The Business of the Outdoors

The Business of the Outdoors

"A degree in Business?"

He said the last word, "Business," as if it were a dirty word...almost as if uttering a disparaging slur. He, in the fall, would start his final year of high school. He was from an upper-middle class family, and following high school, was going to attend college.

We were discussing ideas for college, what to think about for college following high school. Growing up on the Front Range, just outside of Boulder, Colorado, he had grown up hiking, skiing, mountaineering, climbing and kayaking. He loved the outdoors and wanted to explore a profession in the outdoor industry.

I was in between my first and second years in graduate school, and during this summer, I was a coach for a high-performance whitewater slalom development camp. This conversation happened during one of the long drives we inevitably did on our journey from Colorado to Idaho to just outside of Banff in Alberta, and to races across the upper midwest in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Coaching in Wasau, WI

During my undergraduate years, I was a raft guide during the summers. The last company I worked for, the owner, Duke, was not much older than I was. This was Arkansas Valley Adventures (AVA) when there were less than 20 rafts, and the entire operation consisted of little more than a small over 100-year-old building near Granite, Colorado. Duke lived in a bedroom in the back of the shop, and drove a battered old Toyota pickup. To say the operation was scrappy is a gross understatement. I learned a lot from listening to Duke in those early years of AVA.

Duke likely will correct me on many of the details. After a graduating with his undergraduate degree in Business from the University of Nebraska, Duke gravitated toward the Rockies, becoming a ski patroller for Keystone in the winter and a raft guide in the summer. When his father told him he needed to do more with his life, Duke's action was, " do the only thing I knew how to do. I wrote a business plan, and pitched it to anybody who would listen in Summit County."

The result was getting enough backing to purchase a small rafting operation with a permit on the Arkansas River. This operation focused on harder whitewater, Pine Creek and Numbers on the Arkansas, and Gore on the upper Colorado. At the time, the only other company in either of these reaches was Timberline. It was largely untapped potential.

Guiding on the Arkansas

To work these harder reaches, Duke managed to recruit some of the best guides. These top notch guides attracted more quality guides, including myself. To say we were a tight knit group is putting it mildly. We were good. We ran hard whitewater, and we ran a very tight ship while doing so. This was one of the best aspects of working for AVA in those early days.

During my last season at AVA, Duke expanded dramatically by getting the backing to buy out Keystone Rafting. This gave Duke access to the lucrative Summit County market along with permits on Clear Creek and Blue...and potentially other rivers as well.

The point is Duke wanted to work in the outdoor industry. What enabled him to pull it off is having the skills to make a living at it...a Business degree, and the confidence to use it.

This is why, when a budding young outdoor enthusiast asks me what degree they should get in college for a career in the outdoor industry, I always respond, Business. Get the outdoor education as well, but don't get a degree in outdoor recreation. Get all the outdoor certifications you can...Kayak Instructor, Wilderness First Responder and whatever else you can manage. Make no mistake, though, to earn a living, you have to know how to earn money doing it. You have to know the business of making a living in the outdoors.