Every summer is a family reunion as the Malode whitewater guides return from their adventures in the off-season. We always look forward to sharing stories about travels in Latin America, Asia, New Zealand and even Antarctica! As curious as they are adventurous, many of our staff have attained or are pursuing advanced degrees in subjects as diverse as environmental studies, creative writing, neuroscience, and nursing. Gourmet cooks, artists, educators—just scratch the surface, and you’ll discover that our whitewater guides and other staff have a wealth of talents and experiences to share.

Mother Lode Guides

Aaron Bio Photo

Aaron Root

  • Senior Guide
  • Years with Mother Lode: 3
  • Education: College of the Redwoods
  • Leadership Background & Experience:
    • Class V River Guide - guiding commercially since 1995
    • Whitewater Rafting Guide School Instructor
    • Swift Water Rescue Technician
    • Challenge Ropes Course & Outdoor Education Facilitator
    • Society of Professional Rope Access Technician (SPRAT) trained
    • Wind Turbine Technician
  • Water, wind and a commitment to helping are interwoven threads in Aaron’s life. He grew up whitewater guiding along Three Rivers near Sequoia National Park in California where his father owns a river company called Kaweah, a Native American word for Raven. He moved to the coast for construction work and to attend College of the Redwoods, but soon wished to see more of the world. Other waters drew him. He has guided in New Zealand, Costa Rica and Thailand, among other places. He was in Thailand when the devastating tsunami struck in 2004 and immediately volunteered in the relief effort, not unexpected considering he was also a Boy Scout. A problem solver, he is happy to be working for a rafting company that is willing to take on tackling environmental issues and is actively involved in promoting alternative energy. He utilized his climbing experience as a wind turbine technician and demonstrated the viability of waste vegetable oil as a fuel by driving the Mother Lode bus to Mexico. And still, his life philosophy returns to the water. “It’s more than just how to maneuver a boat, it’s how you treat people,” he says. “Everything is a learning opportunity.”


Brita Olson

  • General Manager
  • Years with Mother Lode: 2
  • Education: B.A. Hospitality/Business, (sub-specialty: Food and Beverage Management), Michigan State University
  • Leadership Background & Experience:
    3 yrs: Whitewater Raft Guide, Swiftwater Rescue Technician, First Aid/CPR/AED Certified, Ropes Course Facilitator, Swimming Instructor (K-12), 8 yrs: Hospitality Experience: formal training in accounting, hospitality and business, 3 yrs: Adventure Travel Agent Experience partnered with personal experience in most of the western United States, the Appalachian Trail, Alaska's Glacier Bay, China (Beijing, Shanghai, Kaifeng, Luoyang, Xi'an), Greece, Amsterdam and Paris.
  • Growing up on an island in the Great Lakes with a year-round population of 450 that swells to over 10,000 visitors per day in the summer might help to explain Brita’s uncanny ability to be comfortable in a wide variety of environments:  from the crackling cold of a winter morning, riding to school on a dogsled, to the strains of Bob Marley blasting over a harbor full of 300+ yachts while each member of their crews jostles to get their first hangover-dispersing latté, from the muted clink of silver in a resort’s four-star restaurant, to the roar of a campstove in a shelter along the Appalachian Trail, Brita understood from a very early age her skill at locating herself in a matrix of friends, customers, students and clients, even as she listened, laughed and learned alongside them.  Like her beloved and history-laden Mackinac Island, she remains an island of smiling, calm competency, whether the waters around her are placid or tossed with November gales.  Since moving to California, she’s traded the still depths of the lakes for the tumultuous flow of the rivers, aligning herself again to the rhythms of the natural world around her and the people with whom she shares the journey.


