Recreation businesses get creative to stay afloat amid relentless rains

By BELLA LEVAVI

Staff Writer

Published: 08-03-2023 6:01 PM

This summer’s heavy rains have left many recreation companies looking to tread water by getting creative in the wake of fewer customers and fewer amenable locations for paddling during what is ordinarily their busy season.

“This season has sucked, to put it bluntly,” said Jerry Whaland, owner of Billy Goat Boats in Orange, which rents canoes, kayaks, standup paddleboards and paddleboats for use on the Millers River.

Although Whaland described the Millers River as being calmer and cleaner than some other waterways are at the moment, he said his business is struggling as rain comes every weekend, scaring people away from renting paddling equipment. When the weather is fair, customers come in droves to enjoy outdoor recreation.

“When it is not raining, we can’t keep up,” Whaland said.

With the relentless rain, he said, there are few days where this happens. According to the National Weather Service, data recorded in Greenfield shows 13 days in July experienced no precipitation.

“Even the threat of rain seems to kill the business,” Whaland continued.

In Sunderland, the outdoor recreation company Adventure East has a different problem. With public access on the Connecticut River being suspended due to hazardous river conditions, Adventure East has had to look outside its usual stomping grounds for an amenable place to paddle. The poor conditions are due both to high water levels caused by the heavy rainstorms and frequent sewage overflows across the Pioneer Valley. The public is advised to avoid the river for at least 48 hours after the sewer discharge or overflow has ceased due to increased health risks from bacteria and other pollutants.

Adventure East President Brian Pearson said he hopes the company can resume paddling on the Connecticut River in the next couple weeks.

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“We are hoping August will be a dryer month,” he said.

In the meantime, Adventure East has had to get creative regarding where it brings its paddlers. The company is now taking customers — some of whom are shuttled to the site, increasing transportation demands — to local ponds and lakes such as Tully Lake in Royalston, Lake Warner in North Hadley and Lake Rohunta in Athol.

“This season has opened new options and forced us to think about our business model,” Pearson said.

For Whaland, Billy Goat Boats has had two particularly difficult years amid changing weather conditions. He even considered closing the business. Compounding problems for his business, he said, is that the COVID-19 pandemic changed the industry, leading more people to buy their own kayaks and canoes to spend more time outdoors and causing fewer to rent watercraft to enjoy their hobby.

To stay financially afloat, Billy Goat Boats began selling canoes and kayaks as well as renting them. Whaland said he has seen several sales on rainy days when he makes no money from rentals.

Differing perspectives

These problems are not seen across the board, however. Nathan Marr, director of marketing for Zoar Outdoor in Charlemont, reported fewer struggles than the smaller recreation companies.

“This year we have seen similar numbers of paddlers compared to previous years,” he wrote in an email.

The Deerfield River, where Zoar Outdoor operates, has a flow controlled by dams and reservoirs, allowing it to remain steady despite the heavy rains and droughts experienced in the last two years. Zoar Outdoor is also located upstream from the sewage overflows into the Deerfield River in Greenfield and Shelburne Falls. According to Marr, the Deerfield River has seen some increased levels of bacteria due to runoff from rain events, but presently the sections where Zoar Outdoor offers whitewater rafting and kayaking have been tested and marked as “clean for swimming and boating.”

Some of the big rocks contributing to the rapids at Zoar Gap have shifted, changing the course for watersport enthusiasts. Marr recommends people paddling at Zoar Gap to paddle “within their abilities, using proper equipment and, ideally, going with someone who is familiar with the run.”

Also experiencing a different situation from Adventure East and Billy Goat Boats is Tom Harrison, co-owner of the fishing guide service Harrison Anglers. Some of his trips were canceled due to weather, but for the most part, the rain has helped with fishing in the long run this season.

“Fishing has been good because of the higher flows and colder water,” Harrison said.

Last year, fishing was limited to the Swift and Deerfield rivers because the dams kept the waters high and cold enough for the fish to survive during the drought. Harrison also takes people fishing on the Westfield, Hoosac and Millers rivers this year. Although Harrison said summer isn’t the main fishing season in western Massachusetts, with spring and fall being ideal, Harrison Anglers has seen good business in the past couple months regardless.

Despite many tourists flocking to the area to experience Mother Nature, the business owners note it is also Mother Nature that can make their plans subject to change.

“I have been working in the outdoor industry for 20 years,” Pearson said. “There are always environmental factors beyond our control. We have to just be patient.”

Bella Levavi can be reached at 413-930-4579 or blevavi@recorder.com.

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