Saturday, January 9, 2021

Piper VanOrd Of Allegheny Outfitters In Warren County Reflects On 2020 - Challenges, Opportunities, Inspiration, Beauty

By Piper VanOrd, Owner Of
Allegheny Outfitters

This article originally appeared on the Allegheny Outfitters and the PA Wilds blogs--

I’ve been contemplating sharing this picture since the day I took it over nine months ago. It was taken March 21, 2020.  (First photo)

I, like many of you I’m sure, had been jam-packing my days full of projects at our house, along with the occasional hike and bike ride when I felt a little panic coming on, since closing our small business 10 days earlier due to the global pandemic.

On this day, I’d gone to our shop by myself to pick up a few tools to build some raised garden beds at home – a quick grab and go. 

As I walked through our new shop – and I call it new because we’d worked 13 years to finally get to the location (and efficiency) we’re at – I paused for just a second, looking around at the hand-built displays and painted beams now sitting in the dark. I took one deep breath, and it happened. 

Tears just let themselves loose. I sat myself in the chair, looking out over the “big table” and all the maps we’ve used to help folks from all over the world plan trips both on foot and on the water.

As a small business owner in a rural area we thrive on moving and shaking to help people find what they need to get outside. After 14 years of doing this it is engrained in our DNA. 

We pride ourselves on being able to rattle off the pro’s and con’s of each kayak, backpack, water filter, camp stove, sleeping pad, map – you name it. 

We constantly beat on gear so we can let you know how it’ll perform in different settings. 

We take real pride in getting multiple kayaks down off the wall so you can sit in each, adjust the foot pegs and seat support, then have you sit back in there to try on five different PFD’s to be sure your life vest is not only comfy for you, but that it works with the seat in the boat you’ve chosen. 

We pick the correct paddle size and take it a step further, showing you the proper placement of your hands and technique to be most efficient if needed. If you were to be a fly on the wall, you’d say this is what we do all day, day after day.

But I’ve always seen what we do as being much larger.

It’d been 10 days since our shop closed due to the pandemic when this picture was taken. I missed it. I missed people. I missed all of you. I missed hearing about your upcoming adventures, however big or small. 

I missed the random guy coming in to look for that last piece of gear because he’s flying to California to hike the John Muir Trail after trying to get a permit the last three years, finally securing one. 

I missed the older gal that’s decided to make a life change by walking laps at the local park and is ready for the next step of tackling a forest trail, but needs a recommendation on one close to town with cell reception in case she got into trouble. 

The mom that’s clearly sleep-deprived but has pulled herself up by the bootstraps, looking for advice on a section of the Allegheny that would be most safe to take her three kids and their friends on a paddle trip. 

I missed all of you, listening to your goals and plans to explore a new place, and playing a small part in helping make them happen, even if it was just advice or encouragement.

This was hard. And I grieved.

As I sit now, nine-and-a-half months later, I’ve realized it was exactly what I needed to do that day. 

Allowing myself to sit and sob for a solid 30 minutes was part of the process. To accept the uncertainty and embrace it was the hardest, most useful thing I’ve allowed myself to do in 2020. 

I don’t say this in a way to downplay the uniqueness these past nine months has brought each and every small business owner on this planet, let alone our small town. We all face a different set of uncertain circumstances that are very real, daily.

But that day I realized if there was any business that may have a leg up on being shutdown, it may be us. 

Being weather dependent and water based can be brutal on outfitters. We’ve experienced flooding events that have shut us down for weeks at a time, with tens of thousands of dollars lost overnight from one big storm. 

Once I was able to shift my thinking from uncertainty to something familiar – being shutdown for a weather event – plan B, C, D, E and F started taking shape.

In the days and weeks that followed, we started to find our footing. We reached out to local and regional organizations. 

The Warren County Chamber of Business & Industry kept us posted on changes to safety protocol and the Pennsylvania Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship connected us to other small business owners so we didn’t feel marooned on an island as the small guy sometimes can in rural areas. 

We checked in with our fellow small business owners to see how they were holding up. 

We started leaning on our gear manufacturers, asking questions about sanitizing PFD’s, kayaks and canoes, and figuring out what that process might look like. 

