A guide’s eye view of the Grand Canyon
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Photographer Kyle George has been guiding boats in the Grand Canyon since 1999, logging eight or nine months each year piloting motor rigs, oar rigs, and the occasional dory. The place has become as familiar to him as his own house. “A lot of the time down there I don’t even feel like I’m outside,” he says. The high walls lend a sense of enclosure, but more significant is his familiarity with the corridor, and the routine of landing at the same spots. “Every beach has a story, every hike, every camp. It’s like a house you’ve been visiting for years. Each campsite and lunch spot is like a familiar room.”
Guide Brian Hansen steals a moment to himself at Saddle Camp, mile 47. Many guides have artistic pursuits that help them focus and refresh their energy during their free time—a rare commodity in the canyon, where guides are on the clock for nine or 18 days in a row. Some write poetry, some draw or paint. George began his photography career in just that way, producing these images over the last four seasons. As for Hansen, the 27-year Canyon veteran’s musical repertoire ranges from John Prine to Megadeth. Some trips he plays for the entire camp every night, some trips he plays only for himself. It depends on the clients, George says. “You don’t put a ton of energy into people who are lame.”
Taken two months into the season, this Teva tan is a badge of life well lived, but is also emblematic of the abuse guides’ feet suffer working in the canyon. Stubbed and smashed toes, cracked skin, and such ailments as foot rot and athlete’s foot are near certainties. Despite the risks, however, guides are universally shod in flip-flops, because, as George says, “they’re comfortable, and sandals with heel straps trap rocks against your feet.” Remedies include wearing socks to bed over feet slathered in Vaseline to heal cracking, and Vagisil to quell bacterial infections. Some guides even pour a dash of chlorine into the bottom of their non-self-bailing rafts to keep bacteria at bay.
In a crew of eight guides, two are on for dinner prep each night. Despite the elaborate nature of meals like Dutch oven lasagna, George says grilled steaks and brats are invariably the crowd favorite. Here, guide Erica Andersson sports the pearl-snap long sleeve western shirt that is virtually a uniform for Canyon guides along with straw cowboy hats, shorts, and flip-flops. The shirts are a nod to the Arizona geography, but also look professional and, due to the shoulders’ double fabric, won’t wear out as quickly in the brutal sun. The last element of the guide uniform: a one-gallon orange juice jug with a loop of webbing tied through the molded handle to provide a lash point in the boat—the purpose is to drink the full gallon of water each day.
Downtime for guides is invariably spent on or around the boats, which become like staff quarters once the trip hits camp. Most guides also sleep on the rafts; rain is rare and temps can be up to 10 degrees cooler on the water. In addition to a certain practical laziness—many of the side duties of loading and unloading and equipment maintenance occur on the rafts—the boats exert a psychological gravity. “It’s like they say in ‘Apocalypse Now,’” says George. “‘Never get off the boat.’” Here, Jim “Gilley” Gillivich shaves while Lyndsay Hupp goofs around with a set of novelty binoculars the crew picked up from a shop on the way to the put-in—a pre-trip ritual.
In a place where personal belongings are so spare—guides pack very light—props like the monkey binoculars become very significant. Costume nights are a western river tradition, particularly on private trips. Says George, “You don’t think anything of it if you row by a beach and a bunch of guys are walking around wearing dresses.” Private trip participants on the Grand are known to seize the day with a particularly firm grasp. “It’s a place to spend a lifetime,” explains George, “If you don’t have a lifetime to spend there, you really have to milk every day.”
Billie Rae does her morning yoga while waiting for the trip to leave the beach. “If you let it, guiding will really chew you up,” says George. “Those who aren’t burning out are really taking care of themselves.”
The result of a bad line in Horn rapid. At low water levels, Horn Rapid becomes the Canyon’s most difficult. This dory broke in half after being postage stamped on the rocks at river right for an hour and a half. No one was hurt, but the fiberglass and foam core boat (same construction as a surfboard) met its match and was towed to the next beach, where the guides relayed the bad news to the warehouse by sat phone. “Are you sure you can’t fix it?” was the question from the warehouse. No chance. Arizona River Runners sent a motor rig down the canyon to retrieve the pieces while the trip pressed on.
End of the season. The crew on their way home from Diamond Creek. “Most of us had been working for eight months straight at that point,” says George. So the normal let down at the end of the trip was compounded. “The end of a trip is quite jarring,” says George. “You hit the ramp with your floating community intact and then very quickly you have tear down, and suddenly its over.”