Cool Friend: Steve Welch
There are so many cool people in the boating community! We decided to start interviewing folks we either want to get to know better or think the general population should get to know better. Our first Cool Friend is ARTA General Manager Steve Welch, one of the funniest cool people we know.
WWGB: What does "cool" mean to you?
SW: The coolest people I know don’t think they are cool; so to me, part of being cool means being unassuming. Cool people also have a way of making others feel like they’re the cool ones, which is a special gift. I think that is why we like being around them. The other thing cool people are good at is knowing when to stop, which is something all the uncool people could get better at. Benjamin Franklin once said: “Remember not only to say the right thing in the right place, but to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.” It’s not just that cool people do cool things, it’s that they don’t follow them up with uncool things.
WWGB: Got any examples?
SW: When Chuck Noland throws the spear in Castaway. When Andy Dufresne drinks a beer on the roof of the license plate factory in Shawshank Redemption. When Jason Bourne calls Vosen from Vosen’s office and asks him where he is. Marty McFly’s guitar solo in Back to the Future. Everything Juno MacGuff does in Juno.
WWGB: Of those cool characters, is there one you relate to?
SW: Not even close. I’m more like Paulie Bleeker.
WWGB: When did you start boating?
SW: This is a long story, so I’ll write fast and use short words. In 1976, for my High School graduation gift, my mom gave me tickets to the Olympics in Montreal. Just tickets. No transportation, no place to stay, no money. She (correctly) figured that this would be the best way to teach me how to fend for myself in the real world. I was in California, so when I heard about a friend who was going on a rafting trip in Idaho, I invited him to the Olympics and he invited me on the river trip and I had half of my transportation problem solved. I caught an all-night ride in a van from the Stanislaus to Salmon with 6 river guides, then spent 9 days on the Selway. I didn’t know how to row, so I was in charge of bailing the raft, a job that has since been replaced by a hole in the floor. Like everyone’s first river trip, it was an amazing experience. Not just the whitewater, but also the wilderness and the scenery and the isolation. And I really liked being part of a little independent community; that is still my favorite part of a river trip. We then went from the Selway take-out to the Opening Ceremonies in Montreal in less than 24 hours and spent another 2 weeks living out of our dry bags. I came back, learned to row and I’ve spent the better part of every summer since then on, in or near the majestic rivers of the west. What a great graduation present. Thanks, mom.
WWGB: Why did you start guiding?
SW: I didn’t like bailing.
WWGB: You manage ARTA, what makes it different from other companies?
SW: There are a lot of things that make ARTA different: 50 years, 14 different rivers, whitewater schools, second generation guides, and on and on. But the most unusual thing is that ARTA is a non-profit corporation so there are no owners or shareholders; everyone is an employee. That’s a pretty significant difference from all the other companies out there, but it took me a long time to figure out how it manifested itself in tangible, day-to-day terms. What I’ve learned is that everyone who is a part of ARTA feels like they have an equal say in what we do and how we do it. It is sort of like we’re all in a big paddle boat and we all have paddles and we all have to negotiate this ever-changing, ever-challenging waterway. Technically, I’m the captain of the paddle raft but anyone who has ever captained a paddle raft full of guides knows what that means: you make suggestions and you hope. (I once met a guy who was herding cats down the road and he said: “Yeah, it’s a lot like managing a bunch of ARTA guides.”) But I’ve been doing it a long time and, hopefully not by default, I’ve gotten comfortable letting the crew take the raft where they want it to go. Sure, we’ve gone into a few bad places and sure, I’ve wished it was an oar raft that I could just row over to one side of the river or the other, but in the end, there is something comforting about being part of a team and solving problems together. And I’ve learned that more often than not, if you find the right people and you give them the right suggestions and you let them go where they want to go, it will be fun. And, as nonchalant as this sounds, we’re in the business of fun.
WWGB: If you could take any single person from any time or place on a multi-day river trip who would it be and why?
SW: I think what you meant to ask was: “If your wife couldn’t make it and you could take any single person from any time or place on a multi-day river trip who would it be and why?” This is a hard question because I only get to take one person and I’m pretty shy when it comes to the one-on-one thing; the person I invite would have to be really good at making me feel comfortable. I’d want someone calm and non-threatening, like Michele Obama. I’m also not much in the kitchen, so it would be nice to have someone who likes to cook and who wouldn’t be upset when I didn’t get excited about the spices. Someone with a culinary sense of humor like Rachel Ray. It would also be magical to have some really good, river-worthy music, so I’d want to invite someone who would be willing to really bring it night after night after night and Springsteen is the only choice there. It would also be fun to have some deep intellectual conversations with someone who could overlook my lack of intellect, so I’d invite Albert Einstein or Ira Glass. Or, maybe I could not think about it so much and just go with Shakira.
WWGB: What's the coolest thing you've ever done?
SW: The coolest thing I’ve ever done is to be a father, but that’s not a very good story so I’ll say it was when I rode my bike from Santiago to Antofagasta across the Atacama Desert in Chile. The Atacama is the driest place on Earth. It gets about half an inch of rain per year. It is where they test robots and rovers for missions to Mars. Most cyclists detour over the Andes into Bolivia to avoid it. Oddly, I chose it.
WWGB: In your humble opinion, what makes you so darn cool?
SW: First of all, I don’t think I’m cool, which, as we established earlier, is the first rule of Cool Club. But, to play along, I think there are three kinds of cool. There’s “born-cool”, things that are cool right out of the box, like the iPhone and JT*. There’s “original-cool”, things that become cool by being first or by being in the right place at the right time, like Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream and Stephen Colbert. And then there’s “retro-cool”, things that survive so long that they become cool just for their perseverance, like Volkswagen Microbuses and Johnny Carson. If I were cool, I would definitely be in the microbus category; I’m cool like vinyl is cool.
*Justin Timberlake, in case someone uncool is reading.
WWGB: Well, if you aren’t cool, what are you?
SW: That’s funny you should ask because I’ve been thinking about that during this whole interview. I don’t know what I am, but I did a 5 day Yampa trip this past June and there were these 24 year old, identical twin sisters from Hawaii on the trip. They played collegiate women’s water-polo, surfed, and paddled outrigger canoes in the ocean. They did yoga. They skateboarded. They could text. All the cool stuff. Anyhow, they were in the paddle raft with me for the first two days of the trip and when we got to camp that second afternoon, I heard one of them say to the other: “Steve is the bomb!” At least I think that’s what they said.