We turned our Creation Station (also known as a detached home office) into the AO War Room, pulling 20-hour days getting the online store up and running, brainstorming while we worked. 

We offered online shopping with curbside pick-up and local delivery. We made ourselves available for live video shopping so people could find what they needed while getting questions answered. 

And the most incredible thing happened…  Our community embraced us.

Every day brought a new set of questions and what if’s, and we did our best to find answers, tweak what we needed to, and most importantly, keep our focus on finding small victories in each day. 

Most days those small victories were all of you. Every phone call, email, social media message, tiny note, and online order for a backpack, kayak, headlamp – whatever it may have been – all had such an impact through the early days of real uncertainty as a small business in rural Pennsylvania. 

The countless folks that checked in. 

The anonymous handwritten letter from someone sending us their stimulus [check] because their income didn’t change and they saw our business as an asset to the community and wanted to help. 

Gestures that bring tears to your eyes.

Reopening came with excitement, and its own set of new challenges.

Hand sanitizer. Signage. Social distancing. Glass at the counter. Masks – and everything that comes with asking folks to please wear them. 

Opening the outfitter portion at the same time created another layer of hard decisions that needed to be made. 

We announced all paddlers would be required to shuttle themselves to and from starting and ending points of their trip. 

We’d still shuttle all our AO boats, but with our small communities' rural population skewing older and many residents in the vulnerable category, we felt a real moral responsibility to be as safe as possible. 

We just could not find a safe option for our staff and community by putting folks from all over the country together in 15-passenger vans every hour.

We’d lost a couple of our core crew, and certainly couldn’t blame them. With the volume of visitors we see historically, we were nervous too. Others stepped up and jumped in to fill gaps and take on new responsibilities. 

Ask me if AO could have operated in the summer of 2020 without the help of 6 high school teenagers and 3 recent high school graduates, and I will tell you absolutely not. 

They worked long days sanitizing every single piece of equipment, day after day. Our veteran weekend warrior van driver came back without second thought.

The trees started getting green and Aaron started driving Orange Peel into work – a huge boost to all of us! 

Reservations started coming in, and we started to realize that we’d seriously underestimated the number of people looking specifically for an outfitter that wouldn’t put them in a van with others. 

We had so many folks from New York City (and eventually Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, DC) inquire about overnight paddle trip reservations that we started a 100 percent contactless system just for them, along with addressing the concern for them to be safe in our community. 

Help plan their trip over the phone, online liability release forms and payment, digital safety speech, and combo to locked equipment at their starting point, along with instructions on where to lock it up at the end.

We found our new groove at the shop, even with large cracks in the supply chain starting to present themselves. 

We had little kinks here and there with the outfitter portion and worked ‘em out by putting all our heads together to find a better, more efficient way each time.

Good days certainly outnumbered the alternative, but not all days were good for everyone, and that was okay. We were all doing the best we could.

It was an incredibly rewarding summer to help folks connect with nature.

We started to refer to this as being river kissed. Families would make reservations to canoe or kayak and sign liability forms online. 

When they arrived we’d do a quick payment and meet on the porch for a safety speech before sending them on their way. 

Wearing a mask in the shop was awkward for many. Some weren’t sure if they were allowed to come in the shop at all. Others unsure about things that have always been simple, like if they’d be allowed to use the restroom before they started their trip. 

With the world around us changing daily, you could feel the weight as folks came through the door.

Hours later they’d start arriving back at AO [Allegheny Outfitters] from the river. It’s hard to explain the transformation… they walked a little lighter and talked a little slower. Some looked downright relieved. 

Others passed along hearty belly laughs telling us stories of their trip. “I reeeeeeally needed that.” was a regular sentiment. 

You could visibly see that stepping away from their daily grind and spending a day outside in fresh air… helped. 

They’d been river kissed.

We soaked up as much of that energy as we could… a truly wonderful way to end our long days.

We tried to keep our sense of humor through the ups and downs.

Laughter is by far the best remedy to feeling uneasy and unsure, and our crew was no stranger to stopping to share a giggle. 

When the mid-August wall hit and the final stretch started to feel stressful, we pulled all our heads together to find a way to push through while having some fun!

