The Colorado River touts some of the wildest rapids in the world, but what may not be so well known is the wave of impact this river has on the Flagstaff economy. Alongside the 15 commercial local river running companies in Flagstaff is a quiet but significant river running support industry for private trips.
River outfitters supply transportation, rafts, food, sleeping bags and portable toilets.
“While a commercial river trip provides all amenities, private river trips do it all themselves,” said Brady Black, owner of Moenkopi Riverworks. “People come from all over the world to stage their private Colorado River trips here because Flagstaff is only two hours away from the put-in and take-out and offers quality food, great places to stay and multifaceted shopping.”
In June, Half Moon Bay residents, Patrick Tierney, Ph.D., a professor at San Francisco State University and author of “Colorado’s Yampa River, Free Flowing and Wild” and his wife, Robin, an environmental science educator, organized a family and friends private trip.
“We based our trip out of Flagstaff and we really enjoyed the variety of healthy food options,” said Tierney, who has run rivers for more than 40 years. “The Flagstaff outfitter we used was excellent. They offered everything we needed – high quality rafts, menu planning services, food buying and packing and shuttle service. It saved so much time and headaches.” He estimates the total cost per person was $1,229 for 16 days on the water.
Along with Moenkopi there are three other Flagstaff-based outfitters: Canyon Rio, Professional River Outfitters (PRO) and Ceiba. Collectively, the four operations employ approximately 48 full-time employees and several seasonal workers, and service more than 5,000 people running private trips a year.
“The only thing we don’t purchase locally is the rafts themselves,” said Donnie Dove, owner of Canyon Rio, one of the oldest and first river outfitters in Flagstaff. “Most of our expenditures are for food, and we buy it all in Flagstaff.”
PRO is another strong proponent of buying locally. “Combined with food and supplies, we purchased all our transportation vans here,” said operations manager Beth Roeser. PRO also sells and manufactures equipment such as frame systems and boxes for riverboats. “It’s actually how we started,” Roeser explained. “Bruce Helin, co-owner, designed an aluminum breakdown frame system that is light and conducive for holding drop bags while maintaining stability.”
Serving the river running community since 2004, Ceiba Adventures owners Rachel Schmidt and Scott Davis ran guided river trips in Mexico before starting their river outfitting business. Working out of their garage (they are now located off Fanning Drive), they have orchestrated several science trips on the Colorado River.
“Along with private outfitting, we serve the National Park Service, independent scientists and the film industry,” said Lee Soifer, Ceiba manager. “We also provided all the boats and technical personnel for the movie Into the Wild and other films.”
“Locally, we hardly know the river running industry is here but these companies employ a lot of people and bring a lot of outside money into our town,” said Flagstaff Mayor Jerry Nabours. “They ask for little in city services; yet, they are a significant economic factor. We appreciate every river company that is based here.”
The Colorado River meanders 1,450 miles through Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming, Nevada, California, Arizona and two Mexico states. According to the NPS website, the Colorado River tracked an annual count of 500 private launches in 2015, with 632 for commercial or chartered river trips.
“A large portion of Flagstaff’s economy revolves around the direct and indirect positive benefits our community receives from the mighty Colorado River,” said Greater Flagstaff Chamber of Commerce President and CEO, Julie Pastrick. “The river runners are non-consumptive, yet drive our economy in a huge way,”
Jason Costello, owner of Canyon Coolers, says when he started his business, Flagstaff river outfitters provided insight, support and credibility he was able to build on. “Much like us, they’re an easygoing culture, and their passion is contagious.”
“They are [river outfitters] a big part of my business,” said Randal Scholler, owner of Randal’s Fine Meats. “They typically fax over a list and we deliver a variety of steaks, chicken, luncheon meats, burgers and whatever else they need.”
Jason Hughes, owner of Wet Dreams River Supply, sells to all four of the local outfitters. “These companies are making a strong effort to outfit private river trips and each has its own personal touches that give the river community different options to choose from.”
A short list of other local businesses that serve the river running industry are Artisan’s Kitchen, Flagstaff Equipment Company, Fry’s Automotive, P&M Trailer Sales, Farmers Market, Artisan Metal Works, Gene Baker CPA, Cork N’ Bottle and Vacation Rentals. FBN
By Veronica Tierney, FBN
Photo by Veronica Tierney, Fresh Focuses Photography