Idaho River Sports – center of the universe for river boaters – celebrates end of an era – Idaho Capital Sun

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Timing can be everything in business. 

Start a new business at the beginning of a new market trend, and you could be riding a wave of success. Wait too long, and you’ve missed the show. 

In a lot of ways, Jo Cassin and Stan Kolby had great timing when they launched a new outdoor store in Boise’s trendy Hyde Park in 1987, selling river gear just as whitewater kayaking and rafting were gaining in popularity in Idaho and across the West. They named it Idaho River Sports.

A whole confluence of events were happening right here in Boise, with Rob Lesser, a local world-class kayaker selling Perception kayaks to Idaho River Sports and other retailers West-wide, Maravia manufacturing rafts in Garden City for retail sales at Idaho River Sports, and Cascade Raft Company guiding whitewater trips on the Payette River, enticing newbies to buy their own rafting gear. AIRE would open for a manufacturing business in 1989, selling catarafts, rafts and inflatable kayaks. All of those things increased interest in running rivers and expanded the market for river gear. 

Cassin and Kolby conceived of the idea of opening a river gear business in Boise while paddling the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River.

“There wasn’t anywhere to buy boating gear in Boise,” Cassin says. “You had to go to Blackadar Boating in Salmon or Northwest River Supplies in Moscow. So we said, let’s start a store in Boise!”

But they did a lot more than open a store. They started the Boise Canoe Club to share flat-water adventure destinations with customers and friends. They hosted Idaho Whitewater Association meetings after hours to talk about river-access and conservation issues. They hosted the association’s used equipment sale on Saturdays in April. 

Idaho River Sports became the center of the paddling universe in Boise, and that helped build the market for river gear.

In December, Stan and Jo will officially phase out of the business and retire after selling Idaho River Sports to four partners from Georgia. They ran Idaho River Sports for 35 years, negotiating plenty of ups and downs in the economy, much like trying to negotiate multiple hazards in a long whitewater rapids. In the end, they came out of the maelstrom right side up, with a profitable business to sell.

The explosion of popularity with Stand-Up Paddle Boards, or SUPs, and Idaho River Sports’ perfect location next to the most popular place to SUP in Boise, Quinn’s Pond, and a stone’s throw from the Boise Whitewater Park, made the difference. 

Boise Whitewater Park
Boise Whitewater Park is a unique facility on the Boise River that features an adjustable wave for kayakers and surfers, three additional in-river wave structures with something for all skill levels, and a plaza area with viewing spots. (Courtesy of “Boise Highlights” student newsletter)

“SUPs saved Jo and Stan, there’s no doubt about that,” Lesser says. “The vision they had of re-locating their business over by Quinn’s pond and the Boise Whitewater Park was quite something.”

Few people know, however, that they almost didn’t survive the daring move to Quinn’s Pond.

About Jo and Stan  

Stan Kolby was born in Stanley and raised on a farm on south Five Mile Road near Meridian and Kuna. He graduated from Meridian High School. He dreamed of being a national freestyle ski champion in those days and reached his goal of making the U.S. Freestyle Ski Team, specializing in moguls. 

When the telemark skiing craze emerged in the early 1980s, Kolby got into the local and national telemark racing circuit. He met Jo Cassin when she was working at the “Boot Works,” an outdoor-ski store in downtown Boise located next to Pengilly’s Saloon and the Cactus Bar. Cassin also got into telemark racing with Kolby and friend Mark Frass. 

“I was the state telemark champ five or six years in a row,” Kolby says. 

Cassin had grown up in Colorado, the daughter of two geologists. Her parents took her on a lot of backpacking and camping trips. She came to Boise to attend college at Boise State University. She studied political science. “I interned at the Statehouse, and I quickly learned that I didn’t like politics. I quit school and worked at the Boot Works.”

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Ken Horwitz was her boss. He’d later become the marketing director for Perception kayaks. 

Cassin and Kolby started dating, both of them being cut from the same cloth as amazingly passionate, outdoorsy people. Cassin also played hockey, holding her own in Boise men’s leagues. Kolby worked for the Boise National Forest on a heli-tack crew, rappelling into wildfires. 

Kolby and his good friend Jim Giardelli, who also worked on the heli-tack crew, got into river boating by canoeing the Main Payette in aluminum boats with no flotation in 1980. “We crashed and burned in every rapids, and we thought that was fun,” Kolby says with a grin. 

Then they got into kayaking in Hollowform (early plastic boats). They worked on their kayak roll in the Parkcenter pond. “Things really started to click for me, and I loved kayaking,” Kolby says. “We got to a point where we loved running high water on the Payette River, and it just went wild from there.”

