Written by Sam Prager
Growing up alongside the river, we’re told of the dangers that await us in its murky waters. How strong the current is, and the casualties its taken, as if the river were some place of dark magic: mesmerizing, but malicious. Joe Royer of Outdoors Inc. wants to show us that even though the river is strong and mighty, we can still enjoy it through training, understanding and respect.
Royer is an advocate for Memphis, both its people and its natural resources. He has spent a four-decade long career promoting Memphis’ fitness and nature. He said his company has survived by believing Memphians can do anything anyone else can.
“My goal, along with making a living and raising a family here, is to contribute to the city. I want to protect our animals, rivers and forests,” Royer says. “We have a high respect for food, music and sports. Respecting nature complements those things.”
Royer is an avid cycler, kayaker and an overall outdoorsman. He believes the river is the city’s greatest resource and that we as Memphians should better utilize it.
“I reluctantly went to the river as a young person, but I wanted to be a kayak racer and this was what we had. I was told the river was an evil and a bad place. I found just the opposite. I found it to be beautiful, but challenging. That’s what you need to get better though,” Royer says. “I was also studying for my master’s degree in engineering at Memphis State at about the same time, and ended up interning for two summers with the Army Corps of Engineers. From them I learned navigation and flood control, the wing dykes. I learned it as an engineer, but I also learned them as a kayak racer. I found the river is not a bad place, or even an average place. It’s really a great place.”
For those who are just now beginning to enjoy the world of kayaking, Royer says we have some excellent places to train and progress before you move on to the Mississippi River.
Royer says Hyde Lake in Shelby Farms is a great place to start, and those who need a little help getting in the water Outdoors Inc. offers beginner and intermediate kayaking lessons for $60.
“Once you build that skill of paddling, you can kayak anywhere. Whether you’re going on a day trip down the Wolf River or vacationing in New England, Florida or California. You’ll have this skill.”
“We want you to tip over so you feel comfortable. So you know it’ll be OK if you fall out. It’s much worse when the first time is a surprise,” Royer says. “Once you build that skill of paddling, you can kayak anywhere. Whether you’re going on a day trip down the Wolf River or vacationing in New England, Florida or California. You’ll have this skill.”
Once you’re comfortable, he says, move on to the Wolf River and its harbor in Harbortown. The harbor consists of 3 miles of slack water, meaning there isn’t the strong current we associate with the Mississippi River.
The Mississippi River might not be this malicious and brooding entity we’ve come to know, but that doesn’t mean it still can’t be dangerous. Royer says you shouldn’t try to tackle the river without experience, and even experienced paddlers need to understand the weather, the water levels and the winds because the river is constantly changing, evolving and moving.
If you go on the river, it’s important to not be brave. Being brave can get you killed. You need to be skilled and have good judgement,” Royer explains.
“It’s not a little lake. It’s the biggest river in America. Understanding the river through its currents, flooding and the weather makes utilizing the river a very rich and constantly changing experience. You still have to be careful; the river can be dangerous. If you go on the river, it’s important to not be brave. Being brave can get you killed. You need to be skilled and have good judgement,” Royer explains. “When something goes wrong on the mountains, it can go desperately wrong very quickly. The same can be said for the river. But with proper training and caution we can enjoy these things. You have to respect the river. On days when it’s windy, when it’s cold, you need to take that into consideration. It’s the same thing if you’re going into the ocean or onto a major mountain.”
However, Royer truly believes that with training and knowledge more Memphians can grow to enjoy the river recreationally as much as they enjoy Overton Park or Shelby Farms.
“We are looking west from Downtown Memphis, so we have this phenomenal sunset that is just gorgeous. It’s a really great asset to have these riverfront parks, and people do take advantage of them. However, we also need to use the river as river users,” Royer says. “If it snows in the Rockies people say, ‘Boy I’m going to take a day off work and go skiing!’ In Memphis we can have that same mentality with the river. When the water drops and the weather is nice we can take advantage of the sandbars, which are as beautiful as any beach I’ve ever been to. We can take advantage of the scenery and the sunsets on the river.”
Royer has traveled around the world, including cycling throughout Europe and kayaking around Manhattan Island. He hopes Memphians can see the river as something to be proud about, much like the surfers of California, the skiers in Colorado or our hiking neighbors in the Smokies.
“In San Francisco they have the beautiful Golden Gate Bridge and it sits above the powerful and treacherous water in the Bay, but California sticks their chest out and tackles it,” Royer says . “They utilize what they were given, and I want Memphians to do the same. The Mississippi River is very prestigious. It’s challenging, but very rewarding.”
Along with using the river more recreationally, he wants Memphians to take better care of what we have. It’s no secret that Memphis isn’t the most environmentally friendly city in the country. However, we identify ourselves as a city with the river, whether we take advantage of it recreationally or not. Therefore, he says, we should be the best caretakers of the river.
“We need to be the best stewards of the river, by being advocates for the river and its health and lead the way in conservation. Stop doing just the bare minimum. We need to be mindful of every paper cup we throw away because they end up in our water,” Royer says. “People know what’s going on, and more than anything else we should look at it like it’s a business. People can go anywhere, get a job anywhere, why not make Memphis the place people want to stay and be? Why not try to make Memphis as pristine as possible? It’s family values: taking care of each other and our home, by not littering and destroying it.”
Outdoors Inc. has long been an advocate for the river. This year marks the 38th Canoe and Kayak Race, a tradition that predates Harbortown in Memphis. The race takes place on June 1, 2019, and is open to everyone. The race brings about 500 paddlers to the river each year, some from around the world.
“Most of us are going to look at the sunset and walk along the river in our parks, but we also need to stick our chest out and be proud. This is what we have, and you have to use what you got. And what we have is awesome,” says Royer. “Part of the culture here is we don’t think of ourselves as an outdoorsy town, but we are very much an outdoorsy town.”
Learn more about Outdoors Inc. Here