In the heart of the canyon country that surrounds Moab, a woven
basket rests where prehistoric hands placed it at least a thousand years
ago. This relic is far from any artificial trail and miles from the
river where thousands of awestruck visitors float every year. An ancient
human that never knew life outside the Colorado Plateau found an ideal
niche of sandstone to protect a vulnerable construct of willow rods
and yucca leaves from the elements. He or she positioned it carefully
and walked away. Modern minds recently found this basket and eager
hands touched it with great care. It is still there and sits exactly,
to the millimeter, as it was found.
Archaeologists were given photographs and detailed measurements
of the artifact with a clear understanding that its location, even approximately,
would not be disclosed. They were astounded by its pristine condition.
If sold on the black market reliable estimates place a value on the
basket in the neighborhood of $50,000, assuming one could avoid arrest
and cope with serious bad karma.
The basket was found by ethical means. Four people, traveling
by foot, shared the discovery during the final week of an entire month
in hardcore backcountry. They considered the privilege of touching
the basket a sacred reward from the spirits for a journey free of compass,
maps, GPS, or any electronic device. They are bound together by a
reverence for wilderness that infuses their bodies like blood and bone,
even though the ways they earn money to live in the real world are as
different as moccasins and combat boots.
Two of these people have a lifestyle familiar to many that read
this publication. Gathering crumpled laundry and scattered gear from
the back of a pickup, they are educated naturalists, guides and outdoor
educators. They live off the grid. The other two people have traveled
tens of thousands of miles on the Colorado River, as professionals,
in a very loud, 45 foot long, 13,000 pound, 700 horse-power jetboat.
They are wilderness taxi drivers for canoers, kayakers, rafters, and
hikers. They are concessionaires of the National Park Service, business
owners, and home owners that use every opportunity to remove neatly
folded laundry from a dresser drawer, cram it into a backpack and disappear
into the wild.
I fell in love with the Green River on my first private canoe
trip. That was twenty years ago. Over the next decade, I canoed the
Green a dozen times with my wife, parents, brothers and friends. My
family's romance with the river and Canyonlands is what led us to purchase
the business I co-own and operate with my two brothers Darren and Devin.
After more than a decade in the river business I don't imagine there
are too many people involved in any aspect of commercial operation in
Canyonlands who haven't heard of the "Three D's" that run
The inherent contradictions of being a wilderness infatuated
environmentalist and a National Park Service concessionaire quickly
became apparent. It was my belief that the outdoor industry would practically
require an atmosphere where the principals of any given business would
consider preservation and protection of the outdoor resource as their
most basic tenet. Surely this tenet would, at the very least, supercede
the promotion and expansion of any particular business entity. Right?
Well that belief was shattered quicker than crypto-crust near
a campsite of spring-break yahoos. Promotion and expansion is the driving
force of practically all capitalist industry. The outdoor industry
is no different and neither is the bottom line pursuit of the vast majority
of companies in outdoor recreation. Most business owners scream like
a stuck pig about governmental rules and restrictions that inhibit business
and admittedly there is a lot of bureaucratic foolishness in all governmental
agencies. But the truth is, without regulation the outdoor business
would look like a convention of chocoholics at a Hershey factory.
When a business does ignore dollars in favor of ethics, the effectiveness
of such a stance is often questionable. The former owner of our business
provided service for several years to a private school in California,
the Pasadena Polytechnic Institute. This school floated the Green River
every fall in a group of 40 canoes and 80 people. During our first
season, as new owners we were committed to providing service to this
group. We were appalled by the size of this obnoxious flotilla. Other
companies and private boaters voiced complaints. Despite our efforts
to educate and negotiate possible alternatives, the school refused to
compromise. Eventually we refused to service the trip. I have always
been proud that we ignored thousands of dollars in quick revenue during
a period when the financial status of our business was far from stable.
A large canoe outfitter from Arizona called Jerkwater Canoes
(is that appropriate or what?) stepped in and took the contract. Jerkwater
had no care whatsoever when local businesses expressed concerns about
the ethics of this trip. To this day Jerkwater continues to service
the trip as an annual event and the dollars flow out of Utah and into
the coffers of a corporate behemoth.
Well-known organizations with strong pro-environment images are
not immune to hypocritical actions. This past year the Grand Canyon
Trust wanted to do a fast pace motorized trip on the Green River for
their big-money contributors. When we expressed concerns about the
nature of the trip and refused to guarantee that we would not mix the
often muddy common canoers with their white-collar contributors during
the jetboat transport, they took their business elsewhere.
S.U.W.A., the self-proclaimed champions of non-motorized wilderness
use, approached our company to facilitate transportation for a quick
pace motorized Green River trip for a U.S. Senator. We simply refused
and later were gratified to learn that the environmental group had dropped
its fast-track trip for the Senator. We have refused to facilitate
these types of motorized trips to many private individuals as well as
officials of local governments and a wealthy local land-developer.
