Don Wray has always loved adventure. It led him to a remote camp in Antarctica, and to an off-the-grid lifestyle in Alaska’s Matanuska Valley. It led him to countless ice-climbing, paragliding, kayaking and backpacking experiences.
Don built several companies that give visitors access to some incredible adventures, too. They can climb on glaciers, kayak in coastal waters and spend days on mountain treks.
These adventures all require exceptional guides, so Don’s business focuses on professional development. He believes that leadership, problem solving, and great communication are as important as outdoor skills. Don has mentored more than 100 youth over the years. This has been the most satisfying – and maybe the most challenging – adventure of all.
Q. What do you do? What’s unique about what you’ve created?
Well what I do is lead young people to challenge themselves, have fun and grow. How we achieve that is primarily through adventure tourism. I set up the opportunities, train the “senior staff” to become leaders and mentors to the interns and they all do the guiding. This setup is what makes our operation rather unique.
We are as much an outdoor school as a guiding business. My employees and guides are between 19-26, and that’s a pretty powerful place in their lives. They are becoming who they are going to be.
It’s satisfying to have a positive impact on their lives and see them grow. One of my managers is buying her own company now. I remember when she was a kid, and now we are peers, talking about HR, leadership, and business loans.
Q. What life experiences led you to where you are today?
In the past I’ve worked a lot in community development and youth development. This is just a new spin on those objectives, funded by tourism.
Q. What makes Alaska special for you?
Alaska in many ways is still the frontier. Not everything has been done yet, and there’s still plenty of room for someone to “carve their niche.”
A lot of things are pioneered here. People are adventurous and figure stuff out. I had an idea for a business and it was surprisingly easy to start it up. There weren’t already twelve people doing the same idea I had.
Q. What are your favorite places and/or experiences in Alaska? What do you remember most about them? What have you learned from them?
I was packrafting on the King’s River, just a walk away from my first cabin here.
I screwed up some navigation and inadvertently ran a Class V section through a canyon. I am in no way a Class V paddler.
I still get chills thinking about it. It taught me a lot about how real and unforgiving Alaska can be.
Currently I’m enjoying paragliding. It’s pretty amazing if you’re into flying. You can end up staying up for a couple of hours. It brings together literally everything I’ve learned my entire life outdoors-related: risk management, decision-making, hiking, aviation, weather, survival skills (if you go down). It’s the ultimate challenge.
Q. Tell us a favorite story from an Alaska trip.
It was the first hour of the first day of a nine-day trip. We were guiding six visitors from all over the country and set off paddling in sea kayaks from Whittier. We spotted a whale off in the distance, so we all stopped paddling and just bobbed around watching the whale do its thing.
It did its “deep dive,” so we thought the show was over. We were getting ready to start paddling again when the whale surfaced – under my kayak!
I was literally looking it in the eye when it bumped my boat and lifted me a little out of the water. I do believe I used some language I don’t usually use on Day 1 of a trip. It was pretty cool. Even if I’d gotten dumped out of my boat, it would have been cool.
The guests loved it. And the best part? One even got a photo of my reaction.
Q. How does the Alaskan wilderness make you feel?
Humble. I love hiking around realizing I’m not at the top of the food chain. That I am, in fact, rather insignificant.
It just puts you in your place a little. In our culture, we usually think we’re the top dog and we run the show. Hiking in Alaska’s backcountry, you could fall, get hypothermia, be attacked by a bear, or kicked in the head by a moose. That danger element gives a little adrenaline. It heightens your awareness of everything.
Q. What inspired you to go into the Alaska tourism industry? What feeling or memory or change would you like your visitors to leave with?
Same answer! I love sharing that feeling of insignificance with visitors and helping them put everything else in perspective.
It’s also the most important lesson I give our guides: to realize that it’s not just all about you, at any scale. Whether you’re considering the planet, the company or your tour. It’s about your team and what you’re inspiring them to do. When you’re an ice climbing guide, your job is to show visitors a great time and make them feel like the world’s best climber.
Q. Alaska.org’s mission is to show visitors a more authentic Alaska experience. What are those qualities? How does it change an Alaska vacation?
I think it’s very important to experience Alaska, rather than look at it all through a windshield in a week.
You really need to get away from the road, and maybe get a little tired and wet.
You don’t have to climb Denali or do anything else “hard core,” but you do need to get away from your car and your phone for at least a little while.
Q. What are 3 words that sum up what Alaska means to you?
Challenge. Opportunity. Freedom.