You can learn a lot about a Grand Canyon river guide by asking them their favorite rapid.
“My favorite rapid is Houserock Rapid, having had some exciting runs through it,” said Simon Sellin.
Houserock Rapid can be a tricky rapid to run. All of its current pushes left and smashes against a cliff wall, where it rebounds back into the main river channel, now going to the right. The river turning back on itself creates two massive standing waves, which forever stand there ready to catch an unwary, or unseasoned, river runner and flip their raft and turn their day into chaos.
To complete a successful run through Houserock Rapid requires river knowledge and a balance between strength and finesse. And a good bit of brinksmanship. It’s a pretty good metaphor for the way Sellin has made her way through life.
Sellin has done somewhere between 175 and 200 river trips through the Grand Canyon during her career as a river guide. “I quit counting after trip 150,” she said.
She started guiding in 1989 for a boutique river company called Moqui Mac. She’d row nine or ten trips for them during the summer season and add two or three more during the winter rowing for the National Park Service or Science.
A few years ago Moqui Mac sold their company to Arizona Raft Adventures (AZRA) and she now rows two to three trips a year for them.
“I mostly do it for the fun of it now,” she said, “though the money is nice too.”
Sellin is also famous for her painted ammo cans and for restoring Houserock. Houserock is a historic house that sits at the junction of highway 89-A and Houserock Valley Road.
Sellin’s father was a Marine so she moved around a lot, living in Quantico, Virg., Twenty-nine Palms, Calif., and Kailua, Hawaii. After high school she attended Humboldt State where she majored in art and English.
In 1988 she was living in Sierra Foothills, Calif., where she worked at an Elementary School. That summer she and some friends went on a river trip, and it changed her life.
“I loved it!” she said.
The timing was pretty good too. Her daughter, Willow, was attending San Francisco State. Sellin was free to try something new if she wanted to.
“I’d always wanted to do some sort of outdoor job and decided that I would come back the next spring and get a job on the river.”
During that summer of 1989 Sellin saw Houserock for the first time. It was originally built in 1877 and had been abandoned for decades.
“It was just a ruin then,” said Sellin.
But its old architecture and especially its location intrigued her, and she found herself imagining what it would be like to restore it and live there, alone in the desert surrounded by all that silence and beauty.
At the end of her first river season Sellin took a job as a waitress at Marble Canyon. On one of her days off she drove to the old house and walked through it.
“It had no doors, no windows, it needed a new roof, and every room was full of trash,” she recalls. “It was too far gone to even be called a house anymore.”
But in October she still moved in. Kind of. She didn’t so much move in as move onto the property. She set up a tent and a river kitchen behind the house and there she camped while she began cleaning and fixing up the abandoned house.
Though it was a broken down, shattered mess, she could see it contained great potential. The original house has two-foot thick stone walls, which were still in good shape. These she kept. Other rooms, with wood walls, had been added on later. They were warped and broken. These she removed and hauled away.
Within a few months she had restored one of the house’s rooms to the point she could move into it. She moved her river kitchen into one of its corners and added a wood stove. She then added insulation, windows and a generator. With one room finished she then moved on to the next room, then the next.
When she had restored the original structure within the stone walls she began adding rooms. She never got a bank loan for the house restoration but purchased materials for it bit by bit when she had extra money.
“The exterior walls are wood and there are still a few gaps between them and the original stone walls,” she said. “When the wind blows my houseplants flutter.”
When Sellin needed a break from restoring the house she returned to her art. She paints watercolors, creates punch-tin work, etches block prints, prints greeting cards and makes picture frames and mirrors. It was during her first river season when a fellow river guide suggested she paint some ammo cans with scenes from the Grand Canyon. Boatmen store their personal gear in ammo cans because they’re waterproof. They all have them and Sellin’s friend thought they might like something more creative than a boring old ammo can.
So she painted a few. They were an immediate hit! She’s been painting them ever since.
One day that first year it dawned on her that she had created for herself a wonderful life. She made a good living rafting the Grand Canyon, she created art and sold it, and she restored Houserock.
She met Tim, the man who is now her husband, during Thanksgiving 1995 and he helped her complete its restoration. By 1998 it was pretty much finished, although, “it’s still a work in progress,” Sellin said.
One day, almost as soon as she started fixing up Houserock, she realized she was living a great life, she said. As a river guide she worked doing a job she loved in a place that was nothing less than a natural temple. In her free time she got to restore a historic building and live in it. And she was creating and selling art.
Houserock is isolated and that’s part of the idea, Sellin said. She and her husband drive to Page every Wednesday to shop. If they get home and realize they forgot something, they do without it for a week.
Houserock is bordered on the north by the majestic Vermilion Cliffs and to the south they have long views of the desert and distant blue mountains.
“I love my view,” said Sellin, “and it’s usually a peaceful place to be.”
Sellin no longer does a full season as a river guide, but still does two or three trips a year, just for the fun of it.
“I like the environment,” she said. “I like all the different side canyons. And I really like meeting all the different people during a trip.
“My time as a guide has taught me a lot about people, which is not to judge them prematurely. By the time I’ve spent a couple weeks with them on the river I realize that they’re very different people than I thought they were at the beginning of the trip.”