Christie Ferguson

  • Years with Mother Lode: 3
  • Education: University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC: Graduate studies towards a Master of Landscape Architecture. Bentley College, Waltham, MA: Bachelor of Science, Finance; Cum Laude
  • Leadership Background & Experience:
    3 years as a Whitewater Raft Guide, Challenge Ropes Course Facilitator, Swiftwater Rescue Certified, Wilderness First Responder, Outward Bound's Oregon Wilderness Instructors Expedition, Ski Instructor, Day Camp Counselor, Babysitter Extraordinaire
  • As Mother Lode’s resident Canuck, Christie is bringing that “true north, strong and free” motto to life in northern California.  After a very suburban childhood on the eastern seaboard, she spent her college years exploring the mountains of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.  A yearning for bigger and better lead her west to Colorado, BC, and now the Sierra Nevadas which she calls home.  “Gold country and the river community are an authentic blend of history, honest folk living simply, and true enjoyment of the natural environment.  Their culture of constantly celebrating a rich natural life is palpable. I love it!”  Having visited every state in the continental US, her most memorable adventure was being caught above tree line in lightning storm on the highest peak in New Mexico.. while that was quite an electric experience, she prefers the warm glow of friends around a campfire, sun on her skin and cookies in the oven.  When not guiding Christie enjoys gardening, roadtrips around North America, training for triathlons, learning to kayak, winters spent skiing in Tahoe, and trying to master the art of high altitude baking.

Courtney Bio Photo

Courtney Laird

  • Years with Mother Lode: 3
  • Education: Graduated with Honors in 2007 with a B.A. in Drawing/Painting/Printmaking and Art History with language emphasis in Spanish, Portland State University, Oregon
  • Leadership Background & Experience:
    • Rock Climbing Instructor for Portland State University Outdoor Program
    • Five years experience guiding rafts throughout California and the Western US
    • Develop and implement art curriculum for a children’s summer art series
    • Teaching outdoor education with Mother Lode River Center
  • Born into a “family of devout fishermen,” Courtney Laird learned to row as soon as she was strong enough to lift the oars and tall enough to see over the bow of the boat.  Searching for the “elusive Rogue River salmon” as a child is where Courtney developed “an unshakeable love for the peace and solitude of river canyons and the adventure of whitewater.”  Her most memorable adventure was getting caught in a freak storm on the first day of an inflatable-kayak family trip along the Illinois River Canyon including hail, rockslides, and a rapidly rising river that went from transparent to the “chocolate brown color you would expect to see on the Colorado.”  As for Gold Country, Courtney says she “loves the warmth of the community, the surrounding beauty and the fact that folks here live simple yet rich lives.”  Artist as much as river runner, when not guiding, Courtney strives to “find ways to make artistic visual documentation of the patterns that occur in nature.”  Where a better place to inspire a nature-enthused artist than Gold Country?!

Emily Bio Photo

Emily Underwood

  • Years with Mother Lode: 10
  • Education: B.A. Science and Society, Brown University
  • Leadership Background & Experience:
    • Helped develop the Mother Lode River Center outdoor education program; have led education programs, river guided, and facilitated ropes courses since 2002.
    • Ropes course instructor, sea kayaking guide, and hiking guide, Santa Barbara Adventure Company.
    • Backpacking instructor and art teacher, Teton Valley Ranch Camp, Wyoming
    • Wilderness First Aid
    • Swiftwater Rescue Technician
    • Brown commencement speaker, May 2007
  • Emily’s favorite rapid: Ruckachucky Falls on the Middle Fork of the American.
    Favorite adventures: Leading a 10-day, 80-mile backpacking trip along the Teton Crest trail in Wyoming, rowing the Grand Canyon, writing stories about the American West for High Country News, the current adventure of learning how to snowboard.

    When not guiding: trying to visit and write about a different river for every letter of the alphabet, and help start an environmental writing program for high school students in El Dorado County. Favorite thing about the Gold Country: taking really long walks in gorgeous foothills that have been conserved for public use — what a gift!

