Meet Steve Kenney, Legendary Idaho & Colorado River Guide

4 Min. Read
OARS guide Steve Kenney
Steve Kenney, OARS guide since 2003

Steve Kenney is one of our top river guides on the forks of the Salmon River, the Snake River through Hells Canyon and on the Colorado River (both in Cataract Canyon and Grand Canyon).

Considering his diverse boating capabilities, Kenney gets to enjoy a multitude of watersheds—the best the West has to offer in terms of alpine scenery and wild landscapes! He also has a big sense of humor, wide range of educational experience, and can occasionally be found dressed in women’s apparel while cooking on the river. Get to know this well-educated, Kentucky native.

How long have you worked for OARS and what did you do before becoming a river guide?

I’m from Terlingua, Texas, originally from the great commonwealth of Kentucky. It’s my ninth year working for OARS, and my thirteenth year as a river guide. I’ve had a pretty eclectic professional career prior to guiding—I’ve been a banker, a college basketball coach, and a professor. I have two Bachelor degrees and even a Masters, and in some crazy, roundabout way, I think it’s helped me to become a decent river guide [smiles].

What do you love about your job?

One of the few reasons why I love doing it, is that OARS loves taking people down wild and scenic places. We’re very much committed to taking care of our wildlands, trying to have as little impact as we can on the wilderness setting, and at the same time showing our customers some of the most beautiful, historic landscapes that you can find in the lower 48.

What is a typical day like for you on the river?

I like to start my work day in the morning by smelling that cowboy coffee, floating across the beach. Then the guests start to wake up smelling it, and you catch that first light hitting the canyon walls. It’s all quiet and peaceful, and you get up and cook a really nice breakfast for your clients. Then when you get out on the water, you can see that mist coming off the water as you turn corners …

There are some days where we run real technical Class III-IV water, and then we get to float on sections of just liquid glass. Our days are chock full, there are times when we get to do side canyon hikes where you’re staring at a 200-foot waterfall and then go back to running rapids. Once you get to camp and get everything set up, and you’re sitting there with your clients and your friends, and you get to enjoy the campfire and watch that last bit of light hitting the canyon walls, you all of a sudden realize, you’ve created magic again.

What is it about river trips that you find most appealing?

What I love most about multi-day river trips is the odyssey that is created with that trip, and each trip is unique unto itself. I love the blending of clients and guides with the water and the wilderness. This collective odyssey creates a sense of timelessness and a freedom, and I love sharing in that process.

How have the people you’ve met on the river impacted your life?

I have met so many amazing people from all walks of life during my years of guiding, though two probably had a particular influence on me. Both of them have terminal cancer, and they’ve done multiple river trips with OARS, and to see their incredible personal strength and sensitivity is really inspiring. To share our world with them—again and again—while watching how they value the small, little things of everyday life has been really enriching.

OARS guide Steve Kenney in a dory

What important skills must a rafting guide possess?

Most all river guides, we love to talk, especially about things we know and other things we think we might know, but with the ability to listen, you’ll get to know your clients better. Then together you can start to put together the pieces of the puzzle to create a successful river trip. I think we’re able to get out clients to more quickly start to live in the moment, and then be able to start to strip back the layers of the onion that can symbolizes the challenges that they have out there in their everyday lives.

I also have a very wide collection of feminine apparel [laughs]. I really enjoy getting our guests to dress up with me. I think it helps to push to envelope a little bit, and maybe expand a few comfort zones. For me, it helps me to try not to take myself so seriously.

What do you like to do when you’re not on the river?

I really enjoy reading and scribbling out more river poetry when I’m not on the river. I also really love to sleep; I mean I really love to sleep [laughs].

Editors Note 11/30/23: Steve Kenney has now been with OARS for more than 20 years. Have you been on a trip with Steve? Say hi in the comments below!


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