Cassin was more comfortable canoeing and rafting. She guiding raft trips on the Payette River. But she learned to kayak, too.      

After talking about starting a river business on the Grand Canyon in 1984, it took three years to pull off the dream. Cassin, Kolby and Giardelli pitched in $5,000 each to start Idaho River Sports. 

Cassin and Kolby were living together in a house on 13th Street. They noticed that there was a vacancy in a building at 13th and Eastman. Rent was cheap to start with, $500 a month. “It was a beat-up building with BB-gun holes in the windows,” Cassin says. 

Rob Lesser
Rob Lesser of Boise, a world-class kayaker and a former Perception kayak rep. He remembers setting up
Jo and Stan with an initial fleet of Perception kayaks when they opened the store in Hyde Park.

Working with Lesser, they sold a variety of Perception kayaks. They also carried life jackets, NRS wet suits, Kokatat dry suits, river booties, rescue ropes, river maps and guides, river hats and more. Within a year or two, they added Patagonia clothing to the mix.

Boisean Mary Lucachick, who had been kayaking for a number of years, remembers walking into Idaho River Sports for the first time. 

“I thought, oh my God! They carried everything that boaters needed and wanted – all the cool stuff you’d seen in magazines or in a catalog somewhere. The store was set up better right off the boat than any boating store I had ever seen. It was phenomenal.”  

Cassin and Kolby were a good blend for running a business. Everyone will tell you that Jo Cassin is the nicest, most gracious and generous person alive. She made everyone feel welcome shopping at IRS. Stan Kolby was very approachable as well, and he knew all the technical details about river gear. He could help people make decisions about what kind of boat to buy – from canoes to kayaks to rafts – what would be the best for their ability, and more. 

Truth be told, however, the blend wasn’t exactly perfect. Just as Cassin and Kolby were starting the business, their marriage was falling apart and they got divorced. Somehow, they managed to keep the business intact. 

“That was beyond unbelievable,” Lucachick says. “I don’t know how they did that.”

“We were better off as friends,” Cassin says. 

Cassin remembers the Patagonia rep stopping in the store. “I was like we’re doing great, we’re selling all these kayaks, and the truth was, we were struggling. He was worried about us. He was like, Are you OK? And we were like, yes, we’re so happy! We’re making $10,000 a year. He was mortified and we were thrilled.” 

“In the Grand Canyon, I was thinking we were going to make $80,000 in the first year,” Kolby says. I had no business sense at all.”

After the first year, Giardelli decided to move on. “He was like, that’s a lot of work for no money,” Kolby says. 

“The whitewater business was never a big money-maker,” Lesser says. “It was more about passion and lifestyle. Jo and Stan had a deep connection to nature and the outdoors. They were committed to making it work.” 

The reality of the situation was, even in a state that became known as the “Whitewater Capital of the World,” with an amazing array of whitewater rivers to run – from the Payette River to the Middle Fork Salmon, Main Salmon, Selway, Hells Canyon of the Snake, and more – the whitewater boating and canoeing market was quite small to start with. 

Idaho the whitewater state

As an active whitewater boater in 1987 myself, I had just bought a new self-bailing raft from Maravia in Garden City. When I saw a Subaru or a Suburban driving around Boise with raft frames or kayaks on the rack, I usually knew them personally. So did Stan and Jo. 

Steve Stuebner rafting the South Fork Payette Canyon
Steve Stuebner rafting the South Fork Payette Canyon reach circa 1988.
(Courtesy of Tom Shanahan)

“The boating community was small. Everybody knew everybody,” Cassin says. “Our business grew by word of mouth. The Boise community has been so good to us!”

In the winter, Kolby started a ski-tuning business called “The Skiers Edge” to help with income during the winter. He’d do that for 15 years. 

All of the elements were in place, however, for anyone to get into the sport, Lesser points out. The Boise State Outdoor Program was expanding under the leadership of Randy Miller. They had a fleet of rental rafts, and they had an old beat-up van to take paddlers to the Payette River. The BSU Outdoor Program also offered canoeing classes and kayak roll lessons at the pool. 

Wendy Wilson and Phil Lansing, who came to Idaho from Ann Arbor, Michigan, were skilled canoeists who taught whitewater canoeing with Roger Rosentreter and Rick Katucki at the BSU pool. As part of “graduation,” they took class participants on the Main Payette, starting at Banks, in cold, high water (12,000 cfs) in April. Wilson and Lansing also led five-day outfitted wilderness canoe trips on the East Fork of the Owyhee River, a new option for the adventurous. 

