Meet Sara O’Donnell
Sara is newer to the AzRA family, but she’s quickly become an integral part of the family! She has a calm disposition to her, and a quiet confidence, which is appreciated by those around her. As an English major in college, she wrote a really great profile, and we can’t wait to for you to read it!
Where were you born? Tell us a little about yourself!
I was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming. I grew up running around the mountains of south eastern Wyoming (which do exist! Most people think that part of Wyoming is only an extension of Nebraska’s corn fields). Wyoming has so much space and so much wilderness to love. Growing up there taught me to cherish the rugged beauty of it all. I think my brother and I grew up a little more wild because of all that space and so few people. Our parents taught us that life outside is the best kind of life. I’ve lived in Wyoming most of my life – I went to college in Laramie and now I live in Jackson, but I did spend about five years living in Utah and one year living in the Czech Republic. I have an English degree, which has been very useful in my guiding career, and I just hit a decade of guiding this summer.
What’s your history with AzRA?
I started with AzRA in 2021. When I very first started guiding on rivers in California in 2014, my family did a Grand Canyon trip as a passenger with AzRA. The guides on that trip told them to tell me to apply to work at AzRA because it was the best. At that time I was 20 years old, a baby river guide, and thought there was no way I would ever guide in Grand Canyon. Then in 2021, having forgotten all about that connection, I was ready for a change of pace and even considered moving on from guiding. I applied for AzRA thinking I’d like one or two trips and that would be enough. Instead, I ended up with a full season of eight trips and a newly reinvigorated spirit for guiding!
When did you start guiding?
I give credit to my mom for my initial inspiration to get into guiding. She took me on a river trip on the Green River through Gates of Lodore when I was 12 years old. We weren’t a river/boating family, but we did a lot of camping and backpacking. At the time I don’t think I fully appreciated what I got to experience on that trip, but looking back it was the perfect introduction to river running. That river section will always hold a special place in my heart for that reason. Then, the summer before my junior year in college, which would have been 2014, I convinced my brother to sign up for a raft guide training with ARTA in California. I’d just returned from living abroad and was feeling like I could take on anything. With basically no river experience between the two of us whatsoever, we set out with our backpacks to Lotus, California with no real idea what was in store for us. That training was extremely humbling, but it also made me fall in love with water and rivers and the boating community. It opened up a whole way of living that I didn’t know existed, and I was immediately enthralled. I worked in California for two seasons and then switched companies to work in Dinosaur National Monument on the Green and the Yampa rivers. That was really when my multi-day guiding career started. I spent six years guiding there and loving those canyons. I also got the opportunity to row baggage in Grand Canyon a handful of times during those years. The first time I rowed my own boat through Grand Canyon changed my life. I’d never been anywhere so huge, so captivating, so intimidating and special and sacred. Then Covid hit and that was an extremely hard river season to work. I was burnt out and tired and didn’t think I wanted to guide anymore. I decided to leave Dinosaur behind. It was incredible luck and timing that I contacted AzRA at the end of 2020 about trying to do a trip or two with them. Starting with AzRA and spending more time in Grand Canyon reminded me why I love guiding and rivers.
What types of trips do you guide?
I do 14 and 16 day rowing trips. I mostly row the oar boats, but occasionally, I row the dory.
What are your favorite hikes? Why?
I love hiking in Grand Canyon. It is so huge, there are so many side canyons, and there are endless places to explore. Probably my favorite hike is the one I’m doing for the first time – getting to explore a side canyon or a trail I’ve never been to before. It seems like there’s a lifetime of walking to do down there. That being said, I love the Carbon/Lava Chuar hike. You get so many things out of one walk – amazing geology, fault lines, incredible wild flowers in the spring. You get away from the river and back behind what feels like the walls of the canyon. You get a view of the north rim and the many ridges and canyons in between. You get Tapeats sandstone narrows and dark Cardenas basalt. You feel like maybe you’re walking around on another planet.
Any other interesting facts about yourself you would like guests to know?
I am a big fan of cribbage (the card game) and always bring a cribbage board on trips with me. I also firmly believe that everyone should have their toenails painted at least once on a river trip.
What do you do when not guiding at AzRA?
I currently live in Jackson, Wyoming with my partner, and I spend my winters skiing and enjoying the colder, more frozen types of water. I’ve worked a variety of jobs in the ski industry, and spent a couple winters traveling and teaching abroad.
Do you have hobbies, or things you like to do?
Other than running rivers, which I do a lot in my free time, my partner and I spend a lot of time hiking, camping, backpacking, and fishing in the mountains around where we live. We’re also getting into packrafting which opens up huge opportunities for accessing rivers in the backcountry. I’m also very slowly learning how to play the guitar, which is my most recent hobby. I love listening to music but am not naturally talented at making it, so it’s been a fun and challenging thing to learn.
What do you love about the Canyon and guiding?
Grand Canyon is like no place I’ve ever been. Its expansiveness and depth and unknown places keep me coming back again and again. The mystery of the swirls, whirlpools, and currents of the Colorado river are endlessly fascinating; I could watch the water move forever. It was originally the river itself that I came for, but it’s the side canyons and the exploration and beauty to be found away from the river that keep me. What a rare gift to get to spend two or more weeks traveling as a river does, waking with the sun and sleeping under the stars, feeling the oars slice through the water and your legs carry you up a steep trail. Getting to share my love and passion for these experiences with others is why I love guiding. As guides, we get to share the magic of the canyon with so many people in such an intimate way.
Do you have a favorite Grand Canyon story you’d like to share?
One that always makes me laugh is when I took my partner on his first river trip ever. It was a spring Grand Canyon trip and we had beautiful weather. We’d brought an inflatable kayak and somewhere around day five I convinced him to get in it. I told him it was a nice mellow stretch from Nankoweap down to the Little Colorado with only one medium-ish rapid that I had total faith he could paddle through. Our kayaker friend agreed and said to just follow his lines and he’d lead him safely through it all. And then they enter Kwagunt rapid on the far right side of the river. If you’re familiar with that rapid, the line is a series of fun waves down the left side of the river working towards the center, while the upper middle and right side of the river is basically a gigantic hole. I watched them enter on the right thinking, “What are they doing??” The kayaker managed okay by rolling, but my partner’s inflatable kayak hit that hole and launched into the air. Kayak flying one way, paddle flying the other, and my partner having a not-so-fun swim through a meaty hole. We caught him and his boat and pulled over to shore right after the rapid. He was okay but totally worked by the swim, laying (dramatically?) in the sand on the beach. Everyone has their nemesis rapid and he’d found his. This year he got to come on another trip, and as we’re going through Kwagunt he looks at me, points to the gigantic hole on the right, and says, “Wait a second, I tried to paddle through that??”
Any advice you would give guests that are planning a trip with us?
Embrace sand into your life – every aspect of your life. Welcome the elements, the struggles, the heat and wind and dry cracking skin. Your wet feet and leaky dry bag. Hauling all your stuff up a steep, sandy hill. Waking in the night as an extreme gust of wind blows sand in your eyes and tries to whisk away your sleeping bag. Sand is everywhere and there’s nothing you can do about it. Two weeks is so long and so short. Each day there will be things that are hard and things that make your jaw hit the floor with awe. You will be tired and hot and cold and wet and oh so dry and hungry and extremely full. Take each experience as it is, and know that ultimately your time in Grand Canyon is short, not even a tiny blip in the scale of the canyon. It is an honor and a privilege to have any time at all. We are so small and this experience is so huge.