By Matt WilliamsRoy Webb

 

When you travel through a canyon in the Colorado Plateau on a Holiday River Expeditions trip, be it Lodore or Desolation or Cataract, you’re quite literally traveling back in time. You’re experiencing a world without digital technology, the kind of radical connection and presentness that was once commonplace for our ancestors. You’re floating past rocks that formed millions (sometimes billions) of years ago and looking at petroglyphs and pictographs created in another millennium. But you’re also traveling forward in time and space, because just as the river is continuously carving the canyon, history is written in the present and told in the future. The key linkage is in learning about what and who came through these canyons before us, and in being thoughtful about how and why we come through them again. 

This education (also known as interpretation) has always been a core part of Holiday’s mission, and nowhere is this more apparent than our annual retro river trip with historian Roy Webb. But don’t be fooled. While this trip may feel like a blast from the past, the history of river running on the Colorado Plateau is happening right now, and while “the people and the boats have changed, the reasons that people run rivers have not. There will always be those who, like the adventurers before them, look at  a river and think to themselves, ‘If only I had a boat….’” Lucky for you, we do. 

 

Roy Webb and Sarah

Roy with his daughter, Sarah, sharing a laugh at camp.

Meeting river royalty

My first time rowing guests down a river was a May 2023 Desolation Canyon trip. I was a newly minted guide with three training trips to my name, and although I felt confident in my abilities to safely row and satisfactorily entertain, I was still extremely nervous to meet my first passengers.  

“Please go easy on me,” I pleaded to the river gods that cool Spring morning, to which they laughed and decided to teach me the first and most important lesson of multi-day river trips: go with the flow. I’d be rowing none other than Roy and Sarah Webb, the closest thing there is to river royalty, and the first day of the trip was almost entirely flat-water, which meant lots of time for conversation. 

After foolishly considering faking it, I quickly confessed to them that this was my first day guiding, and surrendered to the role of student for the remainder of the float. Doing so proved to be wise, as after a few minutes of chatting with Roy, it quickly became clear that he most likely knows more about river running on the Colorado Plateau than anyone else alive. Much like the archives he spent his career  curating at the University of Utah, his mind contains seemingly endless shelves of stories and  snapshots. Watching him retrieve and retell them, which he’s incredibly generous about doing for anyone curious enough to inquire, is comparable to watching a performance musician or professional athlete enter the zone. It takes them to another place, and if you listen closely, you get to join them on the journey. 

I’ve been thinking about that conversation with Roy and Sarah ever since, often trying and failing to retell a story he shared (like the one about the man who built a round house so that his ex-wife had nowhere to corner him) or searching for the answer to a guest’s river question only to find a dead end (like who originally gave the Book Cliffs their name). So, I recently asked Roy to join me for breakfast in Salt Lake City, and for more than two hours straight I rattled off questions while he animated centuries of river history on the Colorado Plateau. I knew I would leave with more questions than I’d arrived with, but I didn’t expect to have my entire conception of river history flipped on its head. I guess the river gods were feeling generous yet again. 

 

Roy Webb portrait

Historian, author, and boatman Roy Webb. (Photo by the author)

Where it began

Roy grew up in the willows on the banks of the San Juan River in Farmington, New Mexico. From a young age, he found the river compelling. “It was like seeing a friend. I’d go down to the riverbank and sometimes it was only small pools, other times it was made of muscular brown water, and it made me ask ‘where does it start and where does it go?’ That stayed with me for the rest of my life.” He started working at Dinosaur National Monument in the 70s, and shortly thereafter took his first multi day river trip on the Green with a group of friends from Vernal. They put in below the Flaming Gorge Dam, with everyone renting a boat and no one knowing what awaited them downstream. They simply packed their belongings in trash bags and floated to Browns Park, lying down at one point to pass underneath a bridge because the water was so high, and discovering everything along the way free from expectations, exactly as it was meant to be experienced. 

Eventually Roy’s first epiphany came when the Dinosaur NM river rangers invited him to join them on a trip through the Gates of Lodore to do maintenance on the riverside campgrounds. “When I got back, my mind was blown, so I started reading everything in the Dino library (Julius Stone and John Wesley Powell and the Kolb brothers). The more I read, the more I realized that, on my trip, I’d had the same experiences as them—hiding under a ledge from a rainstorm, being afraid of the rapids—and this common experience spanned generations.” 

So, Roy started volunteering for the Chief of Interpretation, who let him give history talks to park patrons at the campgrounds. “At the time, all the content presented was about dinosaurs, so I would read about river history on the Colorado Plateau (e.g., Without Noise of Arms), and come up with things to talk about,” lessons that could show visitors an entirely different chapter of the area’s history. It was through this cycle of learning and teaching that Roy had his second epiphany on the way to a talk, when he realized that a specific bend in the river he’d been reading about was that bend right there, outside the passenger window, which he got to see everyday on his drive into the monument. 

