Trip of a lifetime turns into 'terrible mess'

Rafters from Southern Oregon are stuck by government shutdown after waiting years to float Colorado River
Plans for a three-week Grand Canyon rafting trip were canceled for several local rafters by the federal government shutdown. Among those hoping to make the trip were, from left, Cody Henson and Vanessa Parker of Talent and Steve Drabik of Phoenix. photo courtesy of Steve Drabikphoto courtesy of Steve Drabik

Steve Drabik's 17-year wait for a three-week rafting trip through the Grand Canyon ran aground last week.

The 57-year-old Phoenix resident was planning to lead an expedition of 15 people — including three from Ashland, three from Talent and one from Medford — down the Colorado River after paying $22,000 to the outfitting company and an additional $2,000 to the National Park Service.

But Drabik's and his team's dreams were undone when Congress' failure to pass a funding bill caused a partial government shutdown that included the country's national parks.

"It's a terrible mess," Drabik said. "It's frustrating for everyone involved."

He and his crew, made up of friends from Southern Oregon, Michigan, El Salvador and Mexico, have been told that they won't be allowed access to the river until Congress passes a funding bill.

The disappointment of the news was multiplied by the more than a decade and a half they waited to get a coveted permit to make the float. The team got its permit through a lottery system in which their chances of winning were enhanced because of the length of time they had been applying.

The closure is only the second time Grand Canyon National Park has been shut down since it opened in 1919.

Drabik said the park service has told him the permit fee will be refunded. He said they likely will donate much of the three-week supply of food to members of the Navajo tribe, who have been extremely helpful to his team. They also are talking with the commercial outfitters for their trip, hoping to get at least a partial refund.

Some of the Southern Oregon members already have returned home, he said.

At one point, he said, the team contemplated taking its rafts across Navajo land along an old road that once was a main access point into the canyon.

"A couple of people were really game for that," he said.

But the road was in poor shape, and Drabik said the team worried about damaging the equipment they'd rented.

One team member decided to hike six miles to the river to go fly fishing. He was picked up by a Navajo family on his way in. On the hike back, another Navajo family picked him up.

"The Navajos have been very friendly to all of us," he said.

Drabik has called U.S. Rep. Greg Walden's office to urge a quick resolution of the funding impasse.

"We want to tell everybody to call their congressman," he said.

Andrew Malcolm, a spokesman for Walden, R-Ore., said, "Obviously, yes, we've heard from Oregonians about the shutdown."

He said Walden supported a bill that passed last week in the House that would reopen parks, including Crater Lake and the Grand Canyon. The bill is sitting in the Senate, as Democrats have declined to approve funding for popular, high-profile programs while primary government functions are left unfunded, he said.

Malcolm said Walden greeted World War II veterans who came to Washington, D.C., to see the World War II Memorial, which was shut down. He said Walden helped the veterans see the memorial even though it was closed.

While the rafters are out of luck for the time being, the parks service has said those holding permits will be entitled to reschedule a Colorado River trip with their choice of dates until 2016. However, they must submit their choices within 60 days of the park's reopening.

Despite the disappointment, Drabik said the parks service had been as helpful as possible. "They've done the best they could," he said. "Their hands are tied."

Even though he has an opportunity to get another permit, Drabik said it was extremely difficult dealing with so many different people and issues and taking care of all the coordination.

"I can't say I'm looking forward to that," he said. "It's like herding feral cats."

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com.


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