Written by Emily Ballard | Photos by Anthony Harden
Kyle Ellison wanted to transplant his lifelong passion for coastal water pursuits to the lakes and rivers of Western North Carolina, and a stand up paddleboard maverick was born.
The French Broad River winds its way through the Appalachian Mountains, flowing through Western North Carolina and Tennessee counties, enhancing national forests in its path, and making its way through downtown Asheville. This particular stretch of the river looks slightly different than the rest of its natural habitat, especially in the heat of summer, as it is occupied by locals, tourists, and outdoor enthusiasts itching to enjoy both relaxation and adventure by way of tubing, kayaking, canoeing, and the newest addition to the world of river watersports, stand up paddleboarding (SUP).
While the emergence of SUP as a popular sport really hit its stride in the early 2000s, it is just now starting to make its mark as an activity to be enjoyed on the rivers and lakes of mountain towns like Asheville. Kyle Ellison witnessed the exponential growth of the SUP culture at its source in Hawaii, and feeling that he missed a real opportunity to capitalize on this activity that he is so passionate about in its early days, he is bringing his knowledge and experience to a town that welcomes new adventures via his business, Wai Mauna Asheville SUP Tours. Wai Mauna translates as “fresh water in the mountains” from Hawaiian. The pronunciation of Wai Mauna is (phonetically), “Y” (as in the letter) and then “Mao” (as in the Chinese leader) and then “nuh”… so: Y-Mao-nuh.
What is perhaps most unique about the structure of the Wai Mauna business is the fact that Kyle runs and operates it from his residence 5,000 miles away in Maui, Hawaii. He has travelled the world and has an impressive portfolio of wild experiences and adventurous jobs, and with a wife and two young kids living in Maui, he now spends his days travelling back and forth between the island and Western North Carolina, blending a coastal lifestyle with the mountains, and growing a successful business that operates in a digital atmosphere, but functions in a physical capacity on the river.
Kyle was born in St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, and his family moved to Maui when he was five years old. The coastal island culture runs through his veins and has inevitably shaped his outlook and steered his path toward a life on the water. His entire adult life has been spent working in watersports tourism.
In Hawaii and his travels around the globe, Kyle has been a scuba instructor, dive master, and catamaran captain, and he has led whale watch and snorkel charters. He has been a sea kayak guide in Alaska and a boat captain on Lake Tahoe. His pursuits led him around the world, and everywhere he went the water was calling him.
“I consider myself very fortunate,” Kyle says. “My wife and I were able to travel heavily all through our twenties. We would do seasonal work in Hawaii, work for seven months, save up money, and travel for four months, spend it all and then come back and work again.”
In addition to watersports, Kyle also became a travel writer. His assignments took him to places most people only dream of, such as trekking in Nepal for two weeks, summiting Kilimanjaro, exploring a safari in South Africa. Although he jokes that maybe they travelled a little too heavily and are paying for it now, he recalls these experiences with modesty and a deep appreciation for a life well lived.
“My wife and I have lived out of a van in New Zealand for three months where we didn’t know where we would be sleeping that night,” he recalls. “And we have never been happier in our life.”
When Kyle and his wife were expecting their first child, the couple found themselves itching for something different, as well as a place with a more reasonable cost of living. Being surrounded by thousands of miles of ocean may sound like a dream to many, but Kyle explains that island fever is a real thing. In their typical adventurous spirit, at seven months pregnant, the couple left Maui and, upon landing on the mainland, set off on a cross country road trip to relocate to the (comparatively) small town of Asheville. Having visited family in this outdoorsy town, they felt drawn to take the risk and try something new. At the time, it seemed the perfect place for Kyle to pursue his freelance writing and for his wife to work in the booming wedding industry of Western North Carolina.
A New Beginning
In the cold months of January 2015, Kyle found himself in his new town with few connections, no concrete employment, and a growing family. He started evaluating his surroundings to get a feel for what Asheville had to offer, or what it might be lacking that could be an opportunity for him. He found that the freelance writing was a bit too solitary. He missed the water and he missed interacting with people.
A snowstorm had blown six inches of snow into town, yet despite the frigid temperatures, Kyle decided to escape to do some thinking in the best place he knew how—the water. With a borrowed paddleboard and a wet suit, he set off to explore the serene currents of the French Broad River. “It was just total silence and absolutely beautiful, and I was just out there clearing my head and thinking,” he remembers.
It was in this moment of liberating isolation that Kyle found some clarity. He realized he needed to somehow merge his coastal background and love of the water with his new mountain surroundings. He noticed that a couple of places were renting paddleboard gear, but there was an untapped market and a niche that seemed serendipitous.
Kyle equates it to a writer having an editor: Sometimes you need a second set of eyes to realize what is missing. There was already a strong river culture here, and an interest in water sports and paddling in general, but having the coastal perspective on his side, he sensed some opportunities were falling through the cracks.
For instance, he was shocked to find that no other companies were offering rentals before 10AM or after 5PM. Although he recognized that the kayak river culture depended on the warmer part of the day heating up the water, Kyle was used to ocean customs that leaned toward sunrise and sunset as the nicest parts of the day.
