By Susan Munroe
If someday a historian were to sum up the collected wisdom of Dee Holladay and bind it into a tome, the title embossed on the front would be: “Well, if ya was ta…” Holiday River Expeditions founder, constant tinkerer, environmental trailblazer, consummate river rat, friend, father, teacher, Dee Holladay has been offering up these five words plus his view of the task at hand for over forty-six years.
From Dee and his friends running rivers in army surplus boats, to the company that today stands out among western outfitters for innovative equipment and environmental focus, every detail of Holiday River Expeditions’ operations can be traced back to Dee’s and his wife Sue’s pioneering energy. “He started the company because he loved going on river trips. He still gets excited about it,” Kelly Dunham, warehouse manager, says. We call it going with the flow. It’s the company’s tagline, but it’s a real thing, too. Like Dee, the flow is a presence that borders on elemental, holding the sprawling, brawling, quirky Holiday family together through the years.
Everyone who has worked for Holiday has a story about Dee. About his one-armed pull-ups and push-ups. About his demanding training sessions. Former guide Scott Hartman remembers a high water Cataract Canyon trip when Dee didn’t like how the back-oar guys pulled the triple-rigged boats into an eddy. “After setting up camp, he took us out and we pulled into the eddy again and again, until we got it.” Dee’s lessons weren’t always about the river. Or maybe it was just that his river lessons translated into real life, too. “Set yourself up for success!” Chris Babbit remembers hearing frequently. “Dee taught me to ask people to do things instead of telling them,” Sean Brown says.
Everyone has a “Dee Voice” to tell their stories with, too, and many of them start with “If ya was ta…” Operations manager Tim Gaylord says, “He definitely had his idiosyncrasies in the kitchen, about how to slice the onions for the onion soup, how to grate the carrots instead of cutting them. It was always like, ‘Well, if ya was ta do it this way…’ See, there was your way, then the Holiday way, then the Dee Way. That old adage about how if it ain’t broke don’t fix it? Doesn’t apply to Dee. It was more like, if it ain’t broke but you think there might be a better way to do it… That’s Dee.” It’s not about The Right Way to slice an onion; it’s about looking for the best way to slice it. It’s about seeking constant improvement, not only because it’s good company policy, but because it’s fun.
“The guy just never quits trying to think outside the box,” Tim says. “That’s why Holiday has always been at the forefront.” Dee’s focus throughout the four decades of his career has been not only river running but river conservation. “Dee bought into the Leave No Trace ethics early on. He didn’t wait for the government to tell him he had to incorporate something into his operation. If he saw that something was good for the environment, he did it.” Line one of the company’s mission states: “It is the goal of Holiday River Expeditions to preserve our nation’s wild lands.” Dee wanted to give his guests a great trip, but he also wanted to teach them the importance of wilderness.
Karen Johnson, Holiday’s reservations, marketing, and accounting specialist, says, “He’s a walking encyclopedia of river knowledge. The man knows everything.” Mary Engels remembers pulling into camp after a long day in Desolation Canyon and trying to give her guides a rest and still be able to finish dinner clean-up before dark. “Dee came by and I told him I’d given the guys some time off before dinner. He said, ‘Well, I guess I better show them some interp then,’ and proceeded to give the guests a geology lesson for two hours, which meant that we ended up doing dishes in the dark!” Dee continues to influence Holiday’s new-guide training program: trainees are issued booklets of Dee’s accumulated research on geology, ancient cultures, and natural history, and are asked to complete a seven-page interpretive test in addition to learning boating and safety skills.
“Holiday is a family run business. When you become an employee, you become one of the family,” writes Kevin White, a guide who returned to Holiday after a 22-year hiatus to raise his own family. Many guides share Kevin’s sentiment. “Holiday is truly made up of a family of friends,” says Justin Malloy. “I’m grateful to be a part of Dee and Sue’s family,” Sean D’Amboise adds. The people I called to interview about Dee all expressed admiration and respect for the man, but struggled to relate specific stories that would illustrate who he is. In the short, dark days of winter, months away from the next river trip, it’s hard to remember the specifics, only the warm familial glow. In contrast, on hot, bright nights in the middle of summer when guides old and new gather around a table at Ray’s, Green River’s burger joint, the stories flow like beer. Being inside the river culture makes it easier to recall moments poignant or hysterical or terrifying and draw relevance from them. It’s like Dee always says, you have to go to know.
At the beginning of this series about “the people who go with the flow”, I asked, “What is it that keeps guides coming back?” I think the answer is here: Dee. Or if not the man himself, his achievements, the vibe and structure of the company. What Dee has built keeps us coming back.
Written by Susan Munroe