I’m sitting here in front of my computer trying to come up with something to write about. I haven’t really written anything in a while and I need to put something out there – for my own sake. I know there might be about three people that will ever read this (hi Mom) but the fact that it is “out there” means that the potential for this information to reach a lot of people exists. Being a canyoneering and adventure sport instructor and guide has made me painfully aware of the responsibility of writing information that can place pressure on a particular resource or put people in a situation where they might get themselves in over their head. I’m being cryptic – let me explain.
A several years ago I travelled to Salome Creek to run The Jug. It was – and still is – a beautiful canyon. I love the serenity of this place and the nature of the canyon is friendly and inviting. When I first started going, you would be hard pressed if you even saw someone drive by the approach trail – let alone in the canyon itself. I have been there six times this year and only once have I been where I didn’t come upon another group of people in this canyon. The popularity of this place has grown due to the extensive amount of information available about it on the web. Don’t get me wrong, I love that people are getting off the sofa and out into nature to see what it has to offer. My issue is with those that don’t respect where they are going and don’t have the skills needed to be there as well as those that take for granted the influence of what they write.
Already I am seeing signs of damage from the increased human presence in The Jug. Empty bottles, plastic bags and wrappers are beginning to clutter the canyon. Soon the monsoons will be here and they will flush the canyon of all this debris and wash it right into Roosevelt lake which has enough problems already. As the popularity of this canyon has grown, so have the “guides” that like to take people through it (for a “modest” profit of course). There are only two permits issued per season for The Jug and they are held, this year, by 360 Adventures and The Center Focus. I know of at least three other guide services and one other school that is operating here illegally. None of these guide services nor the school have permits or insurance and two of the guide services have only basic canyoneering training with no provisions or training for rescue or first aid treatment. You see, when you apply for a permit, you have to show proof of insurance and medical training before a permit is issued to you. This is the Forestry Service’s way of trying to regulate who operates professionally on state land and who doesn’t. Unfortunately the Forestry Service is stretched very thin right now as far as resources to unless they are caught in the act, many illegal guide companies will continue to operate until there is an incident that results in either criminal prosecution or a lawsuit – or both. It is then too late for their client to realize that their guide was not properly trained nor was he financially protected with proper insurance in the event of an accident. At this point, both the injured client and the guide are financially ruined.
Still using The Jug as an example, there is also a frightening lack of respect for this canyon. The watershed is huge and extends all the way up to the mogollon rim. A storm that occurs miles upstream will cause this canyon to flash flood quickly. Even with proper training, this is a very bad situation with a poor chance of survival. Water levels in this canyon can rise over thirty feet during a storm and the narrow part of this canyon would pound an unsuspecting canyoneer to a pulp. Yet very few posts write about the watershed and the serious risks people face when they travel this canyon on days where there is a possibility of rain.
Many of the posts and write-ups about the Jug make it sound like a trip to Disneyland. They read like this is a lovely walk with some swims – no skill needed. I have assisted several groups of people through this canyon. People that had no idea what to expect and found themselves overwhelmed when they reached the waterfall and weren’t quite sure about the jump and didn’t really know how to rappel – all because they red something or talked to someone that down played the risks for reasons unknown to me. Not one of these groups seemed to be the arrogant “damn the consequences” types. They were regular people that were trying to get away and see something special. They read a post where someone made it sound much easier than it was and then found themselves in a difficult situation due to lack of proper equipment and/ or training. People are funny about this anyway. If you were to show someone (especially a guy, let’s be realistic) five posts about the Jug and only one of them said this canyon was a cake walk and the others realistically laid out the risks, many people would only focus on the post where the risks were minimized in order to justify their desire to go. It is an unfortunate but very real aspect of human nature. If you are an experienced canyoneer, then yes – this canyon is a breeze. If you are not, then there are some challenges for you.
My point is, I guess, that there is a huge amount of responsibility in what I write. I don’t know who, if anyone, will read this. I am very conflicted as to what information to share as well as my role in promoting it. Part of me is happy to instruct those who are interested in the sport of canyoneering. This part of me knows that those I train will be supplied by me with a set of skills that they can grow and adapt to provide a lifetime of safe canyoneering adventures. Another part of me feels guilt about promoting a sport that relies on resources that are actually fairly rare here in Arizona. With only a few places to go, the pressure felt by the canyons will rise proportionally to the number of canyoneers. Zion National Park in Utah has had these kinds of concerns for years and they still have not come up with suitable resolution. As of right now, it is illegal to operate ANY canyoneering business in Zion as they will issue no permits for this sport. It may be only a matter of time before this sport is banned there altogether as improperly trained people are getting themselves killed in the canyons there in increasing numbers.
I guess this is what you might call a “crisis of conscience”. For now I will write some gear reviews and trip reports for known canyons and maybe the random thought or two. I cannot really write about techniques as this would be a conflict of interest with my employer. I don’t really want to share information about new canyons as I like the solitude I find when I go there. Maybe I’ll write a trip report with no real location information. I can talk about the trip and give references and hints and see if you are willing to do the work to find it yourself. For now these canyons will be my “private stock”, shared with only my friends and coworkers until the day comes that I can resolve my inner conflict. I am thinking I may leave this business altogether in a coupe of years. Spend more time exploring and less time teaching and guiding.
I’m sorry if this has been preachy. Like I said, I don’t really write any of this with the idea it will be read by anyone but me. This is just a good way to organize my thoughts, kind of like an angry letter I once wrote to an ex-girlfriend and then never mailed. Writing it was release enough. Besides, who knows? Maybe one day I’ll be writing about something that will be read by a lot of people. I guess this is good practice.