Compelled to cast a wider net to a burgeoning industry, Kyle plunged head first into this new endeavor. It was the end of March when he bought the first boards. It took about three months to get everything in order. He developed a business plan and obtained a loan from Asheville Savings Bank. Startup costs were relatively low, but it was necessary to purchase the gear, van, and trailer.
Choosing the Wai Mauna name was a gamble for Kyle. He wasn’t sure how a Hawaiian name would fare in the mountains of Western North Carolina, but considering the sport originated in Hawaii, and that was where he was from, he felt it lent some authenticity.
“Memorial Day we opened up with a grand total of four people,” Kyle recalls with amusement. This is quite the contrast to Memorial Day this year that attracted over 70 people despite pesky weather conditions.
“The business exists in a digital space with the exception that we meet you and then take you paddling down the river,” says Kyle.
One Man Show
The business has experienced remarkable growth over the past couple of years, and Kyle, more than anyone, can appreciate the somewhat bumpy road to get there. The early days of Wai Mauna Asheville SUP Tours looked quite a bit different than the organized rental and guide company of today.
With only one van in the beginning, Kyle enlisted the help of his wife and their newborn son. First, Kyle would meet the guests at the takeout spot in the River Arts District where they would be leaving their cars. He would then drive them up the river in the van to the put-in location on Hominy Creek. After unloading the van and getting situated, Kyle and his guests would get on the river for their guided paddle. In the meantime, Kyle’s wife would walk from their home in West Asheville, with the baby in tow, to the park where the van was located. With the car seat already in the van, she would load up the baby and drive the shuttle down river to the take-out spot to meet Kyle when his group got off of the river.
Of course, this plan left lots of room for error. Occasionally, Kyle’s wife was unavailable to perform shuttle duty. On these days, Kyle would conduct business as usual. That is, in the eyes of his guests. In reality, he would meet his customers and drive them up river on schedule to conduct his usual paddle guide. The end point is where it got tricky.
“I would say goodbye to the guests, walk them to their car, lie to them and say, ‘I’ve got my shuttle guy on his way…’ then I would get on the phone and call Asheville Taxi.”
After the guests were out of sight, he would discreetly hide the boards behind a bush, take the taxi to the van, and come back to retrieve the gear. It was a risky façade. “Everyone does what they got to do. You have to start somewhere,” he remembers, amused by the humble beginnings.
Kyle admits that there wasn’t much in the way of profit on those first runs, and anything they did make went right back into the business. But the learning curve and persistence paid off. Wai Mauna now has two vans, 25 boards, five employees, a six-person paddle board raft, and an extensive collection of gear. With summer in full swing, business is booming.
Long Distance Business
“The business exists in a digital space with the exception that we meet you and then take you paddling down the river,” says Kyle.
This may seem contradictory, but it is surprisingly easier than one may think. Wai Mauna does not have an actual physical location. They operate in a virtual office, utilizing Square, Google Drive, spreadsheets, and an online reservations app. This allows Kyle to monitor and manage the business from anywhere, which is a good thing, because Kyle and his family have moved back to Hawaii as their permanent residence.
Since both Kyle and his wife relied on seasonal work, winters in Asheville got extremely quiet. They love the outdoor opportunities that Asheville provides, and the community aspect of a growing town, but they felt that there was just something missing.
“My entire life I have lived somewhere that I can see out to the horizon. Even when I lived in Tahoe, you are on this lake where you can look out at the horizon. Being here in Asheville, it is beautiful, but unless I go hike out to Black Balsam, Craggy, or get up on a ridgeline somewhere, you are not looking out. We are down in a river valley,” Kyle explains. “I tell people that I am a bit of a square peg in a round hole in Asheville. There is still a piece of it that fits, but we just do things a little differently.”
Different for Kyle means flying back and forth from Hawaii to Asheville multiple times during their season that runs from April until Halloween. This is the first year that he will be “commuting” across oceans and he anticipates being in Asheville roughly six weeks over the summer.
He also feels that not having an actual storefront has been one of the best business decisions he has made, for while he cannot capitalize on the retail side of the business (such as sales of gear, apparel, and other products), he is able to keep overhead costs down by saving on rent, fire insurance, and flood insurance. Additionally, as the River Arts District is experiencing expansion and construction, Wai Mauna is essentially unaffected. There is a high likelihood that new construction will affect where Kyle and his guides take out of the river, but the beauty of a mobile office is that they can move to another part of the river with little disruption to operations.
Kyle refers to his van as a “paddleboard food truck.” This flexibility is essential for a business that is at the mercy of many unknown factors. Changes to the river, inclement weather, and last minute reservations keep Kyle and his team on their toes. Having the ability to operate from anywhere prevents lost revenue. If someone calls to make a reservation and the guides are all on the river or unavailable, it gets forwarded directly to Kyle’s phone. From there, he can check availability and enter the reservation to be transmitted back to his guides in Asheville. The guests have no idea that they are talking to someone in Hawaii. Kyle can literally run the business from his phone, anywhere in the world he might be.
