The Same River Twice – Changes in River Running Over the Last Forty Years

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he is not the same man.”

— Heraclitus, Greek philosopher   

“So you’ve done the Grand Canyon, now what?”

— Quote from a river company brochure

To speculate on the changes in river running over the past forty years is like rowing through Hance Rapid (in Grand Canyon) at very low water with the sun in your eyes, four large passengers in your boat and a hangover. You are going to hit a rock, but you can never be sure just how hard, whose rock it will be and how much damage you will incur. The continuum of change from river to river, from company to company and among individual boaters varies enough that making generalizations can be a hazardous business. Exceptions and anomalies abound. There are axes to grind and territory to defend. Intense personal
experience can trump facts. Language and terms become outdated. River runners are known to have a strong proprietary sense for the rivers they run regularly. Memories of the “good old days” fog the lens of perception. What can be said of commercial operations (who have been branded with the vaguely sinister appellation “comm ops” in one book) does not necessarily apply to private boaters (who prefer the more appealing democratic moniker “self-guided”). In fact, folks who run rivers, commercial or private, might well be labeled “elite” compared to the general population, so infinitesimally small are their numbers. Disagreement among river lovers is inevitable.

Nevertheless, I dare to speak from my own necessarily limited point of view as an ex-river guide (from a specific time in the forty-year span) and present-day boater who queried a handful of guides and ex-guides about their experience on the river over the last forty years. Although I try to keep up on the river scene and tend to be Grand Canyon-centric, I have not worked as a guide for decades. Thus, I rely on rumor, innuendo, promiscuous reading and second-hand information, which pretty well identifies and qualifies me as a regular contributor to Mountain Gazette. In the spirit of change, for better or worse, and MG’s 40th anniversary, I humbly offer a few brief, sweeping, oversimplified observations about the changes in river running that I hope can stand up to scrutiny.

Time to get in the boat and head down river.

The Numbers —  Call it an explosion! In 1949, twenty-five people floated the Middle Fork and/or Main Salmon; twelve-hundred in 1965; forty-five hundred in 1975; nearly nine thousand in 1990. In 1965, roughly five hundred people made trips on the Colorado through Grand Canyon; in 1972, over 16,000 people ran the river. Recreational river running had taken off. And there was no turning back. Today, roughly 20,000 to 24,000 run the Colorado annually. Other popular Western rivers have seen significant increases in river travel. Ladies and gentlemen boaters, welcome to waiting lists, jockeying for camp spots, more government oversight and the need for even more cooperation and courtesy among river voyagers.

Cost — In 1972, a nineteen-day trip with Grand Canyon Dories cost $450. Today the same (albeit three days shorter) trip costs anywhere from $4,900 to $5,500. Thus, a family of four could expect to spend $20,000, not including transportation, hotels, meals, personal gear. A five-night, six-day trip on the Middle Fork offered by Echo runs approximately $2,000. Casual internet research and anecdotal information suggests that costs per day for most companies run $250 to $300 per individual. Inflation, I guess.

Gear — More of it, better quality, more colors and way cooler than forty years ago. One only has to go on-line or receive a brochure in the mail to experience that “I gotta have that” surge rising to the surface. The “stuff” — state-of-the-art rafts to designer tents to thick sleeping pads to trendy, colorful outdoor wear to flip-flops to toilet-teepees — can even induce an ancient mariner like myself to get itchy fingers to place an order. Of course, it’s fun stuff, but is it all necessary? Forty years ago, river people (guides and passengers) had far fewer choices, kept things basic (out of necessity?), made things last, invented equipment, purchased second-hand and made do with what was available, not because they were morally superior. Mostly they were broke. The prevailing thought was that gear and equipment, though obviously essential, should not get between you and the experience. Sounds quaint today. Disclaimer: I really like my new life-jacket, as it floats my aging body in a way I could not have imagined when I was in my prime.