Roy’s sudden discovery of Dinosaur’s river riches resonates with me, because my first trip to the National Monument was for its namesake, and only upon gazing down at the bronze cracks in the visitor center’s topographic map did I discover that the park was also home to two massive river canyons. Entirely unaware of multi-day rafting at the time, I asked the ranger for some more information, and added the brochures she gave me to a stack of maps on my coffee table, where they sat gathering dust until the following Spring, when I was packing up my belongings to begin guiding with Holiday. You can imagine my surprise and joy at rediscovering those pamphlets and seeing our name at the top of the list, a nudge that I was making the right decision to quit my corporate job and pursue my outdoor passions full-time. 

Steamboat Rock in the heart of Dinosaur National Monument

Perhaps driven by a similar sense of fate at around the same age, Roy got a Winter job with the Bureau of Land Management as the Jarvie Ranch “caretaker.” This meant living “12 miles from the nearest neighbor and 30 miles from a road, with only the Green River and a cat as companions.” He’d been going to school off and on, but eventually Dr. C. Gregory Crampton, a history professor at The University of Utah who’d performed the historical survey for Glen Canyon, saw something special in Roy and encouraged him to start writing down what he was seeing, reading, and thinking about on the river. 

What followed was an 80 page research paper about Jarvie Ranch, landing Roy a job in Collections at the U and eventually becoming his first book: If We Had a Boat. The evolution of Roy’s childhood curiosity is evident on its pages, wherein he writes that rivers “are at once avenue and obstruction; source of life and bringer of destruction, cursed by pioneers and idolized by poets. Pioneer or poet, few can stand by the bank of a river, look upstream and not wonder about its origins, what the river  passes in its course.” 

In the years that followed, Roy would play the role of both pioneer and poet, transitioning from reading, to writing, to participating in the making of river history. He got to know Don Hatch and wrote River Man about his dad Bus’ epic life. He began doing private trips all over the Colorado Plateau (at the time permits were a dime a dozen), including a trip down the Yampa River, wherein he awoke one morning to find everything covered with ash from Mt. St. Helens. In the 80s, he began  teaching a river history class at the U, which Dee Holladay and his daughter Jan were signed up for. Shortly thereafter, they asked Roy to start coming on Holiday trips as a river historian, beginning a tradition that continues to this day. 

 

An illustrious career

Roy’s career spanned decades and included lectures, documentaries, and books. It’s reasonable to argue that no one else has done as much as he has to conserve the history of river running on the Colorado Plateau, transcribing oral histories and indexing thousands of journal entries and letters from the river runners of lore. So, I had to ask: “What are you most proud of doing in your career?” 

“When I was working on the photo history that would become Call of the Colorado, I got a call from Charlie Eggert, who’d made all the Echo Park dam films back in the 1950s, and he asked why he wasn’t in the book I was writing. So, we went to New York for my daughter’s 10th birthday, and while we were there I took the train up to Rhinebeck, where I met Charlie and got all of his records, which would eventually get published as The Last Canyon Voyage. When I was heading back into the city, I began to feel a bit homesick, but then I looked up on the New York subway and there was an Amtrak poster showing the Book Cliffs,” the world’s largest continuous escarpment running from central Utah to Grand Junction Colorado and breaking open only once to spit the Green River out of the Tavaputs Plateau. The Last Canyon Voyage tells the story of 8 boatman in 1955 who set out to duplicate the 1870s journey of John Wesley Powell, experiencing the waterway one last time before it would be changed forever by the dams built in Flaming Gorge and Glen Canyon. 

The French Trio pictured left to right: Antoine DeSeyne, Genevieve DeColmont, Bernard DeColmont.  (Source: J. Willard Marriott Library Special Collections, University of Utah)

Another experience Roy recalled was the discovery of old newspaper articles while researching for If We Had a Boat that described a trio of French kayakers who’d paddled from Green River, Wyoming, to Lee’s Ferry, Arizona, in the Fall of 1938. To his delight, the paper mentioned that they were all keeping journals, and by working with a genealogist from the Mormon church, he managed to track down one of their descendants in Paris. With the help of a translator and a handful of 2 am phone  calls, Roy negotiated to get a copy of his dad’s journal and 16mm color film, which would eventually set in motion the production of Les Voyageurs sans Trace, a documentary that recreates the legendary journey. The film is wonderful for many reasons, but most of all because it feels approachable. In watching Bernard, Genevieve, and Antoine’s adventure—and the filmmaker’s recreation of it almost a century later—you can feel the sense of connection that originally drew Roy to the river; the fact that an epic expedition awaits each of us anytime we hop into a boat and push out into the current.

