Fighting for the Wild
U alum Ken Sleight has taken a legendary path through Utah’s rivers and deserts.
To reach the Colorado River from Ken Sleight’s Pack Creek Ranch south of Moab, you first take a right off of the dirt and gravel Abbey Road, named after Sleight’s longtime friend Edward Abbey, the author who tapped away at a typewriter for a few years in a tiny cabin at Sleight’s ranch.
Pack Creek Ranch is a peaceful place, nestled in the foothills of the La Sal Mountains and surrounded by cottonwood, oak, and evergreen trees. A creek near the sprawling cabin that is Sleight’s home winds its way down the expanse of high desert below the ranch, flowing toward the Colorado River and its network of side canyons that Sleight explored for nearly 30 years as a pioneering river guide. He and Abbey became friends after meeting in July 1967, when Abbey, then a ranger with the U.S. National Park Service, offered to help him put in at Lees Ferry on the Colorado.
The roads and trails through the desert around the river have multiplied over the years. On a recent drive down State Route 128 for a stroll along the banks of the Colorado, Sleight was taken aback by all of the heavy equipment along the river where workers were putting in a paved trail and building two more footbridges to connect the two shores. It’s a scene that in the old days would have moved him to action, the kind that compelled Abbey to use him as the model for the character Seldom Seen Smith in the novel The Monkey Wrench Gang.
“They keep coming and coming. You can’t stop it,” Sleight says.
The wild vastness of Utah’s red rock canyons and the Colorado first beckoned to him in the 1950s, when he began his river-running business and started steering his path away from his accounting department job at Firestone Tire and Rubber in Salt Lake City and toward the desert, which he would eventually wage fierce fights for as an environmental activist.
Sleight BS’55 landed the job at Firestone soon after graduating in business from the University of Utah. Born in Paris, Idaho, he and his five siblings had grown up on farms in Idaho and northern Utah, hanging around in general stores run by their father and uncles. He headed to the U after high school, on track to become a businessman like his father.
Sleight recollects that he was timid when he first came to the University. Stuttering didn’t help. “I was very shy all the time,” he says. “That was an albatross. It hurt, because you can’t speak out when you want to.” He credits speech classes at the U with helping him to gain confidence and overcome not only his stuttering but his shyness. “I had some great teachers at the University,” he says.
But even during college, the outdoors beckoned him away from the classroom. “I kept sloughing,” Sleight recollects. “I always wanted to go hiking and so forth, and I did that.” He also took his first river trip, in 1951 with guide and friend Malcom “Moki Mac” Ellingson. The trip was through Lodore Canyon on the Green River, and Sleight loved all of it—the desert, the water, the time in the rafts.
The Korean War interrupted college for him. He was drafted in 1951 and served in Korea with the U.S. Army’s 48th Field Artillery Battalion, 7th Infantry Division, from June 1952 until September 1953, including a month on the front line near Chuncheon firing Howitzer rounds. He served another year in the Army Reserves after his discharge. Sleight, who reached the rank of sergeant, remembers that even during the war, he and a friend somehow managed to make an impromptu trip on a raft they fashioned out of a tree trunk, branches, and “derelict” boards, using a few of those boards for oars. The two Army buddies floated for an hour or so on the Bukhan River, in the northern Gangwon Province.
When he came back to Utah, he had changed. “I was getting damn good grades,” he says. “I knew I couldn’t get a good job without going to school.” Firestone recruited him as he graduated. He would occasionally attend John Birch Society meetings, though he never officially joined. Sometimes he’d wear a bowtie to work.
But the outdoors kept calling him. So he began turning his daydreams into plans, and saved money from his Firestone job to purchase eight neoprene Army surplus rafts for $35 to $50 each. He wanted to start a business that would allow him to guide people on the adventure of running rivers through canyons, and on horseback trips through the mountains. Back then, he recollects, you didn’t need the “rigmarole” of dealing with permits and approval from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management or the National Forest Service before you could embark on such endeavors. You just went. He began with guiding Boy Scouts down the Green and Colorado rivers. “I didn’t want to sell tires all my life,” Sleight says. “I saw more of a future in the river business than I did with Firestone.”
He used a mimeograph machine to churn out brochures to promote his new line of work, and after a few years of guiding river trips, he quit his Firestone job in 1957, took on odd jobs, and began substitute teaching to help finance his new river-running business. Eventually he moved with his first wife and children to southern Utah, living in Escalante and then Green River. His Wonderland Expeditions, incorporated on April 1, 1957, soon became Ken Sleight Expeditions as he gained a stellar reputation.
“Dad thought I gave up all that schooling to be on the river,” Sleight says now. “But it was seventh heaven, and I made the right decision. I did what I wanted—I’ve always done that. It was an adventure. It was freedom. It was not only the places you’d go, it was the people—people with great ideas. I enjoyed that.”
Sleight guided epic river trips throughout the Colorado River system, through Cataract, Grand, Desolation, and Glen canyons, for three decades. In 1990, he began dismantling his business, transferring operations in Grand and Glen canyons to his son Mark. He sold the Cataract, Lodore, and Desolation canyon operations to separate buyers. “My last commercial river trip was down the Grand Canyon,” he says. So storied was his career that last year, Sleight was inducted into the River Runners Hall of Fame at the John Wesley Powell River History Museum in Green River, Utah.
Glen Canyon was Sleight’s favorite place as a river runner, and he loved the stops along the way, such as Music Temple and Rainbow Bridge. Construction on the Glen Canyon Dam began in late 1956, much to his dismay. But he continued to take passengers on float trips through the canyon, from 1957 to 1963, when the floodgates of the dam were closed and Lake Powell began to form.
