In the spring of 2021, The Pam & George Wendt Foundation launched a fully-sponsored, need-based guide school scholarship in partnership with OARS. The program was created to help applicants with limited resources attend OARS’ highly sought-after guide training programs in Utah and California. Scholarship recipients received full tuition, as well as a gift card from NRS.
Southern California resident and recent Prescott College graduate Michael Ruelas was awarded one of the four scholarships offered during the program’s inaugural year. Ruelas completed California Whitewater Guide School, and afterward, was hired to work for OARS as a commercial river guide on the American River.
“Michael learned a lot throughout his first season with OARS and became a solid member of the crew here in Coloma,” said Jessica Wallstrom, OARS American River Regional Manager. “He has a way about him that brings everyone together and always has a smile on his face.”
Michael offered a little insight into his experience through training and as a first-year professional.
Michael Ruelas Shares His Journey to Becoming a Professional River Guide
What drew you to rivers?
I went to Prescott College and they have a big outdoors program. I started backpacking through that. When I heard about whitewater rafting, it just sounded interesting. It was a different way to get outside. I took a couple classes and I was hooked. I didn’t have to put a backpack on, but I still got the outdoors experience and got to travel.
What was your experience rafting before you went to guide school?
My family is not too outdoorsy, but I was fortunate to get hooked up with Outward Bound Adventures. They took me out backpacking and camping. That’s kind of when I fell in love with the outdoors. Before that, I didn’t have a lot of experience. That was my doorway in.
At Prescott, we rafted in the Southwest mostly. The first class I took we were in Desolation Canyon on the Green River. The second class, we went through Cataract Canyon on the Colorado. Those rivers were where I got hooked. I was like, ‘No way! People do this?’
How did you hear about the guide school scholarship?
I actually saw it on Instagram. I followed OARS because I’d been wanting to work for them for a while. I was in the middle of writing one of my final papers and I dropped everything to work on the application.
What was your reaction when you got the scholarship?
I was nervous because I knew there were only 3 or 4 spots. I didn’t think I had a very good shot. When Jess [the OARS American River Outpost manager] told me I got it, I was so stoked. This was something I really wanted to do. I was a little in disbelief. I couldn’t believe I was going.
How was California Whitewater Guide School on the American River?
I pulled up in an Uber and everyone was out rigging boats. I was like, “Yes! I’m here.” Just seeing them going at it, I felt like it was time for action. It was awesome.
I didn’t really know what to expect. I hadn’t seen the American River. But the trainers were so good. They broke down everything from how the operation ran, how the river worked and the boats moved and how you can move the boats. They work with you through the whole process.
And the American is a beautiful river. It was jaw-dropping. I was like, “Wow! We’re in a beautiful place, learning some cool stuff.”
Were there any moments that really stuck with you?
Every day we focused on something different. One of the first days on the river, they put me in the guide seat, but without my paddle. They were like, “Okay, guide the boat without the paddle.” In my head, I was like, “What does that even mean?” They taught me to use my crew to drive the boat. That was super fun. It was contrary to what I’d been taught.
Tell us about your first trips as a guide.
It was kind of interesting. We go through a lot of training. But it was kind of like the first day of school. I was running in ten different directions to get my systems down. Then, it just felt like go time.
Can you share any favorite moments from your season?
I was on the river for over 60 days. Every trip is an opportunity to interact with someone new. That’s what’s really cool about it. It made the job interesting. Every day, you meet new people. And you have to figure out how to coach them into the paddlers that you need them to be. But it was super fun and always different.
The first trip down the Middle Fork of the American really changed my perspective on rafting. It was gorgeous out there. That’s where I wanted to be. I want to be a Middle Fork guide.
What are your goals as a river guide?
I’d love to do Grand Canyon eventually. That would be the pinnacle of my rafting career. I’d like to see a lot of rivers and really get to know whitewater and how it works.
Any advice for those applying for the Pam & George Wendt Foundation guide school scholarship?
Just be open. Be ready to learn and work hard. OARS has got you, so just jump into it.
The Pam & George Wendt Foundation Guide School Scholarship deadline is typically early March. Learn more and apply here.