Meet Ben Whitaker
Those of you that have been lucky enough to go on the river with Ben may know some of the information he’s shared below. As you’ll read in his answers, he loves adventure, and in particular, really loves to share his enthusiasm for Grand Canyon with our guests. With his easy, laid-back demeanor, he’s really fun to be around and will quickly make you feel confident in all that he does. It is a pleasure for us to share about him, and we hope you enjoy reading more about him!
Where were you born? Tell us a little about yourself!
I was born in Spring, TX, a suburb of Houston. Shortly after birth I was transplanted to Muskogee, OK where I spent the first 18 years of life. I am one of two children, the other being my wonderful sister Emily, who has Down’s Syndrome. We come from a large extended family on both sides, leading to a lot of interesting adventures. We played all the sports, especially the more obscure ones, and were outside constantly. Traveling to the Colorado Rockies each year lit the fire in me to move west as soon as possible. At 18 I moved to Steamboat Springs, CO and basically never looked back. I have now been in Crested Butte, CO for the past 9 years.
What’s your history with AzRA?
I ran my first trip with AzRA in 2015 as an assistant for Steve Mace. I did a couple more trips in 2016, one of which was a training trip in late October. Both were amazing experiences and I knew I wanted to work for AzRA. I was fortunate enough to find my name when the 2017 schedule came out and have been here each year since.
When did you start guiding? This could be anywhere other than Grand Canyon & how you then ended up guiding in Grand Canyon.
I started getting paid to run rivers in 2011 on the Arkansas River in Canon City, CO. We primarily ran day trips through the Royal Gorge and sections just upstream. We were taught how to row boats and to paddle guide, the latter of which we did most. This was an extremely beneficial intro into whitewater. We got to see high spring flows and low late season flows each year which certainly helped build river running skills. Before working on the Ark I was regularly planning river trips with friends in Eastern Oklahoma, Northwest Arkansas, and of course Colorado. In 1999 my father took me on a commercial trip down the Colorado through Grand Canyon, since then I’ve known I wanted to be a multi-day river guide. After spending a few years working on the Ark I was fortunate enough to get invited on an AzRA trip through Grand Canyon. After that trip in 2015, I decided to focus on becoming a full-time guide for AzRA. In the summers since, I have also spent time guiding on the Middle Fork of the Salmon river in Idaho.
What types of trips do you guide?
I run all the trips AzRA offers. Oar rafts, paddle rafts, dories, kayaks and motorboats.
What are your favorite rapids and hikes? Why?
Georgie, 24 mile, is my favorite rapid. At our most common flows it has such a fun, curling wave at the top that should never be missed. However, low water Horn Creek, Hance and Dubendorf are all top on my list for their technicality.
The “3rd” waterfall up Stone Creek, Thunder River, and the Tabernacle are all hikes that shouldn’t be missed if you have the chance. Stone Creek and Thunder river for the waterfalls and the Tabernacle because you get a true sense of being in the wilds of Grand Canyon.
Any other interesting facts about yourself you would like guests to know?
I’m kind of a sucker for being outside, anywhere. After most Grand Canyon trips I head back to the high country around Crested Butte. I typically find myself planning more river trips with friends and family, riding mountain bikes, etc. Anything to keep myself busy and outside. During the winter months I run a company that specializes in snow removal in Crested Butte. We mainly clear roofs and driveways, but find ourselves doing all sorts of things during big storm cycles.
Do you have hobbies, or things you like to do outside of guiding in Grand Canyon?
Hah, I have way too many hobbies! I tend to be attracted to things that are physically challenging and somewhat dangerous. Mountain biking, kayaking, paragliding, motorcycles, skiing, anything around water… Too many sports and not enough time to do them all. I had a very active upbringing that has certainly translated into my “adult” life. We were pushed outside to play at all times. Swimming was an everyday thing as a young person and is surely where my love for water comes from. Basically, I like to stay busy and be outside.
What do you love about the Canyon and guiding?
Yikes, this is a tough one because there is so much. What I love about the Canyon is the raw power of this place. It’s not just the aesthetics, the views, or the beauty. It’s not the depth, the size, the colors, the flora or the fauna. It’s all of these things put together. You throw a massive river and some wild weather into the mix and you have a hell of a place. The incredible sensation of being in 120+ degree temperatures, thinking to yourself “this is hell”, only to find the cool of Elves Chasm late in the afternoon to save your sanity. As far as guiding goes, I think I guide down here because every trip has its own set of challenges. It’s rarely a cakewalk. It could be high or low water, crazy weather, injuries, broken or missing equipment, the list goes on. All of these are fun challenges to navigate. I also truly enjoy sharing this place with others. The Canyon changes people, it has certainly changed me. Most people have never been on a Grand Canyon river trip, and may never have the opportunity again. There’s no better joy than sharing something you love with others. Showing people all your favorite places and telling your favorite tid bits of geology or history. Telling stories that make people laugh or sometimes cry. When all the things come together you get to watch people transform a little. We become a “trip”, a nomadic little tribe. Feeding each other, cleaning up after each other, doctoring one another, then picking up and moving downstream each morning. It’s truly amazing to watch and be a part of. It’s something you can hear stories of and think sounds cool, but you will never fully understand until you come. That’s ultimately why I guide down here, because it’s an experience.
Do you have a favorite Grand Canyon story you’d like to share?
I wouldn’t say I have a favorite story, but I love reading stories about the earlier boatmen down here. Bert Loper, the Kolb brothers, Glen and Bessy, Buzz Holstrom, Georgie, etc. I find it cool that these people were attracted to this place the same way many of us are.
Any advice you would give guests that are planning a trip with us?
Of course! Find your headlamp and locate the groover before it gets dark, eat all the food you can, take care of your feet starting from day one, and let the Canyon work its magic. The last is likely the most important. Far too many people come on trips and cannot get their minds off of what is or isn’t going on in the outside world. This is the wrong way to go about a Grand Canyon river trip. The place will give you an experience if you let it take over. Settle into the sand, settle into the wet, the cold, the hot, the dry. Realize that the itch and burn of the sun rash on your legs will fade and become a story you tell for years. Go on every hike, eat all the food, play all the games, sit quietly and listen. Let the experience happen, don’t force it. And obviously, drink lots of water.