Every spring for the past eight years, raft guide Louis Williams has spent most of his time underground.
It can feel that way, at least. The deep limestone canyons of the San Juan River may not be a cave or mine, but for river runners, they can form their own isolated world, connected to the outside only through the jet trails crossing the thin strip of blue above and the muddy river rolling down from its source in the Rocky Mountains.
While many raft guides try to heighten that sense of wilderness for their guests by focusing interpretation talks on geology or wildlife, Williams, a member of the Navajo Nation, takes a different approach.
“I love sharing the culture,” Williams said. “Under that category everything falls into place, like the land, the animals, that’s part of sharing the culture, too — the Navajo name for this or that.
“The animals are part of a lot of stories from the old days,” he added. “So the stories [I learned from] my grandmas get told, and I’m sure they’re upstairs digging it.”
Williams went on only a single raft trip this year before the coronavirus pandemic hit. The tourist season, which usually ramps up in March and April in southeast Utah, was put on hold, throwing many local livelihoods into a precarious position.
In May, Williams is usually guiding overnight trips on the lower section of the river, which marks the northern boundary of the Navajo Nation, and when guests ask what’s out of sight beyond the canyon rim, Williams will explain families live on the remote mesa tops. “They’re way out there,” as he puts it.
This year, however, Williams found himself on the other side of the equation, not looking up at the cliffs, but looking down into the river gorge while delivering supplies to help with coronavirus relief.
“The river’s just right there,” he said of one of his routes, “a rock’s throw away” and hundreds of feet below.
“Some places I visit, it looks like there’s nobody out there,” he said, only scattered sage, cactus, maybe a juniper tree. But then Williams will come over a rise and see an oasis tucked away amid the sandstone.
“There’s a spring. It’s a little community right there,” he said. “It’s a safe haven for them. ... Now I’m seeing who comes out of that hogan. A grandma peeks out. I’m like, ‘Hey, ya’at eeh!’ I introduce myself in Navajo and they finally open the door a little more.”
Williams delivers firewood and boxes of food, water, cleaning supplies, before he moves down the line.
Before San Juan County came to have the highest per capita rate of coronavirus cases in Utah, 2020 was already supposed to be a big year for Williams. After nearly a decade working for Wild Expeditions in Bluff, he was planning to branch out on his own.
He applied for permits through the Navajo Nation and the Bureau of Land Management to start up a company called Ancient Wayves, which will be the first Navajo-owned guiding service in San Juan County.
But after the pandemic hit, Williams, who lives in Blanding, was out of guiding work and he knew that many of his friends and relatives on the Navajo Nation were in need of assistance. He asked his son to set up a GoFundMe one evening in April. The original plan was to raise money to deliver firewood to a few dozen people who rely on wood stoves for cooking and heating.
“It just happened on the spur of the moment,” he said. “The next morning, my son was like, ‘Look, somebody donated!’ And before long we had enough to rent a U-Haul.”
Williams got a permit to cut firewood on public lands with a group of fellow raft guides and other friends and family. But when he delivered the first loads, he realized that there was a need for food and water as well, and the project kept expanding.
People saw Williams’ work on Facebook and reached out to him. The church he grew up attending in Gray Mountain, Ariz., had a roomful of donated goods, and church leaders asked Williams to help with distribution.
In mid-June, less than two months after the spur-of-the-moment decision to start the firewood campaign called Heat Diné Homes, Williams said he’s received help from 32 volunteers to make deliveries to over 500 families, mostly in Utah. He’s raised $3,700, but the majority of the goods have been donated directly.
A whole host of relief efforts have popped up on the Navajo Nation in recent months, including a $5 million fundraiser started by former Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch, as well as relief work organized by Utah Navajo Health System, the Utah Farm Bureau and dozens of other grassroots efforts. But even with all the work being done, Williams said 80% of the families he contacts haven’t received any assistance.
Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez has been doing drive-thru food distribution events, but many families Williams has helped either don’t have transportation or are afraid of being exposed to the coronavirus in town.
“They’re so thankful,” Williams said. “They were roughing it in the first place, and now with this, it’s even harder.”
When he drops off a box, Williams leaves a printed sheet with tips for preventing the spread of the coronavirus and ideas for connecting with tradition and family during quarantine. For families with looms, he’ll drop off a bag of donated wool as well.
Heat Diné Homes has turned into a full-time project for Williams and his wife, Tanya, but he’s still planning to offer guided hiking in Bears Ears National Monument through his new company Ancient Wayves this fall.
By 2021, Williams hopes he’ll be running river trips, telling stories and cooking traditional Navajo foods like blue corn mush and hiring his Hopi and Ute friends to help guide and to share their recipes and cultural perspectives on the canyons as well.
After a season away from the river, Williams is looking forward to rafting again. “I’ve got to give thanks to the San Juan River all the time,” he said. “We’re supposed to; in Navajo culture, that San Juan River is sacred. We should be giving thanks to it. We’ve been doing it all these years, thousands of years. There’s songs that are connected to this river. So that’s what I’m trying to bring, trying to keep it sacred.”
Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.