GOOD COP, BAD COPS, GREAT LAWYER!
Updated: Jul 3
An abbreviated version of this article was originally published in the 2010 Canoe & Kayak Magazine's Dealer-marketing Guide (long gone). Given the concerns in law enforcement today, I thought a second look might be enlightening.
Gates of Ladore, Green River, Utah
It began at one of Rutabaga’s famed “Canoecopia” events. I stopped to chat with Larry Laba, CEO of SOAR inflatables. Larry had a bone to pick with my flagship book, “Expedition Canoeing” (revised in 2015 and re-titled "Canoeing Wild Rivers"), in which he said I had included every type of canoe, except his.
I told Laba I didn’t think SOAR’s were “real” canoes.” At this, Laba launched into a dissertation, politely suggesting that I was out-to-lunch. I listened quietly and promised to eat crow and try a SOAR. Someday.
Someday came the following summer, when Laba received a hard-to-get permit to canoe the Gates-of-Ladore section on the Green River, which runs through Dinosaur National Monument. Ten select paddlers, including my wife, Susie and I, were invited to go. We’d paddle SOAR boats, of course.
Susie and I had never paddled a canyon river, or one with such large rapids. We figured it would be quite a rush, especially in a SOAR which is self-bailing. Larry warned us at the start that there were lots of regulations we would have to follow. And, that the slightest violation would be prosecuted.
I vowed to keep an open mind and a willing smile. I’d heard the Gates-of-Ladore section was spectacular, and well worth the high (regulatory) price of admission.
TROUBLE AT THE OUTSET
Trouble surfaced immediately. It was nearly noon on the appointed put-in day when part of the crew arrived with the unhappy news that Laba’s truck had broken down (with all the boats) near Salt Lake City. It would be well into evening, at the earliest before he and the rest of the crew would arrive.
A RANGER TO THE RESCUE
We shared our concern with a park ranger, who we’ll call Ranger #1 (keep track; there are five more!). Could we try plan B? Say, leave around 7 PM that night and take a “closer” campsite than the one (16 miles downstream) for which we were scheduled? Ranger #1 radioed for advice. No luck; the closer site (six miles ahead) was taken. We would have to wait for Laba then plow on through the night.
Darkness came. No Laba. And now, there was a 30 mile per hour wind blowing upstream. The run to our first scheduled campsite contained some tough rapids (Class III at the start). Ranger #1 was on our case--warning us we MUST go NOW or forfeit our permit. No boats, no dice! If you've ever run a big powerful rapid in a strong head-wind, you know the problems. Even if Laba and the boats were here, it was too dangerous to go. We explained this to ranger #1. He just nodded, said he was "done for the day" and we could take up the matter with his replacement who would be here soon. Minutes later, Ranger #2, a pleasant young woman with a willing smile walked up to greet us.
Laba arrived about 7 PM that night. The wind was blowing harder! “Would it be okay if we start tomorrow and make up lost time? We asked. “Yes,” she said. “But you will have to camp at your assigned site for your second night.” That seemed fair enough to us.
We were off by 10 the following morning and pulled into our scheduled (second night) campsite around six. Surprisingly, there was a ranger (#3) standing on the shore to greet us. He asked to see our permit, then he fired off a barrage of questions:
“Do you have a groover? A food-strainer? First-aid kit? Extra PFD? Throw rope? Fire-pan? Everyone have helmets?" Admittedly, I’m used to the freedom of Canadian rivers—where I can camp when and where I please, and where safety and land ethics are an individual responsibility I take seriously--so I wasn’t quite prepared for this grilling. Still, given the heavy use (sans abuse) of this river, I welcomed his questions and I appreciated his professional demeanor.
Day three ended like day two. Ranger #4 stepped out of the bush just as our boats touched land. He said he had radioed Ranger #3 about us, so he downplayed the questions about our preparedness and focused on other matters--notably, that we broke the rules by starting a day late.
Now, I should make it perfectly clear that I understand—and value--the need for regulating high-density rivers like the Green—and for checking boaters who are often irresponsible and unprepared. And, for being at your scheduled site when you're supposed to be there. Yes, serious rules are in order for heavily paddled rivers like the Green, and I am pleased to follow those rules and be quizzed about them. Still, we had encountered two rangers on two successive days-- they were waiting at the campsites for us and they asked the same questions! Was big brother watching, or what?
