Knack Master

River guide, artist, ranch hand, Renaissance man Sam Cook wrangles a variety of muses

By Stew Mosberg

Found in: | Inside | Art | Outside | Paddling | River | Rafting | Photography |



Sam Cook knows what it means to follow his muse. Spending his early years as a "military brat," moving from town to town with little chance to forge close friendships helped to make him the self-sufficient, multi-faceted man he is today. Jobs in advertising, work as a ranch hand and wrangler, home builder, fashion photographer, painter, sculptor, whitewater river guide, you name it; Cook has and is doing it.

As a teen, his keen interest for just about anything led him to the University of Connecticut to major in psychology, marketing, and communications, and later to work as a research analyst for a New York ad agency. After that, he spent almost 10 years in Europe, first as a photographer's assistant, and later on his own, doing fashion shoots in Germany, France, and Belgium. The route he took getting to Durango was as varied and circuitous as the lower Piedra River. Retelling his story, he modestly reminisces about the seemingly glamorous world of European fashion photography and how it opened many doors.

"I had gone from Paris to Brussels and then worked in Italy for a German magazine that sent me on assignment to Miami Beach."

Cook skirted around South Beach for five years (figuratively speaking) when it was still a mecca for the young and beautiful, where tan lines and thongs, drugs, sex, and the Latin beat might kill a lesser man. However, it was a serendipitous assignment that probably saved him from ultimate burn-out and guided him, so to speak, to his current lifestyle.

Hired to photograph promotional images for a dude ranch, Cook flew into Denver and then drove to Billings, Mont. Seeing those vistas for the first time, he remembers having an epiphany of sorts and thinking, "Why on Earth am I not living here?"



Knack Master

River guide, artist, ranch hand, Renaissance man Sam Cook wrangles a variety of muses


By Stew Mosberg



Found in: | Inside | Art | Outside | Paddling | River | Rafting | Photography |



Sam Cook knows what it means to follow his muse. Spending his early years as a "military brat," moving from town to town with little chance to forge close friendships helped to make him the self-sufficient, multi-faceted man he is today. Jobs in advertising, work as a ranch hand and wrangler, home builder, fashion photographer, painter, sculptor, whitewater river guide, you name it; Cook has and is doing it.

As a teen, his keen interest for just about anything led him to the University of Connecticut to major in psychology, marketing, and communications, and later to work as a research analyst for a New York ad agency. After that, he spent almost 10 years in Europe, first as a photographer's assistant, and later on his own, doing fashion shoots in Germany, France, and Belgium. The route he took getting to Durango was as varied and circuitous as the lower Piedra River. Retelling his story, he modestly reminisces about the seemingly glamorous world of European fashion photography and how it opened many doors.

"I had gone from Paris to Brussels and then worked in Italy for a German magazine that sent me on assignment to Miami Beach."

Cook skirted around South Beach for five years (figuratively speaking) when it was still a mecca for the young and beautiful, where tan lines and thongs, drugs, sex, and the Latin beat might kill a lesser man. However, it was a serendipitous assignment that probably saved him from ultimate burn-out and guided him, so to speak, to his current lifestyle.

Hired to photograph promotional images for a dude ranch, Cook flew into Denver and then drove to Billings, Mont. Seeing those vistas for the first time, he remembers having an epiphany of sorts and thinking, "Why on Earth am I not living here?"

Away from the European uber-models, the decadent beach scene, the weird hours and hedonism, Cook had unwittingly discovered the majesty of mountains and wide-open spaces. Two years after returning to the sand and surf, he chucked it all and went to work on his brother's ranch in Georgia, which led him to build his own house and start a horse farm. It was the building of the house that got him into the world of art. "I was doing detail work and burning designs into the wood trim. If I could wood-burn," he remembers thinking, "I could draw."

And so, in time, he sold everything and without a specific destination in mind, headed west. Following the wind, the landscape, the rivers and trails, he found Durango and impulsively decided to stay. Wanting to be in the center of town, he rented an apartment above the Steaming Bean and began to appease his artistic muse. He also discovered snowboarding that first year and, of course, the Animas River, all while teaching himself to draw, paint and sculpt mostly horses. It was Julie Dunn, then owner of the Steaming Bean, who suggested he show his art in the coffee house. "It was perfect," Cook says. "The Bean was already kind of like my living room."

It marked yet another beginning for the already multi-faceted Cook. But painting indoors, working in solitude has its price and, as he puts it, "drains your batteries." While contemplating how to balance the life of an artist with some human interaction, he fortuitously saw an ad for river guide training. It called for two weeks of intensive instruction to become a rafting guide and would mark the start of his continuing relationship with Durango's Mild to Wild, which he calls, "the best company I ever worked for."

Cook says that after creating artwork indoors for five months of the year, being outdoors recharges his sapped batteries.

A long way from those two grueling weeks of training, Cook is now among the elite of rafting guides and is certified in Colorado, Utah, and Arizona. During the summer he is always on call and on the river seven days a week, sometimes on five-day excursions, coasting in gentle stretches of clear water or battling rapids such as the lower Piedra and the churning Upper Animas. So how do the seemingly disparate disciplines work together?

"Well, for one thing, you build stamina on the river," he explains. Rafting whitewater requires focus and energy. An artist needs those same attributes to create."

The art and the river provide what Cook describes as, "A rich balance. It's sort of a dichotomy; the introspective, creative, quiet, solitary studio existence versus the counter-balance of physically intense and exhilarating alpine river rafting."

Reflecting on the years it has taken to become proficient enough to be able to train other guides and feel comfortable in any on-water situation, the contemplative, soft-spoken Cook says he has come to enjoy all that the river throws at him. "I love the hard rapids, but also enjoy the relaxation and the camaraderie that comes with gentle floats. I like getting to know the passengers in a social way, too."

For those who haven't been on it, Cook says that the Upper Animas River at 9,000 feet altitude is the highest commercial put-in in the United States and can be freezing cold, narrow, and rocky and, "tumbling downhill the whole way, dropping up to 180 feet per mile without any place to rest and catch your breath."

It is an exhilarating ride and, whether you are the passenger or the guide, it's not for the faint of heart. Adding to the danger, the Upper Animas is a remote access region with no way out of the canyon. "Helicopters can't get in some parts," he says.

Even though snowboarding the double blacks on Purgatory gets his juices pumping much the same as a ride down the rapids can, Cook insists he is not an adrenalin junkie. In fact, his artistic side rises to the surface when he describes the shared emotions: "For me, it's about being outdoors, the panoramic views, and . . ." he hesitates, gives a tiny smile and adds "uh . . . the speed." Then he clarifies the comment and quietly says, "It's glorious, almost religious in its experience."

Freelance Writer  Stew Mosberghas authored three books and numerous articles for international publications. This is Stew's second article for Inside/Outside.

 

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