River clean-up looked different, but managed to exist.

After serious thought about whether to cancel the 12th Annual River Clean-up, the core crew decided we’d pair it down to two days (from five) and limit the number of participants. 

Certainly not the same, missing most of our incredible volunteers and River Riot after party to say thank you, but it was a couple days spent showing the river some love – a big win this year in our eyes.

And just like that, the 2020 paddling season was in the rearview mirror.

Very few pictures exist of everything in-between. Our lack of guided trips left a giant hole in our hearts. No early morning paddles. No safety courses. No women on the water. 

Not being able to safely shuttle vans full of people, along with mask wearing mandates and the potential for confrontation (which end up being very, very little thankfully) we didn’t feel it was fair or right not to be at the shop if we were open. 

We missed adventuring onto the water with all of you tremendously.

We’ll sum up the 2020 paddling season as the most bizarre, stressful, exhausting and inspiring summer in our 14 years as an outfitter. 

One thing is for absolute sure – it was one of the most beautiful summers I can remember, and we will be forever grateful for that. 

This reflection of 2020 would be a completely different set of words had we seen flooding like the year prior. 

Thank you, thank you, thank you, Mama Nature.

We took just a minute for ourselves in late fall.

With no guided hikes along with paddle trips, and 9 days off in the last 154 days, we recharged our batteries with a couple much needed hikes, paddles and camping trips.

We rallied with our community to save our only waterfront park downtown.

A proposed hotel project threatened to remove our only riverfront park, along with many unanswered questions and concerns as to our ability to operate at AO. Our community responded by contacting Council members and holding a silent rally at Breeze Point. 

Special thank you to former County Commissioner Pat Evans for putting this together so quickly, everyone that wrote letters and emails or attending the rally, and to City Council members that attended to hear our concerns.

Because of all your voices, we were told in the last days of 2020 that the proposed hotel would not be happening. 

We are beyond grateful that our elected officials took time to listen to our concerns and engage in meaningful discussion.

With leaves falling and holidays approaching, we tried to reach out early and often.

A little known secret: I cannot stand feeling like I’m selling peoples faces off. 

I love helping folks find the right gear that makes them more comfortable or safe to get outside, or creating a design that reminds them of their special adventure, but I strongly dislike the feeling of sell, sell, sell. 

I know, sort of a funny trait to carry when you own a retail shop.

With shipping delays already affecting our shop, and covid 19 finally hitting our small community, holiday shopping brought its own uncertainty. 

We reached out early and often to encourage folks to shop not only with us, but with all our small businesses downtown. And once again, our community rallied around us, creating a banner Small Business Saturday and holiday shopping season as a whole.

As hard as this year has been, there was still so much beauty.

With no blueprint to follow or ‘how to’ book to read and help guide us through the last nine months, we did what we know, putting our heads down, getting to work, and moving forward. 

We navigated the dramatic and unsettling twists and turns and ups and downs one day at a time and tried to constantly remind each other to breathe. 

And although we know this thing is bound to have a long tail and the uncertainty carries right into 2021 today, we learned so much about the character of our community, and the importance of helping folks slow down to find the beauty that surrounds us, when crisis strikes. 

We are so proud of and eternally grateful for all of you and our small AO Team for riding this roller coaster with us. 

We didn’t give up or give in – and neither did you.

Cheers to putting 2020 behind us, and the challenges we will overcome together in the year ahead. May they all include a little more time on the river and trail!

-- Piper

Piper VanOrd moved home to Warren, PA from Alaska in 2006 to buy Allegheny Outfitters. And you’ll also find her on various waterways and land trails throughout the year, scouting for trips and collecting new experiences to share. 

After eight years as an air traffic controller in the U.S. Navy, Piper moved home to Warren with her three children in 2006 to make a go of AO. She is Leave No Trace Master Educator certified from the National Outdoor Leadership School and ACA Level II Kayak Instructor certified. 

She is co-author of the Allegheny River Paddling Guide, and published On the river and down the trail…, a collection of 100 photos adventuring in the Pennsylvania Wilds, in 2016. She is also one of the founding members of the annual Allegheny River Clean-up.

[Posted: January 9, 2021]  PA Environment Digest

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