Business booms for rural adventure outfitters

FUN FOR ALL: Hannah Dickson rides her mountain bike in the North Mills River in October. Biking is one of the few sports people of all ages can participate in together, says her dad, Wes Dickson, owner of Sycamore Cycles. Photo courtesy of Wes Dickson

On a clear Friday in late November, a shopper stopped by Sycamore Cycles’ Pisgah Forest store. After chatting with owner Wes Dickson, the customer hopped on his mountain bike, crossed the street and pedaled off into the forest for a morning ride.

A few minutes later, the customer came back — with a blown-out bike tire. Dickson hooked him up with one of the store’s bike technicians, who promptly replaced the damaged wheel. Happy, the biker headed back out to finish his ride. 

That kind of thing happens all the time, Dickson says, and it’s one of the many perks of the shop’s location feet from some of the region’s best mountain bike trails. 

As urban dwellers flock to rural counties to get their fix of socially distanced outdoor recreation, local adventure shops are seeing a boom, and those located near trails, rivers and campsites have an added advantage: Close to the action means tailored advice and last-minute purchases.

“It’s kind of funny,” Dickson says. “We’ve never been this busy before. We’re just trying to keep our heads above the water.” 

Displaced demand

Wayne Cosby is used to meeting out-of-town visitors. As the owner of Bluff Mountain Outfitters in Hot Springs, he greets thru-hikers trying to complete the 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail in a single season, weekenders getting their fix of fresh mountain air and day hikers checking out some local views.

But this year, Cosby reports, many of those hikers are also fleeing from coronavirus hotspots. Since the store reopened in May following an eight-week closure due to COVID-19 restrictions, he’s had visitors from New York, New Jersey and Florida. “People will come into our store and say how great it is that they don’t have to feel so scared here. Meanwhile, we’re all terrified,” he says.

“A lot of people that would normally travel to the Caribbean or Italy or Mexico or Canada, this year they couldn’t,” Cosby continues. “Instead, they chose to keep travel local and come to Western North Carolina. When things open back up again, I bet everyone will fly off to Disney or Paris and all the places they wanted to go this year. And I bet there will be lots of used bicycles and backpacking equipment for sale.”

A similar tourism wave is washing over Southern Drifters in Burnsville. Business at the store, which specializes in outdoor apparel and guided fishing trips, has been better than usual, says owner Kyle Burnette. Small fishing expeditions were popular over the summer, and recently, he’s had out-of-town customers unfamiliar with North Carolina’s wildly fluctuating weather stop by for a warm layer before a hike to Mount Mitchell or Roan Mountain. 

“I’m hearing that people want to be away from the big cities during this time,” Burnette says. “Being in a rural area feels a bit safer, I guess.” 

Blown out of the water

Prior to the pandemic, there was a general consensus among the fly-fishing community: The 1992 release of Robert Redford’s fishing film A River Runs Through It was the biggest entry point the sport had ever experienced. 

GONE FISHIN’: COVID-19 restrictions on indoor activities has increased interest in fishing. A family poses with their catch after a guided trip on the river with Southern Drifters Outfitters. Photo courtesy of Kyle Burnette

COVID-19 knocked the Oscar-winning movie out of the water, says Matt Canter, one of the owners of Brookings Anglers, a fly-fishing store with locations in Cashiers and Highlands. Since the pandemic began, he estimates interest in the sport has increased tenfold. 

As for other outdoor retailers, the exploding interest in fishing means business is booming at Canter’s stores. He carries every major brand of fly-fishing equipment, tackle and outdoor clothing, along with local photography, wood-turned bowls and lifestyle brands — anything the average outdoorsman could want, he says with a laugh. 

Location has helped, too. Cashiers and Highlands are popular communities for vacation homes. When coronavirus cases started rising in the spring, Canter says, out-of-town residents retreated to their summer houses to ride out the pandemic and explore new outdoor hobbies. Many haven’t left since, while others who returned home earlier in the year are coming back to WNC as a new COVID-19 surge grows throughout the country.

An hour away in Rosman, the team at Headwaters Outfitters has also noticed more people participating in water sports. Named for the headwaters of the French Broad River, which starts in the shop’s front yard, the family-owned business specializes in “all things river,” says store manager Jessica Whitmire. Paddling gear, tubing equipment and fly-fishing lures have all been flying off the shelves, she notes.

Food trucks and an on-site taproom with local beer give visitors the chance to relax and enjoy the area following a trip on the river. “Adults have a cold brew; kids splash around in the water. It encompasses the whole atmosphere of our shop,” Whitmire says.

But not all has been relaxing: Whitmire says public river access points have been packed in recent months. To avoid the influx of people, Headwaters shifted its guided river tubing and fly fishing routes to private sections of river in late spring to avoid overcrowding. 

Rock and roll

Back at Sycamore Cycles, staff are scrambling to find inventory to meet increased customer interest. A national bike shortage, prompted in part by a scramble for pandemic-safe alternatives to public transportation, means new bikes and parts are hard to come by. 

“It’s definitely hard to tell a kid that their bike isn’t going to be in for three more months, but luckily, we’re just dealing with bicycles, not something that’s critical to life,” Dickson says. “At the end of the day, we’re dealing with something that should make you smile, so it could be a whole lot worse in the grand scheme of the world right now.” 

But temperatures are dropping, and winter weather may diminish interest in outdoor sports. Dickson doesn’t know what that will mean for his business — if he did, he’d be making millions on cable news, he jokes — but he hopes newfound passion for the sport doesn’t fade. 

“I have no clue what’s going to happen,” he says. “We’re trying to do the best that we can, accommodate the people that want to be outside and be healthy and make sure that they’re still able to do what they love to do.”

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About Molly Horak
Molly is a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and writer for Mountain Xpress. Her work has appeared in the Citizen-Times, News and Observer and Charlotte Observer. Follow me @molly_horak

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