All of them are mighty confused and generally pissed off that a jetboat
service refuses to promote motor use on the Green River. Since Canyonlands
National Park has two major rivers running through it and one of them,
the Colorado, is already hosting the vast majority of motorized traffic,
it just makes sense to let the Green host a different experience. That
strikes us as fair and our Mom always taught us to play fair.
Our strong and consistent belief that the Green River should
become strictly regulated for non-motorized use has often led to accusations
that we are the ultimate hypocrites. How could a company specializing
in jetboat transportation, the most visible and obnoxious river-related
motor use, possibly have any credibility as proponents of non-motorized
wilderness use? The simple answer is that we live in a complex modern
world of unavoidable contradictions.
As private canoers picked out of the river by good 'ol Tex McClatchy
himself, we despised the jetboat aspect of the trip. We still view
jetboat operation in Canyonlands as a necessary evil. It provides a
means of mass transportation for large numbers of people that demand
a quick and reliable way to get themselves and all their wilderness
toys back home. And a jetboat is a helluva lot less intrusive than
building a road through 2000 vertical feet of complex canyon geology
or a landing strip for air service. When Star Trek technology comes
on-line we can all beam back home; until then society demands to be
kept on time and up to date. The National Park Service strictly controls
jetboat concessions. The Park Service and a handful of other state and
federal agencies collect revenue and require a mountain of regulations
be satisfied. We have to jump through a whole lot of hoops to operate
Every single one of us, no matter how pure our ethics, compromises
the pristine integrity of wilderness in some way. Yet rather than trying
to identify the common causes and qualities that should unify those
with an affinity for wild places, we seem to spend much more time looking
for reasons to separate. Across the board there is a lack of willingness
to objectively examine and moderate our particular ways of travel and
business in the outdoor realm. We are usually busy pointing a finger
somewhere else to make ourselves feel better about pursuing individual
interests. Conditions of ever-present divisiveness seem to be the rule
of the day. One need only examine the recent presidential election
to confirm the ideological polarization in America.
Perhaps this is the eternal condition of our incredibly complex
species. How can we hope to achieve any semblance of unity on issues
of wilderness usage in a world where the choice of what fires one's
particular rocket can be as varied as attending a Rainbow Gathering
or a Monster Truck Bash? Every human mind is bombarded every single
day with more possibilities than can be experienced in several lifetimes.
Imagine if you will, having been placed in some kind of cryo-freeze
unit (like Woody Allen in the movie Sleeper) as little as twenty-five
years back. I'm betting that most of us would wake up, take a look
around and promptly keel over from a brain hemorrhage. Your more nostalgic
retro types like poor 'ol Jim Stiles (my personal hero by the way) can
barely make it through the day without intravenous Valium. (Editor's
Note: I never take the stuff intravenously...JS) And who can blame
them? Life is increasingly schizophrenically weird in the Matrix world.
The issue of what defines wilderness and how that wilderness
should be treated is quite naturally receiving the fallout from all
this societal complexity. The world of advertising tells us that we
cannot even hope to experience the wild until we pull that forest-green
SUV right up to the edge of a cliff with a magnificent view, climb out
sporting the newest specialty store threads, and stride off confident
that the satellite unit in our pack will find us when we are lost, tell
us the weather forecast, and open the car door if we are too damn stupid
to remember the keys. Soon we will have sensory chips in our underwear
to sound an alarm when we're leaving skid marks. We all go out into
the wild to simplify our lives but as members of a modern society we
are dependent on the trappings of that society. No matter how much
I wish it were not so, my business and I are a part of those trappings.
I fell in love with the rivers and surrounding rockscape of Canyonlands
a long time ago. Being male and deeply smitten, my addled mind assigned
a feminine gender to the waterway. This seemed natural for I was instantly
drawn to the amazing secrets that she hides within the incredible complexity
of massive stone ramparts. A mind habituated to, yet aggravated by
the straight and orderly lines of civilization can be soothed by the
curves within curves of ever evolving riverbank and sandbar. I prefer
the unhurried embrace of a drifting canoe but the river supports my
need for the dollars required to survive in the real world. So I plunder
the relationship we have and the expertise she has given me for the
money I need. Behind the wheel of a speeding jetboat your eyes have
to be focused on unromantic reality. Smacking a barely visible sandbar,
two inches underwater will halt several tons of boat like a leash jerking
a mad dog off its feet. In unpredictable fits the river will call up
days of cold blinding rain with wind whipped waves and tomato juice
flash flood waters choked with debris to really make me earn a day of
obnoxious mechanized penetration. So I use her but I respect her.
I try my best to do my best in a world of contradictions.
In the heart of the canyon country that surrounds the river there
is an ancient basket that sits in protected surroundings of timeless
peace--On the hottest days of summer when the water is low and grasping
arms of sand are everywhere; when I am roaring along at 30 mph, powers
of concentration in high gear and some rafter has just flipped me the
bird. An inviolate core of my subconscious will be focused on the sacred
privilege of knowing that remote captivating artifact with my own eyes,
even if I never return to that spot, even if I do return to find that
it has been taken when I get there.