Herm Hoops took the river less paddled and found his purpose

By Jared Blackley

If you ever met Herm Hoops on the river, you’d remember. He was the river guide wearing a baseball cap with an oversize toucan beak on it. His expansive smile, irreverent wit and crass sense of humor are fixtures on the rivers of the Colorado Plateau for more than four decades.

Whether working as a park ranger at Dinosaur National Monument, floating the river as a guide, repairing rafts at his home or shuttling boats and guests to and from the river, he’s by nature gregarious with travelers and locals, sharing his experiences and alerting people to threats facing the rivers he loves.

Hoops began advocating for rivers after his first trip to Echo Park in Dinosaur National Monument in the early 1970s. The remote site where the Yampa and Green rivers converge was once a refuge and hideout for Butch Cassidy and his outlaw gang. But the fact that the river was almost dammed and the area submerged under a reservoir affected Hoops. He began a push to make the 83-mile section of river below Echo Park a national monument.

Dressed to the nines: River guide Herm Hoops and wife, Val, celebrate their anniversary on the river in 1993

This section, known as Desolation Canyon, meanders through one of the most isolated and rugged regions in the country. It’s the largest area in the contiguous 48 states with no road running through it. What we now call the Green River has been carving its way through this area for 10 to 15 million years. From the river, cliffs rise up on either side like giant sandstone layer cakes—a layer of shale then cliff, shale then more cliff. Every bend offers something new, from rapids to ruins, petroglyphs to wildlife. The deepest part of the canyon is cut more than a mile below the top of the Tavaputs Plateau—nearly as deep as the deepest section of the Grand Canyon.

To Hoops, this stretch of river has always felt like home. He began running it several times a year and estimates he’s run it more than 100 times over his life.

Though the petition to turn Desolation Canyon into a national monument went nowhere, Hoops’ advocacy of rivers had begun. On the local and national front, he continued to advocate for the fragile desert river systems of the Colorado Plateau where he met with both success and failure.

He spearheaded a campaign to create a boat passageway and fish ladders at the Tusher Dam diversion near the town of Green River. Now, for the first time in more than a century, it’s possible to completely navigate the river from the base of Flaming Gorge Dam to its confluence with the Colorado River.

But, he says, he also “spent months pissing into the wind” attempting to get various interest groups along the White River to agree that oil pumps should be removed—not replaced—when they wear out. His advocacy on behalf of Utah’s rivers helped turn Desolation Canyon into the largest wilderness study area in the state. And in 2018, Congress designated the lower 60 miles of the canyon as a Wild and Scenic River, protecting it, in many ways, for future generations.

Now in his 70s, Hoops’ river days sadly are behind him. Because of health issues, he took his final trip down Desolation Canyon in October 2018, just a few weeks after being inducted into the John Wesley Powell River Museum Hall of Fame (there’s even a short film about that journey on YouTube titled The Salad Days). A few years prior, he’d been diagnosed with COPD and placed on oxygen, A short while later, he learned he had an aggressive form of prostate cancer. Amid these life-changing diagnoses, he also had a hip replacement.

All the while, he was working on an extensive archive on the history of inflatable boats, a project he completed in 2018 and turned over to the University of Utah’s Special Collections in the J. Willard Marriott Library.

He fights back tears when he talks about the river and his most memorable trips, most of which were done alone or with just a few others. Earlier in their marriage, his wife, Valerie, and he would celebrate their anniversary on the river. At camp, he’d dress up in a Sergeant Pepper-like band-leader uniform while she donned a cocktail dress and a parasol. They’d enjoy wine and cheese and then serve shrimp or scallops.

“We were madly in love,” he says. “We still are. She’s a very important part of my life.”

Most of his solo trips down Desolation Canyon took place in the off-season, just after the river ice melted or before it froze. “I really preferred solo trips because there was only one asshole I had to deal with,” he jokes. “I didn’t have to talk if I didn’t want to. I didn’t have to socialize. I could write or just stare at the river or the canyon walls. One of the most beautiful things about a river is that it doesn’t care about us. It doesn’t care about our economics or our dams or our need for water. A river just does what a river does.”

He reminisces about river otters floating alongside his raft for nearly a mile and the time he watched a herd of elk cross the river. Then he recalls watching a mountain lion come down to the bank for a drink. “He had no idea I was there, man,” Hoops says, noting such wildlife encounters seldom occur on group trips.

“At night,” he continues, “I lie in bed and imagine I’m on the river. I imagine I’m lying on a sandbank. I see the river in my mind. I think about the weather on certain trips. But I can’t hear [the river]. I can’t smell it. I can’t feel it.”

That’s the hardest part, he says. “I really miss the river, and memories only go so far.”

The river regularly surprised him with almost ethereal experiences. “When the moonlight comes down a canyon wall,” he says, “it can be just like sunrise.”

And just before dusk, as the canyon walls darken, the buttes and mesas high above reflect the last rays of the sun so brightly that the rocks appear to be radiating light. Within a few minutes, the rocks darken, and the stars appear, vast and incalculable.

And the river, of course, does what a river does. It flows on.