Will cash flow from eco-tourism?
Sean Ashcraft and Michael Kappenman demonstrate paddle boards at Peak Paddlesports at the Boathouse in Orange Center on the Millers River.
Outdoor adventure company Peak Expedition is fostering greater use of the Millers River by recreational paddlers, a piece of Orange’s effort to encourage eco-tourism and economic development in general.
Sean Ashcraft and Michael Kappenman demostrate paddle boards at Peak Paddlesports at the Boathouse in Orange Center on the Millers River.
ORANGE — As the full moon rose over the town, it lit a two-mile path along the Millers River for several dozen people paddling on boards, in kayaks and canoes from the town’s new boathouse to Cook’s Cove.
According to the Peak Expedition’s principal tour leader Sean Ashcraft, this was no ordinary moon, but a rare “blue moon,” often defined as a second full moon in a month. The site was unusual enough to match the revival of a town that has slowly declined for the past 40 years, and more recently been besieged by financial crises.
Paddling through water made silvery in the moonlight, Dave MacClean recalled a time when he was a kid in the 1970s when the river wasn’t so clean.
“There used to be big brown chunks of stuff floating down it ... the water changed color depending on what they were making that day” at area riverfront factories. But those days of heavy industry are long gone, and the state and federal governments have poured millions of dollars into monitoring and cleaning its waterways.
And after years of economic stagnation, Orange is now on a path to attract new, environmentally friendly small businesses to town — like Peak Expeditions, an outdoor adventure company that is based in Greenfield but operates trips throughout the world.
Community Development Director Kevin Kennedy points to the boathouse activities as one of the first big successes of the town’s recent new economic development plan to “move Orange to green.”
According to Kennedy, Orange residents aren’t going to believe that “good things can come to Orange and the town can prosper unless they see concrete things getting done.”
Many Orange residents donated materials and labor to finish off the boathouse, a project that had been years in the making. A three-year contract was signed this spring with Peak Expeditions to operate programs and rent boats to the public in the town-owned structure.
“Peak is great,” Kennedy said. “They are local, they are experienced working with a wide population of kids and adults, and they are into connecting people to nature.”
The paddle tour attracted people of all ages from all over western and central Massachusetts as well as a familiar cadre of residents who frequent the boathouse, like MacClean.
Ashcraft said the boathouse has been bustling with so much activity since it opened this spring, he works seven days a week just keeping up.
Much of that time is dedicated to leading programs at the boathouse, but a significant portion of his days and evenings are devoted to marketing.
Most of the out-of-town paddlers said they learned about the moonlit tour through Facebook.
Katie Harndon, an avid kayaker, said she saw an ad on her Facebook page. She bought two tickets as a birthday present for her boyfriend.
The night’s event late last month was just one activity in a week-long adventure series organized by Peak Expeditions. Every evening featured a different adventure, including caving, rock-climbing, tree-climbing, hiking and exploring forest edibles.
Ashcraft said the company serves a wide variety of people from at-risk youth to senior citizens. “I like to push people just a smidge, not too much but just a smidge out of their zone,” he said, reflecting on his philosophy in guiding people to build their outdoor skills and confidence.
The week before, Ashcraft wrapped up a summer program serving 175 young people from around the area. Thanks to some unused grant money transferred from the schools to the town last year, 57 Orange elementary children were able to participate in the three-week-long water and adventure camp free.
Ashcraft helps tour participants connect with and appreciate the natural beauty and historical context of the places they visit. At Cook’s Cove, the group of paddlers idled in the water while he described the footbridge that once ran over the river, as well as the activity of steam and boats ferrying people from Athol to Orange. The group quieted to listen for the sound of river otters and bats flying above.
It’s been great being in Orange,” Ashcraft said. His company has a three-season commitment to operating the town’s boathouse. “I’m definitely looking forward to coming back next year.”
Other ecotourism activities in Kennedy’s development plan along the river include an indoor rock-climbing and bike track, and trails leading hungry hikers on the nearby M & M trail to downtown. Ashcraft is interested in developing more robust boating activity to include a canoe and kayak racing league, and white water paddling tours downstream from the dam.
Back at the boathouse, MacClean pulled his kayak out of the water. When asked if he had fun, he said, “I always do when I’m on the water.”