Twenty-five years ago, Richard Pickle and his wife, Wanda, purchased 20 canoes and opened for business along the James River just outside Glasgow.
Now Wilderness Canoe Company - which runs from April through October each year - has about 60 tubes, 34 kayaks and two whitewater rafts along with canoes, and enough river-goers seeking a day in the outdoors to keep the Pickles plenty busy.
Their son, Charlie Pickle, took over the business in 2005. Richard Pickle — known to many as "Big Pickle" — still works on the weekends and runs the shuttle service from their 35-acre farm up the river to drop off guests at the launch point.
“We’re providing a very valuable service to people,” Charlie Pickle said. "City folks don’t get to see this stuff and they really enjoy it because of the environment and nature. It’s very satisfying to put 80 people out on the river and get 80 people back happier than when they left.”
Pickle said he often sees people come through who have just come off the interstate and are tired and stressed from life and traveling. His goal is to find them better off when they come back out the other end of the river.
“They’re happy, and you can see they’re happy with the world they’re living in,” he said. “It’s nice for me to go home and know everyone had a good time on the river.”
Pickle boasts that river-goers can check out the only Class 3 rapids — intermediate difficulty — on the Upper James River at Balcony Falls.
The business also offers a campground, and Pickle said it is unique to offer the campgrounds as well as all the other river equipment but it was something important to the family so guests could drive from farther away and stay the entire weekend and have everything in one place.
For a day trip, Wilderness Canoe Company offers four different options, including a nine-and-a-half-mile trip from Alpine in Botetourt County, a two-and-a-half-mile trip to Glasgow, a seven-mile trip to Snowden or a seven-mile trip down the Maury River.
According to Pickle, tubing is one the best group activities offered by the company and features a four-and-a-half mile trip down the James, but at the leisure of the river.
First-timer Drew Pelkey said her tubing experience was fun and relaxing.
As a newcomer to the Lynchburg area, she said it was a great opportunity to get outdoors and try something different.
“My favorite part of the trip was if you want to get out of your tube and swim around that was an option or if you didn’t want to get your whole body wet that was an option as well,” she said.
She said she recommends tubing, kayaking or canoeing for anyone who wants to grab their friends and fill a cooler for an afternoon of laughs in the outdoors.
Siblings Ethan, Dylan and Lydia Tordoff had never been tubing before at the company but chose a hot July afternoon to go because it was a fun way to spend time together with their friends.
“My friends and I had a great time floating the river. We chose Wilderness Canoe Company because of their fair prices. It was my first time using them and it won’t be my last,” he said.
The company also offers cooler tubes so tubers can pack up drinks and snacks to enjoy on the river.
Since the family started the business, they have now seen two generations of people come through.
“We put a kid out in 1994 and now that kid is bringing his kids out here. It’s a multi-generational thing that gets passed down,” Pickle said. “You don’t want this to be a lost thing. Canoeing has been around since the Indians and before that and that could easily go away if you don’t teach your kids to do it and do it safely.”
He said there are many repeat customers each year who look forward to getting in the river with friends and family. Though Pickle’s phone goes silent for a few months, he said cabin fever strikes in January and people are ready to get back outside and feel the sunshine.
Pickle said the most challenging part of running the business is weather and the fluctuation of the water level on the river.
“We look at it every day and make sure it’s safe to put people out. There are limits on everything we do so people don’t go out and get hurt,” he said.
In all the 25 years the business has been running, no one has ever gotten hurt, Pickle said.
Up until two years ago when the business really began to pick up, Pickle said he had to get a second job.
Now the business sustains him enough to where he doesn’t have to work in the winter months.
With three employees including Richard Pickle working the weekends, Charlie Pickle works seven days a week and runs the business solo during the week.
He said the business poses it’s own challenges running only seven months of the year and in peak for only three of those.
If the river is too high, Pickle can’t put anyone on it and even though Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day make the most money, it’s common for the river to flood during one of those holidays and no one can go out.
“It was a leap of faith. You put all that money down and don’t know if anyone will show up but it’s pretty miraculous because they always do. We were just poor people trying to make a living. We’re still poor but at least we’re making a living,” he said.