The Famous River Hot Dog Man pointed his jet boat downriver to survey his kingdom and customers. A few hundred people, some sunburned, floated around on the pink and orange inner tubes he rented out on this scorching Monday afternoon, all of them bobbing in his wake as he sped south in the Delaware’s clear, warm water.
Many pumped their fists in the air as he passed. One group needed a new inner tube. Two women wanted a tow to a dock that floated by an island he owns, where a free meal awaited. Hot dogs, of course. That’s what Greg Crance is known for.
“Hey, what’s up? What’s your question?” Crance asked a tuber who waved him down.
“Ah nothing, man. I was just hoping you were going to deliver us some hot dogs,” the fellow said.
Crance assured him the wieners were “right around the corner.”
“You’re five minutes away from hot dog heaven.”
Tubing is about the simplest form of outdoor recreation in the shallow, non-tidal stretch of the Delaware north of Trenton, and the 55-year-old Crance is one of several outfitters who’ve made a business out of it. For $42.06, cheaper if you’re in a group, customers get a large, inflatable tube to float down the river. The trip is about five miles, guided by the current, and usually lasts about three hours, depending on water levels and weather. In the non-tidal Delaware, including New York, approximately a dozen businesses offer tubing, canoeing, or kayaking rentals. Thousands of people simply do it on their own, as well, with their own tubes, and get picked up downriver.
The recent heat wave has boosted business, Crance said, but he knows the weather is fickle. A big rain can affect water levels and shut him down for days.
“It’s been 90 degrees every day, but what if it had been raining since the Fourth of July?” he said. “I’d be crying the blues, and no one would help me.”
Although the river is often less than five feet deep and sometimes just a few inches, there’s an inherent danger for anyone who doesn’t know how to swim. Earlier this month, farther north in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, a New York City man slipped out of a tube and drowned.
On Monday, Crance stopped the boat to watch a man in a life jacket swimming hard toward a raft, where a woman extended a paddle to him.
“Hey, if you don’t think you’re a strong swimmer, you should probably stay in the raft,” he told the man.
Crance declined to say exactly how much his insurance premiums were but joked that he pays for many vacations his insurance agent takes.
There’s “a small, squeaky group of people who don’t like tubers,” he said, and running the business hasn’t been totally free of headaches. In March, the Newark Star-Ledger reported that New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection was seeking bids for a different tubing concession to operate at Delaware & Raritan Canal State Park, which Crance utilizes to drop off and pick up passengers.
The DEP declined to comment on Crance’s operation Tuesday, saying it was an “active litigation” matter. A June 14 letter the DEP sent to him claims he owes $43,000 in overdue concession payments. Crance said he is working to make the DEP “happy and work out a very amicable deal that benefits the public.”
Crance promises customers a free barbecue meal at his floating grill on an island in the river, just about halfway to the exit point. It’s two hot dogs or one burger. On Monday, with temperatures climbing into the mid-90s, Crance said he had weekend-like numbers, and customers were lined up 100 feet into the island for hot dogs. The hot dogs are the hook, he believes.
“You’re not tubing unless you stop at the Famous River Hot Dog Man,” he said.
Crance said he moved all over the country as a child before his family settled in Doylestown. His parents later bought a house in Point Pleasant, Bucks County, by the river. Crance joined the Marine Corps at 18 and met his wife, Megumi, in Okinawa. After the Marines, he sold cars and copiers, but in 1987, after another tubing outfitter complained about his own customers drinking and littering on the water, he set up his floating grill and began feeding tubers.
“I like to think of it as a rest stop, if you will, in the middle of the river,” he said.
In 2003, Crance purchased his own tubing operation, Delaware River Tubing, upriver in Milford. He says he gets tens of thousands of customers per summer, and employs about 75 locals who grill hot dogs, drive school buses to transport tubers, and corral them to the exit. He’s not shy about trumping up the river, either.
“You can have as good or better experience than going to a private island in the Caribbean,” he said.
At the family’s tubing headquarters in Milford, a long line of customers stretched into the parking lot, with people grabbing tubes and life jackets before hopping onto the blue buses that would take them to the launch ramp. Inside, Yuuji Crance, 34, Greg’s oldest son, had a phone constantly buzzing at his hip. He’s Delaware River Tubing’s operations manager.
“I was basically born on the river,” Yuuji said.
Greg has been passing down more of the responsibility to his son, but Yuuji says there will never be another Famous River Hot Dog Man.
“There’s no replacing my father.”