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Dammed if you do… Western River’s First Grand Canyon river trips

With the the first of the Grand Canyon river trips of the 2010 season successfully reaching its intended ending point (at mile 188) today, I wanted to take a look back at the very first Western River Expeditions Grand Canyon launch, almost 50 years ago… They made it all of the first 400 yards downstream from the put-in at Lee’s Ferry before running aground….literally. Let’s just say there are some things you can control on a river trip, and others you just can’t!

Bill George: in the early daysWestern had been running commercial trips on the rivers of Idaho and Utah for a couple of years already by 1963 when they decided to venture into the Grand Canyon. In those early days of commercial river-running, government regulation was low, government communication was low, and the government had even made the water level low. 1963 was the year the Bureau of Reclamation had begun holding the water back behind the newly-built Glen Canyon Dam.

Paul Thevinin, one of Western’s guides at the time, says they’d understood that the Bureau would not cut the flows off to below 1,000 cubic feet per second (CFS). (Today’s averages are usually between 8,000 and 22,000 CFS). They knew that running it at 1,000 CFS would be marginal at best, but 1,000 would be the lowest it could get. They tried several times to contact someone about the dam schedule but found no dam answers. (I had to do it). Most likely the Bureau would be slow in getting the order to cut flows if there hadn’t even been an announcement made…

Rolling into Lee’s Ferry, they gave it one last shot to find out more information. Thevinin remembers,”In those days we brought the equipment in the truck with the people (guests) sitting on top of the equipment. We didn’t have to check in with the rangers, but they were there and we’d tell ’em we’re going in, blah, blah, blah… What have you heard about holding the water back?”

Ranger: “Oh, I haven’t heard much. Probably sometime this month. Maybe this week…or couldn’t be. I don’t know, I haven’t heard much.”

Paul: “So we go down, we rig our boats and load the stuff, put the people on the boats and we start down. As we start down through that first little riffle, we suddenly see this ranger running across the beach, screaming and yelling and hollering at us. And of course, we start to pull towards him.

Ranger: “Can you make it at three hundred?!”

Paul: “We looked at him and said, ‘you mean three thousand?’ Lynn Keller in the early days

Ranger: “I mean three hundred.”

Paul: “Obviously the guy’s a nut because they promised they wouldn’t cut it below a thousand. But we decided to be nice and pull in to straighten the guy out, asking him, ‘where’d you hear that?'”

Ranger: “Oh I decided to go back and phone after I got through talking to you, and found out they’ve already shut the water off.”

Paul: “How far’d they shut it off?”

Ranger: “Three hundred.”

Paul: “So we decided to pull up on the beach there at Paria Riffle and started walking towards him, insisting, ‘No, you mean three thousand.’ The ranger said, ‘Turn around and look at your boats.’ And in that amount of time, our boats were already out of the water and we just stood there and watched the rocks grow. They cut it all the way down to three hundred…
So we turned to our people and said, ‘Folks, there’s a neat trip up in Cataract Canyon in Utah.‘ We rolled up our boats, dragged ’em across the beach, threw ’em in the truck with the people on top, and drove to Utah.”

A note to the story: Paul says that without radio communication in those days, some companies that had trips several days deep in the canyon had to air-drop parachuted messages to their guides saying, “GET OUT! DON’T STOP! DON’T CAMP UNTIL THE WATER RUNS OUT!”

So does it count as one of Western River Expeditions’ Grand Canyon River trips if you only go from Lee’s Ferry to Paria Beach?

Kam Wixom

Kam began guiding in the Grand Canyon in 1991, met & guided with his wife in 2000, and is the proud daddy of 5 kids. He now works as the Marketing Director for Western River Expeditions.

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