Heather Bio Photo

Heather Drakeley

  • Years with Mother Lode: 5
  • Education: B.A. in Spanish and Women’s studies, Temple University, Philadelphia PA
  • Leadership Background & Experience:
    • Spanish teacher (K-12) for 4 years in Philadelphia
    • Tour Manager Certification, International Guide Academy, Cuernavaca, Mexico
    • Bilingual team-building facilitator, hiking and zip-line guide, San Alfonso, Chile
    • Outdoor Education Naturalist and Ropes Course Facilitator
    • Whitewater rafting guide
    • Swiftwater Rescue certified
  • Last time we counted, Heather Drakeley had been to over 20 different countries on five continents, including Europe, South America, Africa and Asia.  One of her most memorable trips was through the Atlas Mountains in Morocco to the Sahara Desert where she weathered a 3am sandstorm wrapped only in a sheet! Taking a break from constant travel, she relishes the Coloma pace of life on the river, and learning about the rich history of the Gold Country –“The more you read about it, the more fascinating it is.”  When not guiding, Heather enjoys exploring the natural landscape of the area: bike riding through the rolling hills, rock-climbing, skiing, tending to her cuddly cat and chicken menagerie, and hanging out and pot lucking it with her Malode family:  “Tasty food makes everything better and may I add that we are all pretty great cooks—just, please, not my chickens!”

Lulu Nord

Lulu Nord

  • Years with Mother Lode: 3
  • Education: BA Literature, Creative Writing at University of California, Santa Cruz
  • Leadership Background & Experience:
    Wilderness First Responder, Swiftwater Rescue Certified, USCS Recreation Leader & Wilderness Orientation Instructor, Outward Bound Instructor, Oregon
  • Favorite Whitewater Rapid: Troublemaker, South Fork American

    Favorite Thing About Gold Country: The people

    Best Adventures: Backpacking 508 miles across the northern coast of Spain

    Bio: A pink cactus flower from the desert of Lost Angeles, California, Lulu grew up wondering where water came from and where it went. After nearly two decades under the sun, this prickly pear picked up the art of rafting from her friends at the UC Santa Cruz Recreation Department. Lulu now guides on the Middle and South Forks of the American River for Mother Lode. In the off-season she chases whitewater in all its forms, surfing the Pacific Rim and climbing the snowy Sierra Nevada mountains.

Mike Bio Photo

Mike Kiddy

  • Lead Ropes Course Facilitator
  • Years with Mother Lode: 3
  • Education: B.A. in Recreation, Parks, and Tourism, San Francisco State University
  • Leadership Background & Experience:
    • Challenge Ropes Courses Facilitator
    • Swiftwater Rescue Technician
    • Whitewater River Guide
    • Wilderness First Responder
    • Hiking, Backpacking, and Climbing Guide
  • Favorite Whitewater Rapid: Boat Exploder (Guide Launcher)
    Favorite thing about the Gold Country: Long summer days of warm sun
    Best Adventure: Canoeing Black Canyon and soaking in the hot springs
    Other interests: Climbing and hiking in California

    Mike Kiddy was actually inspired by Mother Lode to become a river
    guide. While working toward his degree at San Francisco State, he went on a
    rafting trip at Mother Lode. He enjoyed it so much he signed up for Mother Lode’s Guide
    School and Swift Water Rescue course. Later he was hired on as a guide. Growing up in San Francisco, he took full advantage of the Bay Area’s many natural locations, one of his favorites being the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Beyond local pursuits, Mike takes a global approach to environmental issues and is interested in working for U. N. organizations such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and Man and Biosphere (MAB). In the meantime, he enjoys working at Mother Lode, “It’s like a family.”

Scotty Bio Photo

Scott Scheu

  • Operations Manager
  • Years with Mother Lode: 12
  • Education: B.A. in English, San Francisco State University
  • Leadership Background & Experience:
    • Helped develop Malode's outdoor education curriculum (Gold Rush History/River Study/ Sustainable Practices)
    • 2 years mentoring at Georgetown Elementary
    • 1 year of student teaching at Lakeshore Elementary in San Francisco
    • 2006 Fiction Editor for Transfer Magazine
    • Certified Ropes Course instructor
    • Swiftwater Rescue Technician
  • Scott Scheu is a true explorer, even in his own backyard, the California foothills. “Having lived here for 25 years,” he says, “I constantly discover new things here, be it a plant I’ve never seen before in the woods, a bird I spot on the river that sends me rushing for my guide book when I get home, or climbing up a tributary creek that I’ve never explored.” Outside of the Gold Country, Scotty’s favorite adventure was “getting lost by myself in El Salvador’s small beach towns, stuffed into a chicken bus with 40 students and exchanging English and Spanish words, all the while knowing that wherever the bus stopped next there’d be great surf, delicious pupusas, and friendly people.” In addition to exploring new places, Scotty loves playing and recording music, storytelling, cooking, and gardening.

