Rocking the boat

“This area has become the training ground for extreme kayakers,” Woody Callaway told me recently when we sat down to discuss the kayak-manufacturing business. “People come to Asheville for the winter to train for their big summer trips to California, Idaho, British Columbia, wherever. This is this hot spot to live if you’re serious about kayaking.”

Plastic fantastic: Jill Moore of Liquidlogic Kayaks shows off some of the company’s wares at its Flat Rock headquarters. photo by Jonathan Welch

We were talking about why Callaway—a founder, brand manager and part owner of Liquidlogic Kayaks—lives and works where he does. The reason is simple: the Green River, which flows from the dam on Summit Lake in Tuxedo, N.C., toward South Carolina. The Green’s reliable flow schedule and world-class, technical rapids make it an ideal testing ground for boat designs.

Callaway and boat designer Shane Benedict started Liquidlogic in 2001. At the time, the two men were working for Perception Kayaks, which was about to merge with Dagger Kayaks. Both were apprehensive about the change. “Neither of us liked the way the product was going,” Callaway explained. “We felt the industry needed some competition.” They found some investors who were also kayakers and who weren’t looking for a quick payback—ideal financial backers for an upstart boat company.

Liquidlogic’s first design was called the Session Plus. It was a low-volume “playboat,” a class popular with paddlers trying to do freestyle tricks or paddle moderately challenging rivers. It was designed in an empty house in Saluda known as “The Lair.” (The company has since moved to Flat Rock, with a separate research-and-design shop five miles away.)

With the success of that first boat in hand, Liquidlogic made a name for itself at the forefront of the creek-boating revolution. Creek-boating, or “creeking,” is the most extreme form of whitewater kayaking, in which paddlers navigate technical rapids with dangerous features like hydraulics, rock sieves and waterfalls. Such rapids are best paddled in a larger boat known as a “creek boat,” with a typical volume of around 70 gallons. (A kayak’s volume determines its buoyancy; a boat with a volume of 65 gallons or less is considered low-volume.)

Callaway credits the Asheville-based filmmaking company Penstock Productions, the producers of Lunch Video Magazine, with the shift away from freestyle to creek-boating. “LVM made creeking cool, and Liquidlogic knew that this was going on,” he explained.

During the company’s first summer, its designers were on the Green River constantly, testing prototypes for its first two creek boats, the Huck and the Gus. “The Green was running the lowest I’d ever seen it,” recalled Callaway. “The Huck was based on the low-water Green, for steep, manky, technical rapids. It called for a short boat with a lot of rocker.” (Rocker is the curve of the boat’s hull from bow to stern.) At the same time, they were developing the Gus, a longer, faster boat intended for bigger-volume rivers in the Western states. “Then suddenly, because the Gus was a faster boat, it became the cool boat to paddle on the Green,” Callaway said. “We learned a lot from that—a creek boat needs to take care of people, no matter where they’re paddling it.”

Liquidlogic’s current creek-boat model, the Jefe, was the first to be tested by people outside of the company. It went west with Penstock’s crew during the Seven Rivers expedition, an attempt to paddle all of the High Sierra’s multi-day river runs.

“The Jefe prototype got taken on some of the hardest, best-quality whitewater in the world,” Callaway said. “As soon as the boys got off a river, they would give us their feedback, what they liked and what they didn’t.”

Callaway praises the remarkable ability of Liquidlogic designers Benedict and Johnny Kern to take such input, truly hear what people are trying to tell them, and then incorporate it into their designs. “They can mold feedback into a really good design,” he said, crediting local kayakers like the late Daniel DeLaVergne, Tommy Hilleke, Nate Elliot, and John Grace with giving some of the most valuable feedback. “These guys are my friends, my paddling buddies. Daniel was the best, because he was always brutally honest about what he thought.”

When asked if there were any new designs in the works, Callaway smiled mischievously. “We’re always working on stuff. There’s always action at the R&D shop. The hardest thing about designing boats around here is keeping it quiet.”

Liquidlogic is the only kayak company in Western North Carolina, but plenty of folks who work for other companies live in the area and paddle the same rivers as the Liquidlogic team. “There’s always talk about who’s working on what, who’s trying to hide something.”

If the boat designs themselves are shrouded in secrecy, the company’s future looks bright: Liquidlogic is merging with Callaway’s friend Andy Zimmerman’s company, Legacy Paddlesports. Legacy will be an “umbrella” for three brands—Liquidlogic, Heritage Kayaks, and Native Kayaks—and will be based at an existing manufacturing plant in Greensboro. It’s the former production facility for Wave Sport and Wilderness Systems, two kayak companies that have since moved to Easley, S.C.

Callaway is adamant about one fact. “We’re not ‘going corporate,’” he said. “This is business. Anyone who runs a business knows the types of choices you have to make.”

With the merger, Liquidlogic is now in a more comfortable place to explore new ideas. For example, any company can produce only a limited number of models, because each one in production requires a mold that costs around $35,000. A small company can afford to make only a few molds, whereas larger companies that can afford the greater up-front expense have the option of, say, producing the same boat model in different sizes—small, medium, large.

If working for a kayak company isn’t exactly a dream job, it’s at least pretty close. A typical day, according to Callaway, begins with a call to the Tuxedo Hydro Station, to see whether they’ll be releasing water into the Green. “If a run is possible, we’ll figure out when to get it in. We can’t paddle every day, but we would if we could.” Because the office is within 10 minutes of the put-in, it’s not a stretch to get on it at every opportunity.

Liquidlogic’s business model is based on simple values, Callaway insisted. “We’re just kayakers and happen to try to make a living doing what we love to do,” he said.

[Molly Malone lives in Asheville.]


To learn more about the company and its products, visit www.liquidlogickayaks.com.

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