John Ruskey of Clarksdale, Miss., who has run a successful guide and outfitting business on the Lower Mississippi for the last 13 years, talked about starting a business to some three dozen people at the LSU AgCenter’s Scott Research and Extension Center here last week.
The clinic, along with a two-day workshop in Vidalia June 9 and 10, is funded by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation which is aimed at making northeast Louisiana an ecotourism destination.
Ruskey, whose Quapaw Canoe Company, has thrived throughout the latest recession, said there are four simple (but not necessarily easy) steps to creating a river guide or outfitting business:
1) Identify your paddle trail or trails.
2) Identify your clientele.
3) Obtain your equipment.
4) Hire your guides.
Ruskey’s territory is the Lower Mississippi from Cairo, Ill., to the Gulf of Mexico. His clientele is anyone who wants to see the river up-close and personal, from honeymooning couples to Boy Scout troops, from day trips to month-long expeditions. He recently opened another headquarters across the river in Helena, Ark. But he started out small, and he says you can, too.
“Basically you get one canoe, two paddles, two life jackets and a way to haul it and you’re in business,” Ruskey told the group. “I started out with one canoe, taking one client at a time.”
For an investment of about $5,000 you could start with two boats and a trailer to carry them around on, Ruskey said.
Of course you need liability insurance, and for that Ruskey points to the Worldwide Outfitter and Guides Association (WOGA) as a source.
The nation’s rivers and bayous are largely an untapped resource for recreation, Ruskey says.
“As soon as you go over the banks of any river, you enter a place where few people go,” he said.
Even the mighty Mississippi, with all its commercial traffic, can feel like wilderness to paddlers with the ability to go shallow and even portage when needed.
Increasingly people are seeking this kind of experience with nature, but you can pump up the demand by creating special themes for your trips. He has put on, for example, full-moon trips, painting trips, yoga trips, birding trips, and he’s thinking about adding star-gazing trips to the list.
He advocates seeking partnerships with organizations like the Boy Scouts and the National Audubon Society whose goals are in sync with your business plan, which is to take people safely and pleasantly onto the river or bayou.
The hardest part might be to recruit the right kind of people to serve as guides.
“This is your main public interface,” Ruskey said.
Guides need to be well trained, conversant with accepted paddling, rescue and first-aid techniques. For overnight excursions they need to be first-rate campers and camp cooks.
When business is slow, Ruskey recommends getting out on your own expedition.
“After all, this is what you get into the business for,” he said.
Ruskey has been paddling the Mississippi since 1982 when he and a chum, inspired by Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn,” set out on a homemade raft to float the entire length of the river. It took five months and set him on a lifelong adventure.
You can learn more about Ruskey and his company at www.island 63.com.