A 30 Year Journey on Rocky Mountain Snowmelt – Mild to Wild’s Beginnings
By Kim Cassels • January 16, 2024
A 30 Year Journey on Rocky Mountain Snowmelt – Mild to Wild’s Beginnings
If you’ve ever wondered how Mild to Wild has grown into the outfitter it is today, grab the rewinder and stop when you hit 1994.
You’ll find two Durango river guides illegally parking a bus on the side of their basement apartment, with the entirety of the company equipment stored inside. It’s okay, the landlord’s cool with it.
Actually, rewind a couple years more for some context on these enterprising vagabonds.
It started a little something like this; A marketing machine of a Minnesotan and classically adventure-crazed Coloradan walked into a bar…
Meet Molly and Alex Mickel
Just kidding, we’re rewinding even further!
Molly grew up in Woodbury, Minnesota, Alex in Paonia, Colorado. How they found each other in one of the most outdoor driven towns in the country was, without question, the call of the river.
Surprisingly, Molly wasn’t raised with much outdoor recreation in the mix of her Minnesotan upbringing.
“My mom took us camping once, and said ‘Never again.’” It wasn’t until her early twenties that Molly started to venture into things that matched her spontaneous and adventurous spirit.
At the time she was a new hire with Ford Motor Company, a quintessential job for an M.B.A fresh out of the cap and gown. But after a couple friends threw together a trip on the Oconee River, her enthusiasm for the corporate world started to sink— fast.
And if one is familiar with the carnage of the Oconee, this is quite logical. As she started to pepper her guide with questions about the world of river running, he told her, “Why don’t you take the lead through this class IV rapid.”
Promptly, the boat flipped. Molly was hooked and her friends have never rafted since.
After another year of having a “good” job while also experiencing the pandemonium of Colorado’s Arkansas River, Molly couldn’t help but pivot. It was time to trade out the nylons for a pair of Tevas.
She heard that a good place to start as a river guide was in Durango, Colorado, where the town run offers a good mix of exciting but low-stake rapids. Plus, it’s nested in one of the most beautiful alpines on Earth. Done deal, she said.
In the spring of 1992, Molly told Ford she’d be back after she got a summer of fun out of her system. And they just may have believed her, if they hadn’t made a trip down to visit.
Just across the street from Molly’s outfitter was another rafting company, where a dude by the name of Alex Mickel was also rowing boats down the daily run. He, like any other Durango college student, alternated between riding whitewater in the summers and powder in the winters.
For Alex, indulging in the outdoors was second nature. Growing up at the base of the Rockies, you don’t really have a choice most would say. So he didn’t really know any better than to take a kayak into the Weminuche on his days off.
However, he did come from a family of law. So by another nature he was studying Environmental Politics. He decided he had two options after graduating, the classic dilemma; Go to law school, or become a professional mogul skier.
But plans are just plans after all, since the two river guides in this small town couldn’t help but notice each other.
That fall Alex was finishing out his last semester, while Molly was cocktail waitressing for the off season. One night, he wandered into her bar, sat himself in her section, and successfully retrieved her number.
He took Molly snowboarding at Purgatory on their first date, towing her down the mountain as she learned another skill to enjoy the gems of Mother Nature.
So, that was that in terms of destiny.
Becoming Mild to Wild
When rafting season came again, Molly’s perspective had changed about the qualifications of a “real job.” The two were working at the same outfitter now, and with her newfound trajectory in mind, she proposed a little undertaking to Alex.
“We should just start our own rafting business.”
The following season, the newly engaged river guides purchased American Adventure Excursions— which was actually the first company where Molly had started her rafting career.
Side note: The catchy tagline for American Adventure Excursions was “Mild to Wild”. Customers often wrote this on the checks instead of the company name, so much so that it eventually renamed the business. So really, the guests chose Mild to Wild, rather than Alex and Molly. And based on the nature of outfitting on and off the river, it’s undoubtedly fitting.
