Buena Vista outfitter Wilderness Aware Rafting co-owner Joe Greiner’s email address says it all:
Wilderness Aware Rafting was started in 1976 by Bill and Jamie Alexander, making it one of the oldest Arkansas River rafting outfitters.
A native of Oklahoma who earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental interpretation at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Greiner started as a guide for WA in 1983, moving up to its owner in 1986 with wife and business partner Sue. Like Joe, she became a whitewater guide after graduating from CSU with a degree in wildlife biology.
WA is a family business with sons Benjamin and Ethan having worked as guides.
Joe and Sue Greiner’s river logbooks tout four trips down the Grand Canyon and working the Gauley River in West Virginia, in addition to making runs in Idaho, Utah, Massachusetts, Maine, Montana, Alaska and California. They also rafted rivers in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Tennessee, Wyoming and New Mexico.
Internationally, they worked a season in New Zealand and have boated for fun in Costa Rica, Peru and Tibet.
“Our family loves to travel internationally and has safaried and climbed mountains in Tanzania and Kenya, visited tribes and ancient cities in Ethiopia, sailed in Greece, Panama and Virgin Islands, trekked the Inca Trail in Peru, snorkeled the Caribbean, visited Medjugorje in Bosnia during an apparition of the Virgin Mary, toured Vietnam and Cambodia, hiked the Great Wall of China, visited wildlife in the Galapagos, and boated the jungles of Ecuador,” Greiner said.
With its modern “green” headquarters — using solar and wind energy sources — on the banks of the Arkansas in Johnson Village, WA is a leader in the whitewater recreation business.
The Arkansas River is known as the most commercially rafted river in the U.S. with 48 boating permits. About 25 of those permits are held by companies making their primary living on the Arkansas, the nation’s sixth longest river.
“WA is the only company running multi-day trips from north of Buena Vista, through the Royal Gorge to Cañon City, pulling over to camp each night,” said Joe. “We do not have to drive between sections. We call it wilderness-style rafting, even though we do see development along the river in many places.”
Like the ski industry, whitewater rafting commercially is capital intensive, labor and weather dependent.
“It is a very capital-intensive business with not only maintaining equipment for 200 people on the water a day, but also transporting people and gear over the highway after a trip,” he said.
“We also maintain food service quality kitchen equipment, and a high-tech office environment.
“We switched to Northwest River Supply boats in the early ‘90s when another brand’s quality dropped,” Greiner explained. “We agreed to use NRS boats exclusively if they promised to never sell our bright green custom color to any other Colorado outfitter.”
WA’s green raft scheme is carried over to its fleet of buses and trailers, and its green commitment is demonstrated with the solar and wind generating facilities they have built on the property that provide 100 percent of WA’s power.
The labor part of the successful commercial rafting equation comes in training and retention of guides. WA trains its own guides using a springtime Salt River base in Arizona.
“Our operations managers in the past have stayed with us for up to 14 years. Mike Rogers is our current ops manager, and due to our extended season in Arizona and our very time-consuming interview process, he works about eight months a year,” Greiner said.
“WA’s two longest running guides have been with us over 10 years: Justin Miller and Tony Brockmeyer. They work in the valley during the off-season and return every year. Justin is a real character and also serves as an emcee of the Warren Miller Touring Film shows each fall. Tony has worked many off-seasons guiding dogsleds in the Leadville area. Both have recently purchased homes in Buena Vista.”
Like many Upper Arkansas River guides over the years, they became pillars of the community.
Past WA guides include river rangers for Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area, (including head ranger for a time), the principal of the Chaffee County alternative school, Salida real estate broker, town of Buena Vista firefighter, Salida high school teacher, Salida physical therapist and two guides who commute to the Front Range to serve as emergency responders.
WA has about 35 guides, five shuttle drivers, four office staffers, two maintenance workers and four managers.
Housing plays a large part in retaining employees in areas where finding affordable accommodations is a challenge.
WA owns 31 rental-housing units in Buena Vista.
Seasonal employees live in employee housing at River Rest Mobile Park behind the Evergreen Café.
“We have housed our employees there for 22 years,” said Greiner. “We have provided housing since the economy recovered from the Climax Mine closing in the early ‘90s.”
Greiner touts the WA office staff for its commitment.
— “Jody Werner is the technology officer and has been with WA since the Greiners bought the company.
— “Lillian Simpson is the graphic designer and webmaster, having started with WA after graduating from BV high school in 2001.
— “Katie Schmitt also started with WA while in high school and has managed our office and reservations for many years.
“We have polished our administrative system, helping create a state-of-the-art computerized reservation system and purpose-built headquarters,” Greiner said.
Both Greiners have been active in the river community. Joe was on the Colorado River Outfitters Association board of directors from 1987 to 2008; on the Arkansas River Outfitters Association board from 2002-17; and served on the Arkansas River Citizens Task Force since its inception in 1990.
WA was active in the creation of Browns Canyon National Monument. Joe traveled to Washington, D.C., for two lobbying efforts and hosted renowned landscape photographer John Fielder as well as U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette.
Sue is on the board of Friends of Browns Canyon, active in Envision Chaffee County and was the primary visionary and proponent of the new community solar garden.