David Gracie’s dream to become a whale trainer didn’t come true. But by not getting the marine mammal internship at the Virginia Aquarium in his hometown of Virginia Beach, VA, but instead, working there in environmental education from 2006 to 2011, he believes he was set on a path to his “true calling.”
Gracie, 32, is now a kayak dealer and active environmental steward of the area’s waterways through his ownership of Wild River Outfitters in Virginia Beach. While he navigates a competitive marketplace, he also provides a fleet of rental boats and a unique online resource that’s getting people paddling hundreds of miles of stunning streams and Atlantic coastline.
“You would never run out of places to paddle here. And if you did, you could just go back to your favorite places in different seasons and it’s like discovering new places,” Gracie said.
Gracie worked part-time at both the store and aquarium for several years before Lillian Gilbert, the last of four partners who started Wild River in 1976, made him general manager in 2011. The following year—with a seller-financing agreement and the college funds he saved by going to state school Virginia Tech for his psychology degree—Gracie bought Wild River from Gilbert.
“She wanted someone to take it over who would carry on running it as a specialty store, and be a good steward of the environment and local economy,” he said.
One of the first changes Gracie made was to get Wild River out of the guided kayak touring business and into the kayak rental business. He turned the store’s demo boats into a rental fleet available from the storefront and at two city-owned properties on Stumpy Lake and Little Island Lake.
“The touring business added (to the store’s) legitimacy but never made money. It was a marketing tool at best,” he said.
Gracie also had a hand in curating, on the Wild River website, a detailed list and photographic inventory of more than 75 launch locations throughout the Hampton Roads area of southeastern VA and northeastern NC or Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News metro area. The recommended launches are found within the 8,000-plus-acre Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge (accessible from Wild River's kayak rental site at Little Island Lake Park), several state parks, and peninsula sites.
Although the information is not available as an app, the launch locations are searchable via a smart phone, he said.
Before the launch locator was arduously assembled, “you couldn’t find a good, reliable, and relatively easy-to-use guide for where to paddle. And that was the question we were most often asked,” Gracie said.
There’s no shortage of surf shops and others small operators in the area offering to equip and guide water tours on the cheap. Wild River is busy enough trying to hold its own against a handful of other outdoor retailers all within a five-mile radius. By being the store with the invaluable list of launch locations, Wild River is trying to set itself apart as the hub for the paddling community.
“Whether the rentals and launch locations pay off for us we don’t yet know,” Gracie said. “I’d like to think there will be reciprocity, and we’ll be paid back in good karma.”
Wild River Outfitters is also paying it forward with its commitment to keeping local waterways clear of litter and deadfall. The staff takes part in Clean the Bay Day, an annual undertaking by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and works closely with Lynnhaven River Now, a citizen group concerned with keeping that river free of pollution. Gracie said he makes his store’s entire demo fleet available to other groups on cleanup missions too. “We ought to be conserving these places where we enjoy our sport and tend to be,” Gracie said.
He said these efforts fit into a larger vision he has for a carbon-neutral Wild Rivers store and “some sort of center for sustainability,” he said. “That’s in the 40-year plan anyway."
This content was produced for your enjoyment, thanks to a partnership among Wild River Outfitters, OSM, Osprey Packs, Chaco, and RootsRated.