The Interview: George Wendt, O.A.R.S.
About six years ago, when I first met George Wendt, the founder and president of O.A.R.S., I knew I was in the presence of a legend. But you wouldn’t know it from talking with this tall, soft spoken man with a quirky sense of humor. George is one of the godfathers of adventure travel, one of the first people to raft down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon back in the 60's. It was a word-of-mouth trip back then, but in 1969 he officially got into the rafting business. That first company, Gooch-Wendt Expeditions, ran the first professional trips on the Colorado River and was selected as the first exclusively oar-powered rafting operator in Grand Canyon National Park, when it was renamed O.A.R.S. (Outdoor Adventure River Specialists). O.A.R.S. is now the gold standard for rafting companies. When George is not in a raft, he can be found at home in the small northern California community of Angels Camp in Calaveras County.
Rafting the Grand Canyon. Photo by James Kaiser.
George, how did you get into river rafting?
I got into river rafting as a component of my educational studies at UCLA in the early 1960s. Because of my interest in the outdoors – honed through my time as a Scout as I earned the rank of Eagle, I joined the Bruin Mountaineers – a group that did hiking, rock climbing, caving, skiing and mountaineering. One summer, one of the group organized a trip on the Colorado River going through Glen Canyon. Right after school got out in June, we headed to Utah for a 10-day river trip. This experience changed my life!
River rafting beautifully combines relaxation and excitement. The element of excitement is easy for most people to understand and it is this idea of adventure that motivates many of our guests to join us. On the other hand, it is hard to describe to someone who hasn’t done a river trip, but the element of total tranquility – as one is able to see things from the new perspective of a moving river or from an idyllic campsite – is really quite compelling and it is this trip component that often becomes the part of the vacation that people remember most fondly.
What’s changed on the Colorado in the last 40 years?
The Colorado River is much more regulated that it was when we started offering trips and more people take the trip every year than did back in the early 1970s. Interestingly enough, however, the river usually feels less crowded than it did as rafting was just gaining in popularity and the Grand Canyon is actually cleaner than it was 35 to 40 years ago. All trash and human waste is packed out of the canyon and the National Park Service scheduling of trips provides a semi-wilderness feel even during the most popular travel times during the summer. Another major change is that trips are much more spread out seasonally and many people have found that April and October are the best times to experience the Grand Canyon with quite moderate temperatures.
Wine tasting on a river trip. Photo by James Kaiser.
More broadly, how has river rafting changed, in terms of technique or equipment? Or has it?
The things that most people would immediately notice, if they compared river rafting today with the way it was 35 to 40 years ago, is the amazing improvement in equipment and the fact that trips today offer many more creature comforts. For example, in the late 1960s, essentially all rafts were surplus military gear from WWII. The rubber rafts that we used then were old and they frequently needed pumping more than once per day. Today, there is a wide selection of newly manufactured rafts available – quite often with self-bailing inflatable floors – which relieves passengers of the job of bailing the water out of their raft after rapids. We supply comfortable chairs, convenient two-person tents and self-inflating air mattresses that include a nice foam sleeping surface. The guides prepare a variety of great outdoor meals which are often described by our passengers as “gourmet” in quality.
What kind of skill or fitness levels do I need for river rafting?
Perhaps surprisingly, a high level of physical fitness is not usually necessary for river rafting. Rivers are graded on a scale that generally goes from Class I to V. Level II is very easy – such that we can commonly take a 4-year old child. Most of the rivers that we offer are rated Class III and the minimum age for these trips is usually 7. Passengers will likely enjoy their trip more, however, if they describe themselves as being in “reasonably good shape.” Individuals who take time to do regular exercise before their trip will naturally have the opportunity for more side canyon hiking and this often adds considerably to their overall trip enjoyment.
How about your guides. How are they chosen, and what kinds of skills do they have?
Our guides are chosen based upon their technical boating skills and also based upon their ability to get along with a wide variety of people. The technical boat handling skills are actually the easier part of the requirement for many applicants. The ability to work harmoniously with many other guides is also an important prerequisite. Essentially, this means that we are looking for friendly, outgoing individuals who genuinely like people. Once we hire our guides for their people skills and their general boating abilities, we provide extensive training that covers trip organization, meal preparation, first aid, and interpretation about the areas we traverse.
Chilko River in British Columbia. Photo by Peter Moynes.
Tell me about some of your favorite waters for rafting worldwide.
We are privileged to be able to offer trips on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon since this is generally considered the best river trip in the world. The Grand Canyon offers spectacular red rock canyon country with great rapids and a true wilderness feeling. The list of the other best rivers generally includes the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho – well known for its mountain scenery in a forested environment with great whitewater; the Chilko River in British Columbia – offering another week-long trip, with great whitewater, passing through a variety of landscapes from lush forest to the arid interior “desert” country of the Fraser River Canyon north of Vancouver; the Futaleufu River in Chile – which offers some of the best rapids in the world in another spectacular mountain environment; The Gauley River in West Virginia – which offers superb rapids highlighted by beautiful fall coloring when it is run in September and October; and the Navua River in Fiji – a river that passes through an amazingly narrow slice of tropical rainforest – and is becoming known as one of the best one-day river trips in the world.
Are there some areas of the world that have yet to be fully explored by intrepid river rafters?
Most areas of the world have now been fairly extensively explored by river adventurers. Sobek Expeditions, of which I was a part for almost 20 years when it was based in Angels Camp, did more explorations in remote areas of the world than anyone else. My partners and I ran the first trip on the Bio Bio River in Chile (before it was flooded by a new dam), the Zambezi River between Zambia and Zimbabwe, as well as rivers in Ethiopia (the Omo River offered, without a doubt, the most exotic river trip in the world) Turkey, India, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and many other parts of Latin America and Africa.
Lava Falls, Grand Canyon. P
hoto by James Kaiser.
Where is OARS headed next – any new trips we should look out for?
O.A.R.S. is looking to offer a trip to New Zealand, perhaps starting in 2011, by combining a number of fairly short river trips like those we run in California. New Zealand offers such beautiful scenery and we think the rafting will provide a nice base around which we can build a great 10-day trip. We are also looking to extend our offerings in Fiji. The friendly people there make this a very interesting area to explore and, unlike many tropical areas there is no malaria or “green snakes.” In fact, Fiji has often been compared to Hawaii from 50 years ago. In Fiji, we also have found great sea kayaking and, with the growing popularity of sea kayaking, we anticipate extending our sea kayaking offerings to areas of the Mediterranean such as Croatia, Turkey, Greece – including Crete.
How often are you on the road?
I am actually on the road a lot less now than I was 5 to 10 years ago as we were still expanding our offerings in North America. In the past, there were some times when I was gone from home almost half of the year. Now, I still try to get out on two or three special trips a year but I can’t leave home without a feeling of guilt about the work that others have to take over for me to keep all of our trips running smoothly while I am gone! Fortunately, I have a wonderful wife of 40 years who takes care of everything at home and we have two sons who are working to take over the company’s management responsibilities.
O.A.R.S. offers trips on the Colorado and other rivers in the U.S. West, including the
Tuolumne, Merced, American and the Klamath rivers in California, the
Rogue River in southern Oregon, the Salmon River in Idaho and the
Colorado, Green and Yampa rivers in Utah and Colorado. They also offer
sea kayaking and multi-sport trips in the West as well as throughout
western Canada, Fiji and Latin America. For more information, contact O.A.R.S.