2021 Rafting Outlook From Outfitters Across America
Angels Camp, Calif — This time last year, outfitters across the country were reining in their operations at the time when they would normally be charging full speed ahead, facing unprecedented uncertainty and dire consequences. But one year into the COVID-19 Pandemic, and the 2021 rafting season is already underway.
“While we’re all still very much living with the realities of COVID, the increasing availability of testing and vaccines has many of us excited about travel this year,” Steve Markle, OARS vice president of sales and marketing, said.
In 2020, after implementing extensive mitigation measures and launching an abbreviated season that ran from early-July through early-November, Markle said, “To the best of our knowledge, out of 4,492 adventurous guests and more than 300 dedicated guides, drivers, and support staff who joined us last year, not a single person contracted COVID-19 on an OARS trip.” OARS is a second-generation family-owned outfitter that offers 1- to 25-day guided adventures in California, Oregon, Idaho, Utah, and Arizona.
As we turn the corner into the 2021 rafting season, outfitters are seeing record demand for river trips. In fact, when OARS polled its travelers in January, nearly 78 percent of respondents said they are planning two or more multi-day leisure vacations this year and nearly 70 percent said they are planning a road trip. And they’re not alone.
“Pent up demand is the new abundance of caution,” Andy Neinas, troublemaker at Echo Canyon River Expeditions in Colorado, said. “We’re all heading into the season with a spirit of optimism. Americans are more comfortable moving about the country and rafting is a naturally socially distanced activity.”
Health experts continue to report that outdoor transmission of the virus is very rare and that’s one of the things Neinas, Markle and other outfitters credit for finding their way through last year’s unprecedented season.
“Outdoor activities are inherently less risky with near-constant movement in an open-air environment. Plus the occasional splash of water in the face doesn’t hurt,” Roger Wilson, CEO of West Virginia’s Adventures on the Gorge, said.
Haynes Mansfield, Marketing Director for ACE Adventure Resort also in West Virginia, agreed and along with guest safety, ““the very nature of river running builds the perfect analogy for running a business during a global pandemic. We assess the hazards, choose our destination, and adjust as we go based on changing conditions. Our entire team, not only our guides… everybody… decided to persevere.”
Neinas also credits much of their success during the pandemic to the outdoor community coming together and something guides know a little something about: resourcefulness and luck.
“Simply being able to have that peer network was immensely supportive, being able to bounce things off each other and find our way through,” Neinas said. “We were in the right place at the right time. But I’m constantly reminded that not everyone was so lucky. I’m really hopeful that everybody has a good strong summer.”
Wilson is also looking forward to summer. They’ve welcomed many new guests to rafting this past year and it’s those first-time guests he enjoys meeting the most and witnessing, “the transition from the nervous apprehension before the trip to their unbridled enthusiasm after.”
That and “just listening to live music with our guests and simply feeling the energy that comes with happy people cracking open a cold one and comparing notes from their river trip, zipline excursion or rock climbing outing,” he said.
No matter what river adventures guests find themselves on this season, most outfitters agree that it comes back to community and the magic of gathering—physically distant for now—on the water.
“[It] gives us the opportunity to reclaim two very important, and for the most part universal human needs… freedom and connection,” Mansfield said. “I can tell you from personal experience, no greater human connection can be forged than by setting a common goal, then persevering through seemingly insurmountable challenges to accomplish it. That experience, and the bond it creates, is at the core of the rafting experience.”
He added, “When it comes to regaining freedom of person and travel, no matter what river you choose to raft, you will be washed in a sense of freedom. It’s completely unavoidable, and we all deserve to feel free again.”
The team at OARS couldn’t agree more, and as regional managers and guides make their way to outposts across the American West to launch the season ahead, Markle said they’ll be doing so in a spirit of gratitude and celebration.
“More than any one person, our whole team of guides and support staff make these great adventures possible. It’s their hard work, commitment, and passion for sharing wild places that brought us through a year like none other,” Markle said. “Every year we have the privilege to bring together extraordinary people, push our boats into the water and share our public lands, it’s something to celebrate. And it’s something we’re more grateful than ever to continue to offer to our guests, through a pandemic and beyond. This is what it’s all about—sharing what we all care so deeply about.”
All outfitters quoted in this release are available for comment.
Learn more about OARS response to COVID-19 and what you can expect this year on the water.