Tapping Ohio’s recreational waterways: Businesses, colleges find financial future in marine tourism

Ohio University students take part in an out-of-state rafting trip led by OU Outdoor Pursuits. Photo courtesy of former Outdoor Pursuits director Tom Tesar.

By CG Editor-in-Chief Erich Hiner and CG Science Editor Audrey Rabalais

A short drive along the Ohio River between Athens and Marietta can give one a stark glimpse into the region’s industrial past. Coal waste and heavy metals from industry have settled in many of Ohio’s rivers and economic growth has come at a high environmental cost.

Thankfully, a new class of businessmen and women has discovered a way to use the region’s waters without wringing them dry. They are part of an up and coming piece of the business sector:  natural and ecotourism.

Natural tourism is recreational use of natural resources such as rivers and streams. Ecotourism is similar, but focuses more intently on minimizing environmental impact. In Southeast Ohio, interest in both types of recreation is rising. With expanding interest comes expanding business opportunities and business owners are cashing in. This time, however, the businesses using the water are leaving it relatively untouched.

The expanding natural tourism sector of today shows signs of being able to promote economic growth while preserving the area’s natural beauty. Although slow to expand, water-based natural tourism is one of the few growth industries in Appalachian Ohio. In many ways, it signifies a break from the region’s past that included detrimental timber cutting and coal mining.

Ohio’s Appalachian counties are among the state’s poorest, with the poverty rates consistently higher than the national average, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Many of the area’s 199,000 miles of waterways lay unused, and the retreat of heavy industry has left an economic void in the area’s business sector. That void has just begun to be filled.

Steve Roley is the director of the Ecotourism and Adventure Travel program at Hocking College in Nelsonville, Ohio. He said the tourism industry is the seventh largest industry in the world and ecotourism is a field rich with opportunities for growth.

“Ecotourism and adventure travel is one of the fastest growing sectors,” Roley said. “A lot of people don’t want to just go on vacation and sit on a beach for a week.”

Canoe users paddle on Dow Lake in Strouds Run State Park near Athens, Ohio. Photo by CG Editor-in-Chief Erich Hiner.

Those sentiments are echoed by the area’s eco-entrepreneurs.

Mimi Morrison owns and operates Touch the Earth Adventures, an outdoor adventure company in Southeast Ohio that takes customers on canoe and kayak trips to get them in touch with nature. Though many of her kayaking trips take her to the East Coast and beyond, Morrison said she and her customers continue to return to Southeast Ohio for its rich resources and peaceful solitude.      

“I think in the last couple years the economy has made people become more aware that material things are not where the happiness is,” Morrison said. “Many more people are doing gardening and things more connected to the earth. I think that kayaking fits into that, too.”

Morrison is far from the only businessperson tapping into state waters. Just up the Hocking River in Logan, Ohio is the Hocking Hills Canoe Livery. With more than 200 watercraft, Valerie Fox and her husband Aaron have seen the business grow quite a bit since they started in 1996. They started with just over 30 canoes and operated from the porch of the Logan Antique Mall.

Now, they shuttle visitors upstream from the livery for a leisurely ride down the Hocking River. Boaters enjoy a view of the Rockbridge State Nature Preserve as they paddle back down to the livery.

“We encourage people to take their time when they get out there. We have nets that they can take out so they can catch critters,” she said.

The 18 staff members at the livery, many of whom are ecotourism students at Hocking College, are trained to identify local flora and fauna. The students come to the livery to earn the naturalist certification required by their college.

Those looking to dive deeper into Ohio water recreation can head to the Hocking SCUBA dive shop in Nelsonville, Ohio. Divemaster Andy Silverman owns the store, which is part of the larger Columbus SCUBA, Inc. He is certified in nearly every type of scuba imaginable; including ice diving, cave diving and night diving. He said his business grows every year.

Silverman said Ohio is ranked fifth in popularity for scuba diving among all states. Although the state is land-locked, it contains water-filled limestone quarries, such as those in Circleville and Bowling Green.  Divers brave enough to endure the cold water of the quarries are rewarded with up to100 feet of underwater visibility. Unlike other water activities, diving provides unique opportunities to see underwater wildlife, Silverman said.

Kayaks sit on a rack near Dow Lake in Strouds Run State Park near Athens, Ohio. Photo by CG Editor-in-Chief Erich Hiner.

“You are immersed,” Silverman said. “You get to see things as they are happening in their natural habitat. When you go fishing, that’s as far from the fish’s natural habitat as it can be.”

The water-based natural tourism sector is also getting help from non-profits, which are educating the public about water recreation opportunities. As public consciousness grows, so will commercial opportunities for businesses, said Molly Gurien, chair of the Raccoon Creek Water Trail Association.

“People really appreciate being in nature,” Gurien said. “If we promote this, I think they would see a great opportunity to come out and see Southeast Ohio from a different perspective.”

Gurien’s group was formed in 2006 as an offshoot of the Raccoon Creek Partnership, a watershed protection group. Since its inception, the trail association has worked to promote the recreational opportunities of Raccoon Creek, a 110-mile river that runs through Hocking, Meigs, Vinton and Gallia counties.