In The Monkey Wrench Gang, published in 1975, Abbey wrote that the character Seldom Seen Smith, a lapsed Mormon and river runner, called the newly created Lake Powell “the blue death.” In the book, Smith kneels atop the dam and prays “for a little pre-cision earthquake right here.” He also helps a friend drive a road grader off a cliff and into the reservoir, and helps dynamite a coal train, among other exploits.
Sleight today still demurs on how much of the monkey-wrenching in the book was based on reality. “Your conscience tells you what you can do if you feel like paying the price, but don’t tell others what you did—that’s where you get them into the picture [as a witness in court],” Sleight says. “So, you do things on your own, but you don’t tell anyone about it.”
At one point, Sleight and others started a Sierra Club chapter in Moab, hopeful it would help push the agenda of one day getting rid of the Glen Canyon Dam and what he still calls “Lake Foul,” instead of Lake Powell. But they didn’t get the backing they needed, so Sleight and others quit, calling the Sierra Club back then a “milquetoast” operation.
The rivers, Sleight says, had talked the timidity out of him as he told stories to his clients along the way. And the more time he spent outdoors, exploring Utah’s red rock country, the more he and his political views shifted from the conservatism of his youth. He eventually served for eight years as chairman of the local Democratic Party Club in San Juan County. He protested and marched for various causes alongside Navajo and Ute Indians and environmental groups.
Dams. Roads. Overgrazing. Bridges. Drilling for oil in wilderness areas. Sleight had the “guts,” as he puts it, to speak up over the years. After the Glen Canyon Dam was completed in the late 1960s, he helped fight a proposed highway that would have bridged across the Escalante River near Stevens Arch, and won. “That effort was my greatest environmental accomplishment,” he says now.
Sometimes he lost. He and David Brower, then head of the Sierra Club, sued the federal government in order to preserve Rainbow Bridge National Monument, which was being flooded by the Glen Canyon Dam, and won the battle in federal district court, but were overruled in the federal Circuit Court of Appeals.
In the early 1990s, Sleight, then in his early 60s, saddled his horse Knothead and rode to Amasa Back Mesa near Moab, standing down bulldozers before they began to take down several hundred acres of juniper forest. The Caterpillar advanced right up to him and his horse, but Sleight didn’t back down, and his audacity helped prompt a moratorium on the forest’s destruction, according to the local bimonthly newspaper, The Canyon Country Zephyr. He made a similar stand against a road grader in another nearby area, but there, the people and machines won. He and Jim Stiles, publisher of the Zephyr, also more formally protested a proposed highway through the Book Cliffs region of Utah, and prevailed.
Stiles says Sleight has waged plenty of quixotic crusades over the years, and yet played a real role in preserving some key areas and raising awareness about the need for conservation. “A lot of us see overwhelming odds and give up,” Stiles says. “Ken seems to thrive on fighting those kinds of odds. I think that’s something missing these days and a lesson from Ken that’s so important. It’s the integrity that you bring to the fight that counts.”
Sleight in 1999 received the David R. Brower Conservation Award, which honors individuals for their “dramatic, positive impact on conservation efforts in the Colorado Plateau region.” Sleight’s love of Utah’s rivers also has moved him to help others who were similarly enamored, including SPLORE founder Martha Ham MS’77 MSW’90. Sleight mentored her more than 30 years ago, to help her start her own river-running business, with its own unique twist of taking people of all abilities, notably the disabled, on river trips.
Most recently, Sleight has been a supporter of activist and fellow U alum Tim DeChristopher BS’09, who served a two-year prison term until this past April for monkey-wrenching a 2008 federal oil and gas lease auction in Salt Lake City by offering fake bids, which resulted in the auction being called off. Sleight met DeChristopher at a rally in Salt Lake to show his support and visited with the younger man before, during, and after the trial and prison term. “I think he’s done great,” Sleight says. “He’s got guts.”
DeChristopher says he read Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang when he was 17 or 18 years old, long before he learned the model for Seldom Seen was very real and living in Utah. “I think he is an example of principled courage,” says DeChristopher, who has been working in recent months at a bookstore in Salt Lake City.
These days, Sleight spends most of his time at the Pack Creek Ranch, raising horses and tending alfalfa with his second wife, Jane, whom he married in 1983. Jane recalls that when they first met—on a river trip, of course—Sleight had a quart of milk, a Slim Jim sausage, and a dictionary in the front of his pickup. “I said, ‘So, what’s with the dictionary,’ ” she says with a laugh. “He said, ‘I’m writing a book.’ So, he’s been writing a book for as long as I’ve known him, and for about 20 years before that.”
Sleight admits he’s still writing that book, inside his office on the ranch. Instead of sipping Jim Beam from his omnipresent coffee mug, he’s switched to actual coffee these days. He and Jane have also been busy in recent months with packing boxes, preparing to move out of the sprawling cabin on the ranch that they’ve long called home and into a trailer near Sleight’s office.
At the kitchen table in the cabin, Sleight produces a box of old photographs, many depicting in black and white a man gripping oars on a wild river or the reins of a horse as he rides through the mountains. The plan is maybe to finish that book, take Spot and Apache for rides on dirt roads and trails, and to give presentations inside a large room inside the old cabin—the same room where Abbey once spoke to a group as part of Ken and Jane’s “Conversation at Pack Creek Ranch” reading program. Sleight now wants to use that room to show people slides and movies from the old days—times spent running rivers, guiding horse trips, tilting at windmills.
—Stephen Speckman is a journalist and photographer based in Salt Lake City and a frequent contributor to Continuum.