Ed McAllister is a passionate outdoor enthusiast. Thirty years ago he was a whitewater canoeist looking for a place to paddle and a way to work in an industry somehow connected to the outdoors. McAllister solved that challenge by opening River Sports Outfitters in Knoxville. “I’ve been blessed to have a job that I’m passionate about. I can make a living doing the things I want to do,” says McAllister. "There’s nothing better in this world than what I am doing right now. I wouldn’t swap this job for anything."
Now recognized as one of the top outdoor specialty retailers in the country, McAllister remains steadfast in his concern for his customer’s pursuit of outdoor recreation. “We are committed to engaging the customer and outdoor activities. Money comes second. It’s not about making money, it’s about staying in business and doing something we enjoy. I think we have touched a lot of people over our 30 years,” says McAllister. “The roots are the same today as the day we opened. Our approach is about being honest with customers and trying to give the best customer service possible.”
Over the last 30 years, McAllister has watched the way people play outside change. “There’s still that outdoor passion out there. The biggest change I see is not the interest but the duration of the activity. Multi-day backpacking trips were big in the '80s. Now it’s 'lets go do a great day hike.' 'Let’s get to the summit and get back.' The pace is a lot different today.
Recreation seems more scheduled today with kids involved in organized sports practically year round. “Some times we don’t do enough to inspire people,” says McAllister. “The passion is there. The people are there. We have to learn how to engage them. We have an event almost every day of the week to engage the customer.”
River Sports has offered seminars, clinics and events from the first day of operation. The store has a full-time employee assigned to programming multiple events every week. The mix of topics presented represents the wide range of audiences River Sports serves. Baby boomers, college and high school students often participate side-by-side. “We are the only locally owned store to offer everything from a full service bike shop to boats to apparel and rentals in all areas,” says McAllister. “The events are hopefully exposing a new person to the outdoors that otherwise might not have the opportunity and spark enough desire to try it again or pursue the sport a little longer.”
Paddling isn’t the only specialty at River Sports. McAllister has been instrumental in nurturing climbing in Knoxville. River Sport’s climbing center, opened in 1997, was one of the first in the southeast. To build a group of participants McAllister established the first high school climbing league in the United States. More than a dozen schools compete in the league.
“Some of the skinny kids that were here as 8 th graders 15 year ago are now placing high in regional climbing competitions, like the Triple Crown,” says McAllister. “The climbing gym has done a lot to get kids who weren’t interested in playing football or basketball involved in an individual sport. We have introduced a lot of people to climbing who may not have considered the sport otherwise.”
Today, River Sports offers a women’s climbing night. Held once a month, the sessions are usually packed with women who might never climb otherwise. “It’s an opportunity for people to meet on friendly grounds,” says McAllister. “We want to make it easy for them to start. People come in and see all this cool gear, but it can be intimidating.”
If these offerings aren’t enough to attract the loyalty of Knoxville’s outdoor enthusiasts, River Sports hosts a pint night once a month. The first 200 people get a beer and glass. Refills cost $5 and the money raised is contributed to local charities. The pint nights have been so successfully McAllister has added a bar in the store. “We offer a covered patio and picnic tables in the shade. People can have a beer while exploring new gear.”
Although running a store consumes much of his time, McAllister still participates in white water kayaking and paddled the Grand Canyon in 2013. He races an Ironman triathlon every year. “The Ironman is a good long day that’s not nearly as hard as working. I still enjoy outdoor activities and whitewater canoeing. After 40 years it never gets tiring,” says McAllister.
This content was produced for your enjoyment, thanks to a partnership among OSM, River Sports Outfitters, Osprey Packs, Chaco, and RootsRated.