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Jim and Elda Sarten
by Joan Gough

In the early years of tourism in Moab, most businesses were family affairs often run by a husband and wife team. Elda and Jim Sarten were such a team, not in spite of their differences, but because of them. As guide Andrea Stoughton put it, “Elda was the backbone of the business--the organizer and bookkeeper. Jim was wild and impulsive.” One of many impulsive and wild adventures of Jim’s was rafting the rapids below Niagara Falls. This is how James Butler reported the story in The Evening Independent, September 23, 1974, “ The first words that came through the static on the walkie-talkie were ‘he’s breathing.’ ”

“Forty people let out their breath. The man who was breathing was Jim Sarten, a man with no press agent and no headline--just a man who looked at the impossible and said, “yeah . . .I think I can do it. And if they try to stop me I’ll hide in the bushes and ride that river in the middle of the night.

Photo of Jim and Elda Sarten in Ensenada Mexic
Jim and Elda in Ensendada, Mexico on a family vacation in 2004
“Jim Sarten rode an open raft down the rapids that are the deadliest part of Niagara Falls, and no man had ever done that before. He did it for a scene in The Great Niagara, the ABC Tuesday Movie of the Week.”

Jim flipped on that run, but made it to shore without the boat. According to his son Jay, one reason he made it may have been the miniature scuba bottle he had strapped to his leg with a breathing tube run under his clothing. It supplied him with three to five breaths of air. Jim was pulled out of the water unconscious. He told Jay the last thing he remembered was the green water getting darker, not lighter. Jim made it into the Niagara Hall of Fame for that stunt, was fined $250.00 by the Canadian government and paid $2,000.00 by the movie company.

Most Moabites remember Jim and Elda as the owners of North American River Expeditions. They also owned and operated Canyonlands Campground, the Inca Inn and the restaurant next door. After a year they separated the two and sold the restaurant. Prior to that they had managed the Town and Country, a dinner and dance club in the Energy Building. For a few years in the 1970’s Elda ran her own all-female company called Wild Water River Expeditions. In his retirement, Jim imported and sold “swing” patio chairs. Flashing his irrepressible grin, Jim told Donna Brownell, “These chairs will make me my second million.”

That was Jim’s last business adventure before his death on March 17, 2011 in Grand Junction, Colorado. He and his sweetheart, as he called Elda in their later years, had been married for 51 years. When they were younger, their daughter Cris Sarten, said it was more likely to have been, “Dammit, Babe!” She added, “Mom ran the business, raised three kids and dealt with Dad, but you never found her complaining or unhappy.” In 2003 Elda was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. She lives in Fruita, Colorado.
Jim Sarten and unknown companion in Costa Rica panning for gold around 1977 or 1978

Jim and Elda had three children, Cris, who they adopted after ten years of marriage, and then a year later had Jay, and two years after that Steve. At that point Cris says they decided that was enough of that. Raising their kids always included volunteering in the Grand County Schools. It’s another part of who they were--doing what needed to be done whether glamorous or not. They donated their buses to the elementary schools for field trips which budget cuts had eliminated during the uranium bust years of the 1980’s.

Cris, Jay and Steve all told me, “It was a wonderful childhood.” They spent many days with Jim on the river (Elda was afraid of the water and seldom went), running Westwater, Cataract Canyon and the Daily. They were exposed, not only to the river and the wild country it ran through, but also customers in all their variety, many of whom returned year after year becoming family friends.

Elda and Jim were family to many others in Moab including their boatmen, or more formally, guides, and less so, river rats. Guide, Debi Braggs Sholly recalls, “They were like family to us, Mom and Dad. Sometimes it was easy to get mad at Jim because of his impulsiveness, but because we all loved him, we would just sigh, go along with him and try to stay out of the range of fire.” For Jim had a temper as well as a great sense of humor.

Jim Sarten off Lake Powell

Debi tells the story of Jim firing her once, after working for him for five or six seasons. “Then, when I didn’t show up to rig for my trip on Saturday morning, he called me at home and asked me where the hell I was, and did I think my boat was going to rig itself? He had conveniently forgotten he had fired me, and when I brought it to his attention, he said, “Oh, hell, you know me, I was just pissed off. Get in here. You’ve got a trip going out tomorrow.” Neither of us ever mentioned it again. We were both hot-tempered, but we both got over it easily.”

Jim was a story teller. The Times-Independent ran a letter from LX Skye after Jim’s death. Skye was passing through Moab in 1976, staying at the Canyonlands Campground when he ran into Jim. “He took me aside and said, ‘Let me tell you a little story . . .’ That was 36 years ago, and I have been here ever since [working for the Sartens part of that time].”

Jim had stories to tell because he lived them. He ran trips on the Rio Grande Santiago in Mexico, where they would pull into a little village and trade beer for chickens. He operated on the Animas River in western Colorado, pioneered the jet boat business on the Colorado River, and panned for gold in Costa Rica in the late 1970’s with his father Archie Fall would often find him sailing in the Sea of Cortez, celebrating the end of another river season.

From raising kids, to business and marriage, Elda and Jim made it work for themselves, their family and employees while contributing to the health and prosperity of the community they had made home.

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