Old-timer river rafting guides, customers, friends and family gathered at the OARS boathouse in Angels Camp on the night of Oct. 12 to celebrate the company hitting the half-century mark.
A live band jammed through river-themed covers, as people reminisced with brews in hand. A group of children bounced up and down on bright yellow rafts in the middle of the yard, and the adjacent hillside was covered with people sitting and eating.
In 1969, George Wendt established the fledgling company that would later be named OARS, and started guiding trips down the Colorado River. Five years later, he and his wife, Pam, moved from Los Angeles to Angels Camp to expand the company’s operations. They situated themselves next to one of the most popular white water rafting routes in California at the time: the Camp Nine run on the Stanislaus River.
Former OARS guide Jim Slade got his start around that time, back when the local leg of the operation consisted of four guides, four boats and two pickup trucks to shuttle folks down to the Camp Nine launch site.
“It grew from there,” Slade said at the warehouse Oct. 12. Slade went on to work for Sobek Expeditions, an OARS partner that was starting to raft uncharted rivers across the globe.
“Nowadays there’s a river industry in every country in the world, but when we started, nobody had the skills that we had,” Slade said, a cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary” echoing around the yard behind him. “We could go anywhere in the world and know a couple of things: One, that no one had attempted the rivers before; two, that there was no local guiding industry; and three, that they thought we were crazy and were going to die. We loved it; we had the time of our lives.”
He spent his summers guiding rafting trips in Alaska and his winters in Africa, South America or “wherever else the job took me. It was a great life. I never had another job. I traveled all over the world year-round. Lots of adventures, lots of wild stories, but no regrets.”
Driving to Angels Camp from his home in Nevada earlier that day, Slade wasn’t sure how many people he’d know at the 50-year celebration.
“There’s a lot of people here with a lot of stories,” he said. “I didn’t know if there’d be five people that I knew, but there are more like 25. We have a love of OARS and the Wendt family and we just wanted to be here to honor them and the times we all shared together. It’s a very special part of our lives.”
Seated comfortably on an inflatable yellow couch with two friends, OARS blog writer Tricia Slavik told the Enterprise, “OARS is the most stellar professional rafting organization on the planet.” Slavik said she’s taken six trips with OARS and has gotten to write about her experiences to be published in the company’s blog.
Karen McCann, another attendee at the party, said she spent her first date with the man she would later marry on a rafting trip through the Grand Canyon with OARS in the ’70s.
“That was our thing; if you can spend 21 days on the river with someone, you can do a lot with them,” she said. “There’s nothing to hide behind, you know what I mean?”
As the band rocked out with a cover of “Take Me to the River” by Talking Heads, Scott Stevens, another former rafting guide, took a few minutes to share his experiences with the local rafting outfit. He had nothing but praise for George Wendt, the man that turned OARS into the company it is today.
“What really made this company was George Wendt,” Stevens said. Before founding OARS, Wendt “was a Boy Scout leader and wanted to get the kids out of the city, so he started bringing young kids up to the Stanislaus River.”
Wendt would drive the kids up on a Friday night in his station wagon, and they’d do a two-day trip in World War II Army surplus rafts, and then he’d drive them back to L.A., Stevens recalled.
“He rolled the dice, he started the OARS rafting company,” Stevens said in an astonished tone of voice. “Can you imagine, man? To give up everything and start boating.”
A Columbia Junior College student at the time, Stevens started guiding for OARS in the summer of ’78, the career he would stick with for the next 39 years. He spent the majority of his career running trips on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.
“I was in love with it. I would’ve worked for free if they would’ve just fed me,” Stevens said. “I was lucky enough to do what I truly love to do for 39 years.”
Having retired in 2017, Stevens now lives in Vallecito, a short drive from New Melones Reservoir, where he takes his grandson fishing.
“River rafting has been the highlight of my whole life,” Stevens said. “OARS has been so good to me. The boys, Tyler and Clavey Wendt, are doing a great job of running the business. They’ve just done a great job to carry on their dad’s legacy.”
Wendt’s son and OARS co-owner Tyler Wendt was chatting with people inside a display room in the warehouse filled with pictures and OARS memorabilia Saturday night.
He said he was pleased with how many people showed up in support.
“Good turnout tonight,” he said with a smile, gesturing toward the crowd of people tucked between the boathouse and the hillside.