Name: Gaia Marrs
Company: Copper Oar & St. Elias Alpine Guides
Location: McCarthy, Alaska
Tell me the story of your company.
We run Copper Oar Rafting & St. Elias Alpine Guides. Both companies were existing before we bought them. St Elias Alpine Guides was opened in 1978 and my husband was in the process of purchasing that company when we started dating. He was buying it from the original owner [in 2004]. Copper Oar Rafting was started in 1993 when I was a teenager by a really good friend of mine; he was my mentor. We used to run sled dogs together and I thought he was the coolest thing ever. He started a rafting company and I started going along on trips and eventually became a guide. He sold it to a guy in Oregon, who owned it for a few years then he sold it to us [in 2005]. My husband was a hiking and climbing guide and I was a rafting guide, so we both worked previously for the companies that we now own.
What’s the most rewarding part of being an outfitter?
These days, I don’t guide that much anymore. When I was guiding, sharing those experiences with the clients was the primary thing. Now, a big part of what I do for the company is sales. I sell all of our multi-day trips. I just always want to give people the best trips for them. I like building trust with the clients. I also really enjoy the relationships that we have with our long-time employees, the people who are with us for 4,5, 6, 10 years- there’s a lot of mutual loyalty and appreciation with both our full-time, year-round employees and our summer staff that come back year after year. Those relationships are just really awesome.
Who inspires you in the outdoor industry?
During the years between the original owner of Copper Oar and myself, the owner at the time brought on a guide named Leo, who was sent up to be the manager. Leo and I did a couple summers together- one summer we did pretty much back to back trips together. He actually lives in Hawaii, but he still does full seasons on the Grand Canyon and he’s around 70. He was a true professional guide and had been for a lot of years. I got to teach him my rivers, and he got to teach me about being a guide. He’s so calm all the time. I remember one time I was leading down the Copper River. It was raining and blowing and I thought we were going to camp in this one spot but the channel had moved or I didn’t remember it right and I was stressing out, so I was running around looking for a place for us to camp, and I came back and I was stressed out and Leo just says to me “Gaita, it’s okay. It’s only 3 o’clock. Everyone is fine. Just calm down.” So, he just brought me back to earth when I was stressing about my trip leader responsibilities. He taught me lots of little tricks of the trade too.
You’re in the process of selling your business. Can you share your experience?
It’s a good time in our personal lives to take a break as well as a good time for our business. We’ve had a series of good years; the economy has been good; our local economy has been good, and we have gotten to the point where we can sell a really dialed company. We have a lot of good systems. The documents are organized. We have a really good company to sell. And it’s going to support us for long enough to take our time to transition and to travel with our kiddo.
We know a lot of people who waited until they’re so burned out – they’re desperate to retire or to desperate to make a change, and they don’t do it well. We’ve seen it in multiple businesses. We weren’t in that position. It did take us a couple years. Three of our long-term employees came together [to purchase the business]. We announced it very purposefully. We made the personal phone calls and sent emails, then finally we announced on social media. We have a whole transition year set up this year where we can teach them everything. And we still have the energy to do that.
What comes next for you?
We’re taking some time off. We want to live overseas for 6 months with our daughter. We’re taking a break to enjoy her and travel with her before she goes to school. She’s awesome. She’s been raised in an adventurous lifestyle, so she is ready to see the world. We plan to continue to spend partial summers in the Wrangells. I have a strong attachment having grown up there. We are finishing a cabin there that we will probably return to for 4-6 weeks each year. For future projects, my husband has talked about interest in helping other people with running a small business, particularly a guide service, and help with buying and selling – he’s considering doing that in a variety of formats. I will probably do some selling of Alaska adventure trips – I have so much knowledge about that, something specialized for families and small groups who want to get off-the-beaten-track and to have real wilderness experiences and organizing the logistics surrounding that to help pick the right adventures. But we’re not in a hurry! We’re going to take the next couple years to enjoy.
Tell me about your experience being a female in the outdoor industry.
Back when I was a guide is when I noticed differences- though it probably has equally to do with being a woman and being young honestly- those years when I was 20-22 and was lead guiding 16-foot rafts on 8-day trips in the wilderness, definitely was an interesting position to be in, especially with the older male clientele. You could see the look of doubt in their eyes when I would introduce myself as the Lead Guide. I just looked at it as a challenge. “So, you don’t think I can do it? By the end of the trip you’ll know I can.” It seems like now when I go out to guide I don’t get that at all, which is in part because I am older now and also because I am more confident, but also in our society and the outdoor industry now, I’m sure there are still those moments, but it seems to me for the most part it’s accepted that women are doing it and that it’s awesome.
Do you have advice for young women and girls who want to be a guide?
In my experience, any barriers you feel like you see can be overcome. Not that there are not real situations out there where someone is discriminating- it happens, but don’t get in your head about it. The outdoor industry is a place where it’s an equal ground. There’s no reason women can’t go out and do everything guys are doing.