Four years ago, Brenna Kelly left the security of her job as a whitewater kayak instructor on the Ottawa River to do what countless adventurers and entrepreneurs before her have done—to go west.
Brenna Kelly’s Adventure Paddle School
The Smiths Falls, Ontario Native Was Drawn To The East Kootenays As The Perfect Place To Start Her Business, Adventure Paddle School. No stranger to a good paddling pun, the competitive kayaker—Kelly was a member of the 2012 Canadian National Freestyle team—says the experience has been full of “ebbs and flows.”
Earlier this year, she sold the school to Columbia River Paddle. However, she remains the head instructor at Adventure Paddle School, where every summer 250 students “rapidly” learn to standup paddleboard and kayak.
We spoke with Kelly about what it was like to navigate new waters, some 3,400 kilometers from home.
Why did you choose Invermere, B.C. as your location?
I was the manager and kayak instructor at the Ottawa Kayak School and in the winter, I would go west to be a ski instructor. After a while, it was getting tiring moving every six months. I wanted to make my life in British Columbia and I want people to like kayaking as much as I do.
Out here, the rivers are shallower, faster and they don’t necessarily end in a calm pool of water. Most of the lakes in B.C. are also glacier-fed, which makes it really difficult to start as a kayaker, because the first thing you learn is wet exits and trying your roll.
That’s why Invermere was the perfect spot to start a paddle school: The lake is warm, it’s cottage country for Calgarians and Edmontonians, and there’s a small class I to II river up the road.
What were your biggest challenges as a young entrepreneur?
It was very difficult to access financing to start the school. There are a lot of specific requirements for each grant, and we didn’t meet a lot of them. It forced me to develop my business plan fully and gave me a great understanding of where I was and where I wanted to go. To anyone starting a paddling business from scratch: Start small and make organic growth. Once you have proven your business is growing, you can apply for grants or put more of your own money into it. But the grand vision will take time. Let it.
When should someone take a lesson?
It’s funny because people are like, “I can standup paddleboard.” Then you see them go out in only the calmest conditions and kind of sunbathe. It’s not something where if the wind picked up, they’d be able to paddle back. We do standup paddleboard whitewater classes, which is cool because kayaking isn’t for everybody. Standup paddleboarding is another way to get down a river and still get to see all the beautiful sights.
Where do you think there’s room for growth?
There doesn’t seem to be as big of a culture of wanting to learn the proper strokes and skills. It’s all too easy to try something and assume you have mastered it and go onto the next thing without even challenging yourself. By taking lessons, you learn new skills and challenge yourself. Sometimes you fail—but ultimately, you succeed because you’re taking on new skills, allowing you to paddle in cooler places and meet more passionate people.
Who are you most excited to teach?
I just had my first child three months ago, so that’s the new adventure at the moment. Eventually, Piper will get big enough we’ll have her out on the water. We’ve already been doing swimming lessons, just getting her comfortable splashing and interested in water stuff. She’s on the trajectory to be a paddler herself.