In this June 28, 2013 photo, Pocomoke River Canoe Company employee Ron Pilling, right, launches a kayak with the help of co-worker Joseph Beebe at the store located in a historic building on the Pocomoke River in Snow Hill, Md. Barry Laws started the Pocomoke River Canoe Co. 30 years ago. (AP Photo/The Daily Times, Laura Emmons) NO SALES
SNOW HILL, Md. (AP) — When Barry Laws started the Pocomoke River Canoe Co. 30 years ago on the banks of the Pocomoke River, he didn’t have a kayak in his fleet. Canoes were the only way to paddle up and down the scenic waterway.
But the boats have changed with the times, and today, it’s the kayak that people prefer over tipsy canoes.
The Pocomoke River Canoe Co. rents and sells canoes, kayaks, paddleboards and small fishing boats to adventurers who want to experience the flat water and diverse wildlife and vegetation of the river. Bald eagles, great blue herons and white-tailed deer congregate around its deep water.
Ron Pilling works several days a week at the canoe company — “It’s my retirement job” — but he bought his first canoe from Laws 25 years ago. He said while the boats have changed throughout the years, the river itself has not.
“The Pocomoke River is precisely the same experience today as it was 30 years ago,” Pilling said. “Our trips are nothing but cypress forest all the way down. There’s no new development. My guess is it’s much like it was 300 years ago, even 3,000 years ago.”
“What has changed is the boats,” he continued. “Now we have more kayaks than canoes, and there’s a greater interest in kayaking than canoeing, especially among guys my age, well past my first year of Social Security.”
Pilling said the modern design of today’s kayaks, which are wider than a standard Eskimo kayak, make them more stable and easier to maneuver. So they’re ideal for the casual, recreational or inexperienced paddler.
“You have to really work hard to get (kayaks) to capsize,” Pilling said. “You can turn a canoe over pretty easily.”
Paddlers come from all over, according to Pilling, including bird-watchers, nature lovers and “a surprising number of visitors from overseas.”
“The year before last, we had a whole van full of Pakistanis pull up,” Pilling said. “They turned out to be Pakistani generals who were at Wallops Island on some sort of training mission. …We get a lot of Englishmen, too.”
Area residents don’t seem to take advantage of the river as much. “Locals come in and say, ‘I’ve lived by this river for 40 years, and I’ve never been on it,'” he said.
The building the canoe company calls home — an old wooden structure at the foot of the Pocomoke River bridge — is historic in itself, having been built in the 1920s for the Corddrey Co., a lumber, mill work and coal yard operation. Corddrey sold out in the 1970s, and the business closed.
Laws, a Snow Hill native, bought the boarded up building a year before he opened the canoe company.
“I bought the building, and people said you need to put a restaurant there,” Laws said. “I had enough sense not to do that. I just decided to rent canoes. I thought it would be a good thing. The river was beautiful. I knew that.”
Laws’ first task was to raise the structure, since it originally sat at grade. The river occasionally rises to the foundation, as it did during Hurricane Sandy.
“Otherwise, the building looks pretty much exactly the same as it looks in the 1930s pictures we have,” Pilling said.
His first year, Laws rented four canoes from a company in Berlin, then re-rented them out to paddlers.
The next year, he bought four canoes, and the business grew from there.
Mike Pruitt, the town councilman who represents the downtown district, said the canoe company brings people from miles away to Snow Hill.
“Anytime we can showcase our beautiful river through a business like the canoe company, it’s a win-win situation for everybody,” Pruitt said.
Pilling said anyone who experiences a paddle on the Pocomoke River loves it and comes back for more.
“Sooner or later, you get a little tired of the beach if you come every summer,” he said.