Houseboaters vs. river runners

  • Whitewater rafting on the Yampa River which flows through Dinosaur National Monument in northeastern Utah.

  • Houseboating in the Southwest emphasizes luxury; whitewater rafting, adventure. But are the two cultures really so different?

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Andrew Gulliford, a professor in Durango, Colo., spent five days last summer on a houseboat floating around Utah's most famous party scene, Lake Powell – a reservoir on the Colorado River – and then another five running the Yampa and Green rivers on the Colorado-Utah border. Gulliford noticed sharp differences between the cultures of houseboating and river-running. But HCN senior editor Jonathan Thompson, also based in Durango, has a slightly different take on the subject.

Andrew Gulliford Lake Powell has a white bathtub ring around its 1,960 miles of sandstone shoreline, because of the drought, yet it still draws over 1.5 million visitors each year to a surreal setting that includes 80 degree water. A festival atmosphere prevails, with kids swimming, teenagers zooming around on jet skis, parents grilling meat, and everyone sipping cold drinks. Larger houseboats, like a 75-foot-long triple-decker, rent for up to $15,000 a week in summer, and include air conditioning, multiple refrigerators, plasma TV and a hot tub. The big boats' names display owners' attitudes: No Pressure, Lovin' It, Half-Quacked and Sotally Tober. When houseboaters "camp" in the evening, they often just anchor in coves or off beaches. If they come ashore, they bring everything from gas grills to plastic water slides. Tourists whack golf balls off the roofs of houseboats, set off illegal fireworks, carve graffiti on 200-million-year-old sandstone, and leave heaps of trash. On one July 4th weekend alone, two were arrested for "boating under the influence" and 67 were cited for safety violations; another 123 received warnings to shape up or ship out.

Jonathan Thompson In my experience, Lake Powell is more than a lawless, redneck-suffused zoo. Like anywhere, it has its share of idiots, and giving them motors, boats and beers tends to heighten the stupidity. Still, because it's federally managed as the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, there are pretty strict rules regarding waste disposal, speeds, etc. Plenty of Lake Powell boaters are there to enjoy nature, even with the help of motors. Several years ago, my wife, Wendy, and I did a surprisingly tranquil three-day kayaking trip on Lake Powell. True, there were the dudes who came ripping down windy side canyons in speedboats blaring rap music out of concert-hall sound systems, but they not only slowed down when they saw us, they even stopped to chat. We saw houseboats toting sea kayaks, headed into remote areas, where they could then paddle up narrower channels. We even saw a colossal houseboat flying two giant rainbow flags: A lesbian party cruise.

Gulliford Switching from Lake Powell to the rivers, it was like I was on another planet. Most river runners do their thing in small human-powered oar boats and paddle rafts, along with kayaks and inflatable rubber duckies. They have an occasional new boat, but most of their gear is well-worn, punctured and patched. They measure their experience by miles paddled and canyons hiked, proceeding through a natural quiet punctuated by the roar of rapids, in living riparian zones featuring native vegetation and wildlife at water's edge. After a good day's run, they haul gear from boats to favorite campsites. They contain their waste – the "pack it in, pack it out" mentality – so that campsites are left clean. River runners do act zany, of course: They flip their boats, and get boats stuck on rocks, and simply fall in after drinking too much.

Thompson Yes, a lot of paddlers and rafters are low-budget nature lovers. But just as many spend outrageous amounts on the newest boats and gear, and burn plenty of fossil fuel going to and from the rivers. River runners are almost as likely as jet skiers to be fueled by adrenaline, testosterone and beer: As the Grand Canyon river rangers warned us prior to a private raft trip, the biggest danger on the river tends not to be the rapids, but alcohol-induced falls (off a ledge, into the water, into the fire) right in the campsite.

Gulliford OK, I agree that these two water-loving cultures have much in common. Both have largely come about since World War II, with the advent of big Western dams and neoprene and hypalon tubes for rubber rafts. In both, people get serious sunburn and enjoy stars at night, and being on the water is often a family tradition. Who can argue with quality time spent with family and friends? The two cultures are also drawn together by climate change, which is reducing river flows and reservoir levels. So maybe they are not on different planets after all.

This story is part of an April 2014 special issue of the HCN magazine devoted to travel in the West. Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo. He's authored several books, including Outdoors in the Southwest: An Adventure Anthology, released this month, "advocating an outdoor ethic based on curiosity, cooperation, humility."