Whitewater Trading Post: Why river folk love dipping a blade into Sawyer Station and boat shop brick and mortars across the west

By: KM Collins

What is it about the timeless and undeniable magnetic draw of the Whitewater Trading Post (or boating shop brick and mortar) which remains relevant in a digital purchasing era? Why do boaters crave a tangible place to pop in and talk shop, get fishing intel, rub elbows with other boater folk, exchange news from the world of whitewater and acquire boating goods they need for life on the river? Hear what Sawyer Paddles and Oars, Northwest River Supplies, Immersion Research and AIRE have to say below.

Like many river shops across the nation, Sawyer Station in Gold Hill, Oregon, delivers boatloads of whitewater goods and services as well as whitewater community and culture. This vibe even translates on Sawyer’s digital media outlets, as demonstrated by a recent post from Jason Pientka. He shares his joy in seeing a rare Pesh Fest fishing trophy from Wisconsin on the shelves at Sawyer Station.

Despite the modern convenience of Amazon and the advent of home delivery, customers still flock in droves to outdoor outposts like Sawyer Station. Their motivation? Accessing the latest and greatest gear, demos and insider info on equipment, news of river happenings and connecting with other boaters. Like hot office gossip gathered at the water cooler, people want to know what’s happening on the frontlines of their hobby, sport and favorite recreation activity. Thus, even in a world of digital comforts, the allure of the whitewater trading post still reigns supreme.

Filler ‘er up mister

Some may ask, why is the whitewater brick and mortar worthy of the title “trading post.” In retort, picture the outposts of yore, tumbleweeds, desert terrain, the whole nine yards. Imagine a lonely cowpoke weary from days of travel, happening upon the only outpost they’ve seen for days.

They saddle up to the saloon of the one-horse town and get their refreshment of choice. Feeling the relief of having a chat with the barkeeper and skimming the local press, they head to the mercantile to re-up dwindling supplies and perhaps upgrade their pistol, bedroll or saddle bags. In many ways, whitewater brick and mortars embody this aesthetic.

A trading post is defined as a store or small settlement established for trading, typically in a remote place. Although today we may not feel like we live in remote places, access to outpost brick and mortar boat shops is rare – rare enough to be considered a trading post. If you don’t believe this, look at a map of the west and plot out the full-service whitewater shops. Then plot locations that aren’t full service – any whitewater brand that has a brick and mortar at all. You will find these base camps few and far between.

For this reason, the novelty and necessity of stopping in when on the road to a put-in or headed home from a takeout is somewhat irresistible. At Sawyer Station, if a visitor isn’t ready to invest in oars, they certainly want to pick up a boater map of the Rogue River or a hoodie donning the legendary Smoker Oars logo.

Flagship brass tacks

For Sawyer Paddles and Oars, who opened their Oregon based retail flagship location, Sawyer Station, in 2014, having a brick and mortar is key to connecting customers to their 55 year old brand. For purchases and community building.

Customers at Sawyer Station get a chance to gather and discuss gear.

Located at a busy intersection in Gold Hill, Oregon, just a stone’s throw from excellent class 4-day trip whitewater and an hour from the put-in for the multi-day Wild and Scenic Rogue River, Sawyer Station is a boating mecca for rafters and river anglers alike. Housing a retail space and showroom as well as a gas station and meet-up point for a rafting outfitter, Sawyer Station sees lots of foot traffic.

“We have been strengthening the Sawyer brand by finding the ideal mix of complimenting brands to sell at the station, side by side. This is always a moving target that has been drastically shaped by supply challenges in the last couple of years,” notes owner, Zac Kauffman, referencing the masked bandit and worldwide game changer, COVID. “Our weekly paddle, aka Wednesday on the Water, has given us an outlet to engage with the public on the local recreation stretch of the Rogue River. We are hoping to expand demos of a wider offering in the post-pandemic era.”

Kauffman feels, “Sawyer Station is a unique store because it’s the only public access to Sawyer. In the summertime, it is definitely a meeting place for rafters, kayakers and stand-up paddleboarders. Setting up various raft packages is complex, and that tends to bring people in to touch and feel the different product options. In general, avoiding the shipping element is a huge draw for folks to visit the local shop for pickup and purchase. This focus tends to shift as the fall fishing season arrives, so the station staff makes that adjustment. The main non-product element most people are looking for when they come in is access information, shuttles and flows.”

Furthermore, Kauffman explains that basic customer service and reviewing product options in-store have not been replaced by online business. “If customers are making a major purchase and have a local shop that carries what they want, customers are much better off buying from a store that can create an estimate with options before making a final decision. Buying online versus visiting a local shop should really only be a solid option for customers who don’t have a local shop nearby or if they are just adding new components. For major purchases, local whitewater shops have the advantage over online for the ability to provide options, debate additional intel that the customer has researched and the extremely valuable opportunity to touch and feel different setups/configurations before a final purchase is made.”

World headquarters, one-stop-shop

Northwest River Supplies (NRS), in operation for over 50 years, has one stand-alone brick and mortar retail space, which reopened in a new location in November of 2019 and serves as the World Headquarters of NRS in Moscow, Idaho. The retail space connects to conference spaces that local non-profit and conservation focused partnerships utilize. NRS sponsors local events, festivals and streamside cleanups, which are hosted from their retail space and the community at large.

