Sheri Griffith, founder of Moab, Utah, rafting outfitter Sheri Griffith Expeditions, is celebrating more than 30 years of getting people out into the wilderness, which she cherishes as her company’s most important role. But her own role in the industry has been even bigger, from establishing one of the country’s first river guide training programs to testifying in D.C. to preserve our nation’s wild places. We caught up with her — 60 and single save for her dogs and four horses – for a peak inside the paddling pioneer…
In Her Own Words:
My dad broke his neck in a car wreck when I was in high school and was incapacitated for two years. So we all had to work. In Steamboat Springs at dinner one time my dad told my brothers they should do something to bring people here in the summer. So they started a rafting company. It was just out of the blue.
We bought a couple of Army surplus boats and built frames out of 2x6s and started bouncing down the Elk and Upper Colorado rivers for twelve dollars a person. In 1980 I moved it over to Moab.
I fell in love with taking the people into the back country. I had two options: face a huge debt to go to vet school or get serious about the business. I thought I’d get serious about the business for ten years and then go back to vet school. History tells you what happened.
What a life. It was a struggle in the early days and still is. There’s very little profit and not a whole lot of inventory. But it’s so rewarding.
Starting that business was easy because we were backcountry kids. We were really comfortable in the wilderness. But I realized other people weren’t. I’m a romantic; I wanted people to fall back in love with nature.
Our company saying was to protect nature from the people and protect the people from nature. And then go out and show them a good time.
When the environmental movement gained momentum outfitting was a big part of it. If we helped people fall in love with the wilderness we thought they’d help protect it. And it worked. I became very involved in environmental and regulation issues.
The people in Washington need to feel what it’s like to be out here. That lets them see what the issues are. If you get them on the river you touch them intellectually and emotionally. We’ve done trips with senators, Supreme Court Justices and Secretary of Interiors; they’ve all gone away with a new appreciation of what’s out there.
We established proper protocols to train guides — how to row a boat, how to cook a meal, all the basics. Then came the River Rescue push.
Different states were looking at requirements, but they didn’t know how to go about it. I’ve been an Advanced First Aid instructor for 30 years and I added back country elements to it. In the beginning there weren’t many training opportunities that applied to what we were doing.
None of the outfitters communicated that much; we all had to reinvent the wheel. We all started talking when legislation in Washington affected all of us.
River running is a great equalizer. Almost anybody can do it through an outfitter, which fosters the excitement of getting into the back country. Then it started getting big, and then we had to start regulating it. Rafting was a pioneer when it comes to regulatory controls.
How do you protect a resource while you’re doing it? When I was in Washington, we were balancing the issue of how you make it into a viable business in a small town and also protect the resource and make it sustainable so you can keep coming back?
I believe in outfitters. We’re the trainers. A lot of people start with some kind of outfitter teaches them how to behave in the backcountry and then they go on and can do it themselves. Hopefully, we’re that pebble in the ripple that creates resource protection.
I realized early on that one person can make a difference. Democracy is not a spectator sport. You can step up and make a difference if you’re passionate, caring and committed. It’s exciting to be a part of any kind of movement in our nation. Our natural resources are a big part of the strength of our country, especially in the West. We’re lucky to be in the West.
As one of the first women outfitters, people either really liked me or they didn’t. One outfitter told me I was in the wrong business and ruining the reputation of outfitting, that people would think any “Fufu” girl could guide.
I was into promoting women guides. There were only a few women boatmen then and they felt like they had to compete with men to get a job. I made our company be split evenly to bring in the best elements of both genders. We started training women, which made us focus on finesse and river reading. We had to use our bodies differently.
At the beginning, we couldn’t find enough women. I’d go to ski areas and ask women ski patrol if they wanted to guide.
We were an equal opportunity employer and so everybody, men and women, wore skirts. The men started competing to see who had the best skirts. It was good for our men guests; they saw guides running around camp in sarongs and skirts, yet rowing them through huge rapids. It equalized genders.
I called the company Sheri Griffith Expeditions because of some research that said I might be able to attract people being a woman-owned company. But it also said I was going to lose a bunch of people.
When men called and signed up their families for a trip, I’d ask them why they picked us. One guy said, “I figured two things: one is you would be safer, and two you’d have better food.”
Rivers are where magic moments happen. They create a sense of wonder. You never really know what’s around the next bend, even if you’ve been there a hundred times.
I used to be a serious adrenaline junkie; I lived in the moment. With a huge rapid ahead you couldn’t think about the past or the future. That’s something we lose in civilization.
My brother, Ron, got an oar through his leg on Lost Yak rapid on Chile’s Bio Bio in 1981. We were tagging along on a Sobek trip and were seven days into it. It was one of the longest nights of my life, trying to keep my brother alive before we could get any help. We were finally able to air-flight him out. He could have died very easily. That’s what helped me come up with new wilderness first-aid training programs for guides.
A river is just a vehicle to see incredible places. I’ve done Cataract everywhere from 3,000 to 115,000 cfs and it’s never the same river. I floated Nepal’s Sun Kosi and looked up at Everest for ten days. It takes you places you can’t get any other way.
I try to get people to fall in love with and reconnect with nature and slow their lives down. People call and say they want big whitewater, but all they really want is to get away from their life back home. After a couple of days on a river trip they realize they don’t have to be going 90 miles an hour all the time. We used to joke that whitewater gets in the way of a really good river trip.
Sometimes you don’t want to talk on a trip because you don’t want to interrupt the depth of the silence. It’s mesmerizing. I’m grateful for that every day.
I was talking to a group of kayakers on Westwater once and asked them what they thought of the scenery. They said, “What scenery?” I thought they were kidding, but they were serious. They were into it more for the sport. But I was struck by the comment. How do you bring people out here to fall in love with and respect the resource? To say, “This is cool…we need to protect it.”
River running changes people. I seen people putting sticks in the fire the last night, looking at the stars, not wanting the night to end. That’s what I want. I don’t want them to want to go back. I tell them they can take it with them by just closing their eyes and remembering this beautiful night.
After one trip an attorney from New York quit his job and worked for us two years. It changed his life. Kids also come back to work for us – including a lot of politicians’ kids.
It’s empowering. When you’re comfortable in nature it creates an attitude that carries into your everyday life, a confidence and inner strength of “I’ll just take it as it comes.” I especially see it with women. It washes away their insecurities and develops their self image. I’ve gotten letters saying we gave people the inner strength and trust to move forward. You can’t get that self-confidence any other way, whether it’s school, athletics or even your appearance.
For info on her trips, visit www.griffithexp.com