Stories from the Vault: OARS Angels Camp Beginnings

4 Min. Read
OARS rafting's headquarters in Angels Camp, CA circa 1976
Humble beginnings: Pam and George Wendt outside the OARS Angels Camp office circa 1976

Minutes outside of historic downtown Angels Camp in California’s Gold Country, visitors are greeted by a sign on the south end of town that reads, “Welcome to Angels Camp: Home of OARS Whitewater Rafting.”

Just past the sign is a modest creamy white-colored house with a porch and an outcropping of miscellaneous buildings. Usually, there’s an old bus or two parked in the back. The property, which was purchased by late OARS founder George Wendt in 1976, looks like a place with some history—slightly dilapidated, but also well-loved. By all measures, it’s a humble homebase for a company that’s recognized as one of the most-respected whitewater rafting outfitters in the world.

OARS still runs spring trips on the North Fork of the Stanislaus at optimal water levels | Photo by Justin Bailie

To the average passerby it may seem like a curious location for a rafting company. Best known for the Calaveras County Fair and Jumping Frog Jubilee, Angels Camp isn’t exactly a bustling river town.

Yet, it’s the small town’s proximity to the Stanislaus River that first attracted George to the area in 1967. Nestled in a pristine limestone canyon with secluded camps, idyllic swimming holes, and fun, Class III whitewater, it offered what was indisputably the perfect overnight rafting trip or day trip.

Historic Stanislaus River map, circa 1978

“I was teaching full-time in Los Angeles, but found that I could leave on a Friday night, drive the 300 miles to the Stanislaus, run a two-day rafting trip and be home late Sunday,” George shared.

By 1969, George was one of 13 outfitters offering trips on the 9-mile stretch of the Stanislaus between Parrott’s Ferry and Camp Nine. As his fledgling rafting company grew, so too did the urge to leave Los Angeles. Eventually, George and his wife Pam decided to make Angels Camp their permanent home.

“We moved up here in 1974 and that’s when I realized that this was more than a 2-day per week operation, so we quickly added [more] trips,” said George. “We rented a guide house facility, so we had guides who were here continuously. They could run the operation seven days a week, typically 2-day trips from April through October.”

Over the next decade, the Stanislaus soared in popularity, attracting tens of thousands of visitors to Angels Camp each year. People were coming in droves and an estimated 30 outfitters set-up shop nearby to offer rafting trips in the pristine river canyon.

“We grew to become the largest company on the Stanislaus. It was a good business,” he shared. “I could leave the office at three o’clock in the afternoon, jump on the river, paddle down to our camp, say hi to the crew, and paddle out before dark that evening and be home. It was a pretty neat river right in our backyard.”

“Initially, the OARS office was in our basement, and the first year I think I had one person,” recalled George. “In the early years, I generated all the checks for guides. I would get up [at] about 4:30 or 5 [in the morning] and try to get the calculations cranked out before the guides would start showing up at our house. There’d be a line sometimes, three, four or five of them standing at the door there waiting to get their paycheck…so that was the motivating thing to get us to move out of the house.”

By the time George moved the business from his basement to its permanent location on the outskirts of Angels Camp, OARS offered trips on California’s Stanislaus and American Rivers, the Rogue River in Oregon, San Juan River in Utah, and the Colorado River, where the company had gotten its start as the first exclusively oar-powered rafting outfitter permitted in Grand Canyon.

Last OARS rafting trip on the Stanislaus River, 1982
Last run on the Stanislaus River, 1982

During those early years in Angels Camp, however, California voters passed a ballot measure in favor of damming the Stanislaus. The river community spearheaded a massive, multi-year environmental campaign to “Save the Stan,” but the hydroelectric project moved forward despite the economic boost river runners brought to the region.

By 1983, the famed 9-mile stretch of whitewater that had transformed Angels Camp into a bustling paddling town—attracting an estimated 60,000 visitors in 1980 alone—was drowned.

For George, the loss of the Stanislaus only encouraged a proliferation of river trips across the West and internationally.

He was a savvy businessman and visionary, and from the unassuming house on the side of Highway 49, he helped facilitate a number of first descents around the world and spurred a new era of global river exploration.

Clavey and Tyler Wendt in front of OARS Angels Camp “World Headquarters” in 2023

Now, 50 years since George and Pam first put down roots in the community, OARS continues to thrive in Angels Camp under the helm of their sons—Clavey and Tyler Wendt. The family-owned and operated company is celebrating its 55th Anniversary in 2024.

This story is based on OARS archival interviews with George Wendt from 2014 and 2016.

Learn more about the history of the Stanislaus River:

A Game Changer for River Protection: The Loss of the Stanislaus

The River Radius Podcast: The Last River Lost

The Stanislaus River Archive

Cari Morgan heashot

Cari Morgan

Cari Morgan is the Content Marketing Manager for OARS. Since 2014, she has managed the company’s blog, The Eddy, and has been the primary “voice” behind the brand’s social media sphere.

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