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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

National park regulations pass sniff test at Grand Canyon

Rafter Brian Burns takes a line through Granite Rapid, one of 160 Colorado River rapids in Grand Canyon National Park. (Rich Landers / The Spokesman-Review)
By Rich Landers For The Spokesman-Review

Grand Canyon National Park, which is celebrating its centennial, is a monument to eye-catching natural beauty – and the value of government regulation.

Park rules deter miners, plans for dams, tramways that once hauled out bat guano for fertilizer and a gamut of other development dreams and schemes.

Rules dampen the impacts of park admirers, too. Visitation has soared from a trickle in the beginning to a record 6.25 million people entering the park in 2017. But rules have corralled the potentially disastrous impacts of 212 million visitors over 100 years, keeping this national park a mostly pristine four-season experience.

Last winter I dropped off the grid for a month on a bucket-list adventure into the mile-deep bowels of Grand Canyon. I finished my goal to raft the 277 miles of the Colorado River through the entire park. I increased my lifelong hiking mileage to more than 100 miles on its routes and trails. I recalled why I chose a Grand Canyon trek for proposing marriage 38 years ago.

The park remains worthy of listing among the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.

Brian Burns, a rafting guide I knew in Spokane before he moved to Boise, had snagged a coveted river permit and invited me to be first mate on his boat. Besides having change to lose on poker nights, my standout contribution to a party of 12 – with six rafts piloted by pros – was my half-ton pickup. Shuttled from the start at Lees Ferry to the take-out at Pearce Ferry, it’s big enough to haul Burns’ raft and gear, plus the extra baggage we’d have to handle at the end of our trip.

“We’ll be taking care of the groovers,” he warned.

Burns is a canyon veteran. While he guides on rivers such as the Payette in Idaho, he also has logged 13 private trips of 30 days, the maximum length a river permit allows.

“I’ve enjoyed more than a year of my life on the river, and counting,” he said.

The trick is to win the lottery for a coveted launch permit. Or, like Burns, you must have the skills that make yourself attractive to other lucky ducks who snagged a permit and need a skilled boatman for safety through some of the biggest whitewater in North America.

Winter trips are attractive partly because the odds of drawing a permit in the weighted lottery are slim but still much better than chances for spring through fall when bathing suits are preferred attire, not down jackets.

Winter rafters often wake to frozen water in the hand-washing station. Burns recalls 9 degrees near Phantom Ranch on Feb. 2, 2011. Winter rafters generally wear dry suits all day long as a hedge against the cool air temps and frigid water drenching them in rapids. Dry suits could be the margin between life and death should they capsize.

“Duck butter!” Casey Coles cheered a few days into our trip as he peeled off his shell at camp and aired out his armpits. One had to work up the courage to bathe in 46-degree river water.

But going in the winter is better than not going at all.

“We take a lot of layover days,” Burns said, reminding me of a primary motivation: daytime temperatures in the 40 and 50s are ideal for hiking and exploring side canyons for ancient granaries and agave roasting pits.

River rafters dream of challenging their skills in the 160 Colorado River rapids through the Grand Canyon. About 80 of them are huge avalanches of water, some with holes that can swallow rafts and waves that can flip them like Easter egg baskets in a gale.

The many read-and-run rapids Grand Canyon boaters don’t bother to stop to scout would be the puckering highlight of the day on many commercial rivers in the country.

Only about 25,000 people get to raft through the Grand Canyon each year. The demand is many times higher. Before the park adopted a weighted lottery in 2006, the waiting list for Grand Canyon permits was more than 20 years out.

Even with the quotas, 113,668 commercial user days were recorded on the park section of the Colorado River in 2017, along with 109,742 noncommercial user days.

Ponder for a moment what the scene would be like if all those rafters pooped in the sand at the limited number of good camping sites along the river.

“It was a mess in the Canyon in the ’60s and early ’70s before toilets were required,” said Steve Sullivan, the park’s Permits Program manager in the Backcountry Office. “Grand Canyon was the first place the National Park Service implemented a toilet rule and it made a difference right away.”

In the 1950s, the early days of Grand Canyon commercial trips, outfitters were telling clients to take a walk to do their business as far and high from camp as possible. The results were unsavory.

In the early ’70s, portable potties sloshing with blue disinfectant were used, but the waste was being buried daily in a hole dug somewhere up the beach at each campsite. Again, not a pleasant solution in the long run as the number of people floating the river mushroomed from 205 in 1960 to 9,995 in 1970.

Blue goo, toilet paper, flies and a smack-you-in the face stench at some beaches begged for a solution that a biologist from Flagstaff, Arizona, Steve Carothers, is credited with figuring out in 1971. Cheap military surplus ammo cans with seal-tight lids could be used to pack out waste as long as a little formaldehyde was added, he discovered. This would defuse the methane and prevent “pooplosions” as the canned stew heated in the Arizona sun.

It was a scientific contribution ranking up there with penicillin among epic discoveries for river runners.

Rafting companies adopted ammo boxes that soon were dubbed “groovers” for the lines the edges left in rafters’ hinies as they sat and did their business. This process was refined with the addition of toilet seats and hygiene practices. Rental companies started offering groover drop off and pick up services.

Since 1978, the Park Service has required river runners to haul out all human waste. This relieves the narrow river corridor from being fouled by some 300,000 pounds of human waste a year.

Even people with the means to pay $5,600 for a deluxe 14-day trip down the river with an outfitter are forced to face their humanity by pooping in a groover.

Rafters with a sense of aesthetics embraced the rule, enhancing the experience by seeking out remarkable groover sites with million-dollar views.

“Compliance is very good,” Sullivan said. “Boaters for the most part get it. People who have permits are eager to come and they don’t want to find the place a mess. Most respect and understand the importance of the requirements.”

Perks to winning one of Grand Canyon’s private-party winter rafting permits include more solitude. No commercial raft trips are allowed for four months of winter.

A campfire is a winter option that isn’t allowed the rest of the year. To keep the beaches as pristine as possible, however, park rules require rafters to contain their fires in metal pans, which must be used over fire blankets so all trace of the fire, including ash and charcoal, can be collected into an ammo can each morning.

A mat also is required under cooking and eating areas so food particles can be packed out rather than littered on beaches, where they would attract rodents.

Clean shorelines allow river runners to focus on the trip past desert bighorns through geological time as the river drops 2,000 feet in elevation and cuts through 26 layers of rock.

Near the end of the trip, we floated past a portion of the canyon controlled by the Hualapai Nation, where a relentless stream of helicopters from Las Vegas shuttle tourists for quickie visits. The noise is a daunting reminder of what the rest of the canyon could be like without park oversight.

We said goodbyes at the Pearce Ferry takeout and group members drove off with memories of a month in the canyon while Burns and I shuttled to a treatment facility in Flagstaff eight ammo cans filled with a total of some 400 pounds of human waste.

As a rule, it’s a fine way to end such a stunning trip.