You’re crashing down crystal clear snowmelt in the river while your guide shouts, “All forward!” You paddle in sync with your boat as waves pummel your raft. You make it to the big hit and WHOOSH! You’re soaked. Sloppy. Slumped into the person next to you, even. You’re also grinning ear to ear because that was the most fun you had all season. Whitewater rafting will get you hooked that way. Unless there’s another even more magnetic quality to whitewater rafting. James Moore, owner of Orion Expeditions, certainly thinks so.

The bond that forms within a boat on a rafting trip is truly something special. James found this out in 1974 when he attended Prescott College in Arizona and went through their wilderness orientation program. Freshmen were sent on an outdoor activity for a month; James happened to be sent on a rafting trip on the Green River in Utah.

James reminisces, “I was fascinated with how great it is to be outdoors for 30 days and being thrown together with folks; it’s such a bonding thing.”

Orion boasts gender parity in a male-dominated industry. Photo credit: James Moore

After attending the University of Texas at Austin for his sophomore year, James wound up at Whatcom County’s very own Western Washington University, due to his interest in its Outdoor Recreation Program.

How to Accidentally Start a Rafting Company

James chuckles while reflecting on 1977. “We weren’t thinking long term, we were just thinking it would get us out of college. In order to graduate from Western you have to do an internship and that’s how I inadvertently started a business,” he says. “We had been talking to Whatcom County Parks, but then the superintendent told us he hired someone from California to basically do the same thing.”

James and his cohort of five – who had been trying to create a hodgepodge of outdoor activities ranging from rafting to square dancing – shrunk to a cohort of three at this setback. Each had their own activity they could assist with implementing; biking, horseback riding and rafting. They couldn’t find anywhere that would insure bikes and horses were too expensive to rent, so they were left with rafting. Fortunately James worked as a river guide for Zig Zag at this time and had some idea of where to steer their internship.

James Moore prefers to run his company from the background with a canine companion. Photo courtesy: Moore family

The Nitty Gritty

James and his two cohorts called a company in Salt Lake City to insure Orion Expeditions. They chose a name that was short and sweet and the favored name of the three boats on James’ freshmen wilderness orientation at Prescott College. They procured a business license and put together brochures. They sent their brochures to churches because they figured churches have youth groups Orion could work with. They were right.

“Before we talked to our professors, we received a phone call threatening to sue.” James says.

It was the owner of Whitewater Voyages in West Virginia. James and co had been advertising Orion using an image taken out of a book, River Running, which was apparently an image from Whitewater Voyages. None of them could placate the owner of the West Virginia outfit so James called the author of the book, Verne Huser. Fortunately, James and Verne hit it off and Verne was able to smooth it over with the West Virginia man.

Orion Expeditions’ very first guest. Photo courtesy: James Moore

James goes on to describe the setback. “We had to recall brochures and make new ones. The second brochures were really crappy. The first ones weren’t good, but we didn’t even have our own pictures. There wasn’t any graphic computer stuff we could use.”

Three professors oversaw the internship. “Fortunately, the dean was in favor of it, but the other two were skeptical. One of the professors even said, ‘You guys are crazy to pull this off.’ The other said ‘This is unorthodox.’”

They used the dean’s house for collateral to procure about $5,000 worth of gear. This is how Orion acquired its first boats and personal flotation devices. James and his partners graduated from Western in 1978 and had no trouble drumming up business for Orion after that. They reached out to the Human Resources Departments in Seattle companies for clientele.

River rafting takes you in to the heart of the wild. Photo credit: Lizzie Bridges

“We didn’t even try to sell anything. We’d just say, ‘Hey we’re a rafting company – wanna take employees down the river?’” James says.

Rafting Philosophy

James describes being a river guide, “You’re molding the group from the beginning. Teaching them about the river and paddling, how to paddle together for a more effective run. Then there’s the rapids and that’s exciting if you can go bigger or smaller. You can see a group coalescing with success.”

Thanks in part to James’ education at Western, he has a lot of ideas about running an outdoor company. You can learn more about this small business owner’s thoughtful philosophy at Orion’s blog and Washington’s River Rafting blog. Orion is the only company in the state that runs a week long multi-day guide training. If you’re interested in checking out the Wenatchee, Deschutes, Methow, Sauk, Skagit or Tieton Rivers this year, book a trip with Orion today!

Orion Expeditions
41 Orion Lane in Leavenworth
Monday – Sunday: 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.

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