Federal authorities have charged two would-be Grand Canyon guides for taking 90 clients from the Valley on an unauthorized, rim-to-rim day hike.
Duane Hager, a Litchfield Park real estate agent, and his business partner Michael Stephens, the principals of Rim to Rim Adventures, face four counts related to defrauding the government, failing to obtain a commercial-use permit and lying to forest rangers.
The pair formed an LLC for the business and launched a website in May. It looks like the rim-to-rim misadventure on June 1, a 23-mile slog from North Kaibab to the top of Bright Angel Trail on the South Rim, was their first major trip.
That morning, according to a federal complaint filed in U.S. District Court on Friday, Ranger Della Yurcik was on patrol at the Roaring Spring Ranger Station a few miles below the North Rim when she saw 20 people with daypacks hiking together on the North Kaibab trail, each wearing gray T-shirts that read, "R2R 2013" on the front.
One of the hikers told Yurcik they were part of a 90-member group that had signed on for the one-day trek with Rim to Rim Adventures. Each member paid $175 for the guides, two chartered buses from the Valley and the T-shirts. A night in a hotel and meals weren't included.
Yurcik soon encountered Hager, who told the ranger that he had organized the trip for friends and "friends of friends" and gave her some estimates -- which later proved incorrect -- for the trip expenses.
Hager told Yurcik he and Stephens had reviewed the Grand Canyon National Park's rules about obtaining a Commercial Use Authorization permit, but decided it didn't apply to them.
The complaint emphasizes that the park's website defines commercial guiding as collecting a fee that's higher than the trip expenses.
Another ranger ran into Stephens' wife, Jenn, and other group members near Phantom Ranch. When the ranger asked the woman if Rim to Rim Adventures was a business, Jenn Stephens supposedly replied, "Yes. Was I supposed to tell you that?"
The complaint also notes that one of the group members was a doctor who took some medical supplies on the hike and ended up giving IV fluids to three hikers who were experiencing dehydration.
Hager and Stephens were interviewed by federal officials the next day. The feds thought the pair was not completely honest about the expenses of the trip, the complaint shows, implying that the would-be guides were trying to hide the the amount of profit they made, estimated at $10,711. The actual return would have a been lower, though, because the pair paid for the bus drivers' lodging and for the group's T-shirts.
We left a message for Hager on Tuesday but haven't yet heard back.
A Commercial Authorization Use permit for day hiking in the Grand Canyon costs $350. But that's irrelevant in this case because the trip could never have taken place as it did under park rules. Commercial services are prohibited from taking clients from the rim to the river and back to the rim in one day, and also from taking more than 11 clients at a time to the inner canyon.
The park service declined comment on the pending case.
It's unclear what sort of punishment Hager and Stephens face if convicted.
Two years ago, we wrote of another guide, James Reich, who was busted by the feds for failing to obtain proper permits for his guide service. Reich was sentenced to two days in jail, banned from national forests for six months, and prohibited from working as a guide in national forests for 18 months. His business, Sedona Red Rock Adventures, is still in operation doing tours, but not backcountry guiding.
Reich says obtaining commercial guiding permits from federal authorities isn't easy. He's been told by authorities that permits for guiding in Red Rock Country near Sedona won't be available for years.
"Small businesses like me, they don't give a damn about," Reich says.
Rim to Rim's website shows that Hager and Stephens have plans to guide hikers to Humphreys Peak in August, followed by trips in the next year or so to Yosemite, Zion and the Grand Canyon. The August 30 hike to Yosemite's Half Dome is sold out, the site says.
Clients will want to inquire with Rim to Rim whether this bust will affect their travel plans.