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Whitewater off with low water levels, but other paddlesports selling well

Whitewater sales are expected to be down this year due to low snow, but there are broader waves hitting the sector, like a consumer push to calmer waters.

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For 30 years, Mike Garcia has sold boats of all kinds at his store, The Barn at Northern Lights Trading Co. in Bozeman, Mont. His son, Ian, is a respected whitewater paddler while another son, Evan, paddles for Team Liquid Logic while blogging about the sport. The trio represents an old-school dedication to whitewater kayaking that, Mike says, is in precipitous decline.

After a lackluster winter in the Rockies that never delivered on a promise of heavy La Niña snows, spring runoff was all but absent in rivers. Some peaked weeks early, leaving popular whitewater play spots too low to run. But, talk to boat dealers in the Rockies and they’ll tell you their concern is not with the low flows on this year’s rivers. None of them are losing many whitewater customers due to drier rivers. The market share of whitewater paddlers has been low for years, they said. It’s been replaced with a cadre of leisure boaters who prefer slower rivers anyway.

“Low water years don’t hurt us that bad because recreational boaters get out on the river then, earlier, so my buy-in isn’t so much hurt by water levels,” Garcia said. “Whitewater kayaking is definitely off.”

Scott Jaeger, senior retail analyst for Leisure Trends, a company that watches trends in the outdoor sports industry, is seeing this trend inform retailers’ buying decisions.

“Whitewater is pretty specific,” he said. “It’s not a huge percentage of sales, it’s a tight little niche.”

While data are still coming in, his firm reported that last year — a high-water year — whitewater kayaks made up 7 percent of kayak sales and 6 percent of all boat sales. Whereas, in 2011 Leisure Trends recorded standup paddle boards selling up to three times as much as the previous year.

Low precipitation this past winter, which left entire drainages more accessible to leisure boaters, coupled with a decline in whitewater sports is encouraging stores to stock up on more touring equipment and boats.

“Recreational fishing and standup paddling will be the ones that do well this year,” Jaeger said.

And, according to Garcia, they’ll perform well into the future. He said the better sellers, in recent years, have been touring rafts up to 14-feet and standup paddle boards, or SUPs.

“It’s a completely new customer to me. It’s usually mom, pop, grandpa, even grandma,” he said. People just aren’t whitewater kayaking as much and, Garcia said, the low river levels only affect the last holdouts who are looking to run class IV and V rapids.

One of Bozeman’s more popular play areas is Springdale, on the Yellowstone. In a good year, it’s runnable for six weeks. It wasn’t in at all this time around, but Garcia said he wasn’t worried about it because he wouldn’t have sold new boats to people running it anyway.

Last year, he said, the Yellowstone peaked at 200 percent of its average cubic feet per second.

“There was a better whitewater fervor, like a good powder season,” he said, but like a powder season, “it’s the same guys skiing the same line.”

You can’t exist as a whitewater specialty store, Garcia said: “ Other than just in a few major markets in the country.”

Like the market the Strongwater Paddlesports shop serves, just three hours west of Bozeman in Missoula. It’s run by one guy, Kevin Brown, who’s in-store inventory sometimes drops as low as 10 or fewer boats. But, his storefront is just a few blocks away from a manmade play wave, just under downtown Missoula’s Higgins Street Bridge.

“It always has enough water on it,” Brown said. “You can paddle it 365 days a year,” — even in low snow years like this past one. Brown’s store popped up just a little after the wave was built seven years ago and now, he said, “everybody in Missoula knows about whitewater kayaking.”

It’s also helped that despite the low snow year in most of the Rockies, the Western Montana/Eastern Idaho mountains received 100 percent snow pack this year, he said, giving the area a more normal run off.

But outside of Missoula’s unique whitewater market, river levels mean next to nothing when compared to a steady decline in whitewater sales. While older customers will always buy leisure crafts for fishing and rafting, “the youth market is down,” said Garcia.

Why? “X-Box,” he said.

–J. Max Potter