Canoe Kentucky began out of necessity more than out of planning. Ed and Bess Councill came to Kentucky in the late 70's from Richmond, Virginia. Ed was employed by a state environmental agency and then by Caveland Sanitation in South Central Kentucky. He was also the leader of a local Boy Scout troop that his son was a member of. In 1980, they were planning their end-of-the-year trip, a canoeing excursion for three days on the Green River. Days before the trip, the outfitter that was being utilized had to back out due to other commitments. In a hurry, Ed scrambled to find another option.
He contacted Osagian Canoes out of Lebanon, Missouri, for help. He requested to purchase six canoes, paddles, pfds and a trailer. He was not able to immediately pay for all of it, so Osagian extended him some time to make it up. The trip went over so well that it became one of the highlights of the boys' scouting career.
When high school began the next month, though, girls got more attention than canoes and the newly-purchased boats lay dormant until one spring afternoon in 1981. A gentleman drove by and offered Ed some money to rent a few of the canoes for the day. This was the spark that was needed and "Elkhorn Excursions" began.
The original business was run out of the Councills' home. Most mornings, waivers were signed over a cup of coffee around Ed's dining room table. "Elkhorn Excursions" also boasted popular dusk-to-dawn trips on the Elkhorn Creek. Ed was still working during the week in South Central Kentucky, so he had to employ some help. Jim Pickett, Ed's friend, helped Ed and Bess keep things going by doing guide work, hauling boats, driving to and from the put in, and keeping the creek clear of debris. Things began to grow and soon more boats and more space were needed.
In the late 80's, boats were purchased from Old Town Canoes, based in Maine. This grew the fleet and helped bring more people out to the creek. In 1990, the Peaks Mill Grocery Store came up for sale. Since it was only three doors from their home, Ed and Bess immediately jumped on it and began remodeling the popular community gathering place into the present Canoe Kentucky shop. A larger place meant more staff, so their son Corey began employment.
This was a large period of growth for the business. At this time, a name change occurred, and we became Canoe Kentucky. It was also when Ed began working the business full time, and no longer as a weekend gig. In order to continue to grow the number of boats rented and yet keep the Elkorn Creek in top shape by not overloading it, Canoe Kentucky began to franchise itself out. Satellite locations were opened on the Green, Barren, and Cumberland Rivers. These were at first run by Canoe Kentucky, then purchased and independently owned and operated by other paddlesports entrepreneurs.
The franchise concept spread, and other locations opened. At one time, Canoe Kentucky had three independently owned franchises on the Green River, the Kentucky River, and one, believe it or not, in Akita Prefacture of Japan! The other avenue of growth at this time was retail. Boat sales began by selling a few used ones here and there, until that was not enough to meet the needs of our customers. Boats were brought in from Dagger Canoes and Kayaks, as well as from Blue Hole Canoes. As things grew again, more staff was needed so it was at this time that Ed and Bess's daughter, Allison, came to work for the company.
The flood of 1997 changed a lot of things. Not only did it change the 100-year flood line, it modified the creek, changed rapids, changed roads, and changed Canoe Kentucky. Rental was too water-level dependent and some other avenues needed to be explored. Retail had grown so much that the present site was not large enough. More space was located at an old woolen mill in the Forks of Elkhorn, right at the put in for the whitewater stretch. This building grew retail from 2,000 sq feet, to 4,200 sq. feet. Rental stayed at the Peaks Mill location.
More space meant more opportunity for retail. A new name was adopted for the retail side of things and The Kentucky Outdoor Center grew to carry over 14 different lines of boats and the gear to go along with them. Whitewater was the specialty, selling over 75 whitewater-specific boats in the first year. The location was perfect, as it was right on the creek and demos were kept around at all times.
Canoe and kayak sales go through surges, just like any material goods. That surge lasted from 1999 - 2002. KOC did well during these years and made many new paddling enthusiasts and many new friends that we still cherish and have today. At this time, though, Ed had put almost 22 years into the business and was looking for a way out. Corey had left in 1997 and Allison began running the show. Ed and Allison hired Nathan, her boyfriend at the time, to run things with her. With Ed on his way out and retail sales lessening, trying to run two separate locations became too much and KOC was officially closed in 2004. Retail was moved back out to Peaks Mill and, again, both rental and retail were done out of one location. A new plan was developed, one that would prove to be a bigger and better success, both in numbers and in customer service. Canoe Kentucky scaled down to carrying 6 lines of boats, 2 lines of paddles, 2 lines of pfds, and multiple other lines of gear. All the companies whose products we carried were chosen because we had personal relationships with all of the owners of the businesses and because they were quality products not found at big box stores. This meant we were better able to sell and stand behind the products.
That brings us to today. Canoe Kentucky's rental fleet has grown from 6 boats to 100+ canoes, 75 kayaks, 20 SUP boards, and 15 rafts. Our retail operation is considered the state's premier paddlesports shop. We are selling around 400 boats per year, a lot of that having to do with our experience and the ability to demo any boat, any day. We have also grown a very good instructional program, having 4 certified instructors on staff, and running over 500 people through our summer and winter programs last year. We are expanding our outreach to include offsite rentals, partnerships with Shaker Village and Life Adventure Center, and week-long summer camps for children.
In 2009, we also opened a second location on the Kentucky River in downtown Frankfort. Currently we're renting Stand-Up Paddleboards by appointment only at this location. Come see the city from the water! We see this being a big growth area for our business, hopefully venturing into a full time facility there, with a retail shop and all.
The future is wide open. We are working on our guided trip offerings now, and see that as a big area for us. We see that the sport is going away from whitewater and more into touring and fishing kayaks. With the lines we carry, we are ahead of this trend. We also foresee getting more involved in adventure travel, hopefully leading trips to other rivers in other states and countries. This story continues...we look forward to having you as a part of it!