It didn’t make any sense to my father. He was a pragmatic man. I’m a truck driver’s son. After a 50-hour week behind the wheel of an 18-wheeler, I’d jump in my pickup hell-bent for the Ottawa River where I’d make a measly $65 per day. Once you’d accounted for blowing up rafts in the mornings and cooking and serving guests steak dinners in the evenings, raft guiding worked out to be about $6 per hour, at best. He’d shake his head, baffled at why I’d work below minimum wage, barely covering my gas back and forth.

Who else could make more money elsewhere? You. And probably everyone else reading this. Paddlesports is full of talented and highly driven people who could be more financially successful doing their same jobs in virtually any other industry.

Still happy to be here

Author and speaker Simon Sinek says, in an organization money is like fuel.

“Cars need fuel, but the purpose of the car is not to buy more fuel.” Business is the same, Sinek says. “The purpose of business is not to make money, it’s to advance a greater purpose or cause.” Money is the fuel for greater purpose.

a paddler's deeply suntanned feet in black and white
These little piggies didn’t go to market or stay home. | Feature photo: Garrett Fache

At the time, my greater purpose was the guide lifestyle. Tim Niemier dreamed of a kayak he could punch through ocean surf. Frank Goodman created the Valley Nordkapp so he could do bigger trips, like paddling around Cape Horn. The Nantahala Outdoor Center began with three friends gambling on a gas station and motel to create a center for paddling outdoor pursuits. Outfitting businesses grew out of schemes to fund personal exploits to remote northern rivers. Tom Derrer built kayaks for himself and friends; he liked it so much he built a few more. Not exactly world peace, but so far from the purpose of making money it’s a wonder we are all still here. In fact, I think it’s probably the reason we are all still here.

When I speak to classes of outdoor education and business students, they always ask me for the secret to success as an entrepreneur. I ask them to guess at the most motivating factor among my peers in paddlesports.

When I tell them it isn’t money, they ask if it’s the freedom to work whenever we want… Yeah sure, you mean like all the time? And this was before the Pandemic.

I believe the most motivating thing, if not the secret to success, is the fear of failure. Failure to keep our dreams alive. Failure to keep living the lifestyle, even on the days it doesn’t feel like a lifestyle job. Basically, fear that someday we may not get to wear flip-flops to work.

Living the dream, through triumph and tribulation

The last couple years haven’t been easy in paddlesports. We lost longtime outfitters and guides who lost two full seasons. The lack of shows and events sucked the fun from otherwise nomadic sales reps. Industry leaders retired. ACK locked its doors. The legendary Mike Neckar died.

“What do you do?” people politely ask each other at parties. If I made computer electronic chips or published a B2B magazine about dental equipment, they’d nod an imminent end to the conversation. When I tell them about Paddling Magazine and Kayak Angler, they tell me stories about fishing, family canoe trips, learning to paddleboard, kayaking Puget Sound or when they first learned to roll.

The boats we build. The gear we sell. The trips we lead. The skills we teach. The equipment we rent. What we do does have a greater purpose. Thirty million Americans got on the water and paddled last year. We did that. All of us together. Collectively, as an industry.

Thanks to those who started all this 50 years ago, and cheers to those still happy to be here. Too stubborn to quit.

Paddling Business cover mockupThis article was first published in the 2023 issue of Paddling Business. Inside you’ll find the year’s hottest gear for canoeing, kayaking, whitewater and paddleboarding. Plus: Industry leaders on the post-pandemic landscape, 50 years of paddlesports, the rise and fall of ACK and more. READ IT NOW »

These little piggies didn’t go to market or stay home. | Feature photo: Garrett Fache



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