Other Mother Lode Staff

Jennifer Bio Photo

Jennifer Schack

  • Shuttle Driver and Customer Relations
  • Years with Mother Lode: 4
  • Leadership Background & Experience:
    • 4 years experience as a commercial driver
    • 20 years of customer service experience
  • Jennifer Schack takes her experience driving school buses full of exuberant children and applies it to the equally challenging task of maneuvering the roads and parking lots that lead to the American River, safely shuttling Mother Lode paddlers to and from camp. If you have gone rafting on the Middle Fork, you know exactly what she is up against:) Jennifer has deep roots in the Gold Country going back to her grandfather’s ranch in Cool. She never thought she would become involved with the rafting industry: “I’m a horse person. I always thought rafters were crazy, but now I’m one of them.” Since that first summer at Mother Lode, Jennifer has gone rafting many times and says that her favorite rapid is, ironically, Bus Crash–the only rapid where she swam! Good thing Jennifer has grown fond of rafting, as she may have two raft guide daughters in her future–frequent flyers on the summertime river shuttles with a penchant for “helping” the guides rig the boats.

Penny Gonzales

  • Office Manager, Reservationist
  • Years with Mother Lode: 7
  • Education: Currently working on BS in Business Administration
  • Leadership Background & Experience:
    • 26 years of office management
    • Seven children under her care!
    • Helped Habitat for Humanity team in El Dorado county get their first grant.
  • Without Penny, none of the magic of the Mother Lode whitewater rafting experience and outdoor education could happen. Her helpfulness and sweetness on the phone lead many customers to come looking for her when they arrive at Mother Lode for their whitewater raft trips, saying, “Where’s Penny? We just wanted to say hi!” Her background in office management, paralegal work, vehicle registration, retail sales, carpentry, banking, grant writing and much more are what give her the skills to juggle the various business tasks involved in operating a rafting company. She loves people, the water and also loves to garden, cook, and sew.

Scott Underwood, M.D.

  • Owner
  • Years with Mother Lode: 37
  • Education: BA in Philosophy, Stanford Univ. 1969, BS in Zoology, U.C. Berkeley,1974, Medical Doctorate 1978, and Internal Medicine Residency 1981, U.C. Davis. Diplomate ABIM, ABEM
  • Leadership Background & Experience:
    • “Trainee of the Cycle” U.S. Army Basic Training, Expert M-16 rifle, M-60 machine gun, M-79 grenade launcher.
    • Regimental boxing champion.
    • President, Scott Free River Expeditions, Inc. and Mother Lode River Trips, Ltd.
    • Emergency Department Director
    • County EMS Director
    • Paramedic Instructor
    • Swiftwater Rescue and Wilderness Medicine Instructor
  • Favorite thing about the Gold Country: Rivers
    Favorite Adventure: Rowing the South Fork at 35,000 cfs without getting killed.
    Favorite Whitewater Rapid: Any I don’t swim.

    My most vivid college flashback is to Bio IA at Stanford University in 1966. On stage was Dr. Paul Ehrlich, the father of American Ecology, pacing back and forth while delivering his legendary lecture on the impact of humans on planet Earth. We were doomed! I worked in his population genetics lab for three years, grinding up butterflies and discussing the end of the world as part of the Stanford Population Biology Group. Meanwhile, DDT was banned in 1972, which ultimately saved my beloved California pelican; and, best of all, the Federal Endangered Species Act passed in 1973. Also, America’s greatest folly, the Vietnam War, ended. Those were exciting times.

    Thirty years later, the world hasn’t ended — at least yet. I have two beautiful daughters, a wonderful and loving wife, and have enjoyed the privilege of helping Mother Lode share my love of rivers with over 250,000 people. I am proud to have helped facilitate the writing over 20,000 letters which, in turn, have helped save 13 rivers in the Sierra. I am equally pleased to have helped conserve over 10,000 acres along the South Fork of the American through the efforts of the American River Conservancy. However, as Dr. James Hansen, the world’s foremost climatologist points out, it is time to wake up, get busy and hit the streets in defense of the planet again!