I was born in April of 1978, living through formative years when George Wendt was a star actor on the TV show Cheers, and my father, a different George Wendt, was immersed in managing a small river outfitting business in Calaveras County, California. Our number was in the phone book, so we received calls, maybe once a month, “Is this where George Wendt from Cheers lives?” Honestly, the rate of those calls was probably more like a few times a year for a few years, but for some reason it looms large in my memories.
Most people wouldn’t recognize the name George Wendt as famous in any context other than that of a television and Hollywood celebrity; but my father George, who passed away at the age of 74 in July of 2016, was a well-known figure in the close-knit community of outfitters operating commercial river trips in the United States. Dad was a river-running pioneer who played a foundational role in the formation of a whitewater rafting industry that today contributes significantly to local economies around the world. His experiences exploring the rivers of the American Southwest in the mid- to late-1960s, during a time of increasing public awareness about the stark trade-offs involved in the development of the western U.S., charted a path toward establishing a business that would consume his adult life.
My dad and mom Pam started Gooch-Wendt Expeditions in 1969 with a partner, Ed Gooch, who had prior experience as a commercial guide with Hatch River Expeditions in Grand Canyon National Park. Three years later, they renamed their business OARS (Outdoor Adventure River Specialists), eventually leaving their day jobs as a school teacher and X-ray technician behind (along with the earthquake risks of Southern California) to set up a river running shop in Angels Camp, CA. From the beginning, OARS was based on a mission to share a love for wild rivers, and on the notion that spreading that love was integral to inspiring future defenses of irreplaceable national treasures like Grand Canyon, outrageously under threat of dam destruction in the 1960s and to this very day.
Our 2019 season was the 50th for OARS. From humble beginnings in the early years operating exploratory missions through Grand Canyon and on the Stanislaus River in the central Sierra Nevada, to the present day when OARS outfits high-quality river-running, hiking and paddling adventures on 23 individually-managed stretches of wild river and park lands throughout the American West, the times have changed.
But some things haven’t changed. After those earliest trips, my father’s entrepreneurial instincts kept him focused on a domain driven by office work and phone calls (and e-mail in the latter 1/3 of his career). Trip leadership was then, and is now, delegated to a charismatic group of professional guides who escort our guests into remote backcountry spaces, far removed from a world of easy rescue. These adventure leaders have accepted a tremendous responsibility when they sign up to run a boat on a commercial expedition: the suitability of our clientele for the rigors of the experience varies to the extreme, and the weather and environmental conditions that we encounter are also defined by extreme variations. Suffice to say that a guide’s acceptance of an assignment that entails taking charge of people’s lives in a dynamic and risk-filled setting represents an inspiring confidence in their abilities to navigate a particular landscape. It is also an admirable pursuit of a vocation that connects them with some of the most rewarding aspects of paid work: happy customers, physical activity, gorgeous natural surroundings, and excitement contrasted with time for quiet reflection.
We would like to commemorate our 50th season as a tribute to our guides, present and past, for their impressive application of their skills and expertise in furthering the OARS mission: to help people of all ages have the best experience of their lives. Our guides occupy a unique position within our organization, due to the connections they make in the field with the guests who make our business possible. It is nothing short of an understatement to say that our 50 years of successful operations have been built on the spirited dedication of thousands of OARS guides, caring deeply about providing the best possible trip for our guests. We are much obliged and ever thankful – George and Pam would be so proud to see what we’re doing with their legacy of providing public access to wild rivers and spaces, in hopes of preserving these special landscapes for the enjoyment of future generations.