50 is the new 30 as empty-nesters flock to northern rivers

To the uninitiated, paddling seems like a young person’s sport. Most people are surprised to learn the average age of our guests is 57.

Adventures by canoe and kayak, complete with portages, open water crossings and especially whitewater, can seem best enjoyed by young bucks. I recently read an article in Rapid titled, “Paddle Til You’re Fifty”. While the mate­rial of the piece actually encouraged paddlers to continue well into their golden years, the title stuck in my craw. Not only did it imply I was past my best-before date, but most of the paddlers I know are exceptions to that watery ceiling. Am I part of a deluded co­hort, paddling my way over the edge of mortality?

I have the great fortune to offer paddling expeditions on twenty rivers across the north, from Alaska to Nunavut, all of which are life list-worthy destinations. Most people are surprised to learn the average age of our guests is 57. Of course, this means many of the clients are older than 57—the oldest was 84. In fact, Genera­tion X and Y are noticeably absent from northern waterways, on both guided and self-guided expeditions.

Even while our own stats show that more paddlers take on big trips after they hit the 50-year milestone, these demographics fly in the face of research by the Outdoor Industry Association. The OIA’s 2013 Outdoor Participation Report shows that outdoor recreation for the average American begins a slow and steady decline starting at the age of 40. The population segment where outdoor activity is growing the fastest is in males between the ages of 13 to 17—unfor­tunately, they can’t afford northern river trips, nor the sleek refine­ments that increase the longevity of the sport for Boomers.

Indeed, Boomers and Zoomers are fully capable of enjoying the paddling world, whether in canoes, rafts or kayaks. For some, it’s not until they’re older that they feel confident in the skills required to embark on their dream destinations. Their outdoor experience, techniques and risk management abilities acquired over 50 years far make up for the bull-headed power of a 20-something.

Ultimately, economics play a big part in why there’s more grey hair on northern rivers. Being over the hill often means more disposable income, which comes with increased opportunity to travel and access to better equipment. When you factor in the skilled guides, great food and even better wine that paddling tourism offers, what’s not attractive to a golden-aged adventurous spirit.

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