Under a bright blue sky, Rod Johnson, owner of Midwest Mountaineering, sat in a gleaming white kayak, bobbing on the waters of Pineview Reservoir. Leaning forward, he tossed a handful of long-stem flowers into the water and said, “Goodbye, Andy.”
About 30 fellow paddlers huddled in a circle of boats on the water at the Outdoor Retailer Open Air Demo July 20, adding their own flowers, which formed a floating bouquet of purples, reds and yellows. With broken voices and quiet sobs, they uttered solemn farewells, and then turned for shore.
The “paddle out” for Andy Knapp, who died of cancer in June (click here to see a June 22, 2009, SNEWS “In Memoriam.”) was a perfect tribute for a man who loved being on the water. And it was a wonderful reminder that we are more than an industry, but also a group bound by special ties.
The quiet of this moment soon gave way to the splashing and laughter of dozens of people testing out the latest kayaks and stand-up paddle boards. Life carries on, and even in the midst of a sad summer with passing friends and a recession, the mood at the Demo was somehow resilient.
Granted, the numbers were down—about 55 exhibiting companies, compared to 65 last year—and there were notable no-shows, such as Johnson Outdoors. But at any given time, we counted about 30 people paddling boats on the reservoir and an equal or greater number trying paddle boards.
“It’s a little better than I expected,” Woody Calloway of Legacy Paddlesports told SNEWS®. “We’re busier than I thought we’d be.”
Aside from the activity on the shore of the reservoir, there was plenty of action elsewhere at this year’s Demo. The SkirtChaser Trail Run hosted by SkirtSports drew about 80 participants, which was about 20 more than last year. The company reported that about half the people running were retailers.
GoPro generated some excitement when its three base jumpers parachuted in just before 10 a.m., soaring over the venue and touching down in a grassy field next to the village of booths. The trio of jumpers—Max Kuszaj, Neil Amonson and Jesse Hall—had enjoyed a free fall of 1½ minutes and a 3-minute parachute ride, testing out GoPro’s latest high-definition video camera. It all went smoothly, though Amonson admitted he had a bit of “gear fear” as this was the maiden trip for the chute he had deployed this day.
Things were a little more low-key at the whitewater boat demo area down the road, at the Ogden River. The majority of kayakers who showed up shuttled to the upper portions of the river to run the Class IV water, while we found only a single retailer taking advantage of the instruction provided on the lower Class II section. “We looking at bringing in whitewater boats,” said Carlos Ixcot, who owns a shop in Guatemala. To get his first taste of whitewater paddling, Ixcot partnered with Dagger athlete Andrew Holcombe, who said there were four athletes on hand who could have handled 75 students. As we watched Ixcot receiving excellent on-the-water training, it was evident that the lack of attendance was a missed opportunity, and the whitewater segment of the Demo has yet to reach its full potential.
Back at the main Demo area, we saw another missed opportunity, but not due to a lack of attendance. Mark Bostwick, CEO of Inches Fishing Tournaments, was on-hand to take people kayak fishing, but there was a glitch in fishing-license arrangements, and authorities would not waive the $100 license fee for attendees. Not willing to risk steep fines, Bostwick was forced to merely take people out for some casting instruction, which no doubt removed some of the luster from the program.
Of course, some retailers were not thrilled that certain paddling companies skipped the event. “It seems like paddlesports has shrunk,” said Joe Clark of Ozark Outdoor Supply in Little Rock, Ark. “Our original idea was to come out here for paddlesports, but if you look out on the water it’s a lot of paddle boards.” Clark said he changed his mission to focus on the other products being displayed, and if there is one thing that remains alive and well at the Demo, it’s the opportunity to see a wide variety of fresh companies with new products.
For example, Gomate.jr showed off its new GPS device designed specifically for geocaching, while the New Zealand company called d-fa (www.d-fa.com) displayed its clever dog jackets. “This is fantastic for us,” said d-fa creative director Angie Hook, explaining that the Demo allowed the company to stand out a bit more than it would just exhibiting at the Salt Palace.
As Clark mentioned, one of the most notable trends at this year’s demo was the continuing popularity of paddle boards, which frequently outnumbered boats on the reservoir. Perhaps more people were on boards because fewer new boats were available than in the past, or maybe people were just looking for something new and fun to try. Joe Royer of Outdoors Inc. in Memphis, Tenn., said boards are selling pretty well, but other retailers and manufacturers tell us that the hype over stand-up paddle boards far exceeds sales. Still, the Demo provided a good chance to experiment with them, and that, after all, is the point of such an event—to experience something new.
There is also another point to the Demo—something that can easily get lost in all the product discussion. It is a time for people to reconnect in a real outdoor environment, away from the fluorescent lights of the convention center. It’s a time to remember the reasons we’re in this business in the first place. It is partly about nature, and mostly about people. It’s paddling out to lay flowers for an old friend.
Surrounded by his friends and colleagues, Rod Johnson recalled that he first got to know Andy Knapp well during a Denali climb in the ‘70s. With the waters gently rocking their boats, others joining the paddle-out shared their stories, and Peter Noren of Midwest Mountaineering said that when he summated Denali this summer he carried to the top a photo of Andy.
“Raise your paddle if you’ve ever shared a large beer with Andy,” said Lili Colby of MTI Adventurewear. “Raise your paddle if you’ve ever shared a large beer and a long story with Andy.”
Every paddle shot toward the sky.