Learning Curves – Three stories of transition through the KGMS

Kenton Grua had doubts about the theory of plate tectonics. He wondered if giant convection currents might be bubbling up from below, rather than ordinary old plates passively sliding around on the surface. Crazy? Maybe, maybe not. Kenton wasn’t in the habit of letting thoughts just drift away, certainly not one this big. You had to take Kenton seriously because after all he was the Factor. He’d been first to hike the full length of Grand Canyon; with two others in 1983, he set the speed record for rowing the Canyon: 37 hours. Think about it: 37 hours from Lees Ferry to the Grand Wash Cliffs. Rowing. He’d lasted only a few months in college back in the 60s, but his wife Michelle wonders if he would have gone back in order to pursue his notions about convection currents. Yes, the letters would have looked nice next to his name: Dr. Factor. But in 2002 Factor, age 52, died unexpectedly while bicycling on Mt. Elden. Suddenly our world seemed a little flatter, a little less vibrant.

Johnny Janssen and Sandy Reiff weren’t willing to watch Factor’s legacy slip away. Michelle Grua, Jon Stoner, and Roberta Motter were Whale Foundation board members who transformed Janssen and Reiff’s early ideas into the Kenton Grua Memorial Scholarship to aid boatmen whose lives were in transition. So far, thirty-two Grand Canyon guides have received these scholarships toward careers beyond the river – nursing, writing, engineering, whatever. Here’s the deal: if you’ve guided on the Grand for five full seasons and if you’re serious about pursuing a new career above the rim, the Whale Foundation might be able to contribute a couple grand toward the cost of your education.

Those are the facts, but how does this fit into your life? Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe you’ve been on the river for a year now and got the world by the tail: your own boat, a shot at being head boatman, amazing compadres, a great life. You could do this summer after summer, years without end into the future.

But maybe instead you’ve been down on the ditch for a decade and things are beginning to look a little different. It’s not quite as much fun. You’re spending all your summers making other people happy. Has it come down to this: burn out? After rowing for AzRA for a decade, Craig Ahrens understood that the job required more than just smiling at passengers; it’s tough physical work. If something goes wrong and you aren’t able to pull your weight, there’s always someone else coming up through the ranks who will. In 2007 Ben Hanel realized that everything had changed the moment he lifted a heavy block of ice the wrong way. Jon Olivera had always pushed hard for Hatch, so he assumed that his passengers wouldn’t notice when, behind his sunglasses, he would daydream about life and friends back up on the rim. He wasn’t quite all there anymore.

No doubt about it – some boatmen are meant to be on the water, now and just about forever. Drifter Smith, Dave Edwards, and I started rowing Havasus for AzRA in 1979. I left and went to medical school; Drifter and Dave stayed on the river. Their lives have been blessed with a lot of big water and wonderful passengers. It’s been a great run. But Craig Ahrens watched other AzRA guides who weren’t happy, whose coping mechanisms had been pretty much whittled down to a six pack and a blank stare. He’d worked with older guides who weren’t tooled up to do anything else. Craig didn’t want to follow in their steps. Winters away from the river became a struggle as he tried to figure out where to stay and what to do until summer rolled around again. So at age thirty-five Craig took a new tack and went to nursing school. There are days now at the Flagstaff ICU when he misses the good trips. But this new life with a wife and two kids would have been a lot more difficult if he had stayed full time on the river.

When Ben Hanel started motoring for Western in 1999 he was excited; Tiffany, soon to be his wife, worked there too. Life was coming up aces. But eight years later that heavy block of ice changed everything; his back blew out. He needed a Plan B. After being away from school for thirteen years, it was hard to fit back in. But he’d learned to work hard on the river. He stuck with it and got a degree at the University of Utah in GIS – Geographic Information Systems − and is now becoming certified as a land surveyor so that he can start his own company. Ben loved being on the river, loved working with the other boatmen. But he learned just how nice summers can be at home with his family in Salt Lake City. At school he has a leg up on many of the younger students because, on the river, he’d learned what it meant to be motivated, to always give 110%.

Jon Olivera tumbled from Colorado River and Trails to Moki Mac before landing on his feet full time at Hatch in 1999. Between seasons, he spent winters as a brine shrimper on the Great Salt Lake. He started out excited but gradually thought more about what he’d do when the gig was up. It sure wasn’t going to be shrimping. Maybe he’d be a teacher. Back in graduate school, he felt like an outsider, wondering what foreign language everybody else was speaking in the classroom − sounded like English but he couldn’t make sense of it. Soon enough he hit his stride, though, and ended up with a masters in history. He is now working as an academic advisor in the Dept. of History at the University of Washington. To be sure, down in the Canyon, Jon had always been growing, but with the lane change into academia his learning curve became even steeper.


Craig, Ben, and Jon have at least one thing in common – they all received support from the Kenton Grua Memorial Scholarship. With this help and an ingrained willingness to work, Ben was able to graduate without a lick of debt. During graduate school, Jon still motored for Hatch, but was able to drop trips at the beginning and end of the season to accommodate the school year. The scholarships weren’t a full ride, but they helped a lot.

Jon Olivera joined a private trip last summer and was pleased to see that his old river skills were still there. Ben Hanel and his wife still count other Western boatmen among their closest friends. Craig Ahrens appreciates that his former outfitter lets him return for a trip or two when he can get away from the hospital. Craig remembers being head boatman back in the day when a spike flow caught their trip unawares. The kitchen washed away. No kitchen? Deal with it. Push off from the Ferry and then realize that you forgot all the eggs? Well, let’s make it work. While they were down on the river, all three learned a great deal about people, about work ethics, about pulling together and also working as individuals. These are skills that go a long way in the outside world.

I made a life for myself in medicine. While I was on the river I’d learned to sit eye to eye with people, listen, and accept them for who they were − lessons that proved invaluable to a family doc. Mine too has been a good run, but rarely a day goes by without thinking about Drifter and Dave, and wondering what would it have been like if I’d stayed on the water.

Michelle Grua takes it for granted that guiding has a natural life span. If nothing else, sooner or later our bodies wear out. The realization that life may evolve to something beyond the Canyon’s walls − to a new career, to a growing family − doesn’t need to be the acceptance of defeat. It can be a graceful affirmation that life goes on and that change is the norm. Michelle wonders what Factor would have done had he been dealt different cards. They married and she watched him become her children’s father. He talked about doing shorter trips, maybe science on the river with GCMRC. She remembers the day her son, three or four years old at the time, held out his arms and said to Kenton, “I don’t want you going on the river because I miss you so much.” Michelle’s heart almost cracked open. Who knows what Factor would have done if his had not.

Michael Collier