 

 

Going with the flow

Towards the end of our conversation, I asked Roy to reflect on the role of historian in the greater river running ecosystem, and he replied that “a historian needs to be in but not of.” This made me somewhat sad, because it seemed a bit tragic to spend your life bearing witness to a world that you’re never fully a part of, but Roy assured me this never felt like the case. He explained that during the 30 Grand Canyon trips he worked on, “my payment was to sit on the boats in the evening, when everything settled down, to share a drink with friends and listen to the guides tell their stories. I’ve always loved learning about the iconic figures who came down the river long before we did, and yet there we were on the same river, included in the same story, which is being written before our eyes.” 

Roy also shared that although he never fully took up the guiding profession, he did once hold a guide license (signed off on by none other than Dee Holladay), and his favorite memory from the river was a 2012 trip from the Flaming Gorge dam through the Gates of Lodore with his daughter Sarah. He was doing research for Lost Canyons of the Green River, a “guide to a river you can no longer run” about the canyons buried beneath the reservoir behind the dam, and the water level was rising everyday. At the same bridge he’d passed beneath prone in the 70s, they had to get out and portage the boats, and when they finally reached the Gates of Lodore the river was running at over 10,000 cubic feet per second. They made it through Disaster Falls without befalling any themselves, but in Triplet a boat flipped and the guide rowing it broke a hand. With the scariest still ahead—Hell’s Half Mile—everyone turned to Roy and asked if he would row it. He was scouting it anxiously when a Holiday trip showed up, and Lauren Wood (Holiday guide and Dee Holladay’s granddaughter) came over to check on his crew. With her guidance and reassurance, his confidence returned, and he successfully ran what many consider to be the scariest rapid on the Green. 

Long-time Holiday guide Sherpa navigating Hell’s Half Mile

When I asked Roy if he had any regrets from his career, he reflected for a moment before replying. “No, I had a great career on the river and I loved every minute of it, the bugs and rain and snow and all. The Colorado Plateau is a very wild place, with loads of national parks and epic solitude, and its canyons are the epitome of home to me.” While I agreed, I also couldn’t help but express some concern about whether or not our rivers will manage to retain their wild and solitary character as the climate continues to warm and the population continues to grow. With each passing day, the outlook seems to grow less hopeful, but again Roy reassured me that everything will be okay, reminding me that history is still being written. 

“Things will go well as long as we keep taking care of the river, and people keep wanting to see these canyons. [Since being closed to river traffic], Desolation canyon is re-wilding on the left side and we’re seeing more animals return. It’s really beautiful. And guiding has gotten much more diverse too, with more female guides, and people coming into the profession with more diverse interests.” He explained how much better commercial trips have gotten at minimizing their impact on the canyons by placing tarps under tables, packing out trash and human waste, using hand wash buckets, and supplementing river tales with interpretive instruction. 

He’s also pleased with how environmental regulations, many of which were designed with Dee Holladay’s help, have lessened pressure on the river’s fragile riparian ecosystem. “In the 70s, anyone could buy a cheap boat and go down the river and throw trash in the water and wreck the beaches and start fires, but then a group of river runners went to the state of Utah on the canyon’s behalf, and in response state legislators introduced regulations about what river runners must do to preserve these places, permits to limit the number of people allowed in the canyons each Summer, and safety requirements to standardize practices that are known to work.” It won’t be easy to continue preserving what wild places remain on the Colorado Plateau, but with Roy’s perspective I realized that we’ve already got positive momentum and decades of successful transformation to draw from. 

 

The next chapter

Young guides learning from a river legend, Tim Porten

When the time finally arrived to say goodbye, I was reluctant to let Roy go, but also filled with a newfound sense of anticipation for the season to come. Yes I’d learned a few new stories that would surely delight my guests, and yes I may have also secured the location of a well-guarded river secret or two, but most importantly Roy had shown me that history isn’t something stationary from the past — it’s the ongoing current we are moved by everyday and the wake we consequently create—and that  means that when Holiday’s guides and guests set out on a river expedition, we’re not just going to row through splashy whitewater and eat steak dinners on white sand beaches, but also to determine what the next chapter of the story will say. While we no longer carve our initials in the heart of the canyon, the canyons continue to leave a permanent imprint on our hearts, and perhaps that’s why we run rivers. 

(Want to hear Roy’s epic stories for yourself while experiencing the thrill of Lodore’s rapids this Summer? You can book a spot on this year’s retro river trip here!)

 

 

Matt rows boats for Holiday in the Summer, and runs/skis/bikes around the West in the Winter. Writing and photography are his favorite ways to scratch the creative itch. If you liked this post, you can follow along with more stuff he’s making here.