River guide quits and tells why

  • Brad Dimock: He'll still run rivers, but not the Colorado

    Abigail Sullivan
  • Brad Dimock shown navigating Hermit Rapid

    Andre Potochnik

I began my "career" as a Grand Canyon river guide in 1971, in the heart of what we later referred to as the clueless years. Few boatmen had more than a couple dozen trips under their belt; some were on their first. We had few wizened veteran guides to tell us where to hike, how to get through Hance Rapid at low water, or how best to manage a disgruntled guest. We were on our own, figuring it out as we went along. A trip that finished at the right place, on the right day, was a good one.

These were expeditions in a true sense of the word. We were learning tricks and techniques daily, making progress - and truly magnificent blunders. Motor rigs ripped stem to stern, or beached a hundred yards from the river after the river level fell. These were expeditions, all right, for passengers paying less than $50 a day. We all struggled together.

What made it work - the thing that was so profoundly different then - was that we were trusted. Not just by the passengers, our bosses, and the National Park Service, but by society as a whole. We were given a boat and a group of passengers at the launch ramp, expected to do our best and show up at the other end. How we did it was left to our wits, judgment and discretion. Just bring 'em back happy.

The learning curve remained steep for several years. We learned how to get the boats through with a degree of predictability. We began preparing meals that were more than just edible. We learned about geology and the ecosystem and found ways to convey it intelligibly. By the mid-'80s, Grand Canyon had a self-taught cadre of highly trained professionals running top-quality adventures.

Somewhere toward the end of the 1980s, it all began to sour. Although we were performing at ever higher levels of professionalism and training, the trust we thrived on, bit by bit, disappeared.

I struggled for years to find someone, something, to blame. Was it the outfitting companies? The insurance companies? The Park Service? We wanted to blame them all, but it wasn't really any of them. It was a societal shift, bulldozing its way through the culture, until even down in the Big Ditch, where we'd thought we were immune, we found ourselves inundated. The ballooning affluence of the Reagan-Bush years finally caught up with us.

As the financial stratification of the culture progressed, our clientele grew wealthier. Schoolteachers, nurses, farmers and just plain folks were priced out, to be replaced with doctors, lawyers and the Silicon Valley nouveau-riche.

Trip marketing began gearing toward the Outdoor Material Culture, the yup-scale deluxe cruise, the predictable and comfortable "wilderness experience." As expectations mutated, complaints became more numerous, yet more trivial. Clients wanted "service."

Meanwhile, the ever-growing private boating population was locked into a small, archaic allocation system, and it clamored for a bigger share of the pie. At the same time, the Park Service began looking seriously at its mandate to manage Grand Canyon for wilderness values.

Outfitters, no longer owning stake-bed trucks full of war-surplus rafts, but million-dollar businesses, became nervous and listened to the whisperings of lawyers and insurance agents. Long ridiculed for their individualistic inability to band together, outfitters felt increasingly threatened and formed powerful trade organizations - America Outdoors and Grand Canyon River Outfitters Association - complete with lobbyists and political contributions.

Down on the Colorado River, the "resource," running at or beyond capacity for more than a decade, began to suffer visibly. More beaches and trails had to be rebuilt, reinforced, artificially stabilized - steps constructed, banks rip-rapped with driftwood logs, trails marked ever more grossly and unmistakably to mitigate trampling.

The river guide was eyed with ever more scrutiny. A profession that was once defined by its sheer lack of definition became quantified, qualified, measured. We had somehow come to be on trial.

For me, the final straw came last year, when boatmen were legally presumed to be drug users. Unless we could prove otherwise through urine testing, we could no longer work in Grand Canyon. We became guilty until proven innocent, and although we had operated in a risky environment for decades with a safety record ranking between golf and bowling, we could no longer be trusted.

Perhaps it was inevitable. The Grand Canyon river experience is one of the more magical treasures on a planet that has far, far too many people. In a culture that reveres material wealth above all else, bottom-line economics and paranoiac policy-making are as natural an outgrowth as the desperate need to escape from the same. Grand Canyon is caught, vise-like, in the middle. Drug testing was just the dying canary.

