Guide Talk: 40 Grand Canyon Seasons and Counting
Meet Roger Dale, an OARS Grand Canyon Dories Original
“I would say there are 11 of us,” says Roger Dale when asked how many people in his extended family are currently guiding in Grand Canyon. “Five that still work for OARS.”
But Roger, who is among the Grand Canyon Dories originals, has been at it for decades. “I started with Martin Litton in 1980, rowing a baggage boat and being a grunt in the warehouse until they let me row one of those beautiful boats,” he shares.
Roger had gotten his foot in the door several years earlier at the age of 14. His older brother, Reagan, was already guiding in Grand Canyon and invited him out for a trip.
“When I was going to be a freshman in high school he called my father up and said, ‘I have a spot for Roger. Can you send him out here? I’m going to take him on a river trip,’” recalls Roger. “My dad was very excited to get me out of the house so he put me on a Greyhound bus to Kanab, Utah and I was an assistant on a trip in 1976.”
“I had to crush cans, squeeze garbage and do whatever the boatmen told me,” he continues. “I just thought they were the most amazing individuals I had ever met.”
Two years later at age 16 he returned, this time sharing a raft with his brother Peter and learning even more about rowing and guiding in the canyon. Then, when he graduated high school, Reagan called again, this time asking if he’d come row baggage boats for Grand Canyon Dories that season.
“So I jumped in my Volkswagen, threw all my stuff in there, drove out to Kanab and started to work in the warehouse rolling rafts and hauling luggage down,” says Roger. “I just thought it was the neatest thing in the world to be able to run the Grand Canyon with these incredible boats and people – I loved the place.”
Forty seasons later, Roger is still as passionate as ever about the canyon and rowing dories. Below, he shares a few stories and reveals the magic of Grand Canyon trips.
How many trips have you done through the canyon at this point?
This will be my 216th trip*. Reagan first told me, “Keep a log.” Because in a lot of river companies when you apply for a job they say, “How many trips do you have?” And they base your pay on it. So it’s very important to keep a log when you’re starting out and once you develop that habit, then every trip you document things that have happened, things not to do, mistakes.
How long did it take before you were given the opportunity to row a dory?
Seven years. I rowed 22 baggage boats, which is unheard of these days. It wasn’t that it took me seven years to get the skills, it’s just that there wasn’t a whole lot of turnover, and I was young. So as I got more mature, they said, “Okay, you can row a boat with people.” Once you’re in the dory, then you’re in the dream job.
Your wife, Cindell Dale, also rows for OARS in Grand Canyon. Did you two meet on the river?
I met her in college in 1981. I had done two seasons for Martin [Litton] and I said, “I’m going off to the Grand Canyon.” She said, “Write letters.” I went boating and at the end of the season I got back to college and we started dating a little more seriously. Then that winter, she said, “Next year I’m going with you.” I said, “Great, fantastic, is it ok with your parents?” She came out in 1983, which was the big water year, really high water—92,000 cfs—and she didn’t know any different. She started cooking for Martin, working on trips as an assistant cook and she cooked for close to ten years before she got her first dory.
Why are you so passionate about rowing dories?
It takes a certain skill set to run wooden boats down through these rapids and there are some people who have rowed dories and say, “No, that’s not for me. They’re too temperamental, they’re too tricky and I hit rocks.” And that’s exactly why I like to row them, because of the challenge.
What’s been a highlight of your guiding career with OARS Grand Canyon Dories?
My first trip in the boat that I built was so rewarding. I had the help of my brother and my nephew, Reagan’s son Duffy, but when I finished it and got on the water I was the happiest boatmen you’d ever seen, grinning ear to ear. Guests were commenting about the boat, how beautiful it was, and I was a proud papa.
It was a long time coming, building a boat. I played with it for seven years on and off. I was building a home and studio in Colorado and when I finished that I said, “Okay, now I can focus on this boat.” Every day after blowing glass I’d go out and put another couple of hours in on it. It’s 1,000 hours of love. I named it Santa Ana which is a very important river to me
You mentioned blowing glass. Is that something you’ve always done along with guiding?
I went to the junior college in Riverside, California and was studying graphic technology to take over my father’s printing company, but I enjoyed the arts so I took a ceramics class and was like, “Oh my god, this is fun.” After a couple of semesters the professor there said, “You need to go to university and get a fine arts degree.” He called somebody and got me an interview at Cal State University. I went out there and started taking ceramics. One day the glass professor sees me throwing some pots, and he goes, “You want to take my glass blowing class? The way you’re working the pottery, I think glass will come to you.” So I took his class the next semester and I was seduced by that material. With a piece of glass, when you’re blowing it, you have to stay focused just like when you’re rowing a dory, and that challenge, boy, just grabbed me. I was blowing glass in the winter and rowing boats in the summer, and it was like gears in a watch, just started working really well.
How do you express your creativity when you’re on the river?
The early Puebloans made pottery in Grand Canyon from the clay along the river. I brought my professor from Cal State on a trip back in the 80’s and he said, “Wow, look at all this clay in the river. Roger, let’s make something with this.” So we gathered up some clay and made pinch pots and beads on that trip. Ever since then I’ve been making beads every trip. It gives me a chance to be creative while I’m on the trip and get the guests involved. I get them turning clay and shaping it and then I do the firing using charcoal briquettes after a barbecue. Guests love it.
What’s one of the biggest lessons you’ve learned in your four decades as a guide?
The power of Mother Nature. We got caught in a big old storm last year. The wind came out of nowhere and Michael Fabry was on the trip with me, one of OARS’ senior guides, and he’s like, “Roger, this is coming at us.” I never had something come up on us that fast and surprise us from out of nowhere and Michael turns to me and says, “These are 70 mph winds.” I thought the side canyon was going to flash, and I saw Paco pads and tents go flying. I was running around counting guests, putting life jackets on them, putting them all in one spot because the waterfalls and rocks were coming off the wall and if anyone were down by the river and a Poco pad would have hit them it would have taken them into the river. It was just a matter of trying to make sure everybody was safe and the boats didn’t get sent out into the river. It happened in 30 seconds, from calm to absolute chaos.
Why do you think Grand Canyon rafting trips are so special?
The Grand Canyon changes people’s lives. I brought the CFO of a well-known mortgage company down—he was a mover and shaker before the whole downfall of the housing market—and he was wrapped up in his life and the mortgage business. At the end of the trip he said to me, “Roger, I have my priorities in all the wrong places. What you’ve got down here is amazing and I realize that I’m focusing on the wrong things in life.” And he goes, “You’ve changed my perspective of what’s important.” And that has happened so many times where people have come down and said, “This has changed my life. I had my priorities in the wrong place.”
*Roger’s first trip of the 2019 season in April marked the 216th trip of his guiding career
Photos: Roger Dale rowing in Grand Canyon – Jim Block / Tug Hill Photography; Dory in Grand Canyon National Park – Josh Miller Photography; Roger Dale rowing the Dark Canyon through Hance Rapid – Jim Block/Tug Hill Photography; Guests making clay beads on a Grand Canyon rafting trip – Josh Miller