Teens are fortunate when they can find summertime work to help pay their bills – from washing cars, slinging burgers or perhaps bagging groceries at the neighborhood store.
So imagine the surprise that many visitors experience when they cross paths with a group of teens on the Oregon coast who have created a successful recreation-oriented business.
The Kayak Shack on Alsea Bay at Waldport may provide a pathway for the youngsters’ futures and help their community too.
The beach is the last place you’d expect to find teens in school. But The Kayak Shack is unlike any class most high-schoolers take, because it’s also a job that they create.
“We really take it seriously, it’s not a joke, and we put in the hard labor like cleaning and caring for our kayaks and varied gear,” said Amy Mullen – a three-year veteran of The Kayak Shack team. “We also hire people based upon who’s going to work the hardest and not who our friends are.”
Six Waldport High School students work hard at The Kayak Shack motivated by this fact: It’s in their best business interest to do so because it’s their business.
The popular eco-tourism kayaking company takes newcomers across Alsea Bay, including a delightful paddle trip into nearby “Lint Slough.”
Our trip was led by certified guide and high school senior Maddie Parnell, who said it’s “exciting to take people out on the water and teach them a recreation they’ve not tried before.”
“The Kayak Shack started out as a business club with students pretty much running the operation, said Parnell. “ We’ve learned so much from Melissa Steinman (a teacher) and she helped put all of it into practice… every aspect of the kayak business including payroll, equipment maintenance and marketing.”
Melissa Steinman is a Waldport High School teacher who said the business grew out of course work. During the summer, she co-manages the operation alongside her students.
She said that each student who guides for The Kayak Shack is trained and certified through varied course work sponsored by the American Canoe Association.
“I provide them with guidance and then say, ‘Hey, where do we go from here and how do we make this better?”
The Port of Alsea supports the business with boats and a building, but the day-to-day operation, including tours, boat maintenance and even marketing, is handled entirely by the teens.
“These students brought with them that heart for caring about the local outdoors where they’ve grown up. I simply gave them the opportunity to become paddle professionals through certified course work. They each have a high level of care for their community and those two things go together to make the business successful.”
There are more and more opportunities the students have explored too, including spin-off ideas like T-shirts, sweatshirts and caps that were designed by The Kayak Shack’s marketing manager Amy Mullen, who is also a high school senior.
She said that each purchase or guided trip not only helps their business, but also trickles through the greater Waldport economy too.
“We make our clients tired and hungry and they will go out and eat at the nearby Salty Dawg Grill or other businesses close to us,” said Mullen. “They may also spend the night in our local motels, so the money circulates locally and we’re not the only beneficiaries.”
Back on the bay, certified guide and high school senior Phil Hawkens said the nearly two-mile round trip into Lint Slough is best enjoyed on an incoming tide to help push you up the bay.
He also noted that the skills he’s developed at The Kayak Shack include basic boating, lifesaving, CPR and leadership responsibilities that may help him find a career path into outdoor recreation.
“This work has great responsibility as I’m a guide for up to four paddlers, so it’s not kid stuff. I feel like an adult and must take care of my clients.”
Hawkens added that the Kayak Shack team is “like family” and he hopes they will keep it that way: a successful eco-tourism business that helps the local community and a fine example of Oregonians helping each other.
In fact, students recently helped open a new kayak program at nearby Beaver Creek State Park that also rents boats and offers guided tours.
Hawkens said that there’s no finer landscape than Alsea Bay or a more scenic way to enjoy it than atop one of their kayaks. “Most people are surprised at how nice it is back here,” said Hawkens. “I’ve seen eagles, osprey, deer and elk and we always see something new on each trip.”
Steinman added that business has been good at The Kayak Shack with a nearly 30 percent increase in paddling trips over last summer. Word of mouth about the student-guided tours spreads via advertising flyers and radio spots that are broadcast across coastal Oregon.
“These are kids that I hope will live in my community, be my next door neighbors and run the businesses in my community,” said Steinman. “The Kayak Shack helps them understand what it takes – the commitment and responsibility it takes to operate a business in their home town. Hopefully it will pay off for each of them later in life too.”