Of course, there are some inevitable drawbacks to being so far away from your business. Even though revenue and numbers have seen significant growth, with growth comes additional costs. Hiring more guides drives up labor costs, and travelling back and forth from Hawaii is certainly not cheap. In a town and industry that sees significant sales based on word-of-mouth, having an ocean between you and your potential customers can be problematic.
“The biggest challenge managing it from Hawaii is not logistically. It is that I’m not on the ground to hustle and network. I can’t expect my guides to go to Chamber meetings and do small talk over cocktails. I try to do that as much as I can when I am here, but I would say that the biggest barrier is just the physical face-to-face presence.”
Perks of the Job
Kyle is not shy about his passion for paddleboarding, and this is the same expectation he has for his guides. He requires each of his tour guides to have their paddleboard certification from the American Canoe Association. This is not a typical nine-to-five job, and he wants all of his guides to truly love what they do.
For this reason, he is happy to cover 50 percent of the cost for any guide who wants to pursue further professional development, including additional certifications, race fees, or private clinics. Kyle also provides incentives. This year he has set a goal for the number of paddlers the business brings in, and although it will be a stretch to reach, if achieved, he will fly all five of his guides to Hawaii to paddle for a week.
“I want my guides to be actively racing, I want them to be out there becoming better paddlers. We are the only company in town that the staff actively stand up paddles. On their day off, they will go paddle; on their half-day off, they will go paddle. I like to think that I provide a work environment where people are happy to work.”
Kyle’s natural affinity towards water and nature has manifested itself in an ongoing meaningful cause when it comes to the health and clean-up of our natural resources. His passion for promoting a sustainable environment began in Hawaii with his leadership of reef clean-ups.
“It is hard for me to explain something that seems like it should just come so naturally to people. You take care of the place you live. You take care of the place around you,” he says, a glint of genuine intention in his eyes.
This has easily transferred to his life and business here in Asheville. “We are so blessed with these natural resources here in Asheville that it can only better and behoove the community to take care of it.”
He explains that this can be achieved through organized river clean-ups and educating people on the harmful practices of throwing tires, garbage, waste, and coal ash into our rivers. Kyle is always willing to lend his boards to people who are doing river clean ups and jokes that you would be surprised by how many tires can fit on a paddleboard (see photo on previous spread).
Wai Mauna Asheville SUP has joined in a corporate sponsorship with the local nonprofit organization RiverLink in an effort to further the restoration of the French Broad Watershed. For every paddler that books a tour with one of Wai Mauna’s guides, the business donates $5 directly to RiverLink.
“I try to share any information to make people aware. The number one thing is educating people about what they can do in their daily life to help the river health,” Kyle says. He explains that there are basic things people can do to make a difference for future generations, such as avoiding unnecessary plastic bags or plastic utensils, and utilizing reusable water bottles.
On a larger level, he wants to educate the community about the high pollutant effect of sedimentation runoff, and how to better control sediment, erosion, and storm drain runoff.
“I feel like maybe for decades and generations it wasn’t commonplace thinking, and hopefully over the course of the [next] generation our children will grow up and say, ‘Did you know back in the day people used plastic bags that would end up in the river or people threw their tires in the river?’”
The Next Step
While the efforts to promote environmental sustainability continue, Kyle looks toward the future of his business. He has always felt that he missed the boat on the original coastal SUP phenomenon, and now he has been able to propel the second wave of this trend as it is introduced into the river culture in a fusion of coastal lifestyle and mountain living.
“People are paddleboarding; they are doing these formerly coastal pursuits in the mountains. It is that kind of Venn diagram of mountain town, coastal life, and you exist in that little crossover,” says Kyle.
His business philosophy is safety first, and customer service close behind, and his mission is to create an experience that people will value, remember, and hopefully continue in the future. And it is for this reason that Kyle has modeled his business a little different than his competitors. Wai Mauna is the only company in the area that offers guided tours, and it is also the only company that offers sunrise and sunset tours. It also offers private lessons, and paddleboard delivery and pickup is an option for those who want to rent boards for their own self-guided tour, but don’t necessarily want (or have the ability) to strap them to the top of their vehicles and carry them on vacation. Wai Mauna’s newest product is the six-person stand up paddleboard, ideal for families or company team building retreats.
If Kyle is thinking big picture for the future of his business, he envisions expanding into other mountain towns and dreams of introducing this service nationally to areas that have yet to embrace this water sport. First, he plans to fine-tune the business in Asheville, but as the business continues to grow and generate interest, he sees no reason it couldn’t be replicated elsewhere.
“The whole reason I do this is… we love stand up paddleboarding, and we love simply sharing that with people and getting more people interested in the sport,” says Kyle. “If that means that they are going out and buying boards from my competitors, I couldn’t be happier because it means that they are getting into something that we really enjoy doing.
“I don’t see this as just a rental business or a way to make income off of tourists. We are so fortunate to work in this beautiful outdoor place and introduce people to things that we love. And we are so fortunate to do it every day.”
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