Calaveras Enterprise

Water warrior: Local rafter starts adventure company

John Yost takes the helm. Courtesy photo

John Yost takes the helm. Courtesy photo

One might think that Murphys entrepreneur John Yost is crazy when he tells tales of rafting down the crocodile-infested Rufiji River in Tanzania or having the clothes ripped off his back by powerful rapids of the Cotahuasi River in Peru, but when you have an undying thirst for adventure, life is boring without expeditions to look forward to.

Though Yost takes every reasonable safety precaution, the danger is part of the thrill.

Yost’s eyes dance with excitement as he uses his words to paint beautiful pictures of canyons in South American so vast that they rival the Grand Canyon, describes the rush of rafting through the rooftop of the world high on the Tibetan plateau on the Reting Tsangpo and tells of ancient monasteries and palaces viewed from the Zanskar River in India.

For more Wantok Adventures photos, click here.



Yost has suffered from wanderlust since he was a young man.

He was a student of East Asian studies, specializing in Chinese philosophy. He graduated from Wesleyan University in Connecticut in 1972.

In 1973, Yost and friend Richard Bangs founded the first rafting adventure company in the world, Sobek. For the next 10 to 15 years the pair did first descents on most of the major rivers in the world.

After selling his share of Sobek in 1991, Yost settled down and focused on raising his three children and committed himself to volunteerism. He helped get Feeney Park in Murphys built in the mid-1990s and served as a board member of Friends of the River for a dozen years.

Over the last seven years, Yost began guiding again. He also served as the executive director of Friends of the River until August of this year.

His need for adventure is primarily why he got antsy when exciting international rafting trips began drying up among leading rafting companies as a result of the poor economy.

“I started back to guiding in 2003, 2004, after quite a few years off. I was working with some of the other veteran guides and we were all bemoaning the fact that there were no international trips to do,” Yost said. “We figured we should just do it ourselves.”

It took several years for the seedling idea to take root. Finally, Yost and his girlfriend and partner, Shaun Michael, decided to put together a new type of company: Wantok Adventures.

“It’s very informally constituted,” he said. “It doesn’t have legal filings. It’s not a corporation. There’s no overhead. No office. No employees. We figured out a way to price trips so it would bring it more into people’s range but still treat the guides fairly.”

Wantok is a word from the Tok Pisin language of Papua New Guinea meaning “someone who speaks my language,” a person from the same area, and by extension a friend, according to the Wantok website.

“Wantok celebrates the spirit of camaraderie that brought us together and reminds us constantly that we adventure-seekers are all friends whose common language is an unending appreciation of our amazing world. We are a group of veteran guides who love to travel adventurously and want to continue exploring our world,” the website reads.

In the spirit of sharing adventures with friends, Yost said he prices his trips without a large profit margin, as many larger adventure companies do.

“With no profit margin, our trips come in easily $1,000 under any U.S. company, because we don’t have the overhead. We did that because I personally philosophically think it’s a real shame that more Americans haven’t gotten to do these things.

“There are so many more rivers to raft,” Yost said. “If we make money, it’s a bonus. We make money on some trips, but we’re not earning a living at it.”

The trips Wantok will offer next year range from the Himalayas in Tibet to the pre-Incan ruins in Peru and the southern portion of Tanzania to the northernmost portion of India.

Even with highly competitive pricing, international rafting is still very expensive, with airfare being much more expensive if the trip is out of the Americas.

In light of the high costs and his passion to involve locals, Yost is offering a 10 percent land-cost (costs excluding airfare) discount to anyone who lives in Calaveras or Tuolumne counties.

No more than 16 people can go on any given trip, though Yost said he feels 12 is the ideal number.

Immersing his guests in the cultures of the many exotic destinations Wantok offers is important to Yost.

“When you go so high-end, you end up isolating yourself from the country,” he said. “We take walks from the hotel to the marketplace where hundreds of locals gather.”

While exploring a new culture via rafting may be appealing to many people, it’s not always financially feasible, especially in tough economic times.

“I think the poor economy explains why some of the larger companies’ productivity has dropped off so much,” Yost said. “In our case, we would never have tried something like this in any other era of history because of the expense of trying a new business. We are risking no money. This is a 100 percent sweat-equity, knowledge-based business. Our hard costs a year might be $500 a year for copy paper and the website. Our risk is the hours we put into it, so we can afford to do it and only run a few trips a year and be happy.”

Even with the poor economy, Yost believes he can be successful because of the connections he has made over the years.

“There is a big difference between getting a catalog and getting a personal email from a guy who led your trip to Africa 10 years ago saying, ‘You’ve got to do this trip,’” Yost said.

“When someone who has done more rivers than anyone else alive tells you it’s the best, you believe them,” Yost said.

He backs this claim up by saying that tracking exploratory rafting expeditions is fairly easy to do.

“The top three people are all from my company,” Yost said. “One day we sat down and made a list, and I won,” he said with a proud smile.

For more details about trips offered by Wantok, visit or email

Contact Joel Metzger at

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