Scott Thybony's Grand Canyon Commentary: River Dogs

Apr 2, 2014

Northern Arizona is full of river runners, many of whom take their dogs downriver with them. Whether it's the Verde or the Salt River, many a mutt has gone along for the ride. And though dogs aren't allowed on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, commentator Scott Thybony says that doesn't mean it hasn't been done.

A pound dog named Rags became the first canine river runner in Grand Canyon.  In 1927 he was recruited as a mascot for the Clyde Eddy expedition.  A bear cub also went along for the ride, and the two animals became close friends, wrestling together and sharing meals. 

It was mid-summer as the boats floated between high cliffs with few places to land.  After running a rapid, the boatmen tied up at a ledge to make repairs.  Rags crawled under a boulder to escape the heat.  They shoved off when the work was done, and a strong current immediately caught the boats.  Suddenly the crew heard frantic barks coming from shore.  Rags had been left behind and was standing with his paws in the water, afraid to jump in.  The dog disappeared from sight as the boats rounded a bend and drifted a half mile downstream before they could stop. 

Three of the crew scaled a cliff and worked back to where they could see the dog trapped below.  The drop was perpendicular, but one man was able to pick his way down a precarious route.  At the bottom Rags greeted him with excited barks.  The boatman had to lift and push the dog back up the cliff until reaching those waiting on top.  “It was nothing,” he told them.  “I couldn’t have slept nights if we had been forced to go on without the dog.” 

Rags could have used a swimming lesson from another river dog.  A hound named Blender had the habit of jumping into the Colorado above Moab and paddling after passing boats.  He would swim for miles until some boatman would pull him onboard, afraid he might drown.  The dog became such a regular at lunch stops he learned to ignore the baloney sandwiches and hold out for the roast beef.  His 20-mile swims and long runs home convinced his owner he would make a great triathlete.  “If only he could ride a bicycle,” she said. 

No dogs are allowed on Colorado River trips, the rules are clear.  On the other hand, dogs don’t read the regulations.  In 1981 a make-shift raft known as the Death Star was approaching House Rock Rapid in the Grand Canyon.  It had launched in the dead of night without permits, breaking every rule in the books, including having a dog onboard.  Wearing a child’s lifejacket, an Irish setter named Boomer sat on the cooler as a strong current pulled them toward the immense, crashing waves.  “The dog bounced off,” said Jim Evans, “and the life jacket wrapped around its back legs.  So he spent the rest of the rapid swimming with his head underwater.” 

Whenever the raft drifted toward another rapid, Boomer would dread the rumbling of whitewater.  And nearing the takeout at Diamond Creek, the dog finally mutinied, not knowing the end was almost in sight.  Boomer ran off when they pulled into shore, and Evans had to bring him back.  The trip down the Colorado made a lasting impression on the Irish setter.  Years later whenever anyone shouted, “Rapid, Boomer, rapid!” the old dog would start to shake and quiver, reliving his wild ride on the Death Star.

Rags the mutt, rescued from an animal shelter and then from a canyon ledge, became the first river dog to run the Colorado in Grand Canyon.  Boomer may have been the last.