The Haw River Paddler
“Rivers are refuges for the soul, places of spiritual refreshment, where the natural flow and play of running water plainly mirrors the movement of life itself.” Ken Olson
“There are more currencies in life than money. Money helps to pay the bills, but it does nothing to enrich the soul.” I recently said this to a young man who has just started a fly-fishing service on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. It just kind of popped out of my mouth as we were talking about being in the business of getting people outside to enjoy themselves. I have been professionally teaching people to canoe and kayak and guiding them down rivers and along coastal shorelines for 28 years, and I still remember the excitement of starting my first river business. I guess I just identified with the young man and remembered what it was like for me. I knew it would probably be several years before he would be able to make a living at guiding so I wanted to give him some advice to help during those times of anxiety. Years ago when I told my father I wanted to be a biologist, he gave me great advice; “do what you love, love what you do and deliver more than you promise”. That advice made a big difference in my life, and I wanted to share it with the young man.
When reflecting on starting my first river business, I remembered why the idea interested me in the first place. Why would you not do something for a living that you enjoy? It was more than that. While studying in a library, I came across the “Proceedings of the Sierra Club’s 10th. Annual Wilderness Conference”. In the preface of the Proceedings, David Bower expressed the sadness he would feel if when he looked up into the sky at night he knew that some demigod had tipped toed through the heavens eons ago and plucked out the brightest and most beautiful stars. Would we feel ripped off if we realized that what we see now is just what is left? There is not a lot of wilderness left.
As I continued my studies in biology and ecology, I came across more and more studies that documented how so many rivers in the Southeastern United States and throughout the world were and are being destroyed or altered from their natural condition. It used to be common practice to either dam or channelize a river to reduce local flooding. Damming stopped fish migrations and changed a riverine system into a lacustrine or lake system, trading one type of aquatic environment for another. Channelization is the process of dredging a river to take out the bends which increases the flow of water downriver to become a problem for someone-else. Channelization takes a functioning riverine system and turns it into a ditch totally destroying the aquatic environment and the benefits it offers. If damming and channelizing were not bad enough, until the passage of the Clean Water Act, it was generally regarded that the solution to pollution was dilution, so we purposely dumped our harmful toxins straight into the rivers and added chlorine to our waste water treatment systems to kill off pathogens and in the process have killed off most of our native mussel fauna.
So, taking my love of Nature and paddling and my concern for what I have learned that we are doing to the planet, I started my first canoe and kayak company. I am not a business person even though I own two nature-oriented businesses, one in North Carolina and one in Alaska. Actually, I used to dislike the idea of being a business person, but then I realized it was not about making money. A business can be all about who you are, what you value and how you want to spend your time. It is really an art form because it takes your creative energy and envisioning to make it work. It builds character and can make you a better person. It demands that you are trusting of others and have a can do attitude. It also demands that you forgive others when they do not meet your expectations, and yourself when you fall short.
Being a successful business person is a lot different than starting a business. Perhaps the hardest thing to realize is that even though you are passionate about what you offer, it is not about you. It is all about what your customer wants. I used to think people wanted to go canoeing or kayaking. Some do; however, most just want to get out into Nature doing something that appears to be fun. So, I see it as my responsibility to share what I have learned in the hope that others will want to make the earth a healthier, better place both now and for those not yet born.