Madison, Wiscon's annual Canoecopia—"The World's Largest Paddle Sports Expo"—was attended by some 22,000 people over three days last weekend. Photo: James Edward Mills

By James Edward Mills
Published: March 17, 2011

Avid kayakers Linda Pascoe and Gae Jarvis traveled more than 400 miles to indulge their paddling habit at Canoecopia, in Madison, Wis., last weekend.

Billed as the “World’s Largest Paddle Sports Expo,” the annual event put on by Madison retailer Rutabaga draws enthusiasts from throughout the Midwest and beyond. Pascoe said the overnight trip from the Twin Cities was well worth the drive—she bought a new kayak, her third one.

“I’ve already got a Valley Avocet, but that one’s fiberglass,” she said. “This one’s plastic so I can beat the hell out of it and not have to worry about every bump and scratch.”

Heading for the cash registers to make the purchase, Pascoe and Jarvis each had arms full of accessories: A lightweight jacket, dry bags, fanny packs, gloves, a few of the many things Jarvis said a boater needs to get the season started.

“It’s still cold and there’s snow on the ground in Minneapolis,” she said. “But later we’ll be on the city lakes like Lake Calhoun, and then Lake Superior, the St. Croix River, but not until I get a plastic boat too.”

Jarvis said she’s putting off her boat buy until next month. Despite enticing discounts during the Canoecopia, she’ll wait and perhaps plop down at least $1,800 on a new kayak, her second one, back in Minnesota. “My husband and I bought boats last year even when the economy was bad,” she said. “We own our home. So we don’t have a house payment to worry about.”

Typically the first major event in the country, Canoecopia is a good indicator of the coming paddle sports sales season. Thousands of people who packed the Alliant Energy Center—22,000 was the weekend’s attendence—seemed highly motivated to score an early fix of canoes, kayaks, camping supplies and all related accessories. And while sales figures at Canoecopia were flat from last year, according to Rutabaga owner and Canoecopia organizer Darren Bush, that figure may rise when special orders are tabulated.

Nevertheless, with ice still thick in the Great Lakes states after a long cold winter, consumers here seem primed and ready for what many hope will be a terrific season. Scott Berry, a Canoecopia exhibitor and co-owner of the outfitting company Bear Paw Outdoors in White Lake, Wis., said business looks good so far.

“We’re already seeing a lot of bookings,” he said. “It’s mainly for lodging, but there’s plenty of interest in our swift water rescue program and other classes.”

Other exhibitors like Fletcher Andrews, sales manager of Seattle-based Cascade Designs/MSR based, said consumer enthusiasm is strong. “I was really impressed by the number of people excited about going on big trips this year, going to Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, the major lakes around here,” he said. “And based on what we’re seeing people are buying up in quality… spending a little bit more because you’re going to get something that’s going to last.”

The biggest challenge for exhibitors seemed to be in meeting immediate consumer demand for very specific items. “It’s really hard to know what to bring,” said Torry Moore, a regional sales representative for pack maker Granite Gear. “Last year we nearly sold out of dog packs so we stocked up. This year everyone wants backpacks.”

Rutabaga owner Bush said that’s the way it’s likely to be all season. “Customers want value. They don’t want the cheapest, but they want a fair price and they want it now. We have to be able to react to that,” he said. “So this season we’re going to do a lot of micro-managing and watching consumer demand. Instead of placing four orders throughout the season, we’ll place eight smaller ones.”

Observations from the show floor indicated brisk sales across all categories. And many exhibitors said they were very pleased with overall traffic and the pace of business. “It’s hard to move a big number,” Bush said, “and there’s only so much you can get through the pipe.”