People You Meet on the River: Grand Canyon Guest Ann Shull
One of my favorite aspects of working in Grand Canyon is how long our trips are. Spending more time running a longer section of river gives us a chance to really get into a routine, and also to get to know our guests. On my 2020 late October Grand Canyon dory trip, I notice right away that even though it’s her first river trip through the canyon, OARS guest Ann Shull is already a seasoned river runner.
When I ask Ann about her personal connection to rivers, she laughs and says, “I run around with old dory guys. You know, river guys. Guys who would buy one jacket and then wear it with the same campfire burn hole for thirty years.” I like to think that I know those guys. In fact, I might even have one of “those jackets.” I live by the motto that if I find the perfect piece of gear, I stick with it, and I feel the same way about good people.
I can tell that Ann and I are going to get along just fine, burn holes and all.
Her prior river experience shows through in her carefree attitude about being away from home so long in Grand Canyon’s rugged and unpredictable climate on a shoulder season trip. She already knows how to dress for the weather and the whitewater. Sometimes that’s not the easiest thing to figure out in a constantly changing environment where direct sun can roast you and getting stuck in the shade after getting drenched in a big rapid can have your teeth chattering in no time.
Knowing how to pack and dress for this climate and these conditions can be somewhat intimidating, but Ann is not someone who strikes me as easily intimidated, and she’s obviously practiced at gearing up for cold water. Moreover, she seems pretty practiced at pushing limits and breaking norms. In a word, she keeps her husband Jim, who is also on the trip, on his toes.
I quickly find out that Ann is no stranger to intimidating environments. “I started working for the railroad in Kansas City in 1979. They had just passed the Equal Rights Amendment and my friend Jane had a job working for the railroad. She called me up because they were ‘looking to hire more women and couldn’t find any women who could hack it.’”
That first phone call led Ann into her 38-year career as a railroad engineer. Then in 1987, the job took her west, away from her roots in Paola, Kansas to La Grande, Oregon. And that’s where Ann’s friend Marsha Garoutte, a river ranger on the Grande Ronde River in northeast Oregon, introduced her to multi-day river trips. She tries to find the words to explain that first five-day trip to me.
“Remember, I’m from the Ozarks. I had never been on a free-flowing river without a motor. I had never been on any body of water without being in a boat with a motor. It’s difficult to put into words now, and from the moment we pushed off from shore, I knew I was experiencing something really special.”
I can relate. I’ve been running rivers with my family since before I could walk and started guiding during college. If someone doesn’t understand what that means to me, I often find it difficult to convey or explain. There is something so inexpressible about starting a long river trip with a group of other people, getting totally cut off from modern convenience, and navigating the challenges that always arise. There is something so exciting about pushing off from shore with all the boats and all the people, and navigating an adventure together. It’s the kind of thing you have to experience first-hand to truly understand.
So what about Grand Canyon, I ask her? How did it live up to your previous adventures?
“I think anytime we have expectations, we can get disappointed. I tried to go into this trip expecting it to be amazing, and it was everything I hoped for. And I think I did really know, going into this, just how special a Grand Canyon river trip is.”
“The first time I saw Grand Canyon was in 2016 from the South Rim. Even though you think you know how big it is, you don’t really know how big it is, until you see it in person. And even then, I knew that standing on the rim wasn’t enough for me. I needed to see the bottom of the canyon. I needed to run the river.”
Despite all of the private boating experience Ann had going into this trip, she has never done riverside yoga. She’s actually never done yoga in her life, but when I said I would be teaching yoga at Forster Camp, true to form, Ann grabbed her tent tarp and joined in.
“Yoga is something I’ve never tried before, but everyone was going to your class, so I went! It was the coolest thing I did on the whole trip. I am more flexible than I thought I was and it also helped me stay present. I liked how inclusive it was and how everyone was willing to join-in and try it.”
I think that’s true of many things we do on wilderness river trips: we all belong, we all bring something to the “team” to share, and we all have the chance to try new things. Maybe it’s rowing a dory. Maybe it’s asking to help one of the guides make a desert in the Dutch oven. Maybe it’s doing yoga for the first time and learning the six movements of the spine (everyone’s daily homework following the trip).
We need all the right things to go into the wilderness for a few days or weeks. The most important thing, in my opinion, is a diverse group of people who have the courage to try something new or intimidating, out of their element and previous set of experiences.
At the end of our follow-up conversation after her Grand Canyon dory trip, I asked Ann for some gear insights like what she couldn’t have lived without and the one thing she wished she brought.
“I was so glad that I had my NRS Neoprene water socks and Kokatat GOR-TEX splash pants,” she said. “And I can’t believe I forgot my red-light headlamp! I love using a red light in camp. It’s better for everyone’s eyes to stay adjusted to the dark during stargazing.”
It’s always fun taking people outside who understand just how precious these places are, how powerful the relationships are that we build here, and how important it is to share these experiences with others.
You can join OARS guide Mariah Hibarger, along with Ann, on our May 2021 Yampa River Rafting & Yoga Retreat.