By Rob Volansky
Behind every great man is a tiny woman. Isn’t that how the saying goes? In the case of Pat and Naomi O’Keefe, this axiom especially holds true.
Pat O’Keeffe climbed off of a horse in his native Australia and took a road spanning several continents that wound up in the training stables of Hokkaido almost 15 years ago. He met and married a Japanese woman who came to be known as “Shorty,” and they soon were at the helm of a rafting company that has chased adventures throughout the whitewater world.
Horseshow jumping requires a combination of strength, style and nerve. Back in his clean-cut days, Pat made the Olympic team but was denied a chance to medal when Australia boycotted the 1980 Moscow Games.
After growing up around horses, he decided to walk away from them altogether, but this didn’t last long. A few years later he returned to the stables, finding joy and success in breaking race horses, a part-time career which he continues to this day.
Pat’s intrepid traveling days began in the 1980s. Any adventure sufficed. He spent two years running grueling four-month overland tours from Istanbul to Katmandu for a company called New Frontier. It was around then he discovered another hidden talent—photography.
Spend a night at Hokkaido Outdoor Adventures (HOA), their own tour company, and you will see prints and slide shows of the thousands of professional-quality photographs he has taken.
What you might not immediately notice as you soak in his stories is the small Japanese woman relaxing on a sofa or hustling in the shadows.
Naomi O'Keeffe is a force. The HOA office is her domain. Do not let the soft reggae music or the silly staff photos on the wall fool you. The company is a tightly run machine. Naomi oversees everything from bookings to photograph sales. It makes your head spin to think of the thousands of countless details she takes care of with an easy laugh.
After high school, Naomi followed her mother’s path and became a nurse. She left her hometown of Kamifurano and spent six years in Sapporo, studying and then working in the public health sector.
Pat was living in a village called Tomikawa at the time, working as the only freelance race horse breaker in Japan. They met in Sapporo, and Naomi eventually moved to Tomikawa. The plan for her to stay at home while Pat worked lasted two months.
“I got bored,” she said, laughing.
She began working at the Tomikawa Ekimae Clinic. Then, with two other partners, she and Pat started HOA. They soon moved company headquarters to an unused elementary school in the town of Hidaka which lies in central Hokkaido close to the Sarugawa and Mukawa rivers.
Naomi worked summers in the company and winters at the clinic. She acquired a thirst for travel herself, accompanying Pat on excursions throughout Asia.
Watch the two of them talk, Pat’s long dreadlocks still dripping from a kayaking trip and Naomi tucked into a swivel chair, and you can see how HOA grew. Pat fires random ideas related to all facets of the business, and Naomi is often one step ahead of him, having already filled out the paperwork or made the appropriate phone call. The way they complete one another’s thoughts appears rehearsed.
Living among employees with no distractions in silent Hidaka is a 24-hour-a-day job that presents personal challenges for the family. But Pat insists he got into rafting for the lifestyle. For Pat & Shorty, the line between work and play is often blurry.
Though not a world-class kayaker himself, Pat has taken part in a number of major expeditions, most notably handling rafting support for renowned paddlers such as Mike Abbott and Steve Fisher on a first descent down tributaries of Myanmar’s towering Maykha River.
He recently returned from one of the largest commercial trips in the world covering much of that same terrain. A five-star resort called the Malhika Lodge is also being built in the area as part of the HOA web.
Nepal’s Ultimate Descents rafting company owner Dave Allardice has been involved in a few harrowing first runs of his own and was part of the first Maykha expedition. Pat has helped him make the Last Resort lodge, base-camp for Ultimate Descents, a must-visit for any whitewater enthusiast.
As if that were not enough, HOA has recently lent support to an up-and-coming rafting company in Thailand called Siam River Adventures, which runs Grade III and IV trips on the Maytag.
On the home front, Pat spearheaded an effort to bring superstars Eric Southwick, Clay Wright and wunderkind Pat Keller over to paddle creeks and other untouched territory in Hokkaido. During the summer season, HOA handles a steady stream of school travel rafting, and the enterprise is looking to branch into an art and photo gallery in Hidaka.
The couple’s 3-year-old daughter Kay is as active and fearless as her parents. This past winter, Naomi finally stopped working at the clinic, insisting that “chasing after Kay is a full-time job.” Both Pat and Naomi have made the transition to parenthood easily and will undoubtedly be able to balance this role with those of photographer, office manager, race horse breaker and adventurers.