Outdoor Education Spawns Outdoor Entrepreneurship
Mike Denoyer '75
Mike Denoyer '75 can honestly say of his Evergreen years that a river ran through it. And that river shaped his life.
Denoyer is one of those Evergreen pioneer alumni. Attracted by the new school's philosophy, openness and freedom, he arrived in 1972 to find the school in session, but buildings not yet ready for classes. Where did they congregate?
"My greatest mentors," he continued "were [faculty members] Linda Kahn and Oscar Soule; and of course all the faculty members who helped me through my education."
"Linda really influenced the way I directed my education," Denoyer said. "Initially she was hard as nails, very blunt and honest. She got me... to put more effort into my writing and reading and my studies in general."
In year two, 1973, Denoyer took a program called Life on Earth: Past and Present. The program involved a nine-day rafting trip in the Grand Canyon. Thirty-some students went on this trip. One student met his future.
"I'd never been on a river trip before. I was totally blown away," he recalled. “This beautiful canyon, this great river in the desert...When I got off the trip, I asked the guides how to get a job doing this. They told me to write a letter to the owner."
Denoyer did just that. Two weeks after he returned to Olympia, he received a letter telling him to be "down here by the first of May." He drove to Kanab, UT and waited three days. Finally the crew showed up.
Work on the river filled that first summer and each summer thereafter until graduation in 1975. Denoyer planned to pursue marine biology in graduate school. Once again, however, the river intervened when a letter arrived from Utah offering a management position with the company. Denoyer and his partner, later wife, Roxanne Schammel '74 headed back to the desert. Fourteen years later, Denoyer bought a small company of his own. Today, his Grand Canyon Expeditions is one of the largest companies in the area.
A self-effacing storyteller, Denoyer sums it up this way: "You work hard, get a good reputation, stick with it and things work out."
Some might also say "what goes around, comes around" given that Denoyer has generously shared his success with others, including his alma mater. Each year for many years (Denoyer can't remember how many), Grand Canyon Expeditions has taken 16 Evergreen students down the river for a small fraction of the regular cost. Evergreen faculty member and river guide Paul Butler estimates that perhaps 250 students have been hosted through Denoyer's generosity.
He's kept ties with Evergreen in other ways too, by employing Greeners and helping them to find jobs with some of the other 15 companies on the river. His former teacher, Linda Kahn, continues to take a river trip annually and Oscar Soule is a frequent guest star, delivering interpretation to the travelers who go on ecology-themed trips.
"Each night as we set up camp, Oscar gathers everyone around for a half- hour or hour informal conversation on what we saw that day – how the critters and plants relate to the Colorado corridor. Over the years, you just watch people become mesmerized by Oscar; they just love him. He has a way of relating all this stuff... of making it all connect. It's the first trip that sells out every year because of Oscar. He is a phenomenal speaker and educator."
When asked his thoughts about the role of education in the outdoors, Denoyer mused "I think engaging with the outdoors expands the mind. It relaxes people so they can look at things in a different way."
"It's such an attractive place, people want to know everything about it. Learning is easy. And students just love what they are doing. It's magical."
When asked if he has received official thanks for the years of generosity to Evergreen students, Denoyer cuts the question short:
"Look at what I got from Evergreen. If it wasn't for Evergreen, I would never have experienced the Grand Canyon. I wouldn't be where I am."
"It all comes back,” he said, “all the smiles, all the letters of thanks, it all comes back.”