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For White-Water Guides, The Thrill Is Never Gone

Brian Dierker attended the premiere of <em>Into the Wild</em> with his wife, Jen, on Sept. 18, 2007.
Alberto E. Rodriguez / Getty Imgages
Getty Imgages
Brian Dierker attended the premiere of Into the Wild with his wife, Jen, on Sept. 18, 2007.

The stretch of the Colorado River running through the Grand Canyon has one of the longest runs of white-water rapids in the world.

There are almost 300 miles of river, with enormous rapids that can shift in intensity from day to day, and even from hour to hour.

The Grand Canyon rapids have intimidating names, like Lava Falls, Crystal, Granite and Hermit.

This year, more than 20,000 people will take a once-in-a-lifetime trip through the Grand Canyon. And the boatmen and women who guide them down the river are considered larger-than-life superheroes.

"If you're scared, they're gonna be scared," says longtime river guide Michael Whalen, "so you have to project this image, like, 'This is fun, you're gonna be a totally changed person by the end of this trip' — and they have no idea what we're talking about."

Guides like Whalen are trained in white-water rescue, boat operations and wilderness first aid. They can fix anything that breaks and prepare three meals a day for their passengers — often in sweltering heat or violent monsoon storms. That doesn't bother Whalen.

"It's one of the coolest jobs I've ever been able to do," Whalen says. "You're away from all outside influence. You don't have any cell phone. You're not plugged in anywhere. It's just as exciting as heck to be able to do this."

Born To Be A River Guide

At 26, Emily Perry has been a guide for eight years. Her father was a Grand Canyon river guide. She grew up hearing him and his river buddies tell stories in the living room at night as she was going to sleep.

"He always told my sister and I [that] he'd take us down the Colorado River for the first time when we were 7 years old," Perry says.

"I remember when I was 7, he asked if I was ready, and I said, 'No Dad, I'm not ready for Crystal Rapid.' And he's going, how the heck does she know about Crystal? It was from lying in bed and listening to all these stories going on in the living room."

Crystal, the deadliest rapid in the Grand Canyon, is legendary, with huge water holes and drop-offs. Guides say Crystal has the "Maytag Effect." If you get stuck in it, you spin around and around until it decides to spit you out.

Perry's husband, Scott, is also a river guide; that's how they met. Married since last year, the Perrys are unusual for guides. They work full-time, guiding tourists during the summer, and federal researchers the rest of the year. Sometimes they don't see each other for weeks. River guiding is hard on relationships.

"Scott calls himself a career boatman, a lifer," Perry says. "But I want kids someday. I want a job with full benefits," she says. Scott says he wants that, too. But they love their work, and for now, it pays the bills.

A River Full Of Characters

Scott Perry's uncle is Brian Dierker, who has been a guide for almost four decades. Dierker, 6 feet 5 inches tall, with hands the size of shovels, also runs a company that helps moviemakers film rafting and boating scenes.

He worked on 1994's The River Wild,, with Meryl Streep, as well as last year's Into The Wild, directed by Sean Penn. His film credit lists him as the marine coordinator, but Dierker also landed a significant acting role in the film.

He plays Rainey, a middle-aged, long-haired hippie with some of the funniest lines in the movie. It was Dierker's acting debut.

Coping With The Off-Season

Dierker knows he's lucky. Most river guides only work a few months out of the year. There is no health insurance, although the pay is much better than it used to be. Some guides take on a cash-only lifestyle, free of debt.

In the off season, they work as teachers, ski instructors or snow-cat drivers — or, they just wait until the next season rolls around.

And months of waiting in the off-season can be filled with melancholy for some river guides.

Over 10 years ago, a beloved guide, Curtis Hansen, committed suicide at the end of the season. That wasn't the first suicide for the community, and it wouldn't be the last.

Hansen's nickname was "The Whale," because of his size. The community got together and formed The Whale Foundation in his honor.

The organization offers counseling to guides, money for education scholarships and some medical support. Once a year, there's a big benefit called The Wing Ding, which also celebrates the Grand Canyon river community.

"You're a guide in the summer," says benefit organizer Robbie Pitagora. "You're everything to a lot of people. People look up to you.

"And the season ends. Their self-esteem seems to drop. There's not somebody everyday to pat 'em on the back. We started to think that maybe we could do something that would help our community."

Bob Grusy, another organizer and veteran guide, says there's really no other life for him. But it's hard, he says — both financially and personally.

"I would go back to our family farm in Illinois and help with the harvest," Grusy says.

"During lunch one day, I was just staring out the back door, and my mother said, 'Where do you go when you get that stare on your face?' And I try to explain to her, 'Mom, I just spent the summer taking people hiking, showing off the Grand Canyon, saving people's lives. And now I'm just sitting here.'"

"We're commercial river guides," he says. "We take people down the river, we make it possible for these people to do the things that they would never dream of doing in their life.

"We take people to the edge, and we hold onto them as they look over, and then we pull 'em back again."

Guide Emily Perry knows the draw of the canyon well. And it's not just the thrill of the big waves.

"It's so beautiful," she says.

"The way the light plays on the canyon. And there's something about the running water — the way it sounds and changes. I think that's what draws me back."

Gillian Ferris Kohl reports from Arizona Public Radio as part of the Local News Initiative.

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Gillian Ferris Kohl