by Katherine Barnett Jones
“The Mississippi River towns are comely, clean, well built, and pleasing to the eye, and cheering to the spirit. The Mississippi Valley is as reposeful as a dreamland, nothing worldly about it . . . nothing to hang a fret or a worry upon.” — Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi
With a prime spot on Mark Twain’s mighty river and an arm’s reach to the hills of the Ozarks and the Smoky Mountains, Memphians have an ever-growing number of opportunities to get their fill of climbing, cycling, camping, and boating within driving distance. Whether choosing to take a drive or stay closer to home, one store has led the way to equip the Bluff City for adventure since 1974.
“We sell carbon-fiber kayaks, we sell titanium, carbon-fiber bicycles . . . for 41 years, we’ve been offering a really premium product, and Memphians have responded,” says Joe Royer, president and co-founder of Outdoors Inc. “I really think our best business trait is not underestimating the city and believing in the people.”
A West Tennessee native, Royer graduated from the University of Memphis (then Memphis State) with a degree in civil engineering. When he left his New York engineering firm after a promotion to vice president in his early twenties to go into outdoor recreation, his boss thought he was crazy. Outdoors Inc., though, has become an essential element of the Memphis recreation community.
Today’s Outdoors Inc. was founded as “The Great Outdoors” when Royer and co-founder Lawrence Migliara, both avid canoe and kayak racers, combined their performance equipment stores. Over time, they added camping and climbing equipment, ski gear, bikes, and more.
Today, customers at any of the company’s four locations — Midtown, East Memphis, Cordova, and Jackson, Tennessee — can seek high-quality equipment and information on nearly any outdoor sport, in addition to in-demand brands like Chaco, Patagonia, and Yeti.
Learning from the expertise offered by Outdoors Inc. employees is one of the best things about visiting the stores, says Midtown sales associate Eric Bleier.
“All of us do have a lot of expertise in these areas, whether it be boating, cycling, rock climbing, backpacking, spelunking,” Bleier says. “We know what we’re talking about. We’ve been to Rocky Mountain National Park or Yellowstone; Yosemite.”
Each of the three Memphis Outdoors Inc. locations offers a little of everything, plus its own unique niche. A rock climbing wall is part of the Cordova store, while the Midtown location holds extra storage for canoes and kayaks behind its Union Avenue building. In East Memphis, a full-service bike shop is part of the Poplar Avenue store, which also becomes the primary ski and snowboard location in the winter.
The canoes, bikes, and other equipment sold are used all over the world, from the Rockies to Mount Kilamanjaro. One of Royer’s biggest goals, though, is to help Memphians embrace the natural beauty right here in Shelby County.
“We’ve got this beautiful oak forest we live in, we’ve got the Mississippi, we’ve got this gently rolling flatter terrain; it’s perfect for a bicycle,” Royer says.
The cycling community in Memphis has known that for decades, but the expansion of the Shelby Farms Greenline and extra bike lanes throughout the city have led to huge growth in the sport in recent years. The Harahan Bridge Project is set to connect Tennessee pedestrians and cyclists to our Arkansas neighbors across the river in fall 2016, and the 4,500 acres of outdoor opportunity just miles from downtown at Shelby Farms Park is the largest example of the many parks and recreation areas thriving in Memphis today.
Outdoors Inc. sponsors events throughout the year to encourage Memphians to get out and enjoy the city, including paddling classes on the Mississippi and the Winter Off-Road Race Series for trail runners. The annual Cyclocross Race is the longest-running event of its kind in the United States, bringing world-class athletes to Memphis every fall, and summer brings the Canoe and Kayak Race on the Mississippi — an event close to Royer’s heart.
Still an avid paddler, Royer often starts his day with a 10K on the Mississippi. He tracks the weather upstream regularly and has learned the details of the river’s tides, eddys, currents, and frequent travelers, big and small. Royer’s view of the river isn’t fear, it’s respect — a view he’s made it his life’s mission to share.
“It is dangerous, but so is St. Moritz, so are the Rockies,” Royer says. “It doesn’t take a super athlete … you need skill and knowledge. You don’t need bravery. Bravery will get you killed — you don’t need to prove to anyone that you’re not scared of the Mississippi.”
With this expertise, it was Royer who recognized that the water in the Wolf River at the far north end of Mud Island might just make a stable starting point for a few hundred canoes and kayaks. He mapped out a 5K route for a race, ending at Mississippi River Park — and the rest is history. The Outdoors Inc. Canoe and Kayak Race will take place on the Mississippi for the 35th year this June, with more than 500 participants taking part in last year’s event.
Royer and his wife spend their vacations taking part in bike and canoe races all over the world. Being a part of the greater community gives Royer a voice to spread the word about the canoe race and other events in Memphis, bringing world-class athletes like Olympic gold medalist Greg Barton, Pan Am Champion Michael Herbert, and others to race on the Mississippi.
While it’s a great competition for these elite athletes, the majority of participants are locals with no canoe expertise who are just able to enjoy a beautiful day with a few more minutes to sit back and enjoy the river than those first few finishers.
“Some years, it’s easier to make the U.S. Olympic Team than to win the Outdoors Inc. race,” Royer says. “That’s how good the competition is. Most people just see it as fun, and that’s what I want it to be. I want it to be for the young couple that just wants something fun to do, to hear some music and go home.”
Coordination with Ghost River Outfitters allows participants who don’t own equipment to rent canoes and have them ready to go on race day. The fun continues with music, food, and vendors along Mud Island after the event, highlighting another part of the city that has developed into a major recreational outlet for Memphians since the race began more than three decades ago.
Most importantly, Royer has trekked to the Corps of Engineers office every January for 35 years to file a permit that holds barges along that part of the river during race day in order for the smaller boats to go by safely.
A lot has changed in Memphis since 1974, but Outdoors Inc. has been there along the way, “outfitting human-powered recreation,” as their motto states, and reminding Memphians of just how much they have to work with.
“Denver was a cowtown until they embraced the mountains and snow,” Royer says. “You can’t wish you had something else. We’ve had this long-term approach to embrace what we’ve got. You look out at this river, and it is just magnificent. What we’ve got is amazing.”
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