The Perfect Private Trip

The Perfect Private Trip

by Mari Carlos


When GCPBA reached out to Grand Canyon River Runners Association during the heady days of the FEIS and all the related politics (just a couple of years ago), an unlikely friendship sprang forth from the smoke and embers. I received a phone call from Rich Phillips in which we introduced ourselves and spoke at length about our respective organizations. I was president of GCRRA and he wanted to learn something about us. In return I gained some insight into GCPBA philosophy. The call ended with some friendly kidding to the effect that one of us needed to take a private trip through the Canyon someday.

Rich and I remained in contact, which led to my being in touch with other members of the GCPBA board as well. As unlikely as it might have seemed just a couple of years ago, I found that I had a growing list of friends among the GCPBA leadership. Thus, when Rich was fortunate enough to nab a permit for a trip in 2007 in the open lottery last October, he issued invites to many of the folks you would expect, and to me. What, exactly, was I supposed to do about that? I am a confirmed commercial boater, comfortable with an opportunity to enjoy the Canyon on my own time, free from having to cook meals, deal with the groover, etc.  Rich was persistent and was quick to call my bluff. Was I in, or was I out?

I reviewed my personal Canyon history, all Lees Ferry to Diamond commercial oar trips. I’d never been in a dory or a motor rig, never been beyond Diamond Creek, and never boated for longer than 14 days. Nor had I ever been on a private trip. Primarily I saw this as an opportunity to broaden my horizons. I enjoy interacting with the private boaters in the political arena, but I knew I didn’t really speak their language. This seemed the perfect opportunity to learn, so I said yes.

The first surprise came a month or so later when I learned that most of the potential participants in the small trip already had other commitments and/or could not promise the number of days required. I’m a working girl myself, and was maxing out my vacation days in order to do the trip, so that did not surprise me. It transpired that there were only going to be three of us. THREE! “Are you demented?” queried my river buddies. “Just you and the two men for 23 days? You do realize that you will be together twenty-four/seven?  How well do you know these guys?” Somewhat defensively I had to admit that I knew Rich from some phone calls and emails. I didn’t know Earl Perry at all.


Once the participants were in place – all three of us – I got my introduction to the true heart of private boating: Constant Communication. Being a commercial trip devotee I was used to making a reservation, throwing some things together a few days prior to departure, then simply showing up in Flag the night before the trip for orientation. I put my stuff into the drybags that were provided and everything else was already on the boats when we got to Lees Ferry.

Planning a private trip took communication to a new level. The emails flew. Between Rich and Earl about boats, loads, trailers, hitches, coolers, kitchens, groovers, yada yada yada. Between me and them about how flexible I am, how much help I would be, how I love to get an early start but can adapt to a late start, yada yada yada. Between the River Office and Rich, and politely relayed to me as a request for my date of birth. Through all of this I refrained from quizzing Rich too closely about his exact level of experience in the Canyon, not wanting to feed my whitewater phobias. We were going to be in big boats with heavy loads on low flows. I could think of worse scenarios.

I let the guys hash out the big stuff while I concentrated on finding the gear I would need that I did not own. I was told to bring a chair. A CHAIR? There have been no chairs on any of the commercial oar trips I have ever done. We sit on the sand, on rocks, on rocket boxes and occasionally on the boat tubes. We perch somewhere to eat lunch, or we stand, or we nestle up against a nice warm piece of schist. We don’t need no stinkin’ chairs.

I bought a chair. Not being one to succumb to such spineless frivolity without a fight I bought one of those little legless things that just offers a bit of back support, unless you tip back too far... Chairs, indeed.

Next was food. Rich decided that we would do our own breakfast and lunch, and that the dinners would be split three ways. Each of us was to provide eight dinners for the group. It sounded pretty acceptable until Earl started throwing out some broad hints that his dinners might be more in the true spirit of the frontier. We were going to have leviathan class catarafts with virtually unlimited cargo capacity, would be carrying a four burner stove, a backup camp stove, three propane tanks and a gigantic kitchen box full of absolutely everything that Martha Stewart would require to provide a gourmet nine course banquet for 20 of her closest friends, and Earl was threatening to bring MREs. Ah, the Dave Yeamans influence.

We were still several months away from launch, so I deemed it too early to mutiny. Another course of action was called for if this culinary calamity was to be averted. I volunteered to take over Earl’s eight dinners in addition to my own. In return he volunteered to be the Duke of Compost for the duration. I considered it a fair trade.

All the pieces finally came together a couple of days before launch as we converged on Flagstaff from Los Angeles, Boulder, and somewhere near Chicago. We shopped, laughed, went to the cemetery. No kidding. I took them to see the burial place of the TWA passengers from the 1956 midair collision over the Canyon. They were interested. I knew we would get along just fine.

When we were loading up for the drive to Lees Ferry Rich told me he had brought a cot for me if I would like to use it. I was used to sleeping on a paco pad on the beach. My jaw dropped and I just stared at him, all my preconceptions about rough and ready private boaters irretrievably shattered. I declined the cot as unholy thoughts forced their way into my psyche. What next – night lights?

