June 21, 1985 The Tribune – By Riding the Crest of Whitewater Rafting
El Sobrante, California — at 38 Bill McGinnis is owner of Whitewater Voyages/River Exploration Ltd., a rapidly expanding rafting company running more rivers and carrying more passengers than any other California outfitter.
Eleven years ago, the graduate of Ells High School and San Francisco State University, was living rent-free in basement digs at his folks place, preparing to launch his business with two rafts, no wheels, and a $500 “grant” from his grandmother.
Not counting rafts already retired, his firm today has “111 first string ships of the line,” generally costing more than $2,000 wholesale each, seven buses, a full-time, year-round staff of nine, and more than 100 guides at eh peak of the season.
“This is the last year of growth at the rate we’ve been growing.” said McGinnis, whose book “Whitewater Rafting” has become a classic among rafters. “We’re going to level off. Two new rivers will be added this year, making 23 altogether, the vast majority in California and Oregon.”
Operating out of headquarters on San Pablo Creek, McGinnis said winter’s heavy rains mean good business and an extended season. There’s plenty of ice and snow at higher elevations, and rivers run higher.
Trying to keep his embryonic business afloat at its beginning, he traded river trips with a graphic designer and printer to get his first brochure.
“I tried everything I could think of, but not much worked,” he recalled. “When I first started I typed every letter, confirmed every reservation, and answered every phone call.”
Then a publication called Heliotrope listed one of his trips on the South Fork of the American River as a whitewater classroom, and business accelerated like a barrel going over Niagara Falls.
“The trip filled,” McGinnis said. “Heliotrope kept calling to tell me the class was full, and would I teach another. It was successful beyond my wildest dreams, and formed the nucleus of this business.”
Response came at rafting’s moment of evolution.
Marked improvements in equipment were occurring, leading to tougher, more stable, self-bailing rafts, skill levels among McGinnis and his guides were increasing, and they were ready for tougher rivers, as were clients. They were all evolving as better river runners ready for additional challenges.
“There were a bunch of California rivers perceived as too tough to raft,” he said, “but combining the above factors, they were runnable. That is what I’m so proud of. We pioneered trips on those rivers.”
When Whitewater Voyages started, there were approximately 10 rafting companies, and today there are more than 100. In five years, the number of recognized raft runs statewide has more than doubled, a far cry from when Heliotrope delivered its “incredible response,” McGinnis said, “and I advertised for “Person with van or truck wanted to join rafting company.”
Whitewater clientele comes predominately from western states, but they keep coming back for more from as far away as New York, participating in trips on rivers from the Grand Canyon to the Bio Bio, Chile’s largest.
But the majority of International trips, McGinnis said, require too much responsibility, and in the past have lost money.
“I’m having fun and at times going crazy,” the bachelor boatman said, “because there are so many details in running this company. Thank goodness I’ve got great people working for me. I’ve come close to marriage, but I guess I’ve been married to Whitewater Voyages all this time.
“I’m getting better at personal relationships, and I don’t think you can sum me up as a businessman yet.”
He also wants to find time, energy, and commitment to write a novel, involving, naturally, a river trip.
“I’ve decided I like this too much to ever leave it.” McGinnis said, “but coping with the ongoing avalanche of details is fantastic. I have to do all the things left over, lead every whitewater school and do hiring. I may have to delegate more of the leadership role.”
Whitewater Voyages, he added, grosses less money than a busy corner gas station, “but certainly grosses more fun.”
To critics who complain rafters turn rivers into litter scarred aquatic freeways, McGinnis said “rafters don’t litter rivers. A raft leaves no trace of its passage, and rafters take great pains to leave banks as clean as they found them. But some rivers are extremely popular, and some people choose them because of their resort atmosphere.
“They have the same appeal a down-hill ski resort has over cross-country. Folks say, “Hey, this is where the action is.” Already, there is some restraint on the number of outfitters and trips per day. It’s essential to preserve the natural habitat and provide rafters with the experience they seek. They’re not paying to run on a freeway with bumper-to-bumper rafts.”
Does he have regrets about life so far?
“Yes,” he admitted. “There was a girl I like in junior high, and one day she started talking to me and I didn’t know how to respond. If I had it to do all over again, I’d let her know how I felt. That’s my main regret.” © 1985 The Tribune.