Kay Henry, 60, launched a boating revolution in 1971 when she founded Mad River Canoe Company with then-husband Jim. Known for their innovative design, pioneering use of plastics, and trippy rabbit logo, the Vermont-based company ruled the whitewater canoe landscape for decades. Mad River was first in the industry to use Kevlar, and with their “You Can Canoe Day” demo program, became the first manufacturer to bring product to the people.
Henry honed her sales pitch on big water. In 1970, at whitewater pioneer Walt Blackadar’s urging, she kayaked the Grand Canyon, becoming one of the first women to do so. In 1989 she and second husband Rob Center outlasted 20-foot swells to win the 350-mile Arctic Canoe Race in Finland. Off the water, she’s served on boards for the Outdoor Industry Association and the conservation group American Rivers. Since selling Mad River Canoe to Confluence Watersports Company in 1999, Henry has applied her business acumen to the non-profit Northern Forest Canoe Trail, a 740-mile-long water trail she co-founded with Center. We caught up with her at her summer residence on the Maine Seacoast.
You can’t sell boats to sit in somebody’s garage. That doesn’t do any good. If you can’t show people where they can use them and help protect those places as resources, why are we selling the product?
In the 1970s the outdoor industry was started from the heart. It was people who really believed in what they were doing. The activity came first. The money came second. That isn’t the way anymore.
Walt Blackadar said he was going to do a Grand Canyon trip. “You’ve got to come,” he said. We told him we didn’t have any money but he said he’d take our boats in trade. I was gulping because this was bigger water than I’d ever done—I was a novice kayaker. That was my first real introduction to big-water boating. We ended up selling our kayaks to pay for that, our canoes to pay for something else, and got home basically without anything.
Being outside is important. If we don’t have the access for people to experience that, then we’re losing what’s so unique to this country. Westerners don’t really understand this because they have so much public land.
In the business world if you wanted to do a project you figured out how to sell a couple more things to pay for it. As a stewardship group you have to ask someone else for the money. I find that more difficult.
One of the things we realized in making a premium product is that people had to try it and see before they were going to buy it. We basically started the demo business.
Sea kayakers are different than canoeists and whitewater kayakers are different than anybody. It’s hard to characterize a paddler. That was always the challenge when you were marketing to them.
Women are better at building teams.
They changed the logo, which I thought was very silly. Fine, so you can tell Vermont-made boats from North Carolina boats. People who know can tell the difference.
I believe nature deficit disorder is true. I grew up with a stream out back. Yes, I’d get muddy and I would come home with cuts and bruises and my mother dealt with it. Because in those days that was part of life. We’ve just overdone it for kids now.
The business had gotten big enough where the product was no longer the focus. It was just taking care of all the issues. Suddenly it was like, “Wait a minute, I love the outdoors. I love paddling.” And then you want to leave something and you get to that legacy thought: What will be around here after I go? That’s what the Northern Forest Canoe Trail is. This is a give back.
A canoe is a vehicle to take you somewhere.
I’m sorry that I hadn’t kept the company a little bit longer and found a different kind of a home for it. It was a time that things were consolidating and it seemed like it made sense. I thought it was going in the right direction but I couldn’t control it afterwards. Money became more important than creating something.
Canoeing has been overshadowed by the kayak for a while. That’s a shame. People want instant gratification. It’s easier to keep a kayak in a straight line. In a canoe you’ve got to learn it a little bit more. There are certain things that need more technique than others.
For me, it’s not the paddling anymore per se. It’s what you can do when you get there.
I’m an entrepreneur. I like to build things.
We were into the sports. We were doers and we sold our companies to the businesses. They’re into the world of making money and the heart’s gone out of it. How do we get the heart back into it? That’s a real issue I’m concerned with.
On the wall? That’s a 1923 Old Town. It was sold to a priest who had it on Lake Willoughby. When we had it restored all of its ribs were intact. It just needed to be re-canvassed. It’s a neat boat, and it just fits.
Our big challenge now is how to get youth out. They’re so involved in their gadgets that they’re not going to see and experience nature on its own terms. And if you don’t do that are you really going to protect this place?
There’s a purpose to just being out in the woods.