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Hidden Gems: Meet Kelsey Curtis of Knee Deep Adventures

Today we’d like to introduce you to Kelsey Curtis.

Hi Kelsey, so excited to have you on the platform. So before we get into questions about your work-life, maybe you can bring our readers up to speed on your story and how you got to where you are today?
I started my business in May 2015. After graduating college at ECU (2011) with a degree in Kinesiology, I began working at a local hospital in cardiac and pulmonary rehabilitation. After four years, I decided I needed a new career. Watching my older colleagues count down the days to retirement helped me realize that was not the way I wanted to live life. I was working hard five days a week just to be able to enjoy the two day weekend. So I started thinking about other skills and knowledge I had that I could turn into a career. It hit me all at once… I’ve been taking groups of friends kayaking in Greenville for years. Up to 7 at a time. We almost never saw any other paddlers out on the water. Why? That was the question I had to solve. Unless you had money and could afford a kayak or boat, there was no way to enjoy the river. So it began. I wanted to make it easy and affordable for anyone to get out on the river to explore and enjoy nature. No one had ever tried a business like this in Greenville but I was willing to take a chance. I started taking business classes at night at my local community college. They were free and were held after my working hours. I had absolutely no knowledge in how to run a small business but I was determined to learn. It was overwhelming at first but I had great instructors, business counselors, supportive friends, and family who helped keep me moving in the right direction. After a few months, I had everything I needed to get started so I put in my two weeks notice and began focusing on opening the doors to my new storefront and advertising my services. My coworkers and bosses thought I was crazy and even called me once a week for the first few weeks “Ready to come back to work yet?” Joke was on them. I never even considered returning.

I had to operate my rental business unlike any others in the state. There weren’t any buildings or land available for me to operate on the river so I had to operate out of a storefront and deliver rentals by request. Local and state laws were set so that I could not do any kind of monetary transactions by the river or advertise. I was able to work around these challenges and continue to grow.

Over the first four years, I had two different store locations (in Greenville) where I stored my rental gear and sold outdoor and paddlesport gear. After the local influx of “big box” sporting goods stores (Dick’s, Dunham’s, Academy) in Greenville, I decided to close my retail store and focus on services and events. Many people told me the brick and mortar store was essential but luckily, I proved them wrong. My customer base continued to grow, I was launching more kayaks and SUPs than ever and I was able to perform more guided tours and events such as SUP Yoga.

I am currently still operating like this. I enjoy having a warehouse a couple of miles from the river where I can store my equipment, perform repairs, manage reservations and even bring my dogs to work. My focus isn’t selling equipment but experiences. Something more important than tangible goods – and something no other outdoor store in Greenville offers. I’ve increased my rental fleet where I have more kayaks and SUPs than ever plus I’ve been able to add a second kayak trailer and work truck. Even during 2020, I saw an increase in the number of customers that Knee Deep has been able to help get on the water. I feel fortunate my hard work is paying off – even though my paychecks aren’t as stable as my previous career, I’m much happier with where I am and what I’m doing.

I’m sure you wouldn’t say it’s been obstacle free, but so far would you say the journey have been a fairly smooth road?
It has not been a smooth road. I’ve had many unexpected challenges.

– Working in the outdoor industry as a young woman has not been easy. Men did not take me seriously until I proved my knowledge of the outdoor world. I basically had to educate them that I was educated. Only then did I start to earn their respect. This is something all women in the outdoor world still struggle with. I’ve been sexually harassed by customers, talked down to, and even bullied. Some men think my male employees were the actual owners or that I’m married to one of them and I’m just around to help out. It’s been frustrating at times.

– The Tar River has been underutilized for many years and has had a bad reputation since the water here appears brown. This combination has led to the belief that the river water is dirty and polluted. Education and promotion of watersport activities have helped tremendously. Unlike the clear rivers in the mountains, our section of the Tar river has low-lying shorelines consisting of thick vegetation, swamplands, and a muddy bottom. There is little sand or rocks to catch sediment traveling downstream and the natural process of decaying vegetation releases tannins – the same organic substance that turns tea water brown.

– While some areas of my local government have been supportive, others have not. This has caused added stress and red tape. One example: After three years of operating, I received an official letter telling me I had to “cease and desist” using the park boat ramp – one of only two river access points in Greenville. I was given multiple reasons that never really seemed to add up to me. All I was doing was dropping off and picking up equipment at the boat launch. Something everyone was allowed to do. Long story short, I contacted friends, business consultants, and the media to ask them to help me figure out how we can get them to reverse the decision. Ultimately, my supporters contacted City council and the Mayor and convinced them to withdraw the order.

Appreciate you sharing that. What should we know about Knee Deep Adventures?
This small business began in 2015 as a Greenville’s first true kayak/SUP rental and river guide service. Knee Deep is a local woman (and ECU Alumni) owned business based in Pitt County, North Carolina. We strive to stay on top of the industry standards and excel in everything we do. We specialize in kayak and standup paddleboard(SUP) rentals, tours, and lessons. We offer the highest quality paddlesports rental equipment you can find and our trained staff will assure you have the best experience possible. This business is 100% mobile and will meet you right at the water with everything you need.

The mission: To help make paddling the river affordable, safe, and fun for all of the public to access and explore.

Knee Deep frequently participates in local conservation efforts such as river cleanups and loves to provide education and instruction on the local waterways. The business also works to promote local tourism and enjoys partnering with other small businesses in the area. We’ve been recognized for these efforts over the years and won the local “River Friendly Business” award from Sound River’s non-profit and Tourism Partner Award from the Pitt County Visitors and Convention Bureau. (more info about this on the website.)

We provide rentals and tours on this 20+ mile section of the Tar River and travel to surrounding areas for some of our guided tours. Frequently visited places include: Cashie River in Windsor; Tar River in Tarboro, Falkland, and Greenville; Tranter’s Creek and Pamlico River in Washington plus other areas by request.

– We can accommodate large groups and help plan outings.

– Our unique special events include: Coffee+Paddle, Dog Paddle, Night Paddle, and SUP Yoga!

Expect nothing less than clean, high-quality rental equipment and trained, educated staff and river guides to assist you.

Knee Deep is here to help you have an adventure! We’re more than your average kayak rental company.

We’re here if you need a repair, kayak or SUP lesson, maps, guided tours, overnight rentals, events, group outings – plus, we offer free information on river conditions and paddle trails.

Are there any books, apps, podcasts or blogs that help you do your best?
I don’t spend much time on those things. I’m outside most of the time! I do recommend “Paddling Eastern North Carolina” by Paul Ferguson to anyone who likes to explore our local waterways.

Pricing:

  • Half day-Full day Kayak/SUP Rentals are $35-$65
  • Private Kayak and SUP lessons $40 each
  • Guided Tours are based on location and duration. (Averaging $40/person)
  • Kayak Repairs start at $20/hr.

Contact Info:

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1 Comment

  1. Linda Joyner

    August 5, 2021 at 11:40 pm

    My friend and I took a paddle adventure setup by Knee Deep Adventures. It was a birthday gift for my friend. Kelsey was great supplied dry box, a quick lesson and tandem kayak, paddles and lift jackets. We had a wonderful paddle on the Tar River in Tarboro. We will definitely do it again. Kelsey and Knee Deep Adventures I highly recommend!!

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