Last year, Waynesboro native Jeff Nicholson was hanging around town when he saw a few hikers with a sign at the intersection of Rosser Avenue and Main Street. It read, “We will buy your boat.”
The individuals wanted to purchase a canoe or kayak to ride the South River all the way to Harper’s Ferry, W.Va., all part of the Appalachian Trail’s approximately 2,200-mile path from Georgia to Maine.
Nicholson, at that moment, had the idea for a business.
“I said, ‘OK. You can borrow my boat. Go ahead and give it a try, and let me know how it works.’ After that, I really realized there was an opportunity to help them out and make money,” he said.
Then, after searching for more canoes and kayaks, he started his own company to serve the numerous hikers who swing through Waynesboro each year. As the owner of Aquablaze Solutions, Nicholson sells his canoes and kayaks to hikers. The boats allow them to travel the 168 miles to our neighboring state. Waynesboro is the only part of the trail where you can travel on the river.
“They get the boat, [life jackets], paddles, coolers for their beer,” Nicholson said. “They love that.”
The fee is $520, and Nicholson offers to buy it all back for $320. A contractor goes to pick the gear up, sometimes three to four times a week. The hikers venture from around April to August.
“The average trip is 10 days,” Nicholson said of the river portion of the path. “It’s the South River to start. It flows into the south fork of the Shenandoah River... They are almost half way through the trail when they get here. When they get here, they are tired, their knees hurt, they are tired of being in trees all day long. They want a change of pace. A lot of people drop out inVirginia. It’s the big, long, middle stretch. People fold. If they can shake it up a little bit, it seems to really help them.”
Nolan McDermott, a native of Dallas, used Aquablaze in July.
“We chose to do the Aquablaze primarily because how hot we were,” he said. “The heat we experienced was unbearable. It gave us an amazing alternative where we can still travel and not have to hike and experience 100-degree weather and walking, [we could cool off] in the river. I think it is one of the highlights of our trip. It was a morale booster ... We had just lost a member of our group; he just quit. We were kind of down. It was like starting over.”
Now in the offseason where few hike due to the chilly temperatures, Nicholson spends time looking to buy additional boats, while also repairing some that have been damaged. He also considers marketing plans, but a simple method for attracting customers has worked well so far.
“It’s really easy,” he said. “My target audience is marching towards me single file. Sometimes, I’ll just take a stack of my business cards and take a trail run south. I encounter hikers and just hand them cards and just keeping heading south. Also, there is a, like, a ‘hiker Woodstock’ in the late spring in Damascus, Va., just north of Tennessee. I go down there and just wear a T-shirt that has some paddles and a canoe on it that says, ‘Ask me how to Aquablaze.’ I just wander around, going campfire to campfire. They are drinking moonshine and ask me, ‘Tell me how to Aquablaze.’ I sell a lot of boats that way.”
Nicholson has had roughly 30 purchases this year. In 2013, he expects that number to double. He is now listed in two guide books for the trail.
Preparing for year two, Nicholson has had to quickly learn about the business world.
“I’ve learned that preparation is the key, having stock ready to go, and understanding the expectations of the customer,” he said. “Understanding when they are going to need boats, having them ready, having more than what I need. I really got burned out in June. A boat would get back at nine at night, gashed full of holes because there are a ton of rocks in this river. I’d be out [repairing] the boat until three in the morning ... Turning the boat around and putting it back in the river with a new crew at seven in the morning, that was really tough.”