Outside Magazine’s 2015 Best River Guide, Lars Haarr
If you’ve ever been on a rafting trip with longtime OARS river guide Lars Haarr, there’s a good chance that he’s left a lasting impression. Whether he’s leading one of his evening star talks, sharing the history behind ancient cliff dwellings or having all the kids on a trip line up for one of his famous toenail painting sessions, it’s obvious that he loves his job and has a passion for the rivers he runs. So it’s no surprise, that after 20 years of guiding all over the world (15 of those with OARS.), Outside Magazine has recognized Lars as one of the best guides in the world for its 2015 Best of Travel list. Meet Lars Haarr…
What do you love most about your job?
The thing I love most about my job, besides the fact that my office is amazing, is sharing something I’m very passionate about with other people—spending time with them in my world, and sharing something with them that hopefully they’re going to cherish forever.
You frequently guide in Cataract Canyon. What’s special about those trips?
All the desert rivers have somewhat similar scenery—you have red rock walls, the soaring blue sky overhead—so it’s not so much the scenery as it is the fact that it’s the wild and free-flowing Colorado River. It’s not tamed by dams and we get the pleasure of boating on whatever Mother Nature throws our way.
You’re one of OARS’ go-to paddle boat captains, but you’re also a skilled dory boatman. What attracted you to dories?
I’m a kayaker, as well, and this is the closest thing you can get to kayaking because you feel the water, you feel like you’re part of it more so than with a raft. The smallest rapid can make your boat rock back and forth and side to side. The dory is just the supreme whitewater boat.
You’ve become well-known for your evening star talks on the river. When did you start sharing your passion for stars with others?
I think my first star talk on the river was like 10 years ago. And it was a fairly informal affair. When I first started it was so vague that people would more often than not be staring off in the opposite direction, claiming to see what I was talking about. It wasn’t until I got the laser pointer, which was probably 7 or 8 years ago, that’s when the star talk really became “Stars with Lars.”
What can people expect on specific “Stars with Lars” trips?
“Stars with Lars” trips are basically a normal trip but every night we focus on looking at the sky. So I’ll choose campsites that are wide open, and I bring a telescope. I think a true astronomer would scoff at me and my equipment, but the telescope is really cool because it allows you to see some of those deep space objects like the Messier M31, the rings of Saturn, and some of the galaxies. I can’t always guarantee a cloud-free trip so guests should be prepared to spend some time sitting in a chair listening to me talk. I really enjoy Native American cosmology or talking about Greek and Roman mythology and telling stories. I feel like storytelling is a lost art.
What’s been one of your most memorable star experiences on a trip?
One of the most special things to me is when I get somebody on a trip from an urban area and they don’t know anything about the night sky and they are just blown away by the number of stars they can see. They look up and say, “I had no idea that’s what the night sky really looked like.” That’s my favorite thing because they’re seeing something for the first time.
What is your favorite spot for stargazing?
I would say the Canyonlands area—the four corners region, the plateau, any of it. That being said, the San Juan River, particularly the Upper San Juan, there are some unbelievably open skies there and no light pollution whatsoever.
What other secret guide skills do you have up your sleeve?
I’m a juggler. I do balls, clubs, and every once in a while if I’m feeling frisky I’ll bring torches that I can light and juggle on the river. Not many people have gotten to see that trick.
Rumor has it you’re also quite good at painting toenails…
It’s funny, I never considered myself much of an artist until I discovered toenails, so maybe that’s all I needed, a smaller canvas. Sometime it will just be colors, but a lot of times I try to do a design…a wave, a yellow raft and some blue water or something like that. I’ve got 50 different colors, some stickers, little tiny brushes and toothpicks. It doesn’t make it on every trip, but it comes as often as I can make it happen.
What’s the biggest challenge about being a guide?
One of the toughest things is trying to please such a diverse group of guests. We take people as young as four- or five-years-old down the San Juan, up to people in their eighties down some of these rivers, and you’re trying to bring something special to each and every one of them. The other hard part about being a guide is keeping your mind and your body healthy through a long season.
So what keeps bringing you back to the river every year?
I can’t imagine being this happy anywhere else.