The NRS flagship retail location is a gem of a retail space with large windows, massive adventure graphics, a well merchandised presentation and tons of knowledgeable staff on queue to chat or answer questions. The retail space is also located on a popular bike and foot path, making it easy to stop in to say hello, share a cup of coffee or talk river flows with team members. The flagship retail space sees visitors from around the world as Idaho is a world-class river destination.

Cass Meissner, NRS visual merchandising manager shares, “Many whitewater related products are fit specifically to you and your needs, such as a Personal Flotation Device, or life jacket.

Learning how to properly fit, adjust and understand what type of paddling or floating the customer is doing in person provides the best possible customer service and product recommendations. Coming out of our Covid era, paddlers are craving that personal connection too. It’s the stories, experiences, and sharing that keeps us a community, and that in-person experience is so valuable.”

“The NRS flagship store is a stop for many paddlers and outfitters heading to their homes or to rivers across the Northwest,” notes Meissner. “Customers we have had for years now have their own children and grandchildren and are bringing those generations up on rivers. Information on conditions, fishing, fires, access, human impact and conservation efforts are all exchanged and shared during our time with our customers. Our flagship store isn’t just a transaction. We are friends with our customers. We celebrate successes and grieve our losses together. We take selfies with dogs, fill up the coffee cups and settle in for a chit-chat.”

East coast vs. West Coast, New School vs. Old School

Immersion Research (IR), a primarily whitewater kayaking brand, has two brick and mortar locations, one in Pennsylvania and one in Oregon. “The brand history behind our IR old school location and our new experience store in Hood River, Oregon, certainly have a unique culture to each of them that draws folks in,” said IR Marketing Manager, Grant Braun. “Our new store in Hood River has an entirely in-house production and repair facility built right into our retail space. The fact that we can create and develop products while offering repairs to outdoor garments for consumers does create an inviting space that personally bridges the gap between consumer and brand.”

IR hosts in-store events geared toward community engagement and are industry related. For example, they hosted a watch party where they live streamed the Green Race in North Carolina and provided coffee and pastries. Boaters could remotely enjoy the event in the morning and still go for a paddle afterward.

In their IR old school location, a river levels board is posted and updated with information on local kayak runs. “Back East in that area, a lot of creeks rely on a visual gauge or someone actually driving past a takeout to see if something is running. Our shop board might not have the same reach as social media, but it allows us to be engaged collectively. I wouldn’t be surprised if a few employees are driving past Meadow Creek on their daily commute to work to see if it’s running,” explains Braun.

“Brick and Mortar stores, whether it’s a brand store or a privately owned retailer, certainly provide an added level of service and experience that is missed digitally. If a brand or private retail store owner is operating an outdoor store, chances are there is a great deal of passion behind that leading to a positive in-store experience. If a store is well stocked with a variety of products, not only do you have the opportunity to forge a personal relationship with a knowledgeable staff member, but you get to touch, hold, try on and experience the real product in person. This type of experience can be extremely satisfying for the customer and simply can’t be replicated when shopping online,” reflects Braun.

Brick and Mortar Boat Shop

Factory direct specialization

Although Argonaut Inflatable Research & Engineering (AIRE) is mainly a B2B company that focuses on supporting their dealers more so than their own brick and mortar, they do have The AIRE Factory Store, which offers customers the advantage of an in-person shopping experience.

AIRE Art & Marketing Director, Alex Aldecoa said, “This can be a huge benefit to the customer because it gives them the opportunity to get questions answered, specifically to help find them the perfect raft, kayak or cataraft that fits their needs and skill levels. We can even help them build the perfect river package/set-up. Another draw into our store is the manufacturing factory. If requested, we do give tours so customers can see how the boats are made. Lastly, once a year (postponed since COVID), we do the AIRE Faire. AIRE Faire historically was an in-person sale of some of our Demo fleet as well as some special deals on newer items. We also coordinate with local river stewards to host their meetings, help with fundraising, and community support.”

Like Kauffman, Aldecoa feels, “photos [of product] online are great if a boater knows exactly what they are looking for, but when weighing options and searching for the best fit, there is no substitute to actually seeing a product in person.”

Give the boaters what they want

For guide and ACA swift water instructor, Nicole Smedegaard ( Nature Nicole Whitewater, LLC), she appreciates Sawyer Station, and whitewater trading posts like them for the opportunity to grab-and-go whitewater staples on her way to the put-in. “Sometimes when you’re rigging for a permitted trip, you find some odd or end in your set-up is broken or missing, and you don’t have enough time to order it online. I am grateful to brick and mortar whitewater shops who provide last-minute access to these miscellaneous items.”

We, as customers and boating community members at large, get a little more than just gear when we go into whitewater shops. Brick and mortars or whitewater trading posts are a chance to bring new boaters into the fold through tactile retail floor experiences. Brick and mortar events are a chance to hob knob with low-key whitewater celebrities, ambassadors and young guns setting the latest trends and standards. Brick and mortars entice us with the opportunity for a chance encounter with a new, future boating buddy or longtime boating acquaintances we haven’t seen in ages. Whether it’s sneaking in a humble brag or a subtle inside joke with retail staff or passer-by boaters, at whitewater trading outposts, we all speak the same language, share the same affinity for the water and are passionate about obtaining the same specialized tools and gear for our river endeavors.

While digital online orders can be a good way to get gear in some circumstances, like watching whitewater on a screen versus actually paddling, there’s no substitute for the real thing. You’re supporting the whitewater industry and boating culture as a whole by shopping at brick and mortars. See you at Sawyer Station soon!