A Boatman’s Life

When Jon Stoner ’73 graduated from Bloomsburg University with a newly minted bachelor’s degree in business administration, he went looking for adventure before settling down to what he hoped would be a career that included his love for the outdoors.

He never had to settle.

“Approximately a month after graduation, I traveled west in a VW Super Beetle to explore the wide-open spaces beyond the 100th meridian,” he says. “In particular, I wanted to experience the Colorado Rockies and the Grand Canyon.”

His first whitewater rafting trip down the Colorado River quickly led to a second, which sparked a desire to take a path less traveled as a river guide. Now, 225 river trips and 32 years later, he continues to live his dream.

“I get opportunities for exploration, adventure, excitement and personal renewal,” says Stoner, who has most likely logged more hours hiking side canyons, sleeping under starlit skies and observing the color play of water and sandstone than any other BU alumnus.

“There is something to be said for the value of quiet places and surrounding oneself with the intrinsic riches of nature and getting back to the basics,” he says. “I truly enjoy venturing below the rim and leaving behind all the clutter and the demands of the so-called real world.”

Learning New Skills
Armed with his sense of adventure, Stoner began his training as a river guide in 1981, a more arduous process than most people realize.

“As a guide, one must possess a multitude of skills, including those of the conservationist, interpreter, whitewater guide, geologist, counselor, cook, mechanic, logistics coordinator and medical tech, to name a few,” he says. “It is a guide’s responsibility to safely operate and maintain the 15-passenger raft over the course of 300 river miles while constantly anticipating the unknown and always paying attention to minor details. “

Preparation is essential because anything can, and does, happen on the river.

In 1983, when Stoner was a relatively new river guide, the Colorado River flooded to an extreme, an event that raises the hairs on the backs of experienced boatmen who hear the tale. Stoner experienced the white-knuckle event firsthand.

Melting snowpack and rain had caused runoff to flood into Lake Powell behind Glen Canyon Dam. To protect the dam, engineers had to release massive volumes of water, giving Grand Canyon boatmen and boatwomen a challenge not experienced since.

Of particular concern was Crystal Rapid. On that day in June, the high water barreled down the canyon into the rapid’s boulder delta, causing compressed water to form a wave that Stoner estimates to have been 30 feet high.

“We hiked to a bluff to get a view of the situation and saw that a far right run at the rapid would avoid the wall of water. But we also saw other rafts coming up on Crystal and people being catapulted out. People were all over the river.”

Joined by park rangers, Stoner helped rescue people who were clinging to rocks and coursing down river.

“We were exhausted, pulling people out of the river, evacuating them to high ground, doing triage, then going back for more people,” he says.

While Stoner prefers to push that experience to the back of his mind, he relishes the trips that give those who are less acclimated to river adventure the opportunity to safely experience his paradise.

“One of my most memorable journeys was a 16-day custom-designed trip to assist clients with sensory as well as physical challenges to experience the river,” he recalls. “It was rewarding to share the camping, boating and outdoor experience with clients who had muscular dystrophy, Down syndrome, quadriplegic challenges, and visual impairments.”

Stoner rarely knows in advance who will join him on a rafting trip. He gets to meet people from all parts of the country and the world, and some of his trips put him in contact with professionals of his own caliber. That was the case in February 2005 when he guided a National Geographic senior staff photographer and a world-renowned landscape painter on a 30-day winter trip in the Grand Canyon.

“Due to the extended length and nature of the trip, I was able to experience areas of the canyon that are usually not visited during a regular commercial trip,” he says. “It was also rewarding to get to know these talented people and view the canyon through their artistic perspective.”

Initiating Old Friends
Last year Stoner achieved a nearly 30-year goal: to get his fellow BU swim team alumni to come west. “This river trip was definitely the highlight of my career,” he says. “I got to spend quality time with people that I met at Bloomsburg and with whom I forged lifetime friendships. I also was able to share my love and extensive knowledge of the Grand Canyon with them.”

It was a trip that elicited comments he hears often.

“During the trip several of them said, ‘We should have done this river adventure with you years ago instead of waiting so long.’ That always makes me feel good.”

On each river trip, Stoner gets a bird’s-eye view of transformation — whether it is observing changes in the natural environment he has come to love, or how that environment changes his passengers.

“Many clients may be first-time campers and rafters, but they come with a sense of adventure. Others are initially distracted by their responsibilities in everyday life, or by concerns for safety in tackling something new,” he says. “Usually three to four days into the trip there is a notable change and passengers begin to blossom. The wilderness provides a wonderful setting for personal transformation, an inner world where passengers can tap into river time and relax, reflect and enjoy.”

Looking Ahead
Less of a job and more of a lifestyle, river running has proven to be a great match for Stoner, who intends to continue the adventure for as long as he is physically able.

“I have truly been blessed by a lifetime of adventure and exploration. I could not write a better story of personal satisfaction and fulfillment,” he says.

Today, Stoner’s full-time responsibilities with Arizona River Runners is as the warehouse operations manager, making sure other river guides and their passengers have everything necessary for a safe and comfortable river trip. But he still runs two river trips each season.

“Each time that I pack out a trip and journey to the river put-in at Lees Ferry, I return to the place that I feel most at home,” he says. “Grand Canyon is where I met my wife, Ruthie, and where some of my most memorable experiences have happened. You see, Grand Canyon isn’t just a place to me; it is a way of life and one that I’ll really never leave.” •

Amy Biemiller is a writer with the LightStream Group.

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