Stories From the Vault: Lew Steiger
Lew Steiger is a Grand Canyon original. He’s been a river guide for nearly 50 years, and with OARS since 1988. That was the year that Martin Litton, legendary environmental activist and Grand Canyon Dories founder, sold the company to his friend and OARS founder George Wendt. When George took over, Lew thought that was the end of his run as a dory guide, but more than 30 seasons later, he’s still rowing for us in Grand Canyon.
Through the years, Lew has also become the river community’s leading historian. He’s extensively interviewed many of the key people who have made the industry what it is, including Martin Litton, whose archived interview with Lew was featured extensively in Martin’s Boat—a 23-minute film by Pete McBride honoring Litton after he passed away in 2014.
In 2019, as we collected stories from some of the OARS originals for our 50th Anniversary, we got the chance to sit down with Lew. When we asked what made him especially proud to be an OARS guide, it all came back to Martin’s Boat. Here’s what he shared…
The Marble Canyon
“Last year I got to row the Marble Canyon. I mean, I get all choked up when I just think about it.
George thought a lot of Martin, as we all did. Martin was really iconic for all of us. When Martin passed away, George came up with this idea. He wanted to build a boat and dedicate it to Martin. I’m not sure actually if that was George’s idea, but George certainly embraced it.
Martin named all of his boats after lost places, and George thought, “Let’s not name it after a lost place. Let’s name it after the place that Martin saved—the Marble Canyon.”
They made this beautiful boat. I mean, I loved that boat. I didn’t want to row it, and none of us did. The boat came out and you would look at it and kind of slobber about it, but my thought was, “Absolutely not. I don’t want to row that boat, because I don’t want to be the first one that hits a rock and puts a hole in it, tips it over or something like that.”
I showed up last year and Monte, the area manager, says, “Well, you’re rowing the Marble.” I was like, “Oh, no,” and I tried to squirm out of it. Monte says, “You do it, and I expect you to take care of it.” So, I got to do four trips in it last year and it was a great thrill. I just cherished every day that I got to spend in that boat because it really made me feel connected both to Martin and George. I think about both those guys every time I open the hatch lid in that boat.
I think all of us, not just at OARS but anybody who’s been in the Grand Canyon for very long and knows even the faintest little bit about its history, [know] if it wasn’t for Martin—there were lots of other people involved, but Martin lit the spark—there wouldn’t be a Grand Canyon. There’d be these two big dams and river running as we know it in Grand Canyon wouldn’t even exist.
Every time I get in the Marble Canyon, I think about all that stuff. But also, the respect that George had for Martin, for what that means too. Somehow it’s all wrapped up in that boat for me, and it’s a great, great honor and great privilege to even have gotten to be in it once, let alone multiple trips.”
Learn more about Martin’s Boat and watch the film at martinsboat.com.
Photos: Lew Steiger at the OARS Grand Canyon Dories boathouse – Logan Bockrath; Lew Steiger rowing the Marble Canyon through Hermit – Benjamin Dale