Wilderness Aware Rafting rang in 2020 with a change of ownership from Joe and Sue Greiner, who had owned and operated the business for 35 years, to former company river guide Brian Ellis.
Ellis left Wilderness Aware 15 years ago after guiding for the company between 1999 and 2004 and spending 5 years as the head boatman.
During his tenure with the company, he became the first manager of its operation guiding the Salt River in Arizona (the season for which begins soon and will occupy Ellis until the summer season on the Arkansas begins) and started a raft racing team that competed nationally.
“I was living in Bozeman Montana, really more focused on skiing, and I had gone on a rafting trip on the Grand Canyon a couple years before that and thought, wow, what a great lifestyle the river guides have,” Ellis said. “I found Wilderness Aware and they were willing to train me, so I came in as a novice and just loved every minute of it.”
By his second year with WA, Ellis had his sights set on one day running a rafting company himself.
“I really developed a passion for it,” he said.
After leaving WA, Ellis worked as a river ranger with Colorado Parks and Wildlife and a ski patroller at Monarch.
He moved to Texas and was a contractor on homes and commercial buildings, and spent the last 10 years as the director of facilities at the University of Oklahoma, where he had over 500 employees and managed a $90 million budget.
“So I’m looking forward to the opportunity to downsize a little bit,” Ellis quipped.
The sale took time
Joe said that Ellis first approached him about selling the business 10 years ago, but Greiner told him “No, I’m going to give my kids a chance at it.”
During a rafting trip in the upper Amazon River 4 years ago, Ellis brought it up again. Then, in October, the Greiners announced that they were selling the business and Ellis jumped at the opportunity.
“He’s got lots and lots of experience in business and in working with people and he knows the rafting industry. It’s a rare combination to find somebody whose got both of those things,” Sue said.
“We have sort of a family culture in our business that we hoped was carried on, the whole family orientation,” she said. “There’s lots of aspects of that, and that’s why he’s the best possible owner, because he understands all that and he’s interested in carrying it on.”
The Greiners purchased WA in 1986 from Bill Alexander, who started the company in 1976.
The company was then based on the Front Range, where Joe and Sue found it by responding to an ad for river guide training in the college newspaper. It might be more accurate to think of the company as nomadic, as many rafting outfitters were at the time.
“We would do a circuit. We would drive from Fort Collins to Cortez, base in Cortez and run the Dolores for a few weeks, then drive up to Fort Collins to run the North Platte for a couple of weeks, then in early July come here and base here for the rest of the summer,” Joe said. “All out of a bus and a van.”
Joe guided for WA for 3 years before moving to buy the company. He and Sue had just purchased a home in Buena Vista, at the corner of Railroad and Cedar streets, which became the the company’s new home base.
“The Arkansas River has a longer rafting season than a lot of other rivers in Colorado, so that’s why it became the focus of the company,” Sue said.
The company had three boats and three guides: Joe, Sue (who began training as a guide when the Greiners bought the company) and another. Sue “was the owner, the book keeper, the guide trainee,” Joe said. Wilderness Aware ran about 700 people down the river in 1986.
‘For a while’ turned out to last 30-plus years
“We didn’t get into it thinking we’d be doing it for 30 years. We thought this was something we could do for a while then we’d go do something else, but then we just stayed,” Sue said.
“I think our thought was ‘Ok, it’s three boats. If we can get eight, 10, 12 boats we can make a living,’” Joe said.
The Greiners were in the right place at the right time. Around when they purchased the company, rafting, which was much more developed on the Grand Canyon and back east in places like West Virginia, was coming to Colorado.
“There were a few other rafting companies throughout the state. It was pretty much in its infancy,” said Reed Dils, the former owner of Four Corners Rafting. “There were outfitters running Dinosaur National Monument on the Gates of Lodor and the Green River. We started on the Dolores in Southwest Colorado and there were a couple other outfitters around there, but there really wasn’t much going on.”
Since about 1997, Joe said, Wilderness Aware has run between 8,000 and 11,000 boaters.
The Arkansas River, then a hidden whitewater gem prized by a niche group of adventurous hippie types, now boasts one of the most heavily commercially rafted section of river in the country, a national monument rising steeply from its shores.
“You would see a kayak or a raft on the highway and you would wave because you knew them,” Joe said.
Only a handful of outfitters had purpose-built locations. Most were run out of gas stations and the backs of trucks and vans.
Exponential growth in the industry occurred in the ‘80s, Dils said. At that time, the public land on the Arkansas was managed by the Bureau of Land Management, an arrangement that left a lot to be desired.
Private land turned into public land, access
Much of the land on the river was private, and companies would make arrangements with landowners to put in on their property.
Because boaters would put in on private land and take out on private land, the BLM couldn’t impose a user fee. The Bureau may have owned some of the riverbed of the Arkansas, but not the surface of the water.
“They didn’t feel that they could limit the number of permits,” Joe said.
Before the creation of the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area in the late ‘90s, a then-novel partnership between BLM and CPW to manage the river itself, the rafting industry was “a wild west situation,” Dils said.
