The River Rules… in fine print

Our intrepid adventurers just before launch on the Colorado River. Ranger Peggy is on the far right.

 “Shall we gather by the River,” the Baptists used to sing. With us, it’s not an option. Ranger Peggy of the Grand Canyon National Park Service is giving a sermon on the Do’s and Don’ts of boating on the Colorado River. Our participation is mandatory.

I first met her when we were rigging our boats. She stopped by to check our equipment. Life vests had been dutifully piled up; stoves and bar-b-que were unpacked. Even a groover, which I will describe later, stood at attention. You don’t mess with Ranger Peggy.

She knew Tom from other river trips and was amused by his hair-do. He introduced me as the permit holder. “Tom’s in charge,” I noted. The smile dropped from her face. “You are responsible,” she said icily. “I’ll try to keep Tom under control,” I replied meekly. Yeah, fat chance that.

Bells, whistles and alarms started going off in my head. Dang, why hadn’t I read the fine print?

Tom lectures us on river safety before Ranger Peggy begins her spiel. What’s the first rule: Hang onto the boat. What’s the second rule? “Hang onto the boat,” we chant in unison. And so it goes. Tom saw his wife, Beth, go flying by him last year as he bounced through a rapid. He caught up with her down river.

If the raft flips, what do you do? Hang onto the boat! “Easier said than done,” I think. Of course we will be wearing our life vests. In fact there is a serious fine if a Park Ranger catches any of us on the river without one. As the permit holder, I pay. More fine print, so to speak.

“Your head is the best tool you have in an emergency,” Ranger Peggy lectures. Right. When the river grabs you, sucks you under the water, and beats you against a rock, stay cool.

For all of the concern about safety on the river, the Park Service seems more concerned about our behavior on shore.

Over 20,000 people float down the river annually. And 20,000 people can do a lot of damage to the sensitive desert environment. Campsites are few and far between and major ones may have to accommodate several thousand people over the year.

Picture this: 20,000 people pooping and peeing in your back yard without bathroom facilities. It ain’t pretty. So we pack out the poop. And we pee in the river…

Packing out poop makes sense. But peeing in the river, no way! I’ve led wilderness trips for 36 years and for 36 years I’ve preached a thousand times you never, never pee in the water. Bathroom chores are carried out at least 100 yards away from water and preferably farther.

The first time I line up with the guys I can barely dribble out of dismay. (And no, it isn’t just old age.)

The rules go on and on. Mainly they have to do with leaving a pristine campsite and washing our hands. Normally, I am not a rules type of guy but most of what Ranger Peggy is preaching makes sense. Sixteen people with diarrhea is, um, shitty.

And I enjoy the fact our campsites are surprisingly clean. The least we can do is leave them in the same condition we find them, if not better. The rules work.

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