Staff Spotlight: Jacob Matheny, Operations Manager
Getting Hooked on the Water
If you ask a paddler why they got into boating, they will often share a particular moment that hooked them on the sport. For Jacob Matheny, the Operations Manager at The Haw River Canoe & Kayak Co., that memory is buying his first canoe at age 16 with money he’d earned from a pressure washing business. Since there was little to do in Alamance County, a canoe seemed a good purchase, and he began putting in at Swepsonville to paddle the Haw River.
That winter, Jacob and his father went fishing on the Haw River at high water. They anchored the canoe by tying it to a branch above the boat, which shifted the boat’s center of gravity and flipped it. Dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, Jacob was soaked and shivering; he stripped down and approached a nearby house for help.
From that trip, Jacob got pneumonia and a new love: paddling. Jacob recalls that day as “the most fun I’d ever had” until then.
Paddling coupled Jacob’s love for nature with a newfound sense of danger, and since then, he has dedicated his life to exploring rivers.
In his early twenties, Jacob “boated hard, slept on the ground a lot” and was a self-proclaimed “semi-adrenaline junkie.” A fan of both play boating and creek boating, he paddled many of the more difficult rivers in the Southeast, including the Cheoah, Chattooga, and Tallulah Gorge, and he continued to challenge himself with river rescue and paddling instruction.
This knowledge and his desire to share it with others have made him a natural leader in the paddling community.
Helping Others Connect with Nature
Although Jacob went to school for nursing, he found river guiding more appealing because guiding “helps others in a way they weren’t being helped otherwise.” Nursing, while a healing profession, seemed too obvious and direct. Jacob noticed early on that time in nature can be curative and “helps people in areas of their lives that they can’t find a cure for.” Through this realization, he developed his own method of helping others connect with nature and he brings this awareness to his interactions with guests on guided trips.
Nowadays, while many programs advertise their nature or wilderness therapy angles, Jacob’s approach remains nuanced. He wants people to have that nature therapy experience without being aware of the change they are undergoing. As Jacob puts it, “If you’re too up front with it [the nature therapy angle], it ruins the medicine.”
For him, the most fulfilling trips are those that allow him to put people in a place to interact in nature. He mentions how he loves to see families have fun outdoors and then return to the shop to share their stories. An intuitive guide, Jacob does not directly control a guest’s experience. As he says, “To be a really good teacher, you lead them to finding the answer themselves.”
From Guide to Mentor
Jacob met the current owner of The Haw River Canoe & Kayak Co., Joe Jacob, during a river cleanup in 2007. In those days, the company had six canoes and six kayaks and operated mostly on weekends. When Jacob came on staff, he often worked free on weekdays to prove that they could build the business and justify being open more often.
He remembers how the building required so much renovation that they first only operated from the hallway. He shoveled out mulch and mushrooms to make the space livable, and now it houses boats, a small store, and a repair shop.
As Jacob has shifted into more of a supervisory role, he fondly remembers HRCK summer camps; he enjoyed hanging out with kids and seeing them grow into guides, many of whom became new hires at The Haw River Canoe & Kayak Co. He views the paddling community as a good place for people who need direction, much like himself as a younger man.
As Operations Manager, he has found that “some of the best employees are the black sheep” and loves to help others find success on and off the water, in the outdoor industry and beyond.
As a company, our goal has always been to give people meaningful experiences on the water and to engender in them an appreciation for the natural world. Over the years, we have helped a lot of people experience nature, but none of it would have been possible without Jacob Matheny’s leadership and dedication.