An Unexpected Cash Flow

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Dispatches, August 1998


An Unexpected Cash Flow

How a grungy river rat's $13 million bequest is changing the West
By Mark Obmascik

A respected if somewhat scruffy whitewater guide based in Moab, Utah, Steve Arrowsmith lived in a $38,000 house with three rooms of flea-market furniture and a handful of cats that he fed by dumping a pile of Purina onto the kitchen floor. He rigged an army poncho over his bed because he didn't feel like fixing his leaky roof, and acquired most of his clothes at a local thrift shop. But when the 30-year-old Arrowsmith died in June 1992, the victim of a severe asthma attack, people who knew him (and many who didn't) got two big surprises. The bearded kayaker was in fact worth $13 million. And in his will, he bestowed most of his fortune on environmental groups and welfare agencies whose directors had never heard his name.

The story of Arrowsmith's legacy is an unusual tale of a reluctant millionaire who died too soon but whose bequest — in the form of more than a dozen large donations, the last of which are being disbursed this month — has been quietly helping to transform the social and political landscape of his adopted home. A year after his death, charities throughout the West began receiving a series of seven payments that would eventually total nearly $400,000 apiece. A group that aids the homeless in Colorado was given a donation because Arrowsmith had kayaked with a friend whose mother volunteered there. A charity for dyslexic children received money because the founding member once helped Arrowsmith when his car broke down in a snowstorm. American Rivers, the Fund for Wild Nature, and the Colorado Environmental Coalition were sent gifts because they fought for the backcountry he loved.

In all, 13 groups were handed checks, including the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, which used its windfall to fund a successful bid to stop construction of a giant gold mine. "The gift has given the American people a wonderful legacy," says GYC executive director Mike Clark — the sort of lofty tribute that might have embarrassed the humble Arrowsmith. Friends familiar with his coy earthiness are a shade less grandiose. "Once on river trip, Steve actually ate a waterbug — he was that playful," says Rob Cowen, his best friend and executor of his estate. "But he was serious enough to leave a big gift that's keeping some good causes alive today."

A native of Virginia, Arrowsmith fell in love with the West during boyhood rafting vacations. Upon finishing high school, he spent several summers guiding boats down the American, the Tuolumne, and the Stanislaus, experiences that turned him into a whitewater fanatic. (He skipped freshman orientation week at the University of Colorado because a friend wanted to do the Rogue.) It was also in college that he learned for the first time of his inheritance — $7 million bequeathed to him by his family, from whom he had been estranged for years.

The family fortune, which came from a grandmother who once helped grubstake the financial firm Dun & Bradstreet, was a source of profound discomfort to Arrowsmith. For years he denied his wealth, living for a time in a windowless '63 bus and tossing unopened financial statements into a pile while his investments inexorably burgeoned. By 1989 he had settled in Moab, where he ran a rafting company called Humpback Chub, entertained friends with his tuneless guitar playing, and threw himself into campaigns to save rivers and wilderness areas. Now, as the last checks from his estate are being dropped in the mail, many who knew Arrowsmith are reflecting on his odd and endearing contradictions. "In terms of generally keeping his act together, Steve had a pretty tough time," says Jonathan Cooley, a close friend. "But he had a huge impact, and he influenced us all when he was alive. He was an enormous paradox."

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