Celebrating 50 years of tours with OARS

Illustration by Madison Cohen

Visitors to the Grand Canyon have many options for touring the landmark, but OARS Grand Canyon Dories provides visitors with unique ways to explore. OARS takes its guests on nonmotorized boat tours that allow them to hike, camp and raft along the Colorado River. Guests attending a Grand Canyon tour have the choice of rafting or riding in a dory boat, a small and lightweight watercraft that is normally used for fishing.

OARS was founded in 1969 by the late George Wendt. Throughout Wendt’s time as president, OARS established his company in Angels Camp, California and expanded its trips both in the United States and globally. Each trip ranges from one to 13 days and has a professional guide who leads the group.

Vice president Steve Markle works alongside Tyler and Clavey Wendt, George’s children, to organize tours. This year, OARS turned 50 years old, and the organization held celebrations for their tour guides.

“We wanted to extend our gratitude to the generations of guides who have helped this organization be what it is today,” Markle said. “Our company is different from others, because all of our tours use nonmotorized boats, and it wouldn’t be what it is today without the help of our guides. Rather than having one party in one city, we decided to bring the celebration to the people that have helped our company.”

OARS held celebrations in five cities, including Flagstaff, where the company operates tours out of a warehouse. Markle said they wanted previous and current guides to celebrate what they have achieved.

“It was great to see so many people celebrating our organization,” Markle said. “We were grateful that people came out to support us and what we do. In this modern age, it’s sometimes hard to find people who still like to do outdoor activities. Our organization has come a long way since it began, and it’s great to get to share this with communities where we operate from.”

At each anniversary party, OARS gives back to a nonprofit organization that works with their company. In Flagstaff, OARS decided to donate its ticket sale profits to The Whale Foundation, which is a nonprofit organization in town that provides mental and physical health care to Grand Canyon tour guides. Markle said The Whale Foundation has worked with OARS for several years to provide care to guides who are in charge of their Grand Canyon tours.

Executive Director Sam Jansen said The Whale Foundation was founded 25 years ago and has increased the number of tour outfitters they work with. Throughout 25 years of helping tour guides, the nonprofit found OARS and began working with the organization. The Whale Foundation also offers scholarships for river guides who are going back to school, and they encourage others to become guides as well.

“I think the OARS organization is a great tour outfitter,” Jansen said. “Guests enjoy their tours because of the rafts and dories they take people on around the canyon. OARS is also a great organization to work with because of their numerous guides. We help a lot of tour guides that work for different outfitters, but OARS has a lot of guides we provide service for.”

Senior tour guide Heather Solee said she celebrated the 50th anniversary of OARS. Solee has been a tour guide for 20 years in the Grand Canyon.

“I began doing tours in both Idaho and the Grand Canyon,” Solee said. “Eventually, I decided to just stick with the Grand Canyon tours, because they’re my favorite. I like that the guests have the option of doing a dory tour or going on a raft. It’s always great to see people excited about these tours.”

Solee said her 20 years as a guide have changed her life. She first heard about OARS at her workplace and decided to give it a try. Since then, she hasn’t stopped guiding tours and said she is excited to see where OARS goes.

The Whale Foundation also provided care for Solee throughout her time as a guide.

“I think The Whale Foundation is a wonderful organization for tour guides,” Solee said. “I know a lot of guides use their call line when they’re in need of help. I’ve used the insurance they provide for guides before, and they’ve definitely helped me. It’s great to know that guides have a source for help when they are in need of it.”

Although OARS has tours both in the U.S. and globally, its associates vouched that its impact goes farther than distance can measure. The organization has seemingly left its customers and tour guides positively impacted and looks to continue the tradition for another 50 years.