How Wyoming Rivers Cooperative is guiding clients down rivers of adventure and awareness.
BY CLAIRE CELLA
Landon Blanchard turns and bends over to light the propane cookstove in the cabin and I find myself studying the logo on the back of his shirt. It’s for his barely-one-year-old river outfitting company, Wyoming Rivers Cooperative, and was designed by his partner in life and now business, Elyse Guarino.
The logo is a black cottonwood leaf with thin teal veins coursing through it-Wyoming’s river system. One might wonder what a cottonwood has to do with water, or what it has to do with this story, but their point is that everything has to do with everything else—it’s all interconnected. And although their fledgling but flourishing packrafting company’s No. 1 objective is to help people get on the water, their mission runs deeper.
I stand in their cabin. Chopping echoes throughout the open living space. Blanchard dices garlic with a deftness of having held a knife in this way before, while Guarino stands inches from him, dropping old tortillas into a pot of hot oil, making do, not wasting.
An ethos permeates the moments I spent with these two people. Together, they are a cooperative: helpful and striving for an outcome that is of common benefit. But more broadly, what they’ve managed to build in the span of a few months—during a global pandemic, no less—and what they aspire to continue building, is cooperative, too.
In January 2020, Blanchard and Guarino launched their business in Lander, Wyoming, intending to name it “Wyoming Rivers,” but the name was taken. Surreptitiously, I’ll argue.
But Wyoming Rivers Cooperative is much more than a boating or packrafting company. Sure, you’ll learn the skills you need to manage rapids, pack a rafting bag, leave no trace in the wilderness, but you’ll also learn a lot more on your trip—about the water you float upon, where it came from, where it’s going, and how you fit into this broader system, how you can cooperate with it.
It’s a company with a mission and model that was born out of the questions Blanchard and Guarino were asking themselves at the end of 2019—about water, rivers and the course of their lives. After one particular trip on the Green River with his previous employer, Blanchard said he came back inspired to help people have these types of experiences and translate that appreciation and awareness into advocacy for river conservation in Wyoming.
“We wanted to start a company that was conservation based, community focused and sustainable,” he said, “where the business model is built so that we don’t have to grow our numbers in a way that negatively impacts the resources.
“Every community has a river flowing through it somewhere,” he continued, gesturing outside to the cottonwood-lined banks of the South Fork of the Shoshone that flows steps from their cabin. And that should, the duo says, help foster conversations about the state’s recreation economy, the collaborative use of rivers and sharing of water.
It can also spark discussions about the value and quality of water in all of its forms and uses—even if that means, for them, not having access.
“We want to people an awareness that moves people to action and makes them realize this interconnectedness— climate change to economy to recreation to inequality—and how that is related to water”
“We want to be involved at every level and not just when it affects us,” Blanchard said. “From my work in advocacy, I know it’s more beneficial to be the one who continually shows up. And if that means that we don’t get to float a river but that the resource is more protected, or the water is of higher quality, it is absolutely in our mission to still be involved.”
“We want to showcase this for other businesses,” Guarino added. “That we don’t only have to prioritize things that make us money. If we continue to do that, we’re never going to have vibrant recreation or healthy communities. We have to recognize that we are part of a bigger system. It seems obvious with water, but sometimes people still miss that.”
For instance, as I’m writing this piece, the Western mountains have already been dusted with early snow and while we may think that only avid skiers and snowboarders are taking watch, Blanchard, Guarino— and, they argue, anyone who cares about water in the West—are, too.
“It’s important to understand the connection between how much snow we get, when we get it, how long it stays, how it consolidates, what quality it is, to how much water we’ll have throughout the summer,” he said.
For Blanchard and Guarino, snow is fundamental to whether they can operate a certain river; for others, whether they can grow crops; still other places, if they’ll have enough to drink. It’s a communitywide issue, not just about recreation, and, Guarino adds, not even just about Wyoming. She likens the impact they’d like to have to a pot full of water, tipped over and trickling into other communities and states.
“We want to give people an awareness that moves people to action and makes them realize this interconnectedness—climate change to economy to recreation to inequality—and how that is related to water.”
This winter, the couple is diving into the water issues that may arise during the Wyoming Legislature’s 66th session, as well as fostering more collaborative partnerships with businesses, organizations and user-groups to be able to expand their current trip schedule. But only to a certain point. The primary goal remains the experience they impart to other people, and not necessarily themselves. If they continue with that model, they think that water will always be here, too.
“How you exist in a place is just as much a part of the experience as what you’re doing or what you’ve accomplished,” Blanchard said. “And if we can build trips that show this and the connection between things, it won’t save the world, but it might help protect these resources.”
“It’s okay to give instead of take,” Guarino said, handing me a bowl of curry.
Claire Cella, a New York state native, never imagined herself living in the West. That was five years ago and now she can’t imagine living anywhere else.