Swamping the Grand Canyon

Two weeks ago, I was staying at an AirBnB house in downtown Flagstaff, Arizona, when my host, a Grand Canyon river guide, came home one night with an unexpected offer. “What are you doing next week?” she asked. “Wanna “swamp” a trip?”

A “swamper,” in river speak, is the low-ranking crew member on a commercial raft trip. His or her role consists of lifting heavy objects, loading and unloading rafts, chopping vegetables, and washing dishes. Once upon a time, when rafts were not self-bailing and took on hundreds of gallons of water with each wave, swampers were the peons frantically bailing the boat before it could swamp in the next rapid. While almost no one uses these “bucket boats” anymore, the name for the position has stuck.

My host told me that the crew of three guys had two motor rigs and a full load of twenty-eight passengers for their trip, but they were still short a fourth crew member. In exchange for working hard and obeying orders, that fourth member could get a trip down the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River for free.

After a night of sleeping on the idea, I couldn’t really come up with a good reason NOT to go. My life was in transition, after all, why not respect that with eight days of distance from the modern world?

I crash-coursed a few work projects, sent my clients warnings that I would be falling off their radars for a while, and bought a waterproof box for my camera. At 6am the next day, I drove to the warehouse on the east side of town to run the country’s biggest, most difficult river with a bunch of total strangers.

One of the primary reasons I elected to go, besides the fact that I hadn’t been down “the big ditch” since 2005, was to see what this magical place would look like from the deck of a motor rig. My two previous trips through the Grand Canyon – as well as all the other river trips I have done – have been in human-propelled craft: oar rigs, paddle boats, kayaks, or canoes. I had seen these monstrous motorized “S-rigs” and “J-rigs” on my previous trips, and I definitely had some less than positive opinions about them. I figured that running the river in a totally different style would be, at the very least, educational.

My motor rig education began at the warehouse, where I was struck dumb by the sheer length of these creatures. They are twenty-eight feet long from bow to stern, and two four-foot wide pontoons are attached to each side of the raft further to stabilize them. The coolers that sit in the center of the boat are enormous, as are the boxes that surround them, and the quantity of gear these things can carry is astonishing. In addition to their 30hp outboard motors (one mounted for use, another stored on the raft as a back-up) the rigs have thirty-five gallon gas tanks on board, which, of course, need to be filled before departing for the put-in. We rigged and packed these beasts on light trailers at the warehouse, and, once we were done, we transferred them with a winch onto roller-equipped, road-worthy trailers attached to double-cab duelie F-350 trucks.

Once the drivers had affixed “oversized load” banners to the backs of the rafts, we drove through the Navajo Reservation from Flagstaff to Lee’s Ferry, the traditional Grand Canyon put-in. Upon arrival, we put the rafts in the water (winch to the rescue again!), blew up and attached the pontoons, and took the boats out for a test spin in the stillwater.

Then we moved the rafts out of the busy loading area, tied them up, and put them to bed for the night. The next morning, our passengers flew in on small plane from Las Vegas. We helped them pack their personal gear, gave them life jackets, fired up the motors, and set out for the Whitmore Helipad – 187 miles and five full days of travel downstream.

The first motor rigs ran the Grand Canyon in the 1950’s, when the end of WWII yielded a surplus of cheap and available rubber that allowed creative boatman to experiment with boat designs. Motor rigs became an increasingly popular way to travel in the 1970’s, and today, motorized trips are the lifeblood of the Canyon’s commercial outfitters. In fact, only five of the sixteen current outfitters offer human-powered trips, and these business generally concede that they make nothing off of them. The motorized trips are their cash cows.

From an economic perspective, the advantages of motorized travel are significant. Passengers can see the whole canyon in six or seven days – a reasonable and common vacation length. A greater variety of customers, including children and those with limited mobility, can participate in the trips. The 8mph travel speed keeps them moving (read: not getting bored) even during the canyon’s significant flatwater sections and even more significant brutal upstream headwinds that often stop a rowboat in its tracks.

Of course, there are disadvantages to this mode of travel as well. For starters, there’s a motor running all day. While it’s not that loud, chatting is challenging. The canyon goes by fairly quickly – perhaps more quickly than is appropriate for this wilderness experience. Many human-powered travelers will tell you that it is the long-term immersion in the canyon that really changes people and connects them with the landscape; six days does not cut it in that department. And then there’s the simple fact that motorized travel is, well, unnatural. It’s just not that aesthetic.

All of the aforementioned arguments have, in the past, made me an opponent of motor rig use. And, after this trip, I can still say that motor rig travel is not the choice for me. I’d prefer not to move through the natural world in an artificial manner, and it represents a style of travel that doesn’t really coincide with my goals for being outdoors.

That said, I came to appreciate the value of these $100,000 barges. The majority of the passengers on our trip were from the same two families, each with three generations represented. The grandparents were in their seventies, and the grandchildren were aged eight through fourteen.

Human-powered travel is not suitable for these age groups, because the risk of flipping a oar rig or being thrown from it into the frigid, turbulent Colorado River is simply too high. Because it’s been over a decade since a motor rig flipped, this form of travel allowed these multi-generational families to experience the Grand Canyon together, which seemed pretty darn powerful for them.

For me personally, I must admit I enjoyed not feeling anxious about the rapids. In addition to riding in a craft that hasn’t flipped in recent memory, I was being driven by a boatman who had been a full-time Grand Canyon guide for fourteen years. He never once needed to look at a map, and he ran every rapid with a squeaky-clean line. That meant I was able to relax, look around, and enjoy my trip in a way that I would never experience if I were piloting my own craft.

I also internalized the geologic progression of the canyon in a way I never have before. Covering thirty to forty river miles per day (as opposed to eight or ten on a human-powered trip) allowed me to witness the eons passing by, literally. Instead of seeing the different eras of rock changing over the course of a few days or a week, I was seeing them change in the span of a few hours – and that was cool.

Most of all, however, I realized that motor rig travel is the only way most people are ever going to see this place. Most people do not have the eighteen or twenty-one days necessary to make the trip under human power, nor do they have the skills or the money to spend on an excursion of that magnitude. At some points in my life I might have said, “Too bad. You don’t get to see it, then.”

More and more, however, I have come to believe that people are more likely to advocate on behalf of resources that they have seen, felt, heard, and touched – as opposed to those they have read about or seen photos of in the newspaper.

After all, when the Marble Canyon dam was slotted to flood the Grand Canyon back in the 1960’s, it was Robert Kennedy’s trip down the big ditch that shut down that project for once and for all. Who knows what motor rig passenger might be responsible for some future act of environmental advocacy in this park or another.

Would I swamp another motor trip? Sure – it’s a free ride through one of the most amazing places on earth.

But, given the choice, I’ll hop on a private trip with a few friends and a oar rig, take our twenty-one days, do a lot of side hiking, and really escape into the natural rhythm of the place. But I’ve got the flexibility to do that, not the power to determine the course of the resource.




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