Grand Canyon is still a wonderful place; river trips are still changing people's lives. The magic, undeniably, is still there. But the trends are sinister. And unless we change direction, as the old Chinese proverb states, we will almost assuredly end up where we are headed.

In everything from kayaks, canoes, rowing and paddle rafts, dories and motor rigs - as well as a 2-ton wooden sweep-scow - Brad Dimock has racked up 150 Grand Canyon trips - "private, commercial, science, government and sneak." He developed the Boatman's Quarterly Review for the Grand Canyon River Guides and recently wrote a book (see story page 9). These days, he says, he's a "recovering boatman."

Mar 14, 2007 12:33 PM

A friend of mine looking for a job at NASU in Flagstaff came upon a flyer with a picture that he recognized.  Brad Dimock, pictured in that flyer, was our boatman the summer of 1978 from Lee's Ferry to Phantom Ranch on the Colorado River.  It's a shame reading his account of the changing dynamics of both clientele and policymakers.  He gave my friend and I an incredible 5 day experience.

Mar 14, 2007 06:15 PM

Who is anonymous?  I must be that friend!  

Jul 05, 2007 11:32 AM

Brad Dimock's mother was a great friend of my grandmother's, and one summer he took the two elderly ladies and a teenaged granddaughter (me) on a wonderful trip around Lake Powell. If truth be told, I had a raging crush on him. Sad to hear he is no longer a guide - I still remember that trip very fondly. Best wishes to Brad. 

Oct 11, 2007 11:30 AM

Fans of Brad will be happy to know that he is running the river again, and seems to be enjoying it. Check with AZRA to find out when and where this wonderful guide can be experienced.

AZRA River Trip 2007
Monica Mestas
Monica Mestas
Aug 21, 2010 11:41 PM
Funny, I can't remember the month of our trip in 2007 . . . but I definitely remember the adventure. I hate to rain on the Brad Dimock fanfare but Mr. Dimock's record is not flawless. He paddled my friend right into a broken neck and a helicopter ride out of the Canyon. I believe his cavalier attitude of "I'm above reproach, I'm my own man, I don't have to follow someone else's cautious lead, catering to nouveau-riche clientele seeking a wilderness experience" led to our misadventure. After all, as he says, "we had operated in a risky environment for decades with a safety record ranking between golf and bowling." I believe that's why he chose a particularly risky route through Crystal Rapid and found himself quite surprised when it all went terribly wrong. I hope this "train wreck" was an eye-opener for him and that he now understands his absolute duty to provide all of his clientele with the utmost in professionalism and safety, even those he assumes are obnoxious yup-scale complainers seeking a service oriented deluxe cruise. On a very personal note, I am offended not just by the fact that he broke my friend's neck, but by his assumption that he was catering to the nouveau-riche. My friend and I were just two hard working women who spent a great deal of money for a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. I do understand the enormous problems facing the Colorado River and Grand Canyon. However, if Mr. Dimock still holds the same sentiments he did in 1998 when he "retired" and believes his participation as a river guide is somehow beneath him and contributing to the Canyon's problems, then maybe he should re-retire.
Brad as a guide
Diana (Lewis) Stout
Diana (Lewis) Stout
Jun 14, 2009 02:28 PM
Back in the 80"s my first husband and 12 year old daughter had a trip with Brad down the Colorado! What an experience that I will never forget. I found a brochure from back then today (6-14-10) as I was cleaning out some drawers. I thought I wonder if he is still around? Then I found this site and am devastated to learn this. He was a wonderful person and great host.
Most sincerely,
Diana (Lewis) Stout
Brad Dimock
Shae Roggendorff
Shae Roggendorff
May 17, 2010 10:14 AM
I have to add that I recently went on an AZRA trip with Brad as the paddle captain on one of the boats. He was great and very knowledgeable about the river, it's history, and astronomy. A great time was had by all in our group and AZRA was very instrumental in the very pleasant time we had on our trip. Brad, along with 5 other trustworthy guides were very professional the whole week. GREAT, GREAT time. I recommend to all.