“Gradually, once Arkansas Headwaters came into being in 1990, they and the BLM started purchasing properties and providing access,” Dils said. “The town of Buena Vista, they got a grant to put that bridge in and several real estate owners were able to convert that area into what you see today with the soccer fields and stuff. That was a dump back in the ‘80s.”
When Steve Reese was brought on as the first manager of AHRA in 1989, there were 86 rafting companies on the Arkansas.
“Of all types of sophistication,” Reese said.
Reese’s guiding document, the AHRA management plan, had been the result of years of planning by a team of 22 stakeholders in the river.
“What I was given was the result of 3 years of talking and negotiating and learning between BLM and State Parks and not just the outfitters, but anglers, private boaters ... as a result of all the different users and different concerns, I attended a lot of different organizations’ meetings and they were very very concerned, and rightly so,” Reese said.
The AHRA started purchasing land and making it public so that boaters would no longer have to put in on private land, Reese said. The group created put-ins and rehabilitated existing ones.
“We knew, after about 3 years of conversation, where people said, ‘We need better river access,’ and one of the ones that everyone knows is Hecla Junction. That was a dirt road that ended up in the river, not too wide, and there was very little room for one of the most heavily-used sections.
“So that river access point got fully developed. And it looks nice now. It works for the need there. It has the room, and with that room comes a set of organizational rules.”
In addition, the AHRA began rationing the number of outfitters on the river.
“Shortly after we got in, a bunch of us got together and got Gov. Roy Romer and the state parks on board to manage the surface of the river,” Joe said. “Just before we bought, state licensing came in, so the 84 dropped quite rapidly into the 60s once they had to get licensed and get insurance and those sorts of things. Then once the state park came in that dropped even further, and it’s been dropping ever since. Now it’s about 46 or so with a target now in the management plan of 25.”
In 1987, the Greiners approached the Buena Vista board of trustees with a proposal that would ultimately make way for what is now the town’s prized River Park.
30,000 on East Main?
A story published in The Times by writer Vernon Kirby covering the meeting carried a hopeful headline to a community that had just a few years prior been hit hard by the closure of Climax mine: “Imagine 30,000 people on Main Street.”
“We were trying to put in our boats and we would have to drive to Johnson Village. Then launching at Johnson Village there is a lot of flatwater between here and Brown’s Canyon. Then to make it a full-day trip, you really needed to go beyond there which was more flat water,” Joe said. “We knew there was white water from the town, which was only 3 blocks away.”
Only 10 years prior at that point, the river frontage in Buena Vista was a dump. Literally. North of that was land owned by Sangre de Cristo.
“There was the slag that the bridge is on now was kind of broken-down down to the river, so people running privately could carry their boats, illegally, through Sangre de Cristo land and get into the river and go down through that broken-down dam that was dangerous. But commercially, you wouldn’t want to trespass and go down a safety hazard.”
On May 1, 1989, the town purchased 77 acres from Sangre de Cristo for $100,000.
“I don’t think we envisioned a big soccer field. We just needed to survive and needed a good put in,” Greiner said. “The soccer field, the volleyball, the picnic shelters, the camping during town events; I think it’s become a focal point more than we thought.”
Sue said, “I think it’s done wonders for the town to have that facility and have that draw on Main Street … and I think the town could see that at the time, that it was going to be a good place to develop.”
Dils said that commercial rafting on the Arkansas peaked in 2001, and hasn’t returned to those numbers, in part because “there’s just a lot more things for people to do now.
“We didn’t have the Colorado Rockies (the Major League Baseball team) when we started rafting, we didn’t have the Avalanche, we didn’t have the internet … The overall use is still high, but the commercial part of the pie is just not as large.”
Biggest of big draws
“I think that the biggest draw years ago was rafting, and then now there’s a lot of different kinds of recreation that people are coming here for,” Sue said. “I think mountain biking has grown in the last few years, because there was an actual effort on the part of the county to bring mountain biking here. When we started out, what was mountain biking? There wasn’t any. So that’s new. Summiting fourteeners has become much more of a thing than it was back then.”
Joe said, “I think we helped those people discover it. They would have done it without us eventually, but we’ve got a lot of guide’s parents that have bought houses here, now a lot of guides that have bought houses here, enmeshed in the community.”
One of the ways that Ellis plans to build on the foundation laid by the Greiners is to continue working to “enhance the guide culture.”
“We have a lot of guides who come here for a summer or two and then they move off to a different kind of career,” he said. “I want to facilitate and provide opportunities for guides who want to make guiding their career.”
Ellis said that “I think it’s important that when we do train our guides, we’re trying to teach them life skills that they can apply elsewhere in their careers.”
“You ask any employee in town, I bet a measurable percentage of them used to be raft guides,” Joe said. “We’ve got teachers, most of the Chaffee County EMS is past Wilderness Aware guides, (there are) realtors.”
The rafting industry, like many facets of life in the mountains, has changed over the years, but Ellis said that “as far as the physics of getting the boats from point A to point B, that’s all the same.”
In between those is the part that requires finesse.
“That’s the great thing about rafting, the river is never the same. It’s always changing every day,” he said.