Regulations — In 1972, self-regulation was the norm; in 2012, bureaucratic oversight is the rule. Following the national trend that more is better, regulations (restrictions?) increased, allegedly — and sometimes justified — for the benefit of passengers and ecosystem protection. Once tasked with managing their trips and themselves, guides faced more scrutiny. In the 1980s, they became subject to drug-testing, despite operating in a risky environment for decades with an excellent safety record. River running evolved from ma-and-pa family businesses into an industry. As companies became aware of increasing vulnerability to possible lawsuits, their insurance companies took note and began to make policy suggestions for which on-river activities were safe. With river running’s higher profile and larger numbers of people on the rivers, increasing regulation became an unfortunate necessity.

Promotion — Simple. Forty years ago, there was no Internet. Marketing was primitive: word-of-mouth and an annual brochure. In 1972, most companies had a single seasonal brochure patched together by someone with an art degree who was offered a free river trip for their efforts.

Today’s electronic social-media-driven promotional efforts are more varied and sophisticated, and likely more effective at reaching a larger audience. Shiny brochures present guides as unique personalities (instead of the dirtbag, beer-drinking seasonal transients of rivers past) with attractive storylines — educational qualifications, winter travel destinations, number of rivers run, river anecdotes. Some companies have redefined themselves, offering a variety of river and “adventure-eco” trips around the world.

Poop — Forty years ago, you did your business up in the rocks away from camp. Except that everyone, over a season with numerous river trips, ended up in more or less the same spot. It wasn’t long before Park and Forest services ordered that all shit be carried out. Crude porta-potties (and the techniques to package and transport waste matter to the local dump) were born and continued to be modified and improved. Today’s equipment and transportation techniques are far superior and far kinder to the river environment.

Campfires — What are those? In 1972, they were standard fare; by 2012, mostly nyet because of environmental concerns and, yes, lack of firewood.

Passengers/Cliental/Participants/Guests Relation to River and River guides —Informal, likely biased consensus seems to be that expectation levels (in general with notable exceptions) of today’s river vacationers appears to be far greater than forty (twenty? ten?) years ago in terms of comfort and service. Dare I say downright demanding?  In 1972, passengers were prepared for a “down-to-basics” experience on the river. Mishaps, struggles and foul weather were more readily accepted as part of the “adventure.” With a changing clientele and increasing competition for “market share” by river companies, the “pamper factor” appeared and took hold to a greater or lesser degree among many river companies. $10,000 trip tips for crews in Grand Canyon are not uncommon. In 1972, tips were small and in some cases, discouraged by owners. One River Viejo voiced the opinion, “The passengers have evolved from experienced, self-sufficient outdoorsy types to ‘You mean I have to set up my OWN tent’ types. Latte machine? Who will be the first to set up an internet cafe below Lava?  Everest base camp has had one for several years now.” (Shameless self-promotion: read my Rivermouth blog at about the proposal to place a restaurant on the Little Colorado.)

Guides — Mostly young males in 1972, the community now includes increasing numbers of women, older guides (who have yet to give up their privileged access, but serve as mentors) and cross-generational families of guides. The transition from “river guide” to “professional river guide” was likely inevitable if guides were to become players in river politics, defend their common interests, bargain for fair wages and speak as a united voice on controversial issues. (In 1972, Georgie White, “Woman of the River,” used unpaid fireman as boatman to operate her terrifying triple rigs). The “pro” designation also lent status to what was once considered a summer job. The appeal of safe, reliable boatmen to a new generation of vacationers/passengers/clients/river lovers proved irresistible. Today’s river guides are more organized politically, have access to educational and health benefits and training in wilderness rescue and emergency procedures. Another ancient mariner has this to say, “In fact, the quality of guiding has improved a lot cuz of collective knowledge and the ethics of conserving and protecting the environment. Guides have more time to devote to guiding instead of freaking out about what’s around the corner or patching their boats.”