The next day was wonderful—we enjoyed some great rapids, camped in a spectacular spot. We were pleased to observe that there were no awaiting rangers to hassle us. But wait... an hour later, one (#5) showed up. He tied his raft to a boulder, walked ashore and it started again: "May I see your permit?" He asked. Then, he admonished us for starting on the WRONG date. At this, I went ballistic, saying that we had received permission from the lady ranger (#2) to do just that. And, "if you guys want to hassle us every day why don't you just put cameras on poles and watch from home?" At this, ranger #5 calmed slightly and muttered some nonsense about "tomorrow is all flat water; you guys don't have to wear your PFD's if you don't want to." I sneered back: "I'm not an idiot--I DO want to," then I walked away, face beet red.
Our last day was uneventful, that is, until we arrived at the take-out. There were about a dozen rafts and kayaks there. A pompous middle-aged ranger (#6) was checking permits. He had a gun! Ranger #6 looked briefly at our permit then pulled out a pad and proceeded to write us a fine for 25 dollars. For what?
“You started on June 11. This permit is for June 10.”
What the hey?
We pointed out that lady ranger #2 had given us permission to leave on the 11th if we camped at our "second night" site--which we did. The gunman didn’t look up—just kept writing.
I was ticked. Real ticked!
“So what are you trying to prove here, officer?” I asked, my face right in his.
“Careful, Cliff, this guy’s got a gun,” whispered my friend, Larry Rice.
“Yeah, yeah, I hollered at the top of my lungs: "Is he gonna shoot me?!" Then, my face still in his, I said "So tell me, officer, even if our boats were here should we have left in total darkness on the 10th and paddled those huge rapids with that 30 mph upstream wind and drowned? R..e..a..l..l..y, officer, would you have preferred that?"
The gun-guy didn't answer, just said he'd checked with the river rangers we met and “knew all about us.” Yeah, ten bank robbers in paddling duds, rushing down the river. Hop your horse and bust ‘em at the take-out!
Ranger #6 kept writing. “Just doing my job, following the law; I don't make the rules; I just enforce them. My name is Ranger Dah dah; my supervisor’s name is Mr. Dah dah. Tell it to the judge!” Yeah!
I raved on that I had guided canoe trips in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and northern Canada for more than three decades and had never seen such an abuse of power by a figure in authority. Then, I turned about face and walked out of the picture, leaving my friends to smooth my ruffled path.
When Susie and I returned to the Gates-of-Ladore campsite to pick up our car we ran into the lady ranger (#2), who had been so helpful. She was very sympathetic and questioned why we were ticketed when we she had given us permission to leave a day late. She was ticked that ranger #6 didn't honor her decision. She would tell her supervisor.
Fortunately, one of our crew was a gifted attorney. When he got home he called a local judge and the ticket was pleaded to zero dollars. Smart lawyer, great judge.
Yes, we do need rules that protect the environment from us, and us from one another. But we also need public servants who enforce those rules with compassion and rational thought. Rangers #2 was great; the others needed common sense, a realistic view of the situation, and a tome on tact.
What bothered me most about canoeing the Green was not the rules, which were justifiable. It was the “in your face attitude” of the river rangers and, an underlying assumption that we were out to do wrong. By comparison, Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area sees the paddles of a quarter million canoeists each year, thousands more than The Gates-of-Ladore. Yes, there are rules—tough ones: “Camp only at existing sites; no bottles or cans allowed; maximum party size of nine; make fires (when permitted) in approved fire-grates; use established box latrines; don’t cut living trees, and clean up as to leave no trace of your presence."
By and large, the rules are willingly honored. Pull into any one of the hundreds of BWCA campsites and you will find scant evidence of passing paddlers—no trash, no garbage, nothing. The premise is that paddlers want to do right, and will do what’s right if they know what’s right! Education (with a smile) is top priority.
Yes, there are tickets issued, but usually just for gross violations—unattended fires, axe-hacked trees, ditched tents, obnoxious noise, etc. More often than not, ignorance is rewarded with a friendly lecture or lesson by example. Beginners learn the ropes and leave with a positive attitude.
I wish the ranger with the gun and I could have had a nice long talk, away from the crowd and the badge. Perhaps then, he would have questioned his judgment and we too, could have parted friends.
On a more positive note: The river was beautiful; the rapids were great—and yes, Mr. Laba, your SOAR boats are indeed very real canoes—and the right medicine for big pushy rivers. Friends and I have used them many times--most recently on the lower canyons of the Rio Grande River. I was mightily impressed. Sorry I missed your boat in an earlier version of my book. But I have rectified that in the latest 30th Anniversary Edition: CANOEING WILD RIVERS.
*My flagship book, CANOEING WILD RIVERS, 5th Edition, is the premier text for paddling wilderness rivers.
*My teen book, JUSTIN CODY'S RACE TO SURVIVAL mixes a fictional wilderness survival tale with practical outdoor tips--a first for books of this type. Kids are entertained as they learn valuable wilderness skills.