Experienced local kayakers taught roll sessions in the pool. That’s how many people in Boise, including me, learned how to roll a kayak. My teacher was Jay Rosentreter. You’d do 5-6 roll classes in the pool, and then you’d participate in a “graduation” session on the Main Payette in cold, big water in the spring. I remember that being a very cold, scary, teeth-chattering experience. I vowed to wait for warmer weather and water to develop my kayak skills on the river.

The key to getting started, beyond the lessons, was to find a group of friends to go boating with. I remember seeing a lot of HP engineers kayaking on the Payette River, some of them on the North Fork. Cassin and Kolby got more people into canoeing by leading trips on flat-water rivers. 

“You had to have someone introduce you to the sport,” Lesser says. “It’s the kind of thing where there’s enough uncertainty about the danger of rivers and such that you literally needed to have someone hold your hand.” 

Quality river gear key to success

Lesser points out that the Perception kayaks available for sale by this time were quality plastic boats that didn’t break or leak on the river. Perception made good-quality neoprene spray skirts that didn’t pop off in the middle of rapids. Some boaters started out with the Perception Mirage, then the Eclipse, and Dancer, which was a very popular boat West-wide. 

By the late 1980s, Maravia changed to a raft-manufacturing process in which they used welded seams on plastic-coated boats, eliminating a major glue problem with older Maravia rafts. Kolby recalls selling 20-30 new Maravia rafts in 1988-89; the new rafts with the welded seams were popular. “We were growing really fast at that point,” he says.

In the 1989, AIRE inflatables opened for business with a raft-manufacturing plant in Garden City. One of the owners, Alan Hamilton, had learned the business at Northwest River Supplies in Moscow, where he worked from 1983-88. Hamilton, a giant bear of a man with a big personality to match, had gained a large measure of fame by running the Class 5 North Fork of the Payette River from top of bottom in AIRE catarafts with business partner, Chris Walker. The whole top-to-bottom run was captured on video,  (“Great White Hunters In Search of the Unrunnable” on YouTube), and it got people jazzed about catarafts, known as “cats.” 

Cats were easier to navigate in whitewater, and they were extremely forgiving. Properly steered, they punched through whitewater rapids easier than rafts without as much danger of flipping in big water. In a way, catarafts were like rafts with training wheels for beginners. They were light and sporty on the water, and you could turn them on a dime.  

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Idaho River Sports had been renting, selling and repairing Maravia rafts at its Hyde Park store. But then Maravia merged with Oregon-based Cascade Outfitters and opened a retail store. That ended its retail partnership with Idaho River Sports. Not missing an opportunity, Hamilton called Idaho River Sports and offered to open a retail showroom at the AIRE Garden City warehouse. He asked if Idaho River Sports would staff the retail showroom.

“It was obvious to us that it’d be great to have a partnership with Idaho River Sports,” Hamilton says. “They were more prominent with an existing retail store, they had a great track record of supporting local causes and events, and we wanted to be popular not only locally but nationally.”

“It worked out really well to work with AIRE,” Kolby adds. “We just needed to find the employees to staff it. AIRE was growing really fast.”

AIRE had a great customer service policy for dealing with any repairs without question. AIRE also allowed Idaho River Sports to bring NRS boats into their showroom. “We liked that situation because we wanted to sell both brands,” Kolby says. “AIRE and NRS had the same customer service policy – anything goes wrong, we’ll fix it. We liked that. 

“Jo and I felt that customer service had to be our top priority from Day 1.”

Idaho Canoe Club 

The Idaho Canoe Club (later morphed to Idaho Canoe Kayak SUP Club) brought a steady stream of customers into the door as more newbies went on club trips, came home enthused about the sport and wanted their own canoe. “Nobody knew where to go paddling,” Cassin says. 

“We sold hundreds of canoes in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s,” Kolby says. 

They remember asking Pete Zimowsky, former outdoor writer at the Idaho Statesman, if he’d promote their first canoe club outing from Emmett to Letha on the lower Payette River. Zimowsky wrote about the trip in advance, and they had 60 people show up. The next trip, they went on the Middle Fork of the Boise River. “We went a half mile, and half of the boats were upside down,” Kolby recalls. 

The next week they went to the Middle Fork Payette River, a much easier run from Tie Creek CG to Crouch. “We needed to dial it down to easy flat-water paddles that everyone would enjoy,” Cassin says. “We thought, the Middle Fork Payette is our standard. This is where people are more comfortable.” 

