ST. PAUL — When Terry and Brock took the plunge into a seasonal small business enterprise, they actually did. Just last summer, the couple opened Clinch River Adventures, an aquatic excursion outfitter based in St. Paul, where a lovely stretch of the river meanders past a town park. Whether by tube, canoe or kayak, the Funks can provide folks the means for a bucolic summertime, current-assisted float downriver to the outfit's setup in the town park's riverside red caboose.
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Last summer, the couple literally launched Clinch River Adventures with about 50 inflatable tubes, four kayaks and two canoes. On their first day, they got five takers — a dad and two of his kids and a married couple — and the next day, eight paying customers, then two, and then things just took off for the rest of the summer. As word got around, "from that point forward, we were open on weekends (and) we were sold out. By that I mean 40 to 50 tubes all summer long, Friday through Sunday. Completely sold out," Terry said. "Unfortunately, we turned away 10 to 20 groups. We just didn't have the watercraft last year to do that."
Thanks in part to an infusion of $5,000 from a recent state Entrepreneur's Challenge program — the Funks' Clinch River Adventures came in second place in the statewide competition — the watercraft inventory will help handle anticipated growth in business this coming summer.
"Hopefully, we will be able to get those groups back this summer and show them a good time on the river," Terry said. "That really, really helped us in every way in watercraft and life jackets. We were able to really increase our equipment and, of course, the more equipment, the more customers you can have."
The Funks' seasonal enterprise is at the very tip of what many in Southwest Virginia hope will become a thriving new tourism front for the region, with the river at its heart. The legions of Clinch River Initiative enthusiasts envision more enterprising folks like the Funks taking advantage of the natural assets of the region to grow the tourism industry like never before.
Randy Rose, a senior development specialist for the Virginia Tourism Association who focuses on Southwest Virginia, said the Funks are representative of a blossoming industry.
"Her story's a really cool story. She and her husband have really embraced the river, and obviously the (Clinch River Initiative) has several goals, and one of them is entrepreneurship. The Funks are a good example of that entrepreneurship goal," he said.
Another goal is to convince state lawmakers to create a state park with the Clinch River as its heart. That's not happened yet, but faith in that future isn't lacking for enthusiasm, along with commitment to make it happen, among the many partners of the initiative.
"So many people are involved, and more are getting involved, and that's good for the region," Rose said. "There's a lot of exciting things happening."
Last year's inaugural run for Clinch River Adventures was Fridays through Sundays from June 21 through Labor Day, but this year the couple plans to open operations starting with St. Paul's Clinch River Days festival, the last weekend in May, through September.
"This year will be a little different. We plan to open Thursdays through the weekends. But you can call for large groups this year. We don't have guides for tubes. We have a tutorial for our canoes and kayaks," Terry said.
The segment of the Clinch River currently used by the Funks for their seasonal outfitter enterprise is all rather gentle, with Class 1 rapids — the lowest on the rapids scale — "so the area we operate on doesn't need guides," Terry said. Customers must sign a waiver, but it's about as safe a river trip as one can get. The minimum age limit to participate is three years and, of course, accompanied by an adult.
Last summer, one lady with some fear of the water expressed concern. Terry said she told her if she did happen to end up separated from her tube or watercraft, to just stand up.
"Generally, the river's depth all the way down is no more than 3-4 feet," she said.
The couple operates their downriver float from two access points. There's the two-hour tube float option from Baptism Hole, about a mile and a half upriver from the town park — the park entrance and the caboose are located next to the Oxbow Center in St. Paul — and the second is from Bob Banner's farm, a four-mile stretch and about a three-hour float.
The Funks take customers upriver to the chosen access point, cast their customers off into the placid Clinch, and the river pretty much does the rest. Not just in current-assisted propulsion but a sweet way to drift along a summertime day.
Terry Funk teaches at Coeburn Middle School and Brock at Castlewood High School, where he also serves as baseball coach. How the pair fell into the river outfitter business was as simple as getting behind a compact bus.
While on a trip to Fries, Va., the couple — parents to small children now ages 3 and 1 — got behind an outfitters bus hauling customers for an excursion on the New River.
"We got behind this small bus with a sign on the back that said, 'Follow Me To The River,' and it was filled with people. And I said, 'Brock, we can totally do this' back home," Terry said. "So we decided to go out on the limb, and it was pretty successful for us last summ e r. "
For the Funks' upcoming second season, Terry said Clinch River Adventures will offer The Clinch River Bible Battle. A youth group or anybody else can avail themselves of a Bible quiz while going downriver. There will be 20 water cannons for 20 kids. The team that answers a question correctly gets to blast the other team.
The couple hopes to offer canoe and kayak lessons, and a high-tech wrinkle to this coming season will be a "floating classroom." Terry said customers can rent a kayak and be supplied with an iPad or tablet in a waterproof case that provides a rundown of the biodiversity, ecology, history and heritage of the Clinch River Valley.
Terry said her faith in the future of Clinch River Adventures and the overall goals of the Clinch River Initiative includes faith of another kind.
"All of this would not be possible — and of course there's a whole lot of people who have and continue to help us along the way — but this would not be possible without our faith," she said. "I thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ because He guides us through everything and is our main reason for success, of course."