Each year, April marks the beginning of the much-anticipated Grand Canyon commercial river running season on the Colorado River. It’s a time of year when the grizzled boatmen (and slightly less-grizzled boatwomen) come out of their deep hibernation in the darkened coffee houses of Flagstaff, Durango, and Moab to spend the next seven months ferrying more than twenty-thousand thrill-seeking clients through the world’s most famous chasm.
There are many variations on the theme (oars vs. motorboats, a few days on the water vs. weeks, etc.), but the common denominator is unfettered access to the depths of Grand Canyon in the company of an impassioned and knowledgeable crew. The combination of challenging whitewater and majestic environs attracts some of the most accomplished whitewater professionals in the business. In addition, the National Park Service (NPS) holds the sixteen licensed river running concessioners to a very high standard in terms of safety, training, and resource protection.
There are many fewer private boaters who also run the river each year. In some cases these lucky ducks have waited as long as fifteen years for a permit to tackle the river in their personal watercraft. With multiple stakeholder groups arguing for greater access, occasionally through high-profile legal action, the NPS recently underwent a multi-year policy making initiative designed to address these concerns. Their efforts to even the playing field in terms of access had to be balanced with their mandate to preserve the natural and cultural integrity of the Canyon itself. This process culminated in the Colorado River Management Plan (CRMP). The final Record of Decision was released in February 2006.
As expected, the CRMP has no shortage of critics. For the moment, however, these differences seem to have been set aside. At least long enough for the quirky subculture known as the Grand Canyon river runners to grab their Tevas, sunglasses, and lucky hats and prepare to burn off their winter fat threading Hance, Crystal, Hermit and Upset Rapids (to name a few).