By Susan Munroe
It’s a scorching afternoon in Holiday’s Green River boat yard. The sun is a drum, beating against the bleached gravel and painted white boat house. In the wash stall, keeping time with the rhythm of the sun, Alvin Lee’s “Keep on Rockin’” is cranked to eleven, guitars and percussion making the concrete shake. And in the middle of all that rock ‘n’ roll is a shirtless, brown-skinned man with a hose and a soapy brush, washing a van and dancing like no one’s looking.
Holiday’s chief shuttle driver, TP, was a legend even before he came to work for Holiday. In those days, TP’s name was Tim Porten, but at Holiday, there can be only one Tim (our operations director, Tim Gaylord). So Tim Porten became TP. He’s done over 50 Holiday trips. “Totally excessive,” he grins, not the least bit ashamed of his excess.
Everyone has a TP story. Like the hot summer afternoon when he and his son met a Holiday trip at the top of the Doll House hike with a cooler full of dry ice and ice cream. Or the morning he dumped two buckets of water onto his teenage grandson as he slept in his tent (revenge for getting pushed off the raft the day before). He brings his own bowl on river trips, a battered metal dog dish. Once I watched him hold that dish up next to his head and dare a particularly surly boatman to hit it with a spoonful of mashed potatoes. The potatoes hit the bowl. And TP. “Well.” He licked potatoes off his face. “I guess I did ask for that.”
TP’s gray hair is longish, usually slicked back. He’s a creature of heat and sun. “Studies have shown,” he says, “that a human being, lying naked and motionless, will eventually die of hypothermia at 68 degrees Fahrenheit. So that’s my cut off. Anything below 68 is lethal!” Shirtless whenever possible, in the summer his skin darkens into a desert shade of sun-bronzed rock. He goes on meandering hikes, hunting rock art panels. He even has one tattooed on his back, a line of ghostly figures with huge eyes. When he’s in full desert color, the beings on his back look much as they do in their original setting on the wall of Horseshoe Canyon. He’s a quiet man, but his almost gruff exterior belies a gleeful, fiery passion for life and rivers. Ask him the right questions and his bright blue eyes start to sparkle and then he’s a fountain, overflowing with stories.
It was in the 1980s when TP first discovered the river. “I was doing the divorce daddy thing. I had the kids for a week and didn’t know what to do with them. I’d heard about river trips, but never thought I’d actually go on one.” But there he was, in Desolation Canyon, with Moki Mac (one of Dee Holladay’s contemporaries), floating downstream for the first time. “I knew immediately that THIS WAS IT. My god, I thought, I can do this for the rest of my life.” He did a few trips with Moki Mac, but didn’t like that they used motors, and in 1987 he ended up on the San Juan River with Holiday. “I thought, this is a class act.” It was the beginning of a decades-long relationship.
Two years later he did an even longer trip, paddling a canoe down Labyrinth Canyon and jumping on a Holiday trip that was launching at Mineral Bottom to go all the way through Cataract. “That was a seminal trip—that was when I got it. Yes. This is what I’m gonna be doing forever. And I’ve been out of control ever since!”
In 2011, the summer that TP retired from his job as a tanker driver, he went on a Holiday Yampa trip. The lead guide, Kerry Jones, had been running trips with TP almost from the beginning. “Three days into the trip, Kerry said, ‘Hey, why don’t you come work for us?’ And I went, yeah sure, okay. Didn’t even think about it. But Kerry followed up. Called me. ‘Hey, you coming to work for us or not?’ Oh! Um, yeah, okay! So that kind of got me on board.”
I called him before writing this piece, wanting to ask some specific questions, but also just wanting to say hi. He’s been hiding out in his condo in Page, Arizona, since the Covid-19 pandemic started, and I missed seeing him around the Holiday warehouse. The day before our conversation we’d both received an email from the organizer of a semi-annual Grand Canyon dory trip we both go on. “Did you see Jeri’s email?” TP asked, almost before we’d said hello. “Looks like the April trip is going to happen. I have a reason to live!” He’s joking—kind of. As he’s aged, various health conditions have forced him to slow down, but they haven’t stopped him. He’s always planning the next trip. “I’m just going to keep doing this until I can’t. I’m not done yet!”
Although TP loves all river trips, he puts Grand trips in a category of their own. He’s done 16 since 1999, and nearly all of them in dories. If the Grand Canyon is the ultimate river trip, then dories are the ultimate craft. Sleek, wooden boats with high bows and gaily painted sides, dories are a tradition in the Grand Canyon. A few years ago, TP became a part of that tradition—he built his own dory. It’s not a true Briggs-style Grand Canyon dory, as TP will tell you himself. “I wanted to do a Briggs ‘cause that’s the iconic canyon dory, but it’s exponentially more difficult to build.” His mentor, legendary boat builder and Grand Canyon boatman, Brad Dimock, dissuaded him. “Dimock knows me better than I do. He said, ‘Tim, for the kind of boating you’re going to be doing, you just want a McKenzie.’ And he was right. The McKenzie’s the perfect boat for me.”
Eileen is a 15-foot McKenzie drift boat, painted “Cadillac Aztec Red, Willys Beryl Green, and Refrigerator White” (“it’s an inside dory thing,” TP tells me) with black-and-gold lettering and polished wooden gunnels. It’s made of Port Orford cedar; open any hatch on that boat and cool cedar sweetness rises like perfume. “I’m not a craftsman or carpenter. But I really enjoyed building it, learning how to do all this stuff. I created that boat. I watched it come together. I remember every cut I made, every little screw, cutting the angles on the frame, learning how to scarf joints, all these things I’d never done before. You really have a connection to a boat if you build it. And a boat’s never done. I’m still figuring stuff out. The boat evolves along with you, I guess.”
Eileen’s namesake is Eileen Muza, a friend and artist who’s building an artist’s colony in Cisco, Utah. TP was among Eileen’s earliest supporters, dropping by with watermelons and ice, house sitting for her one winter (and locking himself in the chicken coop in subzero temperatures in one memorable incident). There’s an artist residency program that pays a stipend for a couple of people a year, but more and more people are showing up even without a stipend, working and contributing, people who “just wanna be there.” People like TP.
On TP’s 70th birthday, we were in Desolation Canyon. It was day nine or ten of a 14-day private river trip. He was by far the oldest member of our loose group of guides and friends, but it didn’t matter. His quiet appreciation for the place and ability to simply be make him a welcome addition to any river trip. On the night of his birthday, we ambushed him at the campfire with brownies and sparkler candles and a raucous rendition of the birthday song. Once he realized what was going on, TP’s face cracked open in a smile, huge for all its bashfulness. We sang, and he beamed through bites of chocolate. It was on this trip that TP asked if we’d teach him a few things about rowing. “I mean, if I’m gonna build a boat, I should probably know how to drive it.” Still evolving, willing to learn, and excited for the future: Tim Porten, like his boat, isn’t done yet.
Susan Munroe is a reader, writer, traveler, and river guide. She moved to Utah from New Hampshire for the mountains, but it was the allure of the desert and its rivers that have truly kept her transfixed. More than eight years after she first came to work for Holiday River Expeditions, she still can’t get enough of life on the water. Susan spends her winters skiing and working in Salt Lake City, Utah, with frequent trips to southern Chile to run the Río Baker and support the work of the educational kayaking exchange program Ríos to Rivers. See more of Susan’s work here: www.susanmunroe.com, and photos of the river life here: www.susanmunroe.zenfolio.com.