A River Less Paddled

A family of alums runs a legendary rafting company in support of a sustainable future


As a student at the U, John Wood BS’82 learned all about business, accounting, and marketing in a classroom. But on the river during the summer, as he studied the stars, the art of holding an oar, and the magic of following the current—Wood learned how to live. His teacher for those watery lessons was Dee Holladay, a rafting visionary who founded Holiday River Expeditions in 1966 with his wife, Sue, indelibly influencing Utah’s rafting industry through his dedication to conservation.

In Desolation Canyon, Jan and John Wood sit on rafts named respectively for Dee and Sue Holladay.

By the time Wood graduated magna cum laude with a finance degree, he joined Holiday full time as Dee Holladay’s business partner. He later married Dee’s daughter, Jan, a first-generation U alum (BS’83) who specialized in architecture and design and helped the family business on the side.

At first, Wood was ready to use the skills he learned at the U to help the small outfitter grow by getting more customers, more permits, and more trips. But he quickly learned that wasn’t the solution. There are better ways to evolve, he decided, like giving guests an experience through which they can experience their own personal growth. That requires time, solitude, and a fair amount of teaching—or “interp,” as the guides put it—about the surrounding area.

“[Conservationist] Freeman Tilden said that interpretation leads to understanding, understanding leads to appreciation, and appreciation leads to protection,” says Wood. “At some point, it became clear to me—and this is something Dee had been pushing since day one—that the very experience we were sharing with our guests could easily be ruined by any number of things. Whether it was dams or resource degradation or being loved to death by too many people, we realized the experience itself needed limits. So we are growing not by numbers of people or boats but rather in our ability to share an understanding of a true wilderness experience with our guests."

To this day, Holiday guides pack out waste and trash instead of burying it; they teach their guests about geography and anthropology; they don’t use motors, only oars; and with each trip, they follow the company model to “Go with the flow.” Trip Director Lauren Wood BS’11, one of Jan and John’s adult children, coordinates special excursions every year to reach out to the community and share a healing river experience with patients in the University of Utah Health Burn Center and teenagers in the Shriners Hospitals for Children Un-Limb-ited program.

Their hope is to keep the magic flowing and potentially change more lives.

"We are a multigenerational family that truly loves the resource and wants to care for it," says Jan Wood.

“We’re just trying to positively impact people’s lives,” adds John Wood. “And when the opportunity to protect something comes their way, they will.”

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  1. Thanks for this story on John Wood and Holliday River Expeditions. John and the Holliday Family are wonderful people who run a first class operation. The article says it well. Any one interested in booking a rafting trip would be wise to consider HRE. And they run great boats. 😊

    Phyllis Haskell Tims
    Emerita Dean of Fine Arts, U of U
    Emerita Assoc. VP for the Arts U of U

  2. Top notch, beyond a doubt. I met Dee and Sue in a kayaking club while in med school in 1972, and they helped me learn my kayak roll. They were, from the start, fully committed to ecosystem understanding and preservation. I have been on multiple trips with them and Holliday, continuing into the new generations, does it right!

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