2 NH families' costly trip on Colorado River hit by shutdown

New Hampshire Sunday News
October 06. 2013 12:30AM
These New Hampshire families are among those stuck at the Grand Canyon waiting to get on the Colorado River. From left are Tyler Covell and Pete Wisniewski, both of Milford; Jon Burson, Tiffany Burson, Jean Lee, Chase Lee, Alison Burson and Heather Burson, all of North Conway. (Courtesy)

It was supposed to be the adventure of a lifetime: A 20-day rafting trip through the Grand Canyon on the Colorado River.

Instead, two New Hampshire families found themselves camping out last week in an Arizona parking lot, after all national parks were closed because of the federal government shutdown.

The Lee family of Conway - parents Scott and Jean and 13-year-old son Chase - and the Bursons of North Conway - parents Jonathan and Tiffany and daughters Heather, 17, and Alison, 13 - made the trip.

They flew to Arizona early last week and got to Lee's Ferry, where the rafting trips start, Tuesday morning. Park rangers were putting up a big red sign stating the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area was closed "due to lack of appropriations."

"Sorry for the inconvenience," it read.

That's when rangers told them they wouldn't be able to put in on the river the next day, despite having paid $2,000 for a permit to do so.

The news was shattering, Scott Lee said.

"The kids are crushed," he said in a phone interview last week.

"They're old enough to understand, but they're crushed. What do you tell them? That's the way a dysfunctional government works? It's tragic."

He added: "It's not just our trip. There's people like us all over the United States right now that are getting screwed. Just at the national park level, people like us are getting their dreams broken in half by a dysfunctional government."

Rafting the Colorado is not a trip undertaken lightly.

Trip leader Pete Wisniewski, who grew up in Milford and now lives in Idaho, has been requesting a permit from the National Park Service since 1995, Lee said; six months ago he got word it had come through.

Their permit date? Oct. 2, 2013.

"We instantly started making preparations," Lee said.

That meant arranging to be away from jobs and schools, finding pet sitters, saving money, buying gear.

Jonathan Burson, an international pilot for Delta, even spent two weeks and $2,400 to attend guide training in British Columbia so he could get his family safely down the river.

Tiffany Burson said the trip was to re-create the expedition of 19th-century explorer John Wesley Powell. She and her daughters have been reading his journals to prepare for their adventure.

Missing three weeks of classes is especially tough for her older daughter, a senior at Kennett High School.

Still, the teens had the blessing of their teachers, who knew it would be an unparalleled educational experience, Burson said.

Chase Lee, an eighth-grader at Kennett Middle School, said he expected to "learn way more here than I would pretty much anywhere else."

"It would have completely changed me when I got off the river," he said.

Instead, they're getting an education of a different sort.

"They're learning more about the government, I think, than they ever have learned before," Burson said. "And that is that things take a very long time to happen."

Alison Burson said she and the other teens are "kind of sad."

How sad? "On a scale of 1 to 10, 13," she said.

It was supposed to be "a chance of a lifetime," she said. "We were just all excited to go."

Instead, Chase Lee said, "it's depressing."

It's impossible to overstate just how much the trip meant to these folks.

"The Grand Canyon," Scott Lee said. "It's everything. It's deep solitude, it's the American West.

"There's all kinds of education going on about geology and water flows and the history of the Indians.

"It's just isolation for 20 days that you never get anywhere else in the world."

Tiffany Burson estimates her family spent $12,000 on travel and equipment for the trip. "We've been talking about it and planning it for at least six months. It's not only financially a strain, but emotionally, it's been very hard."

It was meant to be a last family trip before her older daughter graduates high school.

The owners of nearby Marble Canyon Lodge kindly offered to let them camp in their parking lot while the group waited hopefully for the impasse in Washington, D.C., to be resolved.

Each day, the number of rafting groups joining the Lees and Bursons outside the park has been growing. So has their anger.

"This is my park. This is my road. This is my river," said Lee, a salesman for a manufacturing company. "I paid for it my whole life. So have all these other people sitting here."

And, he said, "they didn't really shut down the government. They just shut down pieces of it . They didn't shut down big business; they didn't shut down the FAA; they didn't shut down the ports."

Instead, it's small businesses - the outfitters who take groups down the river, nearby stores that depend on visitors - and families such as his who are getting hurt in the shutdown, Lee said.

So what have they been doing while they wait? Playing cards, picking flowers, doing some hiking. Drinking lots of coffee.

They've made friends with folks from Idaho, Ohio and Montana.

"The adults are just standing around talking about politics all day long," Scott Lee said.

And in true Granite State fashion, they've also been calling their congressional representatives.

Lee managed to get through directly to Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., and Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, D-N.H., venting his frustration and urging them to negotiate a way out of the mess.

He blames the Obama administration and Democrats for a health-reform law he says most working people don't support. But he blames Republicans, too, "because they're not negotiating right either. They lost the election."

"They're all in the wrong.

"I think that every one of them is an absolute failure at negotiation," he said. "And so therefore, they are inept for their jobs. I will vote every one of them out."

By the end of the week, their optimism was flagging and the families were facing a difficult decision. "I think we're going to probably head back in the next few days," Tiffany Burson said.

Even that presented huge logistical challenges.

"We have 20 days of food on this truck behind me," she said. "What's going to happen to all that? We're going to have to try to see if we can get it to some hungry people. It's all going to spoil if we don't end up doing something."

Even if the park were to open tomorrow, she said, it's likely park rangers would let those scheduled to leave that day on the river ahead of those whose trip dates have already passed. She wonders whether the Park Service will honor their now-expired permit at a later date.

"They're not giving us any answers," she said. "I don't know that they really know. It's depressing."

Late Friday night, Jon Burson said in an email that the group had given up, abandoned the campsite and was "seeking to salvage our time off."

If he could send a message to national leaders, Chase Lee said, it would be this: "Stop."

"I would tell them to sort of slow down and figure it out," he said.And if she could talk to Congress and the President, Alison Burson said, "I would say that we're all really disappointed.''

"We wanted to do this trip; we wanted to do what we came here to do. It's just unfair."

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