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Aquatic economy: Paddling industry has grown over decades

The paddling business in the Adirondack Park has expanded in recent decades, allowing for the activity to draw in tourists from around the world.

June is Celebrate Paddling month, as declared by local stores that sell canoes, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards. They and the Northern Forest Canoe Trail organization have organized a packed schedule of events this month in the Tri-Lakes area.

But that promotional effort is just icing on the cake. The local paddlesports industry has come a long way, and these days the sight of canoes or kayaks on the roofs of vehicles is common.

Past

Taking older people on fishing trips was a big part of Robert Frenette’s paddlesports business when he started out in the 1980s, he said, but the industry has grown a lot since then. These men are paddling a canoe on Lake Colby in Saranac Lake (Enterprise photo — Lou Reuter)

“It seems like ever since we’ve been in business it’s been a continual growth,” said Robert Frenette, owner of Raquette River Outfitters in Tupper Lake.

For Frenette, it started slowly, in 1983 helping out older tourists with historic tours of the waterways. The tours varied from day-long fishing trips to five-day-long adventures. The traditional Adirondack guideboat was popular in those days.

In the late 1980s families started to get in on the action. Young families hopped into canoes, and the influx of customers grew with new outfitters. There was a fear that these new businesses would cut in on the action, which it might have, but it also allowed for more exposure. At the time there was no internet, and advertising was expensive. Appearing in magazines and newspapers was one of the only ways to gain exposure. In the late 1980s, for example, National Geographic did a story on the Adirondacks, and “people came to the Adirondacks from all over the world the next summer,” Frenette said.

As more outfitters in the area spent money on advertising, they helped reach more people who otherwise would not know of the possibility of paddling in the Adirondack Park.

A paddler carries a canoe on the Seven Carries Route between Paul Smiths and Saranac Inn. (Enterprise photo — Justin A. Levine)

The state’s purchasing of waterways and the building of connections to those waterways in the 1990s allowed for newer aquatic loops, according to Frenette. For example, the birth of the Whitney Wilderness Area was a big draw in his part of the Adirondack Park.

“That really helped people come,” Frenette said.

Terror in the turn of the millennia may have also brought some fortune to the Adirondacks. After the devastation of 9/11, it grew increasingly difficult for people to travel into Canada, according to Frenette. Boy Scouts and other camping groups who normally traveled to our neighbors to the north decided to stay closer to home. Frenette said he saw an increase in scout groups paddling in the park following the attack.

Present

The sun sets over Lower Saranac Lake, as seen from a canoe. (Enterprise photo — Justin A. Levine)

Now Frenette sees that people trying to unplug are finding refuge in the century-old park and its cool, blue veins. Mothers of young children have told him how positive the experience has been for their families. Kids are sometimes unable to connect with service on their phones and eventually put them down and look at the wild.

The paddling business in the Adirondacks has also been able to flourish since it started in the 1980s. St. Regis Canoe Outfitters started in the basement of co-owners David Cilley and his wife, Rivka’s house with six boats in 1984. They now have two store locations, in downtown Saranac Lake and deep in the Floodwood are — neither at their house — and over 100 boats.

One factor to this growth could perhaps be one of the reasons parents have such trouble getting kids outside.

“The internet and cellphones, those two things probably had the biggest impact on the business,” Cilley said.

Local advertising is no longer the only way to get your name out. St. Regis, for example, has an expansive website with information on hikes ranging from an hour to five days long. There is information on where tourists can stay and eat, and other special paddling events.

With a worldwide reach, paddling customers in the Adirondacks have become less local. Cilley said a great number of customers come from Canada as the parks there cost money to use; here they’re it’s free.

With the vast quantity of boats comes variety as well. Those renting can select heavier canoes for less money, around $55 per day, or lighter canoes for around $66 per day. This cost varies even more depending on the number of days a party will be renting the boats. Renting for just one day can cost around $5 more. Cilley said that the average number of days that people rent a canoe is 3.5 days.

Future

Local business owners believe the activity’s popularity has grown and will grow.

“It seems to be on a good trend,” Frenette said.

“Paddlesports is continuing to grow,” Cilley said.

Frenette believes that around 80% of his clientele are repeat customers. Cilley said he, too, sees repeats more than anything else. He said kids come back as adults and bring their families to share what they enjoyed in their youth.

In recent years, Cilley said he serves around 1,500 parties, which he said is a huge improvement than when he and his wife started in 1984. He also said that they are likely to pass that number this year, which he based off the number of people who have set up reservations for the summer.

Frenette also sees how the industry in the Adirondack Park could be improved with better facilities and more space. Little tweaks, he calls them.

Cleaner facilities and more of them are higher on his list. He recalls traveling to British Columbia with his wife a few summers ago and parking near what they thought was an information center. It turned out to be a bathroom. Frenette would like to see nicer facilities to keep the paddlers who come up here to use the water and trails.

A more educational approach, as opposed to simply scolding paddlers and ticketing them, is another improvement Frenette would like to see. Educating paddlers on the rules would prevent a situation where one would be reprimanded for something they might not have known about paddling in the Adirondacks.

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