The Middle Fork Payette trip became the destination for the annual Mother’s Day canoe trips. Other times, they went to the North Fork Meanders in McCall, Silver Creek near Picabo, and Elk Creek and Bear Valley Creek near Stanley. 

The Idaho Whitewater Association’s whitewater sale  

In the late 1980s and 1990s, the annual used whitewater sale, held in April each year and sponsored by the Idaho Whitewater Association, was one of the biggest events of the year. 

Idaho River Sports always hosted the sale in Hyde Park and later over at the current Idaho River Sports location on Whitewater Boulevard. They’d block off 13th Street, and the whole area was smothered with river gear – kayaks, rafts, canoes, oars, paddles, life jackets, wet suits and more. 

Whitewater equipment sale
Idaho River Sports hosted a beloved used recreation equipment sale each year. (Courtesy of Idaho River Sports)

“Everybody and their dog went to the whitewater sale, no matter if you needed anything or not,” Lucachick recalls. “You just went to see your paddling friends. And inevitably, you’d find something to buy.”

“The whitewater sale was a big driver before Craigslist came into being,” Kolby adds. “It helped people get into the sport without spending a ton of money.”

A percentage of all the revenue from the sale would go to the Idaho Whitewater Association for river conservation and access-improvement projects. 

Times change  

Even with the growth of kayaking, rafting and canoeing through the 1990s and into the early 2000s, it was still a niche sport with a smaller share of the outdoor market than many. 

Cassin and Kolby had been doing their best to grow the business in every way possible, and they had succeeded in bringing the sport to a much broader audience in the greater Boise area. Plus, the city of Boise had been expanding steadily through an economic boom period in the 1990s. Boise often ranked in the “Top 10 of Best Cities to Live” for outdoor and economic opportunities. 

AIRE continued to grow and moved into a larger warehouse in Meridian with a retail showroom manned by Idaho River Sports. 

John Heimer, who was retired from Idaho Fish and Game, started a guided rafting business on the Boise River called Boise River Tours. Heimer took a lot of guests on tours of the Boise River below Ann Morrison Park to Eagle, talking about the city, the fish in the river, the wildlife and conservation.

Heimer worked with Idaho Rivers United and the Boise River Enhancement Network on river cleanups and riparian planting projects, and often times, he’d ask Idaho River Sports for some extra rafts, paddles and life jackets to help the cause. 

“They were always very gracious and generous about giving back to the community,” he says. “They care a lot about the Boise River. They’re great people to work with – always have been.” 

Cassin said it was always an easy choice to help out. “We knew we had to give back to the resource, and it’s always important to take care of the people who take care of us.” 

The Move to Quinn’s Pond

By the late 1990s to 2001, kayaking was peaking and then it would drop in popularity, Lesser says. “That was probably the heyday of the sport. And then at the same time, there was a lot of consolidation among the kayaking manufacturers by much larger corporate conglomerates. That was when they lost a lot of the ground troops like me.” 

After being in business for 17 years, Kolby and Cassin were maintaining all aspects of their business, but they weren’t taking a month of vacation in Bali in the off-season. “It always felt like we were just hanging on,” Kolby says. “Eventually we realized that if we did everything right, we could make a 3 percent profit at the end of the year. That was kind of eye-opening.” 

In 2004, they had an idea that might vault them to the next level. They decided to invest in a building and property next to Quinn’s Pond, a place where people went swimming and partying next to the Greenbelt and the Boise River. 

Cassin and Kolby had been closely following Boise Parks and Recreation’s plans to build a state-of-the-art whitewater park next to Quinn’s Pond. A major park also was on the drawing board to be financed by Esther Simplot immediately adjacent to Quinn’s Pond and the Boise River.   

Ada County Highway District planned to build a new street called Idaho Whitewater Boulevard across to Main and Fairview as an alternative route tying into State Street. All of those plans were pending when Cassin and Kolby made the decision to move Idaho River Sports to the Pleasanton location. They eventually closed the Hyde Park store in 2010. 

“That broke my heart to close the Hyde Park store,” Cassin says.

Recall how the Great Recession of 2007-2010 impacted the Boise community just several years after Idaho River Sports moved over to Pleasanton Street. The greater Boise community shedded 55,000 jobs at the time, according to the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce. People stopped spending while they watched their earnings shrink in the stock market. 

All of the plans for the whitewater park, Esther Simplot Park and Whitewater Boulevard languished during the Recession. 

Idaho River Sports was hurting. Sales were down, way down. AIRE had decided to do their own retail sales at their Meridian store by this point, so that reduced another source of revenue. Their banker told them they had to declare bankruptcy. They were a million dollars in debt. 

