Fourteen kayaks, a river and not much expectation of profit — this is not the model of a business plan.
“We’re not in it for the money,” said Becky Skalsky. “We just wanted people to have as much enjoyment of this as we do.”
Skalsky and Sandy McKay are sisters-in-law, teachers and newly launched business owners. They started Missouri River Kayak Rentals about three weeks ago, providing a way for summer-starved North Dakotans to get on the water.
The two women have kayaked for years and loved it as a way to take in the beauty of the river while floating downstream. For a long time, they tossed back and forth the idea of making more than just a pastime out of kayaks. This year, they invested about $6,000 into new Pungo kayaks and a trailer, recruited their husbands and Skalsky’s boys as labor and bought classified ads.
“We just kind of talked about it and everything fell together,” McKay said.
For people who live in a climate with long, punishing winters, the arrival of summer means exploiting every moment of good weather available. In western North Dakota, it usually means gathering on the shores and sandbars of the Missouri River or boating on the surface of Lake Sakakawea. Many people here own boats, but only a handful of businesses in the region rent out watercraft.
“They go anywhere from Garrison Dam — I’ve been down to Fort Yates, but Kimball Bottoms is usually the end of the line,” said Peder Stenslie, owner of Matah Adventures in Mandan. He has six canoes and two kayaks, which he usually keeps rented out during summer weekends.
Like McKay and Skalsky, Stenslie is a teacher and looking for enjoyable summer work.
“I love the river,” he said. “It’s a good place to be.”
Farther upstream is Lewis & Clark Canoe and Kayak Rentals in Washburn.
“July is our biggest month of the season,” said owner Tammy Peyer. “Basically, I’m booked every weekend in July.”
Cross Ranch State Park also rents canoes. The owners of the Sakakawea Motel in Pick City formerly rented canoes but they are not offering them this year because of rising insurance costs, said Nathan McCleery, their son, who runs the motel in the summer.
“It’s something we’d like to get back into and probably will eventually,” McCleery said.
The water is a place for family bonding for Skalsky and McKay and their families. McKay lives in Stanton, where she keeps some of the pair’s kayaks. She and her husband also have a home on Lake Sakakawea, and Skalsky — whose husband is McKay’s brother — and her family often spend time there during the summer. The kayak business is the product of the hours they spent on the water but also came about as a way to spend more time together.
Skalsky’s sons, 14-year-old Dawson and 9-year-old Noah, are part of the business, washing and taking care of the kayaks and creating online ads. Their involvement is a good way to keep them busy during the summer, Skalsky said.
“This is a huge family opportunity,” McKay said. “There is no comparison with the beauty and family togetherness.”
Skalsky and McKay do not know if they will recoup their investment, but they have enjoyed the fun of kayaking and the people they have met so far. Without a website, they have floated along on word of mouth since receiving their kayaks July 3.
“I think our next step is business cards,” Skalsky said. “There’s a lot of people in Bismarck that don’t have boats,”
(Reach reporter Christopher Bjorke at 250-8261 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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