The Kayak Shed – Hood River’s Resource
By Mike Kord
Two adventure-seekers are driving into town on a perfect summer day. The temperature posted on a digital thermometer reads 88 degrees. In many western towns east of the Cascade Mountain Range, it would figure to see a couple of mountain bikes on top of the car. But this car has kayaks. Whitewater ones. And driving around town, they’re certainly not the only people hauling short, beat-up plastic boats, for this is Hood River, Oregon, one of the preeminent whitewater towns in North America, where there never seems to be a shortage of water. It’s the ideal location for the Kayak Shed retail store.
“It’s definitely attractive to traveling paddlers,” says Kayak Shed owner John Hart. “In August, September, and October, where else do you go?”
Hood River is about an hour east of Portland on Interstate 84-far enough away so that it receives significantly less rain, yet close enough so that the nearby mountains receive as much as 600 inches of snow per year. That, combined with warm, dry summers and wet fall weather adds a consistency found in few parts of the country.
Fourteen stellar whitewater runs are within an hour and a half of Hood River, many even closer. Hart had already been living there for four years when he bought the store from Outdoor Play in 2001. Prior to that, he was a rep for Dagger and Patagonia.
“The town is just perfect,” he says. “It’s the best kayaking town on the West Coast, and in town itself, I couldn’t ask for a better location.”
The traveling nature of a rep’s job kept him away from Hood River and its great boating. He’s a lot closer to the local rivers now, but with all the responsibilities of a small-business owner, close is sometimes as near as he gets to a put-in.
“Whitewater has always been my most core sport,” he says. “I paddle less now, but I still get out. I’m just more finicky about the conditions now.”
The Kayak Shed is unique in that it is likely the only shop on the West Coast that sells mostly whitewater gear. In fact, the inventory in stock is four whitewater boats for every touring boat.
“That’s just what the town is,” he says. “Paddling’s actually not even as big as it could be because of all the other sports (kite boarding, mountain biking, and skiing) in the area that are also so good.”
But boating takes a back seat to nothing, and many of the sport’s biggest names-Tao Berman, Josh Bechtel, and Dan Gavere-call Hood River home. There’s a definite vibe in the shop that makes it a boater’s hangout.
“We’ve really tried to promote that by making it a great place to watch videos, and we’ve sacrificed floor space by putting benches in the shop to create the right atmosphere,” Hart says.
The Kayak Shed, however, does not take it for granted that every person who walks in the shop can already nail a front loop, so it offers many different types of classes and clinics. The shop has beginner whitewater, touring, and recreational kayaking classes. Hart also leads the Tuesday Night Happy Hour sessions, which entails taking boaters with some experience on a Class II or III run. Happy Hour is open to any boater who wants to go, but it mostly consists of novices who aren’t quite ready to fly on their own. As many as 30 people show up, but the average number is around 10.
“It’s fun to watch them get better,” Hart says. “We could charge, but we’re doing it more for the community than profitability. Building the community is important to us.”
But even the local hotshots could use some instruction once in awhile, and that’s where having a pro like Berman in town truly pays off. Berman will be leading a creek-boating clinic this summer, giving locals the rare opportunity to learn from a bona fide star of whitewater.
“We were dirt-biking one day, and I talked him in to it,” Hart says.
Rentals are also a big part of the store’s success. “We get so many people from Germany, Norway, New Zealand, not to mention Spokane,” Hart says. “If you’re a European paddler, where are you going to go? You’re either going to go to the East Coast or West Coast. And this is one of the best places to go. Even when the water’s low, it’s still good.”
There has been the perception in the general paddlesports industry that the whitewater market is dead or dying. Hart astutely points out that there hasn’t been a decline in participants, but boat sales aren’t what they were in the late 1990s.
“The problem is, there’s a million used boats out there and they all still float,” he says. “Skis, for example, have a limited life. What product out there has as long of a lifespan and is as low maintenance as a whitewater kayak? Even a soccer ball wouldn’t last as long.”
The Kayak Shed offers to put used boats on consignment and post them on their website, www.kayakshed.com. They also accept trades on a new boat.
Hart realizes that there’s more to running a shop than displaying kayaks and expecting them to sell. His employees are an extension of the shop. One employee is Todd Anderson, a 21-year-old kayaker who finished a remarkable sixth in the recent Teva Mountain Games creek race.
“What I look for is a good solid, dependable person who is passionate about the sport,” he says. “You can train them in everything else, but you can’t train passion.”
Anything less just wouldn’t work in a place like Hood River. n
The Kayak Shed
Hood River, Oregon
Founded: 1991 as the Cascade
Owner: John Hart