Allegheny Outfitters: Reflecting on 2020
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on the Allegheny Outfitters blog.
BY PIPER VANORD
I’ve been contemplating sharing this picture since the day I took it over nine months ago.
It was taken March 21, 2020. I, like many of you I’m sure, had been jam-packing my days full of projects at our house, along with the occasional hike and bike ride when I felt a little panic coming on, since closing our small business 10 days earlier due to the global pandemic.
On this day, I’d gone to our shop by myself to pick up a few tools to build some raised garden beds at home – a quick grab and go. As I walked through our new shop – and I call it new because we’d worked 13 years to finally get to the location (and efficiency) we’re at – I paused for just a second, looking around at the hand-built displays and painted beams now sitting in the dark. I took one deep breath, and it happened. Tears just let themselves loose. I sat myself in the chair, looking out over the “big table” and all the maps we’ve used to help folks from all over the world plan trips both on foot and on the water.
As a small business owner in a rural area we thrive on moving and shaking to help people find what they need to get outside. After 14 years of doing this it is engrained in our DNA. We pride ourselves on being able to rattle off the pro’s and con’s of each kayak, backpack, water filter, camp stove, sleeping pad, map – you name it. We constantly beat on gear so we can let you know how it’ll perform in different settings. We take real pride in getting multiple kayaks down off the wall so you can sit in each, adjust the foot pegs and seat support, then have you sit back in there to try on five different PFD’s to be sure your life vest is not only comfy for you, but that it works with the seat in the boat you’ve chosen. We pick the correct paddle size and take it a step further, showing you the proper placement of your hands and technique to be most efficient if needed. If you were to be a fly on the wall, you’d say this is what we do all day, day after day.
But I’ve always seen what we do as being much larger.
It’d been 10 days since our shop closed due to the pandemic when this picture was taken. I missed it. I missed people. I missed all of you. I missed hearing about your upcoming adventures, however big or small. I missed the random guy coming in to look for that last piece of gear because he’s flying to California to hike the John Muir Trail after trying to get a permit the last three years, finally securing one. I missed the older gal that’s decided to make a life change by walking laps at the local park and is ready for the next step of tackling a forest trail, but needs a recommendation on one close to town with cell reception in case she got into trouble. The mom that’s clearly sleep-deprived but has pulled herself up by the bootstraps, looking for advice on a section of the Allegheny that would be most safe to take her three kids and their friends on a paddle trip. I missed all of you, listening to your goals and plans to explore a new place, and playing a small part in helping make them happen, even if it was just advice or encouragement.
This was hard. And I grieved.
As I sit now, nine-and-a-half months later, I’ve realized it was exactly what I needed to do that day. Allowing myself to sit and sob for a solid 30 minutes was part of the process. To accept the uncertainty and embrace it was the hardest, most useful thing I’ve allowed myself to do in 2020. I don’t say this in a way to downplay the uniqueness these past nine months has brought each and every small business owner on this planet, let alone our small town. We all face a different set of uncertain circumstances that are very real, daily.
But that day I realized if there was any business that may have a leg up on being shutdown, it may be us. Being weather dependent and water based can be brutal on outfitters. We’ve experienced flooding events that have shut us down for weeks at a time, with tens of thousands of dollars lost overnight from one big storm. Once I was able to shift my thinking from uncertainty to something familiar – being shutdown for a weather event – plan B, C, D, E and F started taking shape.
In the days and weeks that followed, we started to find our footing. We reached out to local and regional organizations. The Warren County Chamber of Business & Industry kept us posted on changes to safety protocol and the Pennsylvania Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship connected us to other small business owners so we didn’t feel marooned on an island as the small guy sometimes can in rural areas. We checked in with our fellow small business owners to see how they were holding up. We started leaning on our gear manufacturers, asking questions about sanitizing PFD’s, kayaks and canoes, and figuring our what that process might look like. We turned our Creation Station (also known as a detached home office) into the AO War Room, pulling 20-hour days getting the online store up and running, brainstorming while we worked. We offered online shopping with curbside pick-up and local delivery. We made ourselves available for live video shopping so people could find what they needed while getting questions answered. And the most incredible thing happened…
Our community embraced us.