BY CLAIRE SYKES
NO WAY WOULD he do it. The pool was too deep and he was too scared. But if 12-year-old George Wendt was ever going to become an Eagle Scout, he had to earn his swimming merit badge first, and that meant jumping into water over his head.
For someone who “didn’t like the water,” says Wendt of himself then, he ended up taking one heck of a U-turn eight years later. His Eagle rank long realized, he found himself for the first time gripping a paddle as he dodged boulders and logs in a rubber raft charging through the white-water rapids of the Colorado River.
“It was captivating,” he says. “I was hooked.” Today, Wendt runs one of the most successful rafting and sea kayaking operations in North America.
Since 1969, Outdoor Adventure River Specialists (O.A.R.S.) has enjoyed a steady stream of business, with more than 500,000 boating enthusiasts drifting and whipping down 35 rivers and coastlines from Alaska to Chile and Colorado to Fiji. The adventure- travel leader offers 75 eclectic itineraries (mostly on the water) by raft and sea kayak, hiking boot and horse, and mountain bike.
O.A.R.S.’s special-interest options focus on geology, wildlife viewing and photography, wine and craft beer tasting, gourmet dining, chartered trips, and family and singles vacations. Whether it’s a one-day white-water jaunt or a two-week journey, the company’s tours guide everyone from the budding boater to the experienced explorer.
Wendt (not to be confused with the famed Cheers actor) kicked off his own outdoor adventures with the Boy Scouts in Pacific Palisades, California. “I was fortunate to be in such an active troop and have a scoutmaster who encouraged me,” he says.
While a history major at UCLA, in 1962, Wendt tackled his first rapids, on the Colorado River through Glen Canyon. “As we approached them, their roar engendered in me a sense of eager anticipation and a joy of living in the moment,” he tells The Connection. “And there were beautiful scenes around every corner. It was like a magic carpet ride.”
The following year the Colorado River was dammed, and “the Grand Canyon was my next best choice,” says Wendt, who became one of the first 1,200 people to raft it. In 1965, two years after graduating, he and a couple of buddies bought four military surplus rafts, and ran weekend outings in California for Scouts and students.
Meanwhile, Wendt worked on getting his teaching credentials. He turned his minor in math into a teaching job at a Los Angeles middle school. For the next eight years, his chalkboard displayed scrawled equations about ski lifts and a river’s cubic feet per second, while he ran weekend rafting trips.
Somewhere in there, he met Pam, an X-ray technician, and the two married in 1969. She handed her husband a generous check to get started, typed letters to interested inquirers, hoisted rafts into the truck and, with her keen eye and intuitive sense, helped train the guides.
In 1969, with the centennial of John Wesley Powell’s expedition in the Grand Canyon, the sport’s popularity surged.
By the early ’70s, O.A.R.S.’s revenues (and nationwide interest in the sport) were doubling annually. Business brimmed to full time in 1974 (Wendt quit teaching at this time); eight rivers in Oregon, California and Utah were added by 1977. Soon, O.A.R.S. acquired seven more rafting companies.
Wendt’s fervor for river preservation has always flowed through his passion for rafting—from helping to include California’s Tuolumne River in the National Wild and Scenic River System to establishing protected status for the Navua River in Fiji. Wendt has also testified before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on River Preservation, and donates more than $70,000 per year to dozens of river conservation efforts.
“We believe that the only way we’ll continue to have rivers is if we build a desire with the next generation to preserve them,” says Wendt. “This philosophy has been a major part of our business all along.”