Flashback Friday: What is a Swamper?

Flashback Friday: What is a Swamper? What is Their Job on a Colorado River Raft Trip?

 

It’s a lot of work and somebody’s gotta do it!

 

In today’s Flashback Friday, Ted explains “what is a swamper” and talks about his friend Ed Lowry’s twenty-first rafting trip down the Colorado River. Ed ran the river every single year between 1965 and 2017, which marked his 53rd trip both down the river and with Hatch. That’s quite the number for not being a river guide! Ed was like an honorary swamper. He was even on his annual trip while this interview was taking place on June 20, 1984.

Every rafting trip has a swamper, which is like a cross between an assistant to the guides and an apprentice to become a guide themselves. They help with things like securing the boats to the shore, unloading and setting up the kitchen, prepping food, loading back up and pushing off, anything else the lead river guides need, and so, so much more. It’s a tough job! With enough experience and mentoring, a swamper can move up to guiding on an oar powered trip, then as second guide for a motorized trip, and finally become a lead motorized guide.

Early swamper Hubert Lauzon (pictured above holding the ropes) assisted the Kolb Brothers with their epic 101-day photographic adventure down the approximately 1,000-mile length of the Colorado River in 1911. It’s said that the river rafting term “swamper” came from the early days when someone had to bail out the water to keep the wooden rafts from getting swamped!

On to Ted’s memories of swampers and their duties and Ed’s trip at the time:

 

E. Sowards: How do you pick the young men that help you on the rapids? They seem to be really “top-notch” fellows.

Ted: Well, thank you.

E. Sowards: How do you pick them?

Ted: They have a trial period where we interview them. They apply for the job. Then, we put them on as a “swamper” to start. A swamper is a “roust-about” or cook’s helper. He helps do everything that the boatmen need to have help with. Then later, after he has gained a lot of experience, they let him, in the calm water, run the boat and gradually work in to the rapids. Now, it takes… well I had a guy that was a swamper for five years… and he got his first trip last week. He may have been on your trip. [Ed] Lowry?

A man, Ed Lowry, stands in Grand Canyon near the Colorado River in the Nankoweap area. He took 53 trips down the canyon, more than some swampers.

Ed Lowry took 53 rafting trips with Hatch River Expeditions, never missing a summer between 1965 to 2017. That’s more trips than a lot of swampers!

E. Sowards: Ace? He was going to take his dad’s trip down the river.

Ted: He did. He launched.

E. Sowards: Oh, good! He was excited about that. I think he probably was a little nervous about it, but then, he’s a real super person. I really like Ace.

Ted: Oh, his dad is such a pleasant guy. His dad’s one of my best friends. He is an attorney in Phoenix, and his dad has gone with us twenty years in a row.

E. Sowards: Is that right?

Ted: He is on his twenty-first trip, because one year he did two trips. He’ll call me and say, “This desk has gotten so big in this law-firm. I’m coming up there. I have just got to get away from the phone. Have you got room? I say, “Come on, Ed, I’ll put you on a trip!”

E. Sowards: Did he ever bring Ace with him when he was a little boy?

Ted: Oh, Ace was a little guy. He’s on about his fifth year… he’s run five years going on six.

E. Sowards: So it takes them a long time to get in to get their own boat, I understand. That’s what the boys were saying.

Ted: We can train them in less than that, but to be good, they need at least a year and a half. Because they need to know all the camps, the safety, the emergency procedures… all the things.

E. Sowards: Even to cook and that. They are excellent cooks! All the boys were.

Ted: Thank you. They learn the rapids. You see, there are sixty major rapids that they have to memorize. There are probably another forty camps, and then there are a lot of little canyons all through. You have to learn those. There is so much that it takes really years to learn them all. Because a guy will sit there with a map and he will say what’s the next rapid coming up? He will ask you and you better know. How long till camp? How deep is the river? They always ask that.

 

Want to get to know the rapids, campsites, and points of interest as well as a swamper? Download our Short Guide to Grand Canyon!

 

Book a 2024 or 2025 river trip today to experience the Canyon first hand. And don’t forget to get your 90th Year T-shirt or sticker!