Interview with Don Briggs

In 2004 the Boatman’s Quarterly published an interview with Don Briggs that spanned his career as a boatman, filmmaker and river activist.

It’s a digressive, informative and funny review of Briggs’ career, and well worth the time to read for the insight it brings to the guide’s life and times. Enjoy.

Download complete interview (PDF)


We were actually getting people to sign cards and send them in to the Sierra Club to stop the dams in the Grand Canyon… having never been to the Grand Canyon! And so my wife at the time said—I got to hand it to her, I mean I wouldn’t be sitting here without her I guess—she said “We should go to the Grand Canyon, since we’re trying to save it.” I said “Oh, jeez, that’s a good idea.” We were backpackers, what the hell? “We’ll go walk at the bottom of the Grand Canyon!”


We’re sitting there [Marble Canyon Lodge] having breakfast, and these five guys come walking in. You know, they’ve all got sun tans and kinda blond hair, and I figured they looked like surfer types. I’ll never forget this. At this point I was 27 years old. I looked at these guys, they were laughing and yucking it up. I thought “Jeez!” I said, “Some rich people from California have sent their kids on this river trip to screw up my trip.” (Both laugh). I’ll never forget that. Of course it ends up being the boatmen. And none other than Rob Elliott was the head boatman! He was 23 at the time. I don’t think any of the rest of them were over 20. The head cook was 16! (Laughs) They were all just these punk kids. I didn’t know what to expect, but I figured: old grizzled river guides, I guess, like we are now.


Oh god, those were the days, weren’t they? It was all just—every single day was such a great adventure… I was driving this Porsche, and it was really a great car but I was in the process of trying to even be—I was still trying to become a hippy, I guess, and this river guide. Well the car didn’t quite fit the image. So the spring before I took off for—it was the ’72 or ’73 season—I sold the Porsche. I took the money. In the winter I’d go to these, you know, bread making classes and all these back to basics, candle making. I was gonna go to these classes so I could be a hippy and maybe meet some girls. And I’d always park the Porsche around the corner. Because, you know… I kinda was ashamed of this car (both laugh hard) ‘cause it didn’t fit the image. Oh, what a fool! I wish I had that car now. You could drive that car 90 miles an hour all day and get about 25 miles to the gallon. Oh, it was beautiful. Oh well. It was a ’59 Porsche. I bought a ’67 Volkswagen Beetle.


So I started coming out to California earlier each spring. We started going down the Stanislaus, which is a beautiful little river. About a nine mile run. In the spring of ’72 Peter said, “Well, you know, you probably oughta learn how to row if you’re gonna be on the rowing crew.” ARTA had this spring training on the Stanislaus. So, “Go to the spring training ‘cause they’re training a buncha people for California rivers.”… I mean it was such an incredible group of people. Jimmy Hendrix was on that training crew, and David Halliday, and I don’t know anybody else from the Grand Canyon, but Phil Town… he was fresh outta the Green Berets and showed up at this training completely decked out like he was gonna (laughs)… go on a mission. I mean he had the knives and the attitude; he actually told me the story later that he had come home from Vietnam and was just like patrolling the neighborhood at night (laughing) and I mean he was still at war. His mother somehow found out about this ARTA training trip. He says, “If I hadn’t a come there, I probably would’ve been one of these guys who went berserk and shot people.” (laughs) He became a river guide, and he eventually became a Transcendental Meditation guy and moved in to Fairfield, Iowa with the Maharishi and the whole deal. That’s a whole other story. Phil Town. Yeah. …

To read more, download the complete interview (pdf)