25 Years Behind the Scenes at OARS
Not all of OARS’ longtime employees are river guides. If you’ve booked a trip with us over the last 25 years, chances are you may have had the opportunity to talk to adventure consultant Debbie Howard (pictured far right), who got her start at the company in 1995 after selling her own business.
“I owned a vinyl sign business and OARS was one of my favorite customers,” says Debbie. “Once I sold my store, I picked up my Rolodex (we had Rolodexes in those days), and I said, ‘OARS, I wonder if they’re hiring?’”
“I got somebody on the phone and they said, ‘Actually, we are looking for a part-time organizer,’” she remembers. “I’m like, ‘Hey, I’m a Virgo. That works.’”
In 1995, Debbie was brought on to clean out the “old store” building on the company’s property. OARS late founder George Wendt was fond of saving just about everything from old copies of the Wall Street Journal to early OARS marketing materials, personal letters, and mementos dating back years. “You could not even get in the front door with George’s accumulations,” she recalls.
By the time the rafting season was ramping up, however, it was clear that the former sign shop owner was highly overqualified for the part-time organizing position she was hired for, and she was asked to be a reservationist for the company’s California region.
“Flash forward 25 years, and here I sit selling river trips,” says Debbie.
In those 25 years, she has helped thousands of guests plan their greatest adventures and dream trips. We caught up with Debbie to chat about the highlights of her career, her favorite memories, and what she loves most about the job.
Meet Longtime Adventure Consultant Debbie Howard
What’s been one of the highlights of your career?
Experiencing more than 20 multi-day river trips, working with some of the most amazing people I’ve ever met, and having the honor of working for George Wendt.
Had you ever gone on a river trip before you worked for OARS?
I’d only been on one river trip when I started at OARS, and it was when I was 18 years old. At the time, I thought it was the dumbest, most painful, annoying thing to do. It was on the Deschutes River, it was freezing water, and they had bucket boats. Every 500 yards it seemed like we had to stop, get in the water up to your waste, bucket out the boat. I was like, “This is horrible. I don’t get this.”
What changed your mind about rafting? Was it an OARS trip?
You’re talking age 18, and next time I’m on a river, I’m 35. I was in a different mind frame by that time. I’d been at OARS six months, and they said, “We need to get you out there. You’re going on the Middle Fork American tomorrow morning. Wear clothes that you can go rafting in.” So I’m paranoid, and I went out to the warehouse guy at the time and said, “I don’t like cold water. I’m going to freeze.” He says, “It’s August on the Middle Fork, so it’s going to be very hot, but that’s okay, here’s a wetsuit. Keep the wetsuit as long as you need it, and bring it back to OARS when you’re done.”
Less than a month after that first trip they sent me up to the Rogue River and that’s what really did it. I just fell in love with the Rogue. I took that wetsuit back about, oh gosh, it was 15 years later. I said, “I got my own now.”
What do you think it was about that Rogue River trip that made you fall in love with rafting?
I was really on my own—terrified, but excited. It was a very small trip. There were only five guests, plus me and two guides. It was beautiful. The weather was perfect. The other guests were just amazing and it was so relaxing. I left there smiling for eight hours all the way back home thinking, “I can do this. This is going to be a great job.”
What do you love most about your job?
Chatting with folks about their vacations all day, and hearing back from nervous first-time rafters about how much they loved it. That’s always been a highlight for me.
Do any stories come to mind?
I got a call once from a fourth grade Montessori school teacher. She wanted to take her kids rafting. There were about 15 of them, but she was also terrified. I talked her into a two-day South Fork and made her promise to call me back after she got back from the trip. She did. She said, “That was the best thing we’ve ever done with these kids ever, and it is definitely going to be an annual thing.”
How do you help people find the right trip?
First thing I usually ask is, “Do you have a river in mind?” Then I work from there. What’s important to you? Do you like mountains? Do you like the desert? Are you more active? Do you want to be rowed down the river? Do you want kids on the trip? Are you a city person, or are you really comfortable outdoors? How many times have you camped before? I ask questions and listen to them.
Some people might say, “I can’t be in anything that’s 70 degrees or higher.” Okay, you’re going to Idaho in May so you won’t have to worry about that. Or I’ll hear, “I can’t take anything under 75 degrees.” Great, Cataract Canyon, here you come.
Of all the 20-plus trips you’ve gone on, is there one river that stands out above the rest?
The Rogue. I’ve been on the Rogue twice, and the second time it was with George. So that is going to always be the top trip. Other than that, Gorges of the Lower Salmon Craft Beer Tasting. It was the best match of people ever.
Do you have a favorite trip memory?
Watching George and friends trying to put out a smoldering tree on the Rogue River after a recent forest fire. We had stopped for lunch on our 4-day trip and across the river a tree had fallen down. It was still smoking and appeared that it was still on fire in the middle. Here is this 70-plus-year-old owner of OARS along with guides and guests carrying 5 gallon buckets of water from the river up to the tree. Our trip did not head downriver until that tree was out!
Why do you think people should go on river trips?
To experience something different and get out of your comfort zone. I didn’t realize I was terrified of heights until I did a Grand Canyon rafting trip. I’d managed to live my whole life without knowing. I just thought it was bridges. But the guides got me on the Deer Creek hike and ledges where only the first part of my toes were on ground and it was a good 800 feet straight down. I couldn’t believe I did that. It was just…wow. I think river trips let you look at your daily life differently.
What’s something that you always bring when you’re on the river that you’d recommend to guests?
I love my little mini whisk broom. I do not like sandy tents. That, and a clothesline and clothespins…just something to hang up wet things with. That’s important.