Friday, August 12, 2022
By Mike Schiller, Founder and Past Executive Director, Venture Outdoors
Why Kayak Pittsburgh
In the year 2000 and the start of the Western Pennsylvania Field Institute (WPFI – which ultimately became Venture Outdoors) in 2001, very few people were kayaking the rivers around downtown Pittsburgh. I would cross paths with Rob and Lisa Pfaffman, Mike Lambert, Ben Ledewitz, Sean Brady and a small handful of other devotees, but often had the rivers all to myself. It felt unfair to keep all the fun to myself.
Lots of other cities had kayak rentals, including Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia, San Diego, Denver, St. Louis, and many others. It seemed like Pittsburgh was missing something that other cities had already discovered. From there à Kayak Pittsburgh.
Mom as My Guinea Pig
In order to truly test the market, and whether “ordinary” people would enjoy kayaking on the Allegheny River, I decided to use my mom as the test case. In 2002 my mom was 69 years old, did not really swim, did not really like the water, and had never been in a kayak before. One mild summer evening, after a quick lesson on paddling, I launched mom in a kayak from the ramp at Three Rivers Rowing Association (TRRA) in the back channel of Washington’s Landing. After one or two unsteady strokes, mom found her balance and she was paddling up the channel and not waiting for me. She loved it! Needless to say, my test case was successful. Mom proved that even the least likely candidate for kayaking in Pittsburgh could do it successfully and enjoy herself tremendously.
(Post script. Only a month later, mom and dad were kayaking off the coast of Costa Rica! Two years later we were all kayaking in Iceland. Mom might never have experienced this except for her first successful kayak outing in Pittsburgh.)
Renting kayaks on the rivers downtown scared many folks in Pittsburgh. WPFI board members, our funders, some trip leaders, and friends and fellow paddlers all expressed concern regarding its safety and viability. It was important that Kayak Pittsburgh obtained the full and total buy-in of everyone who had anything to with the rivers or the shoreline along the North Shore, so we had many, many meetings to introduce everyone to the notion, to discuss safety precautions, the equipment we would use, the training we would provide, and our willingness to learn as we went along. As a rule, and somewhat surprisingly, we met almost zero resistance. Everyone thought Kayak Pittsburgh was a great idea and wondered why it had not already happened; almost everyone offered their blessing, and in some instances, their direct help.
The folks we spoke to before starting the business included (and I am likely forgetting some):
- City of Pittsburgh
- County of Allegheny
- Sports and Exhibition Authority
- PWSA (Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority)
- US Coast Guard
- River Safety
- City of Pittsburgh EMS
- Port of Pittsburgh Commission
- Army Corps of Engineers
- Three Rivers Rowing Association
- Friends of the Riverfront
- Allegheny Trail Alliance
- PA Fish and Boat Commission
- Pittsburgh Pirates
- Pittsburgh Steelers
- Gateway Clipper Fleet
- Carnegie Science Center
- Pittsburgh Voyager (now named Riverquest which was recently absorbed the Rivers of Steel)
That was a lot of coffee.
Many people had a hand in getting Kayak Pittsburgh started, but a few deserve special mention.
Tim Zak, Pittsburgh Social Enterprise Accelerator. The business plan for Kayak Pittsburgh won the PSEA business plan competition which earned us $5,000, a bunch of very valuable consulting with Tim and his team, and the credibility to pursue additional funding.
Mark Peterson, Bridgeway Capital. Bridgeway loaned Kayak Pittsburgh $50,000 (or something like that, I can’t actually remember) to acquire the initial kayaks, PFDs, paddles, trailers and safety gear.
Caren Glotfelty, The Heinz Endowments (now Executive Director of the Allegheny County Parks Foundation). After two years of successful kayak rentals, a desire to expand the fleet, and frequent sightings of Max King (then President of The Heinz Endowments) paddling at Kayak Pittsburgh, the foundation paid off the loan to Bridgeway Capital, allowing Venture Outdoors to use Kayak Pittsburgh net revenue to support other programs.
Fred Gunther, Exkursion. Fred was the owner of Exkursion and arranged the deal for Kayak Pittsburgh to purchase the first 30 (or was it 40?) boats, paddles, PFDs, and other equipment at cost. He totally supported our efforts and made sure those first 30 kayaks were the bright Pittsburgh yellow you still see today. (Yes, yellow was a very conscious decision.)
Mike Lambert, Three Rivers Rowing Association. Mike is the godfather of all things outdoors in western PA, and was an early mentor to Venture Outdoors and Kayak Pittsburgh. He provided credibility when anyone questioned the wisdom of inventing Kayak Pittsburgh, but he also maintained a bigger vision for the region and kept TRRA from competing with Kayak Pittsburgh.
The Practicalities of Living Under a Bridge
In the first year of operation, we did not have a way to keep the kayaks and equipment secure under the Sixth Street Bridge. We kept the two dozen kayaks on two trailers; we kept all the PFDs and paddles inside locked bins in the trailers. The specific trailer configurations were recommended to us by Denny Tubbs formerly with the PA Fish and Boat Commission, a huge supporter of WPFI and Kayak Pittsburgh (not to mention the TriAnglers program that Sean Brady and Denny invented).
Every morning that first summer, Joe O’Neil – the first manager of Kayak Pittsburgh – would drive over to the Carnegie Science Center, hook up a trailer, and haul the boats slowly along the Riverwalk in front of Heinz Field and PNC Park to their daytime position under the Clemente Bridge. In the evening, he and the team would repack the trailers and drive them back to their station behind the Science Center.
We are grateful that the Science Center provided us with this option. But I have to say, on the several occasions when I used my Jeep to help Joe transport a trailer to/from Kayak Pittsburgh, I always felt an exciting, slightly scary, slightly rule-breaking sensation driving along the Riverwalk (new at that time) with no guardrails, no painted lines and a straight shot to drive right into the river.
By season two we had proven the viability of the business, and we worked with the SEA and the City to install the first set of fences that would allow us to keep equipment in place. Once that happened, and we could leave equipment there all summer, Joe O’Neil did a great job of making friends with the homeless people that drifted up and down the river’s edge. He exchanged the use of the port-a-john for their watchfulness over the site when Kayak Pittsburgh was closed for business, an arrangement that worked nicely.
The rest, as they say, is history.