to crystallize as Definitely a Bad Idea.
This wreck will eventually necessitate, of course,
a call from the Superintendent.
The short version of all the above is, basically,
September sucked. There were a few good moments but by and large
the big question on my mind most of the month was “What the hell
were you thinking when you said you could do this job?”
After countless hours of being tied up in knots
about it, it still came down to a few simple things. Grand Canyon
is the coolest, and so are the people in it. Any fool who’s sat
back lately and kept an eye on the signs could see a big storm brewing
ahead, not unlike the flood of ‘83, or the motor-rowing wars of
the ’70s. A new management plan is coming up, and everybody (and
their brother) wants in. Who knows what the place will look like
after the waters recede? Nothing stays the same. Might be worse.
Might get better.
For the next little while, we’ve got two ways
At the extreme end of one direction are attitudes
like: Me First (nice guys finish last) and Us vs. Them
(and those guys are assholes). Which lead to Major Pissing Contests
over Every Little Thing, and Lingering Bitterness for Years
The other direction is harder to see these days,
and much more difficult to describe without sounding kinda fruity.
About the only way to start toward it is look over your shoulder
at the outside world, then sit back and think hard about Grand Canyon
and oneself and everybody else... then just keep asking “What’s
really true? What’s really going to be right for this place in the
future?” It’s still subjective, but if you do start traveling that
direction, and keep moving, eventually you get to a pretty nice
place—where everybody sees what a good thing this is and how lucky
we all are to be part of it. All us guides acknowledge the enormous
privilege it is just to live here (and get paid for it). Our outfitters
figure out the same thing (plus what a good job we do for them,
and the personal price we pay to do it long enough to get really
good at it). The commercial sector as a whole wakes up and realizes
what the best of us—which to our everlasting credit includes some
of our biggest companies (along with a few smaller outfits too)—already
figured out a long time ago. Which is: the bottom line here is more
than just the money. What you really get out of this place, and
this adventure, is directly proportionate to what you put back in.
Keep heading that way, and pretty soon the people
who’ve taken the most out and given the least back start pitching
in a little better, and giving a little more than they have in the
past. It feels good. They actually like it. The thing starts to
snowball. Everybody reaches down and finds the best in themselves
instead of the worst. Meanwhile... the people over at NPS tap into
more of all the good things guides have done over the years and
the teamwork between us starts to pick up even better. We, realizing
our great privilege as seen from the private perspective, and what
a special thing a private trip is, begin to treat all those guys
even better than we have in the past. We take more responsibility
for “the private experience” too; and, both the private sector and
the NPS actually start seeing through us to what commercial guides
are really all about, which is, we’re there for everybody we meet
along the way who could benefit from our considerable (albeit pretty
darned enjoyable) experience. Granted, the people on our own boats
are who we’re mainly here for; but that’s ok, the bulk of them are
pretty darned cool too.
Sounds crazy, but anywhere in that direction
is bound to be better than where we—meaning everybody involved—went
20 years ago, when the last big storm we lived through (new CRMP,
motors vs rowing) turned out be a major pain in the ass that took
years to get over.
Luckily everybody escaped down the river and
time passed before the call actually connected. Finally, though,
Superintendent Arnberger was on the phone to talk about the hotheaded
comments sent the month before by GCRG.
Picking up the receiver and heading in, it looked
like only a couple of things might mitigate the damage.
a.) As a group we had provided a package of input
that actually was fairly constructive (before I, the new President,
slipped off the deep end and singlehandedly took the GCRG letterhead
with me). We’d stewed about the whole mess for quite a while and
Brad Dimock, in particular, had come up with an inspired notion
about a new protocol for managing places like the river. “Do what
Wilderness Medical Associates did for outdoor first aid,” said Brad.
“Change the baseline assumption.” In our case, tell people up front
that in order to preserve the “wilderness experience,” it was necessary
to leave in an element of risk, and exclude several layers of modern
b.) The other ray of hope was, in an introductory
letter to the new Super last year I’d already snuck in a qualifier:
Being an officer at GCRG didn’t mean you actually represented everybody’s
views. You could try, but Grand Canyon boatmen definitely went their
own way and spoke for themselves, etc. The letter was a little windy,
as usual, and blathered on about the real nature of the profession...
Boatmen weren’t so bad once you got to know them, really. Like old
Ed Abbey said, if you had to go off to war or do something scary
with somebody, you’d want em to be pretty much like most of the
people working down here... etc.
Hanging up, and heading out the back end of the
Superintendent’s call, it felt safe to throw a couple more observations
into the overall equation of Grand Canyon, 1995.
a.) If you ever did have to go off to war somewhere
and needed a General to hold a big operation together, you’d want
one pretty much like Rob Arnberger.
b.) After seeing him operate several times, in
several different situations, you get a certain clear impression.