One of the group’s main goals is to get the creek recognized as a state water trail. Designated water trails are mapped by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and publicized on state websites. More information about state water trails and trail designation from the ODNR can be found here.

In order to be considered a state water trail, a river or creek must have access points at least every ten miles. The association has been working to create access points along Raccoon Creek and has negotiated with land owners along the banks to create public canoe put-ins.

In addition to publicizing the value of Raccoon Creek, the association also wants to promote the growth of natural tourism in Southeast Ohio. More people exploring Southeast Ohio’s water sports means more money in the pockets of restaurants and hotels that cater to tourists, Gurien said.

“It’s a way to connect people back to nature and the environment and the planet in a way that is not harmful,” Gurien said. “Hopefully, that will bring some new ways of economic growth.”

While non-profits like Gurien’s group increase public awareness of water recreation opportunities, colleges and universities are educating the ecotourism professionals of the future. Although the industry is still small by most estimates, enrollment has risen in collegiate outdoor recreation programs.

Hocking College in Nelsonville has seen a boom in popularity over the past few years for its Ecotourism and Adventure Travel program. The program trains future ecotourism business owners and is very unique in the U.S., said Roley, who heads the program.

The program has grown significantly since its inception 12 years ago. It started with about 15 students, Roley said. Since then, it has expanded to accommodate 140.

Students enroll in the program to learn how to successfully run their own ecotourism businesses. Each student has four or five main foci, which include topics such as wilderness interpretation or ecosystem education. Students are trained in a number of water activities including canoeing, kayaking, sailing and scuba diving.

Roley said the number of students staying in Southeast Ohio to pursue ecotourism careers has grown over the years. While most graduates settle down in places such as Montana or California, more are finding work in Appalachian Ohio. Although Roley said Southeast Ohio is far from a “Mecca” for ecotourism jobs (due to the state’s long winters), the growth of the industry has been steady and visible.

Hocking is not the only Southeast Ohio college preparing students for careers in water-based tourism. Ohio University’s Recreation Studies program also preps up and coming eco-entrepreneurs.

From its main campus in Athens County, the school offers students the chance to specialize in water activities such as kayaking, canoeing, whitewater rafting, sailing and more. Students can major in recreation management or outdoor recreation and education.

The program has about 140 undergraduate students and roughly 20 graduate students, said Bruce Martin, an assistant professor in recreation studies at OU. Many students transfer into the department from other colleges within OU, he said.

“It’s what we call a discovery major,” Martin said. “Students will often discover this major and fall in love with the lifestyle it provides.”

Ohio University students carry their canoes during a portage while on an OU-led trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota. Photo by CG Editor-in-Chief Erich Hiner.

Graduates of the program often work for government agencies such as the National Park Service or the National Forest Service. Above all, the program teaches students to use natural resources for recreation in environmentally responsible ways.

Ohio University is also home to the Outdoor Pursuits program, a division of the school’s recreation department that offers all students the chance to learn about water recreation activities. That widespread public involvement feeds into people’s interest.

“What used to hold people from water sports was they didn’t know how to get started,” former Outdoor Pursuits Director Tom Tesar said. “It’s easier to get involved with water recreation now than it ever has been.”

Tesar, an avid whitewater kayaker, said he has seen an upsurge in the ecotourism business over the past few years.

With money flowing in and new generations of ecotourism professionals in training, the future of Southeast Ohio’s water-based tourism industry seems solid. The ecotourism and natural sectors are benefiting from the work of Ohio residents and business owners, but the state’s natural features may also help make such businesses more viable.

Southeast Ohio is home to many manmade lakes that are a unique feature of Appalachia. The area also lies at the bottom of several watersheds, which means its rivers and creeks flow all year. For watercraft enthusiasts in the area, there is no off-season because few rivers depend on snow melt, Tesar said.

Gurien also pointed to the area’s natural features as a strength. In ages past, Southeast Ohio was not flattened by the glaciers. That left the area with a distinct, rocky look that makes for good scenery on the water, Gurien said. She added that the hills have kept some of the land from becoming deforested for agriculture, leaving swaths of woodland to shade water enthusiasts.

The area also offers more wilderness than other parts of the state while being accessible to those who live in nearby cities such as Columbus and Cincinnati, Roley said.

“We are three hours from several world-class outdoor recreation areas,” Martin said, referring to sites such as Red River Gorge in Kentucky and New River Gorge in West Virginia.

A man fishes on Dow Lake in Strouds Run State Park near Athens, Ohio. Photo by CG Editor-in-Chief Erich Hiner.

Interest in water-based natural tourism is expanding in Southeast Ohio and business owners are finding new ways to use the state’s resources while minimizing environmental impact. Consumers, meanwhile, seem happy to dive right in. Advocates and business owners like Morrison would like for things to stay that way for the sake of current profits and future generations of Southeast Ohioans.

“In the past, this part of the state was raped,” Morrison said. “It really has healed so much, and it has become what it needs to be.”

It appears the outlook is bright for natural tourism in Southeast Ohio, and the tide doesn’t look like it will be stemmed any time soon.