“We said no!” Cassin says. 

They vowed to pay off their debts a little bit at a time. They informed their creditors. Mountain West Bank officials stuck by their side. “They said, we see your vision. We can see what’s going to happen with the park and the road. We’ll stay with you to the bitter end,” Kolby says. 

“AIRE, NRS, Kokatat all stood behind us. Pay what you can, when you can.” 

Serendipity – Finally!

Finally, the Whitewater Park opened for the first time in 2012. The Boise and national economy started to crawl out of the slump. And then, a big thing happened that no one really saw coming – Stand Up Paddle Boards were invented. Cassin bought six SUPs at the first opportunity. Kolby said, “No don’t … “

A week later, they were sold. And Kolby said, “Let’s get more!” 

Idaho River Sports shop
Idaho River Sports became the center of the paddling universe in Boise, and that helped build the market for river gear. (Courtesy of Idaho River Sports Facebook page)

“SUPs saved us,” Cassin said. “Suddenly we were selling 300 to 500 SUPs a year, and it brought us out of debt. It brought new people into the store. New faces we’d never seen before.”

Quinn’s Pond became THE place to SUP and hang out on the beach. It was a convenient place to take SUP lessons. Idaho River Sports had SUP rentals at the ready. Once people got comfortable on a SUP, they wanted to buy one. The new sport took off. In a short amount of time, SUPs were the No. 1 fastest growing outdoor sport in the nation. 

A new pedestrian bridge was built across the Boise River, just above the whitewater park, tying together Garden City with Quinn’s Pond, Esther Simplot Park and Idaho River Sports. Whitewater Boulevard was completed in 2014. In the fall of 2016, the 55-acre Esther Simplot Park was dedicated by Boise Parks and Recreation. More features would be added to the whitewater park. 

Now Idaho River Sports was uniquely positioned to provide tons of SUP and kayak rentals next to Quinn’s Pond, the ponds at Esther Simplot Park and for people paddling on the shaped waves in the Whitewater Park. When the weather gets hot, Esther Simplot Park and Quinns Pond overflow with hundreds, if not thousands of people on the water, on shore and in the parking lots. Idaho River Sports has to guard their parking spaces for retail customers to use during those busy times. 

By 2019, Cassin and Kolby took a big breath and felt for the first time in a long time that they were going to be OK. Beyond the SUPs, they still sold a lot of other river gear. Nowadays fishing cats are a big seller and hard-shell recreational kayaks are popular as well. 

The new buyers from Georgia initially inquired about purchasing Idaho River Sports in October 2021, Cassin said. They finalized the acquisition in January 2022. Cassin and Kolby have been phasing out their involvement through this year, providing for a smooth transition. 

The owners have “assured us that they want to keep the tradition of being involved in the community and giving back to the community,” Cassin says. “And they’ve been really good to our employees, and that’s really important to us. I had a few sleepless nights about that. But they’re all happy!” 

Idaho River Sports had about 400 employees over 35 years, Kolby says. “So many parents have come up to us and said, we’re so glad our kids worked for you! They’re tremendously grateful because it was often their first job. And they learned a strong work ethic.”

Cassin and Kolby are 66 now. They’re ready to enjoy their retirement. 

“I’m kind of sad,” Cassin says. “It’s bittersweet for me. It’s been a big part of our lives for a long time. It’s hard to let go.”

Kolby, who is married and lives in Emmett now, is looking forward to playing in the mountains, hunting, dirt-biking, playing golf, fishing, skiing, backpacking and running rivers for fun. 

Cassin has her eyes fixed on a vacation in the Virgin Islands in January and lots of road-tripping. She’s also still playing hockey.   

At a big retirement party at Payette Brewing for Kolby and Cassin a few weeks ago, a big crowd of 250 people came to wish them well. Hamilton and his wife, Mary, came down from McCall to attend. 

“I wasn’t going to miss it,” Hamilton says. “They’re good people who did many good things for the boating community and the community itself. They got so many people into river sports, and they made it safe for them to do so.”

“It’s amazing to think all of the energy and sweat-equity those two have put into IRS over the years,” adds Lesser. “It’s immense! It’s kind of like, whew, finally, they’re selling the love of their lives.”   

I would echo those thoughts. Everyone is grateful to Stan and Jo for hanging in there for all of those years, providing quality gear for everyone to buy and enjoy to make their river trips the best possible experience. Along the way, they showed how deeply they care for the river resource and supported the river community every step of the way. Hat’s off to you both!

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