When it comes to our new Superintendent, there’s good news and bad
The good news is, he’s usually just about the
smartest guy in the room. (He doesn’t act like he thinks he is;
he just is.) Also, he’s tough but fair. He doesn’t beat around the
bush. He’s obviously a survivor in the political arena, but his
core motivation is to do what’s right for this Park. Accordingly,
he gets out and looks around; in about one year, he and the upper
echelon of his entire staff have seen more of us and the river than
an earlier bunch did in ten.
The bad news? He ain’t stupid. He’s tough but
fair. He doesn’t screw around. He covers his country. He wants to
do what’s right. And he’s not afraid to do it.
Why is that bad? Well, maybe it ain’t. (Depends
on your definition of “right”.) Here’s what he said on the phone:
The COR’s are kicked upstairs a notch. They “appreciate” GCRG’s
input, now they’ll do pretty much a final draft, let the commercial
sector have one quick peek at it, and that’ll be that for ‘96. They’ll
continue to take input from the County Health Department, but the
NPS is writing the rules. We may not like all of them, but he and
his staff will do the best they can. He hasn’t signed anything with
the Coast Guard yet, and he’s not going to sign anything that’ll
jeopardize the integrity of the Park or NPS’s responsibility. Drug
testing? He didn’t really say how that’s going to shake out, except
to comment that for him it was pretty simple: “One (meaning an injury
caused by a substance-impaired boatman) is too many.” Which I’d
say echoes the sentiments of just about every working boatman I
know: a fact that is pretty well upheld by the outstanding safety
record we’ve established thus far. (To belabor the obvious, random
drug testing just ain’t right. Neither is getting high on the job...
nor any other behavior that can legitimately be used as a justification
for bringing this invasive, unnecessary, and unconstitutional measure
down on the heads of everybody here.)
So that’s where we’re at for the moment, and
that’s what seems to be happening with all the little stuff. The
big stuff lies ahead. In about this order it entails:
How do we protect this Park from an outside world
that is developing at an exponential rate and rushing headlong away
from everything “the Canyon”, and the river, seem to be about? What
can we do now to safeguard the best of what we still have on the
On the national scene, will we soon need to help
shore up the entire NPS itself? And locally, can we stay interested
enough in Glen Canyon Dam to make the last ten years of pain and
suffering mean anything?
Whether we can achieve any of the above or not...
who gets to go? The worse it gets “out there,” the better things
look on the river. In the future, as the pressure increases, should
we set aside this great place and all our wonderful experience on
the commercial end for, mainly, the rich? What is “fair access,”
and how can we, the professionals, help set this situation up so
that such a thing exists?
What about the can of worms called “private vs.
commercial?” We know the current system is full of holes. Can we
help fix it? How?
Back home on the commercial end, how do we rise
above the current user-day system, which presently rewards the fastest
possible trips and the biggest number of exchanges? Are we ok where
we’re at? Are we really giving all these innocent city-crazed people
the very best shot they could have at the Grand Canyon? Is there
anything we could do to improve that picture even just a little
and make sure we’re giving everybody the best possible deals? We’ve
gotten better with congestion. Is there anything more we can or
should do on that end? When it comes to service, what is a river
guide? Are we moving toward a situation where we ourselves become
more and more like parking valets, or waiters, or country-club pros?
How do we avoid that?
Do we have a snowball’s chance of really pulling
together more—in a calm, cool, collected fashion—and actually seeing
the whole thing get better? (Maybe.)
Stranger things, of course, have happened.
There was an amazing moment or two there at Whale’s
funeral... We were all pretty shook. Whale was definitely an extremist,
but he was also a genial big brother to so many of us. Being a helicopter
door-gunner in Vietnam had made him different in those early, innocent
days on the river. He always seemed... experienced beyond his years.
We never saw him scared, and we never saw him buy into anything
he didn’t want to do again, ever. But meanwhile he was so much fun.
He had fun. He gave off light. He made people laugh and for years
and years he managed to pull off the illusion that life was just
a game, or a party. We really loved him, too, but he left so quick
we didn’t get to tell him that, and there at Lee’s Ferry it hurt
like hell we hadn’t. Since so few of us had told him anything like
that lately, he might not have known.
Two distinct groups were there; his buddies from
the river, and his family down from the farming country in Idaho.
And Whale’s family, it must be said, are pretty conservative compared
to many of us who were there. People said some stuff and then we
sang those two songs in the rain, “Shall We Gather at the River,”
followed by “How Great Thou Art,” which seemed to underscore, in
a way, the difference between the two camps. Then Bob Grusy stepped
up and said something really good straight to Whale, which kind
of spoke for everybody. So that made us all feel a little better.
And finally Brian Dierker, who is sort of the antithesis of what
you might call conservative, came forward and surprised the whole
crowd. He didn’t talk really to “us” or old Whale exactly, but instead
just to Whale’s family. He wasn’t kidding around, either. He was
shook up and he meant every word. He loved them, he said, and was
so glad they were here because they’d given us Whale, who meant
so much to so many. Any family of Whale’s, he said, was his family...
and our family too.
The river rolled on, and later, a little of Whale
went with it. For the rest of that day, at least, we all knew just
what Brian was driving at.