Lees Ferry

The months of buildup had finally brought us here, to the launch ramp. The rolled tubes, frames and a small mountain of gear were somehow transferred from Rich’s truck and Earl’s trailer to the beach. Even more miraculously, it all gradually became a pair of boats that held the mountain of gear. Things were going swimmingly.

Then I wrecked Rich’s truck.

I was asked to fill water containers, no big deal. Drive the truck over to a parking space near the spigot, fill the jugs, put them on the trailer, then back the rig down to the beach. I had never personally backed a trailer before, but how difficult can it be? I know all sorts of people of average intelligence who back trailers all the time, even some who are intellectually challenged. I was up to it!

As it turns out, I was NOT up to it, witness Rich’s rumpled bumper and creased tailgate. Everything still closed properly and Rich was able to lock it, so he graciously put it behind us for the duration of the trip. Upon our return, however, there was an increasingly challenging interaction with my insurance company. This happened at the end of April, and you are only reporting it now because why? Was anyone injured? Did the air bags deploy? Were there any witnesses? Was there a child safety seat in the vehicle? This happened at Lees Ferry? Is that a town? What is the street address? There isn’t a street address? It’s in Arizona? Does the owner of the truck live in Arizona? He lives in Illinois? Was his trailer damaged? He doesn’t own the trailer? It belongs to someone who lives in Colorado? And so it went...

The Trip

At the core of the camaraderie that Rich Phillips and Earl Perry and I shared from the outset is a mutual love of Grand Canyon and its history. Our little trip visited a remarkable number of historical sites and/or inscriptions. There was hardly a habitation or hand print, an inscription or a granary that was a stranger to us. The Brown inscription, the graves at President Harding, Bert’s boat, Anasazi sites up and down the Canyon were among our targets. Of particular interest to me was the volume of inscribing done by clients of W.W. Bass. Apparently it was little short of a requirement that one leave a trace of one’s visit back then. We pondered the beautifully chiseled inscription left by George W. Parkins, Washington, D.C., 1903. The precision of the lettering so carefully incised into the schist led us to think he might have been an engineer.

We did some old favorite hikes as well as a number of new ones. North Canyon, Stone Creek, the hike to Bass Camp, the patios at Matkat and Deer, Seventy-Five Mile Canyon and Monument Creek, Kanab and Three Springs Canyon were among the many we tackled. A highlight for me was walking down to Lower Bass from our camp at the Parkins inscription in order to visit an AzRA trip that was camped there. Commercial Operating Requirements (COR’s) would prohibit me from doing this without an accompanying guide had I been on a commercial trip. Since I was on a private trip, however, the solo hike was perfectly legal. Same hiker, same hike. Go figure.

We had a comic interlude involving a snake in a narrow drainage. Each of us passed him unawares on the way upstream, and Earl missed him again on the downstream stroll. Earl, who can spot a two millimeter snail at twenty paces, completely missed this giant pink cinnamon bun of a perfectly coiled speckled rattlesnake – twice! I spotted him when only two steps away and impulsively uttered some words that would have embarrassed me in any other context, while simultaneously almost landing in Rich’s lap. Picture the Tonight Show episode where some form of wildlife so startles Johnny Carson that he leaps into Ed McMahon’s arms.

Every hike was a reptile hunt for me. My lizard photo collection grew by leaps and bounds with a bumper crop of chuckwallas, a pair of gorgeous collared lizards at Stone Creek, and the grand prize, a whiptail devouring a side blotched lizard at Indian Canyon.

Bighorn encounters were unusually scarce in the upper part of the trip, but when we did spot them the ewes all looked quite pregnant. We did not see our first lambs until nearly two weeks into the trip. I was reminded of something I had observed in the past, that even the youngest ones exhibit the same disregard for our boats that their parents display.

The river running skills of my boatmen were of concern to me, not being a great lover of big whitewater, so it was with some trepidation that I clung to Earl’s boat through Soap and Badger on our first day out. After each of these rapids I turned to see how Rich fared to try to gain insight into his boating skills. Earl, as it turns out, is a boatman of consummate skill based in many years of experience both in the Canyon and elsewhere. Rich is cast in much the same mold, albeit with vastly more experience on rivers other than the Colorado in Grand Canyon. His runs that first day were textbook, and I felt confident enough to ride with him next day for House Rock. Both men had excellent runs from start to finish.

By the way, one notable difference between these boats and what I am used to on commercial trips was the layout. Did you notice in the last paragraph I said that I clung to Earl’s boat? Please interpret that literally. Commercial boats have spaces designed specifically for the placement of passengers. Rich and Earl’s boats did not. They were loaded up to the gunnels with all the appurtenances of a river expedition, but passengers were evidently an afterthought. As we were about to leave the Ferry I asked Earl where I should sit. The question seemed to surprise him. He said, “There,” pointing vaguely to the entire vastness of the boat laid out in front of him. So I sat on stuff and held on to straps when necessary. Remarkably enough, it worked. It was even comfortable.

