CANYONLANDS NATIONAL PARK - When it comes to natural resources, it's hard to beat the varied landscape of this southern Utah destination. But amid the towering canyon walls, unique rock formations and the art of ancient peoples, one natural resource may be more important than others.
More than half of the visitors to the Colorado River's Cataract Canyon come with commercial outfitters paid to get them through its 28 intense rapids. But that isn't the guides' only role.
About the time novice river runners realize they no longer have cell phone service and Game Boys are not waterproof, they begin to look around.
"What's that flower called?"
"What kind of rock is that?"
"Who made the image on that rock?"
Those are just a few of the questions guides say they hear during the 100-mile float from Moab to the takeout near state Highway 95 in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.
Knowing the answers can yield tips from clients at the trip's end, but organizers and speakers on an annual interpretation trip for river guides say that knowledge will pay dividends for years to come. While the setting itself creates lasting memories, they hope a deeper understanding of the land, water, wildlife and history will create a connection that will be passed on to the guides' clients.
"You are part of the next wave of water policy in the West," Dan McCool, a political science professor at the University of Utah, told a group of guides during this year's trip on the Colorado River in May. "If you want to keep your jobs and keep them existing for people who love the river like you do, then the laws have to change and you can only change the laws if you impact the people and give them a reason to get involved."
While the trips teach rookie guides about the prehistoric, as well as modern, history of the river, they also are a time to share details about the best ways to run rapids and to improve relationships with river rangers, biologists and other outfitters.
This year's trip attracted guides from nine of the 15 groups that have Cataract permits. Among the "faculty" were a political science professor specializing in Western water issues, a food-handling specialist from the National Park Service and a retired U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) geologist.
Learning from legends: To give guides a more spiritual view of the land, organizers also invited two Canyonlands legends: Kent Frost, 88, and "Black" George Simmons, 82.
"Learning the history makes [guides] more and more interested in the land and the river. That, in turn, makes them better informed to share the history of the place with their guests," said Simmons, who guided the first USGS research boat trip down Cataract in 1956 and still volunteers at Canyonlands.
Simmons handed out samples of local rocks and asked the guides to taste their varying saltiness. He also entertained the group with long, funny poems around the campfire, pulling people from the crowd to play different characters.
Frost shared stories of exploring Canyonlands during his youth in the 1930s. His memory of feeling like he was the first European settler to view American Indian art and dwellings had many guides wishing they had been born a few decades earlier.
Making a difference: As guides gathered for cocktails on the comfort of the rafts while waiting for dinner, McCool staged a pep talk/rally, preaching the gospel of helping clients develop a passion for protecting wild places. As the stars grew thicker, he asked them to think about what impact they were having on the land.
The topic came up again when Melissa Memory, an archaeologist for the Southeast Utah Group of the National Park Service, led the group to an ancient granary and three living areas found just off the Colorado River at Indian Creek.
While many of guides already had seen the site, Memory fielded such questions as whether people who built the structures used human urine to bond the materials. Possibly, she said; they may also have used blood.
She also said many treasures left at the 150 ancient sites along the river corridor "were used as target practice by local cowboys" in the early days.
Canyonlands river ranger Steve Young, aka T-Berry, implored guides to share sightings of animals, rare plants and illegal activities along the Colorado.
"Commercial outfitters have a lot more eyes on the river than we do," said Young, who first floated Cataract in 1983. He worked as a river guide until 2000 when he became a river ranger. "They can, and do, help us in so many ways and it is important that they feel comfortable enough to approach us on the river or on the street in Moab and share their experiences with us. This trip helps make that happen."
Not just for rookies: The interpretation trips originally were set up as a way for older guides to share knowledge with newcomers. But they're not just for rookies anymore.
River-running companies can send any employee on the trip. Dee and Sue Holladay, owners of Holiday Expeditions, elected to make the trip this spring when none of their staff members signed up. The couple provided historical facts, talked about the importance of professionalism and encouraged newbies and old timers alike to follow a code of ethics on the river.
Robert Ho has been a guide on the Colorado for 13 years and says he learns something new each time he joins the interpretive float. "Having the park officials, geologists and biologists is great. For them to share all the knowledge they have accumulated through the years is priceless," said Ho, who has 16 trips scheduled on Cataract this summer. "It is imperative that guides have as much information as possible so we can pass on the importance of this place to others."
John Weisheit, host of the trip sponsored by Utah Guides and Outfitters, Colorado Plateau River Guides and the NPS, says any guide, no matter how experienced, will learn something on the trip.
"This is an incredible place and after a while, the guides become intimate with it," he said. "They soon begin to defend it and eventually become a caretaker who assumes stewardship of it. That intimacy they develop is eventually passed on to people and it is vitally important they do it with accurate knowledge."
Weisheit made his first trip in 1986. In addition to learning things the organizers intended, he especially appreciated the camaraderie.
"Most of the time guides stay in the tight circle of the companies they work for," he said. "Barriers are broken when you bring all the companies together like this. That is an important aspect of the trips. It builds the rafting community and keeps it healthy."
Cataract Canyon contains 14 miles of rapids ranging in difficulty from easy Class I to challenging Class V. It is a particularly hazardous and isolated section of the Colorado River and is subject to extreme water level fluctuations.
A permit is required for all trips through Cataract Canyon.
Most Cataract Canyon trips put in at Potash, Moab, Green River or Mineral Bottom. The usual take-out for Cataract trips is Hite Marina. However, a prolonged drought has significantly changed conditions on Lake Powell and the take-out situation changes according to the river.
While hiking trails lead to the rivers from each of the Canyonlands districts, the trails are too long and rugged to be seriously considered for shuttles, even for inflatables and other lightweight boats.