River Guide, Sam Cook on 30 Years of Adventure
By Codi Coghlan • January 31, 2024
River Guide, Sam Cook on 30 Years of Adventure
I had scant knowledge of Sam Cook before our interview. As an Adventure Consultant, my world revolves around calls and keystrokes, tethered to the indoors. Sam, on the other hand, is a river guide, navigating the outdoors, guiding people down the river.
Despite us both working for Mild to Wild Rafting & Jeep Tours, I can recall crossing paths only once or twice. During one day in particular, I found myself testing a trip I typically sell to customers, while Sam piloted the safety boat solo. A Monopoly Man-esque mustache covered most of his mouth.
Though words didn’t pass between us, I managed to capture snapshots of him maneuvering the long oars through moss colored water. He seemed serene against the backdrop of lime green trees perched above the muddy bank.
After conquering Smelter, the Lower Animas’s notorious class III rapid, Sam, satisfied with our safety, vanished into Santa Rita Park.
My mental image of him morphed into a modern-day Huckleberry Finn, rowing with abandon, yet mindful of our safety. Intrigued, I was eager to delve into his extensive career—the longest among our guides at Mild to Wild.
Sam began humbly.
On Putting Down Roots
Sam: I’m not sure I’m the very best person to represent Mild to Wild.
Codi: Oh, I think you are, because you’ve been with us since, what—2003, 2005?
C: How did you find Mild to Wild?
S: It was a long time ago at a coffee shop in Durango. Somebody had pinned a little notice on a board for a guide school starting in April or May—whenever it was. I read the announcement and thought it sounded like a really good idea, enrolled, attended, liked it, and afterwards, they hired me. I was lucky they liked me. 2005 was a really big, big, big water year, too.
C: What drew you to the river, initially?
S: Well, that’s far more complicated.
C: You’re doing great, Sam.
S: I’ve always liked the water. Water’s beautiful. It’s very relaxing and peaceful, I think. Before guiding in Durango, I had just been on an inner tube, watching rafts go down the river, thinking it would be a really fun way to spend the summer.
C: Why do you still do it?
S: The river never gets old. Furthermore, it never gets ugly or anything. It’s always solid, beautiful, serene, and very comforting.
C: Yeah, it is. It’s one of the best places to be.
S: Before, it was just about learning how to be on the river and enjoying it. Now, I mean, I spend all my time on the water, and never alone—anymore. It’s always with customers, taking them down the river—a chance for me to take other people down and show them what I’ve found—the beautiful serenity right in the middle of town. This lovely feeling I get to share with others hopefully instills in them not just that it’s an activity they can do, but a special feeling they can obtain. It’s something they can enrich their lives with.
C: I feel similarly when I’m on a trip with a guide showing me a new place. We’re grateful for what you do!
Sam Cook on the Lifestyle
Sam: Can I ask you something? It’s kind of off-interview. There’re a lot of guides, and we have to divvy up the customers between different guides. For instance, we try to select the right guide for the right group. One who, you know, makes sense for the customers. It seems to make a lot of difference to people which guide they get. It can really change their experience. So, in your case, does the guide you get assigned to make a difference, or, are they all the same?
Codi: I like getting to know new people, no matter who it is. But, I will say that I am especially fond of guides who make me laugh, or, who I can tell are enjoying themselves a bit—not just on their daily grind. Sometimes, guides aren’t going to be able to have humor, even if they’re typically funny, because they’re stressed out or whatever it is. In summary, I like the humorous guides, but I’m usually happy with whoever is working, and I try to empathize with the guides, since I work in the industry.
S: Are you a guide yourself?
C: Actually, I’ve never guided, but I’m adventurous. Next question: What’s your wildest memory from work? Or from a trip?
S: We should keep it PG I think.
C: It’s your interview. You can keep it as PG—or not—as you want.
S: Can we skip that? Come back to it?
C: Oh, absolutely. What does this job mean to you?
S: It means everything to me. Honestly, I’ve been doing it now for nineteen seasons. And it’s not just river guiding, it’s like, my social life. My co-workers are just my friends. Honestly, they’re some of the best friends I have.
Every summer, I get to come play with them. Nevertheless, we all work together, we work hard together. It’s a lot of hard work and play. Evidently, it’s really enjoyable working with friends. Any job where you work with great people makes the job great and really exciting.
It’s also a chance to share with other people. Surprisingly, I don’t mean the other guides. I mean, the clients—showing them what the river can be and mean, what they can feel from it, what they can do with it, and, you know, that it’s a wild gift, one I want to share with other people.
Guiding is also an entire lifestyle that is very different from normal life. Generally, I act a bit younger than I am, and I’m old. At any rate, I really like it. It’s freeing, exciting, energetic, and free spirited. Not, say, structured, agenda driven, right?
In fact, it’s exactly the opposite of structure. It’s free, it’s freewheeling, and the better you can freewheel, the better raft guide you are. Moreover, it’s an opportunity to share something wonderful with other people, friends, and family—a chance to be unstructured.
On Mild to Wild’s Culture
Codi: This next question is kind of related. Why have you stayed with Mild to Wild for so long?