I’d like to pass along another observation from the commercial boater perspective. My commercial trips have always been exclusively about the Canyon. River length discussions always center on its history, the river, the wildlife, geology, colorful personalities, the flora, the hikes, the side canyons, etc. While this was certainly true on the private trip also, there was another element that I might be excused for thinking is the private boater domain, one that had a tendency to dominate camp talk. Boats. Yep, boats. Frames, tubes, straps, buckles, oars, motors, load distribution, height, weight, width, load carrying capacity, buckets vs. self bailers, cats vs. rafts, this brand vs. that brand. If there were long pauses in this discussion it was usually because both gents were gazing thoughtfully at their boats while they sat in their CHAIRS. During these pauses I felt a stirring of hope and prepared to step in with a change of subject. Inevitably, before I could seize the opportunity, Rich would blurt out something like, “I think if you laid those rocket boxes down and strapped the silver box on top of them you could lessen that bow wave you’ve been pushing up in rapids.” To my surprise they never seemed to grow tired of these single minded discourses.

The rich oral history of river running was celebrated daily on this trip, compliments of Mr. Earl Perry. Earl honed his river running skills as a child boatman for Hatch beginning in the 60's, then moved through a succession of life enhancing river experiences, eventually serving as head river ranger at Dinosaur. This meant that 23 days was a woefully inadequate span for Rich and me to hear all the stories, but we gave it our best. We knew we were in for a good one when a silent Earl would suddenly smile and begin to chuckle quietly to himself. Storytelling is an art, and Earl has mastered it. “Bus tried out this new busted equipment policy one summer...”, or, “He was the meanest boatman I ever knew”, or, “I remember the time a collared lizard latched onto Joe’s jockey shorts – while Joe was still in them.” One hilarious story began, “Once on the Dolores I wanted to keep the best camp for myself. I found that doing a little nude yoga on the beach will almost certainly ward off interlopers...”  Earl’s stories were carefully crafted and delivered in an easy drawl with eloquent syntax and perfectly timed pauses. I misunderstood the first such respite and nearly spoke up, thinking the story had reached its natural conclusion. Nope. It was just a pause before Earl got to the real heart of the matter. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, every camp, every hike, every rapid held a story. Rich and I reckoned we got way more out of Earl in entertainment value than anything we gave back to him in return.

We were poking around Redwall Cavern when a motor rig full of kayakers pulled up. The boatman came over for a chat, offering small coils of stainless steel wire as a gift. Thin and brown, Nels Niemi introduced himself and sat down on the front of Earl’s boat. They talked for a few minutes before Earl introduced himself. “Earl Perry!” shouted an incredulous Nels. It was as if he had just found his twin after a decades long separation. They hashed over their mutual histories, comparing notes, reliving adventures, remembering friends, probably telling a few lies. Rich and I withdrew, realizing that we were on the outside looking in. Nels’ group invited us over for lunch – fresh guacamole, torts and salsa. The boatman reunion looked like going on for hours, so we accepted the lunch offer and socialized for a while. Turns out this was not an isolated occurrence. We seldom met another trip, private or commercial, that Earl didn’t know someone or share some sort of common thread.

At 202 we took the small, upstream camp. One of the gentlemen camped around the corner came up to personally thank Rich and Earl for their and GCPBA’s efforts on behalf of private boaters. The next morning another of their group walked over with a similar message of gratitude, pleased to have the opportunity to shake hands. Both men had followed developments with the CRMP and were happy with the outcome. Their large trip permit, like Rich’s, had come from the Phase 3 open lottery. Their only complaint was that they were finding that 16 days to Diamond Creek was too limiting.

Our three-party discussions (when I could tear them away from their boats) covered a variety of mercurial topics, many political in nature. We gathered firsthand observations of the new CRMP in action. We talked to other private boaters. We talked to commercial trips. No topic that was Canyon related was overlooked in our 23 days together on the river. And somewhere in there the boys tried to convince me to get a boat. I resisted. They said it was very affordable, just look for something used. I had no means to transport it. They said it would fit in my Civic. I rowed Rich’s boat. It was fun. I motored Earl’s boat and that was fun too. Did it make me want to buy a boat, outfit it, get it to Lees Ferry and row it all by myself for more than 2 weeks? Nope. This is evidently a difficult concept for private boaters to grasp, but not everyone who loves boating in Grand Canyon wants to captain their own boat.


Finally, a note of personal thanks to the two gentlemen who took such a big chance by inviting me on their trip. They really had no idea what they were letting themselves in for, but once they taught me a few knots so I could tie up a boat I think they decided it was alright for me to stay. Plus I brought some really awesome desserts. And in case you were wondering, Rich’s CHAIR suffered a catastrophic, terminal failure on day six, Earl’s on day 13. Mine still works just fine.

The End

In 2004 Mari Carlos co-founded Grand Canyon River Runners Association when she and Dwight Sherwood determined that commercial passengers needed representation in the processes surrounding the revision of the CRMP. She currently serves as president of the organization. Mari has traversed the Grand Canyon on 10 commercial oar trips. She is a member of GCPBA, and a non-guide life member of Grand Canyon River Guides.

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