Shady characters, questionable behavior —  By 2012, these characters and behaviors seem to have been on the wane, if not eradicated all together: firework displays, grease bombs, lengthy detours to casinos in Las Vegas, loincloths, Fleet’s magic shows, naked boatmen circling eddies into the wee hours of the night, boatmen wearing dresses, operating a concession without a permit (the individual served time), sneak “speed” runs, night crawling and tent scratching. On a historical note, in the 1920s, Glenn Wooldridge routinely “improved” rapids (with the approval of the Forest Service) on Oregon’s Rogue River by blowing them to smithereens with dynamite. One fellow (who shall remain unnamed) who tried to blow up Quartzite Falls on the Salt River went on the lam to Ecuador for years only to be nabbed when he returned to the U.S.

River apparel and accompanying ailments — Ball-hugging, crotch-grabbing cut-off Levis (which caused server boatman’s butt) have been replaced by space-age, quick-drying, big-pocketed “river” trunks made of Supplex, etc. Dance-pants came and went. Foot rot, induced by wearing Converse tennis shoes, has been replaced by tolio, which colonizes the straps of Tevas. In the same vein, in the 1970s, there used to be one kind of cheap, one-trip flip-flops. Today’s “flip-flops” have enough straps and design patterns to recall the ancient practice of foot bondage. Somewhere along the time continuum, river garb morphed into a “style.”

River Politics — In 1972, the great river controversies, at least in Grand Canyon — motor use and fair access for private boaters — (and the sometimes acrimonious debates and name-calling) had yet to emerge. At the time, there were fewer private (self-guided, non-commercial?) boaters with the skill, time, and economic means to put together multi-day trips. That was about to change. By the middle of the 1980s, the growing population of private boaters began to organize and demand a bigger share of the river allocation pie. Ironically, the Park Service began for the first time to look seriously at its mandate to manage Grand Canyon for wilderness values.

Food/Cooking — In 1972, the idea was simple, tasty meals, enough for everyone. After all, you were camping along the river. As the small amount of ice melted, meals came out of #10 cans. Waste was frowned upon. One or two companies provided cooks, usually woman who had a degree of leeway in the food they prepared and offered. Today, “cooks” (and the art of running a kitchen with a sparkle in your eye and an iron fist) are passé. Companies vary greatly on the kind and amount of grub they serve. The spectrum runs from basic fare to many-course menus with more food than anyone can eat.

Zeitgeist — Perhaps the hardest of all categories to generalize about. Depending on who you talk to, how old they are, which river you are running and what measuring stick you employ, the changes in the river-running zeitgeist are: a) non-existent; b) very existent with a steady deterioration; c) who cares?; and d) what the hell is a zeitgeist, some kind of new raft? The development of bomb-proof kayaks and other durable watercraft coupled with talented kayakers made running once-impossible rivers possible, as well as led to the phenomenon of “stunt” runs over waterfalls, popular ad images that define, in part, river running to the general public. Some critics complain that the river “experience” has been shorn of its authenticity, packaged and commodified to fit the needs and demands of a new consumer group. Other people believe that overall the experience has been improved.

What hasn’t changed — The magic of rivers (especially Grand Canyon), and the camaraderie of a well-oiled crew; the visceral need of boatmen to tell “stories”; the opportunity for a vacation-voyager to experience joy, wonder, deep peace and child-like relaxation in a natural setting; and lastly and most importantly, riverside bathroom etiquette: women pee upriver, men pee downriver, or for those aging mariners with faulty memories, “Skirts go up, pants go down.”

Senior correspondent Vince Welch is the co-author of “The Doing of the Thing — The Brief, Brilliant Whitewater Career of Buzz Holmstrom” and “The Last Voyageur — Amos Burg and the Rivers of the West,” scheduled to be released by The Mountaineers in October. His blog, Rivermouth, can be found at Welch lives in Portland OR.