Sam: In truth, Mild to Wild is the best company I’ve ever worked for in my life. And I’ve worked for many, many companies—big and small—from New York City to Paris and other big cities. Mild to Wild is mom and pop-driven.
You have Alex and Molly, and they are literally mom and dad with the kids. I think that’s important right there, since, all of a sudden, it becomes a family business. And that is something I find endearing. It makes me want to work harder for them. I work more for Alex than I do for Molly, but I know the format has gone very well over the course of my existence here, you know, with the company. Undeniably, Alex is the most fair boss I’ve ever had.
C: Oh, that’s sweet.
S: Likewise, the entire crew at Mild to Wild is not just a family—it’s a close family. It’s, you know, a different lifestyle than most companies, where you go to work in the morning, go home in the evening, see each other Monday through Friday, and that’s it.
Contrastingly, it’s wild seven days a week during long periods of overnights and extended trips. Basically, you live as a unit. Almost like, I don’t know, I wouldn’t say military. Rather, a family. I like being part of a family more than I like being an employee, because it adds another layer of significance to your life.
On the whole, it isn’t just how meaningful the relationships you build are and how meaningful the experiences you get to have while working and getting paid, kind of thing. This job is multifaceted and challenging. At no point can you just relax. There’re always more degrees of difficulty you can learn. Unquestionably, it’s never boring.
On Life Outside of River Guiding
Codi: If the outdoor industry weren’t an option, what would you be doing?
Sam: Oh, well, I mean, that’s an easy answer, because rafting is only seasonal.
C: What do you do in the off-season?
S: I’m an artist most of the time.
C: What kind of art do you do, if you don’t mind me prying?
S: I’m a painter and a sculptor, a fine artist.
C: Is that what you’re doing now? Where are you?
S: At the moment, I’m paragliding in Southern California. In the fall, I was in Italy working on two sculptures there. I usually go to a place called Carrera, Italy, where the marble quarry is, where Michelangelo got his marble—the best in the world.
C: That’s fascinating, Sam.
S: It definitely doesn’t suck living in Italy for sculpting.
C: What is your favorite subject to sculpt?
S: I tend towards human anatomy. Greek or Roman sculptures, that kind of thing. I don’t mind animals or things like that, but my favorites are classical humans, which is kind of funny to say.
C: How long have you been paragliding for?
S: It’s my second year. In Durango in the summer, I get up early in the morning, go paragliding off Smelter Mountain, and then get in my raft at 8:30 a.m. to take people down the river. Oh man, flying over the river at daybreak, and then being on the river during the day, are the best.
In Southern California, it’s a lot easier, because you can drive to the top of most mountains and fly off, and the mountains are much higher than what’s available in Durango.
Actually, it was one of the raft guides last year who introduced me to paragliding. He had a paraglider in his car, and I asked him what it was. I thought, wait a minute, that’s really small. I asked if that was all of it? He said that it was. That’s when I realized that if I could paraglide, I could take it with me traveling.
C: It’s much more portable than a raft.
S: It’s also much more affordable. It’s just like a backpack. You can go on a normal vacation to the south of France, do French stuff, which is fun too, and then paraglide.
Sam Cook on the Legacy
Codi: Since Mild to Wild is a family company, what family member are you, for example, a silly cousin?
Sam: Oh, I’m the weird uncle.
C: What makes you the weird uncle?
S: Well, first of all, I’m much older than most of the raft guides. Maybe even grandfather.
C: When you started raft guiding, did you think it would be a long term thing?
S: No, I thought I was going to be working in an art studio, my art studio at the time. Initially, I did it just to get outside, thinking it would just be a part time job, on the weekends, maybe make some money but mostly just get outside and go down the river.
I had no idea what I was getting into and only ended up having two days off the entire summer. At any rate, the more I learned, the more I liked it. So I just kept indulging myself. And Mild to Wild will let you indulge yourself all you want. If you want to work, they don’t mind giving you work.
C: What’s your favorite trip?
S: Well, it’s kind of a divided answer. I really enjoy challenging rivers. Even more, I enjoy taking families—entire families—down the river. I don’t mean six dudes at a bachelor party. I mean, like, the whole family, with the kids and grandma, and everybody gets to go, and we put them in the same boat. In essence, sharing being on the river with them during their vacation—that’s my favorite.
C: How has Mild to Wild changed you?
S: Without a doubt, Mild to Wild has changed my outside life in so many ways. It’s given me new insights, a new lifestyle and ability to grow in an area I didn’t even know existed. Mild to Wild has given me more than I’ve ever given Mild to Wild. It’s helped me to structure my whole life and the rest of my life in a fantastic manner I wasn’t aware of before. All in all, it transformed my life.
C: Lastly, are you ready to answer the question we skipped? What’s your wildest memory from work?
S: Plummeting down the Upper Animas River on a class V section in the middle of a huge rainstorm with thunder and lightening crashing down all around us! It was so exhilarating!
C: ( ⁰д⁰)
S: Yes, that is exactly the face I made.
C: Sam Cook, thank you so much. I think you were the perfect person to interview for Mild to Wild Rafting & Jeep Tours’s 30th Anniversary.
S: If you come down to the Salt River, I’ll see you soon.
C: I hope to! Take care. Be safe out there.