Owner of Kokopelli
At DiscoverSantaFe, we want to introduce you to the best locals and best adventures around. That’s why we’ve put together an interview series for you! Get to know more about the people and businesses that keep Santa Fe alive with the adventures, historical legacies, and mouthwatering cuisine Santa Fe is famous for!
DSF: Tell us about your business’s background and how it got started.
Kelly: Through the kayak business I got to observe all the rafting companies as I decided who I wanted to partner with. I saw who loved the river and wanted to share it with others, and who thought they owned the river and were entitled it. I saw the personalities of each company reflected through their guides and employees, and quite honestly, I felt a love for the river was generally missing. In 2016, the opportunity of a lifetime opened up. The company I admired the most came up for sale. On January 1, 2017, I purchased Kokopelli Rafting Adventures. I saw an opportunity to share something I loved (the river) with the people who needed it the most – families who didn’t have outdoor backgrounds but wanted quality time together, or kids who didn’t have opportunities to participate. I could help hundreds or thousands of people make lasting memories, just like that time with my brother. And I knew I could change their lives through whitewater rafting in New Mexico!
Kokopelli was started in 1991 and has always had a history of being the first to do bold things. We were the first to require helmets on whitewater in 1996 (as of 2021, only 2 companies require helmets). We were the first in New Mexico to train our guides to meet Colorado’s standards in 2002. We were the first to train guides to meet International Rafting Federation standards in 2017, my first year as owner of Kokopelli. We’ve always challenged the status quo – if there’s a better way of doing something, we’re going to find it!
DSF: Tell us about you and your personal background.
Kelly: Well, I have an engineering degree and worked on Wall Street for 6 years as a trader for a $300 million dollar hedge fund. 9/11 was a pretty difficult time and changed my perspective on what I wanted to do with my life. I started kayaking in 2002 on a trip with my brother and immediately knew this was something I wanted to do every day of my life. The river required an incredible balance of skill and technique, risk and reward. It required me to be present and in-the-moment, and yet allowed me to get lost in time and find myself after living and working in a busy city. Kayaking has mental and physical challenges, allows me to travel to places where there are no roads or trails, with the people I cherish the most. It weaved every thread of my life into a fabric that is so much more than a sport or hobby, even a lifestyle – it’s who I am, what I learned to love, and something I felt compelled to share with others. In 2007 I started New Mexico Kayak Instruction, Inc. and worked with about 1,000 paddlers a year, from total beginners to advanced whitewater students. I led about 20 trips to Mexico where we’d paddle amazing travertine rivers and 3-35 foot emerald green waterfalls. I started teaching children and veterans with disabilities at a local water park with a lazy river and eventually formed a 501c3 non-profit.
DSF: What is “New Mexican” or “Santa Fean” about your offering?
Kelly: The Rio Grande is very special and unique to our state. We love being able to share that, along with the deep roots and traditions of Kokopelli, with people who come to Santa Fe!
DSF: What is your favorite thing to explore in Santa Fe and why? This could be a river, trail, art gallery, and so on.
Kelly: Whenever I am not rafting or kayaking, I really love going downtown and learning more about the rich and unique history of the City Different. There are so many layers and layers of history here and I find it so fascinating. Every time I am wandering around Santa Fe, I learn so much more about this amazing place that I live in.
DSF: What makes your brand different from the others?
Kelly: While most companies are selling rafting trips, we are selling the uniqueness of our guides and their individual skills as people. They are very confident, competent, and talented! They love what they do and it shows! I don’t have to tell my guides to take a swift water rescue class, for example. They come to me and ask for 3 days off to take a swift water rescue class! It is the kind of thing they want to learn because they want to be better outdoor professionals. They’re fundamentally different from the average river guide that is looking for another seasonal gig.
DSF: What is your most memorable experience in relation to your business and why?
Kelly: It’s not a single experience, but collectively a bunch of experiences that I’ll try to summarize. We have stacks and stacks of thank you cards from children who took the time to write to us about how much they enjoyed their rafting trip, their guide, and the fun they had while rafting with us. We try to get to know each person on the raft with us, but we don’t always know the story behind the story. These stories come out when children write back to us and tell us what that day really meant to them. Just as important, we know how proud the parents are seeing their children transform before their very eyes, from being a little scared to being confident and brave. These memories are priceless . . . but they’re also predictable – we create them every day. And it’s what we love to do! It’s a reminder to keep doing these little things that we love to do for the people that need it most.
DSF: What’s that one question no one asks, but should?
Kelly: Nobody asks, “Do your guides pass a drug test?” There is no doubt in my mind that my employees can and will pass a drug test. It’s who they are. They don’t need to escape from the river they’re about to be rafting on! I know they’re going to show up every day with their A game. They understand our brand promise, “Expect the best and get it,” because they expect the best from me and their coworkers, and that’s how we deliver the same promise to our customers every time.
Interested in checking out Kokopelli Rafting Adventures? Click the image to see their favorite listing!
“I really love the Rio Grande Racecourse trip. It is fun and playful for most people of most ages and abilities. It is not too hard and not too easy. It’s fun and exciting and just makes you want to be outside on the river. I’ve kayaked and rafted this section hundreds of times and I still grin from ear to ear EVERY TIME I’m on it! Our minimum age is 7 years old and it’s really perfect for kids, families, first timers, family reunions, corporate events, wedding parties, and any kind of team building experience, family or otherwise. It has something for everyone.” – Kelly
Morning Racecourse Trip (10:00am)
Afternoon Racecourse Trip (1:45pm)
Price Range: $$
Duration: 2-3 hours
DSF: Do you operate year-round? If not, what are your months of operation?
Kelly: We typically operate May through mid-October in a normal year. Santa Fe has some big festivals in September and the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in October! But when we have low-water years, we operate through Labor Day. The details will always be posted on the Kokopelli Rafting Adventures website.
DSF: What do you want your business to be remembered for?
Kelly: Our customers and our employees should expect the best and get it. If we play our cards right, customers will have an amazing time on the river and memories that last a lifetime. They may forget the name of the river, maybe even the name of our company, but they won’t forget the memories of that time they went whitewater rafting in New Mexico.
DSF: Most importantly, red or green?
Kelly: The milder of the two, please!
Where and when you can find Kokopelli Rafting Adventures:
Book online 24/7 at kokopelliraft.com
Rafting trips run 7 days a week.
Office hours: 9am-6pm
May through September/October
Exact dates are posted on the website.
We enjoyed paddling through these questions with river rafting guide and owner, Kelly Gossett, and hope you did too. Be sure to check out a trip before you get swept away in the whitewater of the busy day-to-day life.