It came with: Three bucket rafts, a school bus, a little wooden kiosk in downtown, and commercial permits for the Lower Animas, Piedra River, and Upper Animas. They had about 5 employees, which was just enough people to row the boats, run the shuttle, and sling trips to passersby.
A usual day for Molly was to book trips in the morning, then ride her bike over to the shuttle, row a trip, and then ride back to the kiosk to do it all over again for the afternoon.
Alex ran operations the whole day, spent the evening moving all the gear into the bus, and making sandwiches for customer lunches until midnight. This was when their landlord let them park the bus on the side of the house, despite the ordinance violation. That’s what we call a real local.
Many nights, Molly went back to the kiosk to catch tourists leaving the bars. Which, to no surprise, was often the best time to book trips for the next day.
To help the new outfitter gain momentum, Molly and Alex’s family pitched in to help. They purchased a few more boats and a van the next season, Molly’s dad took customer calls from Wisconsin, her sister worked in the kiosk, and Alex’s sister designed their first brochures. It was becoming a full-fledged family business, no doubt.
Rowin’ and Growin’
After eloping in Utah’s Dead Horse State Park, Alex and Molly started branching out for more permits.
In 1998, Alex landed one his most beloved— Arizona’s Salt River on the Fort Apache Reservation. Access to this thundering waterway, coated in cacti and glimmering granite, was one of the most elusive ins yet. This is on account of how Tribe allows only three outfitters to bound down their sacred waters.
In the next two years, they began running the San Miguel and Dolores below McPhee Dam. But even with these added permits, the rafting season still had hard bookends. Running a business based on western water makes for a small window to make an income for the year.
The Mickel’s quickly saw the need to diversify their business, and found a way to add a couple more months of fun to the Colorado experience— Land tours!
As rafts were getting rolled up for the fall, vintage Pinzars and hearty Jeeps rolled out to aspen-lined trails. They became the first outfitter to tour La Plata Canyon near Durango, and joined the few cruising the San Juans above Silverton. The leafers couldn’t have been happier.
And after expanding into Arizona, they thought hey, why not Utah too? So they setup a satellite operation in Moab in 2002, similar to their San Miguel and Dolores setup. Which is just an established meet spot where the guides bring everything in for the day. The drives can be long, but at least they’re downright beautiful.
But with the growing menu came A LOT more ingredients— aka equipment. So after trying out a couple locations that were finally legal to store buses, vans and rafts and such, (apologies to the residents of 3rd Avenue who may have lost a few parking spots those first couple years) Mild to Wild moved into its Durango home in 2007. Today, those heading north on 550 will see it as the last business in town.
The trip options stayed the same for quite a few years. Until their longtime friend and colleague, Tom Klenschnitz, the owner of the legendary outfitter Adventure Bound River Expeditions, was ready to move onto other adventures. In 2017, Alex and Molly bought the historic name, the prestigious permits, and legacy equipment that came with it.
The permits included the Green River through Gates of Lodore and Desolation Canyon, the Colorado River through Cataract Canyon and Ruby Horsethief, and the Yampa River through Dinosaur National Monument. Every one of these stretches of wilderness are incredibly remote, rugged, and wondrous.
Today, Mild to Wild is humbled to carry the torch of a true pioneer of commercial river running. One that began exploring the incredible canyons of the Colorado Plateau in 1963, when dinners were cooked over campfires, and the rafts were as long as the buses that towed them.
Living a Legacy
For the past 30 years, Alex and Molly have continued to work tirelessly to share the best of what our world has to offer— wilderness, nature, and time spent together enjoying it. It has always been the hope to have a positive impact on peoples’ lives, guides and guests alike.
Just like Molly’s, who was so inspired by the power of a wild river, she completely changed her life for one lived in the outdoors. Or Alex, whose inclination to explore with an oar or paddle was too strong to have ever swayed away from it.
The Mickels and Mild to Wild family are incredibly grateful to share the most beautiful rivers and canyons of the Southwest with those who want to experience them. Here’s to doing what you love, finding as many ways possible to do it, and sharing it with people who will love it too.