Those whitewater blues

Rafting: The Park Service tries to work out a balance for commercial outfitters and private rafters to shoot the Colorado through the Grand Canyon.

August 30, 2002|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

LEE'S FERRY, Ariz. - Commercial companies that sell whitewater rafting trips through the Grand Canyon call them "an adventure of a lifetime."

But for do-it-yourself river runners, the slogan is more reality than hype. Whitewater enthusiasts today face a 20-year wait if they want to navigate the Colorado River on their own, mostly because a decades-old National Park Service formula gives 70 percent of paddling permits to commercial outfitters.

The system is set up to benefit the rafting companies, complains Tom Martin of the Grand Canyon Private Boaters Association: "This is not a private business, it's a national park."

The Grand Canyon National Park is trying to figure out how to more equitably share the river without opening it to overuse and perhaps destroying the very beauty that draws visitors.

When the park last tried to review the permit system, in 1997, the proceedings became so acrimonious that the park's superintendent cut off the debate. That led to a lawsuit by boaters and a settlement that gave the park three years to rethink the system and, if warranted, devise a new plan. A decision is due by the end of 2004.

"We're the judge and jury ... and that's not a simple thing at all," says Joseph F. Alston, the park's new superintendent. "Our job is not to win a popularity contest in all of this. Our job is to make sure we have the best policy possible to protect the canyon."

In a typical year, 19,000 people run the river on trips led by 16 commercial operators. They pay an average of $2,300 for a 14-day ride and can usually book a trip within a year. Private boaters pay a $100 application fee and wait. If they're lucky and their schedule allows, they can sometimes snap up a cancellation.

Willie Odem took his first trip down the Colorado in 2000, a decade after he put his name on the list as a graduate student. When the 43-year-old Northern Arizona University professor finished his two-week trip, he immediately signed up again.

"I may be retired by then," he says, joking. "Seriously, who knows where they'll be in 10, 15, 20 years?"

Pay or wait

Each day during the summer, the Lee's Ferry launch area for commercial trips resembles a busy marina. Tourists in floppy hats and carting duffel bags alight from buses after spending the night in Las Vegas or Flagstaff, Ariz.

Crews inflate the rubber boats and lash provisions to the decks. Park rangers check safety gear and brief the newcomers, and everyone shoves off by mid-morning.

The private boaters bivouac in the brush nearby. Their stories of long waits rival any tale about concert ticket lines or airport delays on Thanksgiving weekend.

Maury Eldridge, a clinical psychologist from suburban Boston, got a last-minute cancellation permit and scrambled to assemble family, food and gear. Still, he considers the frantic preparations preferable to paddling with an outfitter.

"On a commercial trip, you have to go where the rest of the group and the guide wants to go. On a private trip, you can do what you want to," says Eldridge, who has experienced both.

Once in a lifetime

Then there's the cost of the guided trips. Renting equipment and buying provisions for a two-week private outing runs about $850.

"If you have a loose 10 grand lying around, you can just bring your whole family down," says Eldridge. "You can't do it more than once a lifetime if you want to put your kids through college."

But to get a private permit, a paddler must prove some skill. Commercial operators say they make the canyon accessible to everyone, regardless of ability.

Some folks, call them river pirates, attempt to skirt the law and the permit system. For them, the draw of the river is stronger than mere legalities.

Morton Stanley "Doc" Thomas III, a physician and lawyer, achieved local fame for making an amazing 130 trips down the river - including 39 illegal trips on his own without a permit.

"But I got caught and had to go to federal court," he says, "so I've stopped doing it and we're cool now."

Thomas now manages four or five trips a year by filling in when someone can't make a private trip.

Dick Walsh stands along the riverbank to see people off. His permit, for which he applied in 1988, is just a year away now.

"It is so unfair," says the Flagstaff resident. "Whitewater rafting and kayaking are so popular that a lot more people are capable of going alone. So why should they be forced to hire an outfitter?"

Middle ground elusive

Finding a middle ground in the debate won't be easy, admits park superintendent Alston, who started his career as a canyon backcountry ranger, met his wife on the North Rim and is proud to call himself an oarsman.

"The private boaters say the demand is prima facie evidence of the need to satisfy more private parties. Of course, there are compelling arguments on the other side. Most people experience canyon rafting by paying a commercial outfit," he says.

And it's not only commercial vs. non-commercial. Educational groups, researchers, artists and advocates for the disabled all want a share of the allocation, he says.

Even the discussions of whether to ban the large motorized boats used by outfitters has permit implications. The commercial operators say a ban would force them to use smaller boats and cut the number of customers by 30 percent.

The private boaters association has suggested extending the launch period from four months - mid-May to mid-September - to six months, April through September.

Some extension might be possible, Alston says, but environmental concerns and the park service's efforts to ensure the quality of the rafting experience means it won't solve the demand.

"The problem is there's more demand than there is capacity," he says. "Even if we doubled the use - and I don't see us doing that - we'd have more demand. In the end, it may be all we do in this process is to bring it to the next level in the courts."

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