From Publisher to Retailer: The Origins of CanoeSport Outfitters

After more than twenty years at CanoeSport Outfitters, I’m still frequently asked, “How did you come to start a paddling store in Indianola, Iowa?” The simple answer is I loved to paddle, knew there were few suppliers of paddling equipment in Iowa, needed to earn a living, and was living in Indianola at the time the idea came to me. Those four things in combination provided the motivation to start a store and locate it where I did. While many are satisfied with this short answer, many want more details. So here is the long answer. 

 

 

The long answer begins in 1973 when my dad brought home an aluminum canoe from Montgomery Wards. To this day I’m positive his true motive for choosing a canoe as our family fishing boat was to discourage my mom and sister from accompanying us on our father and son excursions. It worked well as both my mom and sister were less than thrilled with the idea of trying to fish from a craft as “unstable” as a canoe. 

 

 

Left to enjoy the luxury of our new watercraft by ourselves we took full advantage of the opportunity. Several times each week my dad and I threw the beast in the back of our station wagon. I sat next to it on the tailgate and held on as we drove the short distance to the nearby lake to catch crappie and largemouth bass. By the time I started high school we were enjoying float trips on the nearby Des Moines River and I was hooked. Unfortunately we moved to an area where water was less prevalent and my interests turned to things more typical of a teenager in high school.

 

 

Jump ahead to my last year in College, which coincidentally was at Simpson in Indianola. I really wanted to find a way to explore the remote areas of Iowa and found myself drawn to its’ waterways. I rediscovered the old aluminum canoe and began looking for information on places to paddle. After a lot of searching I came across a small, out dated pamphlet from the Department of Natural Resources. It was helpful, but lacked detail. I wanted to know where to put-in, where to take out, and what I could expect along the way. What I wanted was a magazine about canoeing in Iowa and since no one was publishing one, I decided to do it myself.

 

 

I started writing article’s, researching paddling routes, and produced my first sample copy in the fall of 1988 on a tandy computer and a dot matrix printer from Radio Shack. The end result wasn’t exactly state of the art, but it was a start. 

 

 

Over the next four years I learned a lot about paddling and a little about publishing a magazine. If it had been the other way around I may have gone further with the publishing. More importantly, I found out there were a lot of people already paddling Iowa’s rivers. Many were like me, looking for information on places to paddle and articles about others who were enjoying local waterways. Within a few years Canoeing Iowa had almost 1,000 subscribers and I was going to all kinds of places promoting Iowa Rivers and streams.

 

 

During these years several subscribers informed me of an event in Madison, Wisconsin called Canoecopia. This annual paddling event draws thousands of paddling enthusiasts all across the Midwest. It sounded like a great place to promote my magazine. 

 

 

In 1991 and 1992 I purchased a booth at the event for Canoeing Iowa. It gave me a great opportunity to talk paddling, sell a few subscriptions, and tell people to come enjoy the rivers of Iowa. Most people were open to details about the Upper Iowa River, the Turkey, and the Volga. Some had already paddled stretches of these scenic rivers. However, others were quick to laugh and hurry on their way. One in particular stopped and told me the only thing to do while paddling in Iowa was look at the corn. 

 

 

After four years of publishing Canoeing Iowa, it was plain to see I wouldn’t be paying off my student loans or buying a house with the profits. I was open to ideas and a subscriber from West Branch named Jim Holmes had a good one. He encouraged me to start selling paddling equipment. I had been throwing the idea around for a while and was even selling a few things in the magazine. With his encouragement I found a small retail location in downtown Indianola and opened CanoeSport Outfitters in May of 1992.

 

 

Opening a retail paddlesport shop in Iowa wasn’t exactly the in thing to do at the time. There were very few places in the entire state where someone could go and purchase a quality canoe or even see a kayak. So I set about calling manufacturers, borrowing money, and establishing credit to bring in what were at the time the best-known manufacturers in the business. Unfortunately things didn’t always go smoothly and I remember a conversation on the phone with one of the larger manufacturers at the time going like this.

 

“Hi I’m Jeff Holmes and I’m opening a paddlesport shop in Iowa and would like to get some product infor.”

 

The voice on the line cut in and explained, “We already have quite a few dealers in Idaho. What part of Idaho are you in?”

 

“No. Not Idaho. I’m in Iowa.” 

 

“Iowa?“ she asked.

 

“Yeah. Iowa. Between the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.” I really thought that would explain everything, but realized differently as I heard nothing but silence on the line.

 

“Just south of Minnesota,” I stated as I tried to be more precise.

 

 

“Okay. Hmmm,” she finally responded. “We don’t actually have a rep assigned to Iowa, so can I get your name and number and get back to you.”

 

 

As the retail store started getting into full swing, I continued publishing Canoeing Iowa, albeit on a less than regular schedule. By the third year the retail store was growing rapidly and the time I had available to find new routes and write articles was shrinking just as fast.  As it became more and more obvious that the retail store had a much better chance to pay my bills than the magazine, I sadly put out my last issue in March of 1995. 

 

 

So, CanoeSport Outfitters came to be in Indianola because of my youthful desire to discover the waterways of Iowa by canoe and turned into a passion for helping others do the same. For more than thirty years I’ve talked about paddling, promoted Iowa, sold the best gear to help others get on the water, and improved skills through instruction. So far it’s been an amazing journey.

 

The first store location of CanoeSport in 1992.

 

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To learn more about our store please visit www.canoesportoutfitters.com

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