Mike Sutherland has loved the outdoors all his life, and now he’s found a way to live it – and live off it.
Sutherland began in 2010 with The River, a hub for renting kayaks, stand-up paddleboards (SUPs), tubes, and bikes at Clinch Park, Traverse City’s busiest beach. He took his idea to the City of Traverse City, and a three-year contract was signed; Sutherland’s River would serve as a rental hub for tourists and locals looking to get on the water, and the city would get a cut of the revenue.
The River became a destination, but the summer of 2013 also brought delays due to reconstruction at Clinch Park. Sutherland opened weeks late, just one day before the National Cherry Festival’s kickoff—and still enjoyed a record-setting season.
Now headed into its fifth year, Sutherland said he is “expecting 2014 to be a really sweet summer,” given a fixed children’s splash pad area and the new Bijou by the Bay movie theatre, both expected to attract more energy and more people to Clinch Park.
But what really has the northern Michigan native’s attention this year is a major expansion, one that will take him beyond just rentals and will take his operations beyond just the beach.
OUTFITTING EVERYTHING IN 231
Sutherland’s new idea is 231 Outfitters, an 8,000 square foot retail shop along Grandview Parkway across from the Open Space and in the heart of foot and car traffic. 231 Outfitters will complement The River, and will be what Sutherland calls “a consortium of outdoor guides, instructors, and captains working under one roof.” It’s a plan to take advantage of the rapid growth in active outdoor sports and ecotourism. 231 Outfitters will feature “the four Rs”: rental, retail, resale, and repair.
Want to skydive? Just ask. Interested in a day charter fishing on Grand Traverse Bay? Want to try a standup paddleboard or a wave runner? Thinking about trading in your bike for a new one? Sutherland has joined with more than a dozen partners who will either provide product or rentals through 231 Outfitters. He says the spot will be among the first locally to offer onsite ding and hole repairs.
Another foray will be a slate of ecotourism offerings. “The River is gearing itself toward making natural resources more accessible without depleting them,” Sutherland said.
Led by director Tree Sturman, formerly of the Grand Traverse Conservation District, ecotours will be guided activities showcasing the places and activities of northern Michigan. Among the items the group is working on are a float from the bay to the Boardman River, a ride on the TART trails, a tour of Power Island, and more. Tours will begin downtown or in an outlying area, and will vary from a few hours to a full day. Sturman said “every tour focuses on celebrating all that is good in the TC area.”
“My passion is for getting people outside and giving back to the outdoors,” he added. “I want to help people give back and appreciate the outdoors because without the beautiful lakes and rolling hills and rivers, there is no Traverse City.”
A CONSORTIUM FOR ACTIVITIES
Sutherland has also collaborated with Red8 Boatworks, a watercraft-building program for at-risk youth. Overseen by Captain Rorke Miller, recent winner of the prestigious Maritime Heroes Award, a new program will allow teens to build Kaholo 14 SUPs—the “perfect project” for youth, said Miller — and will be trained to eventually guide river ecotours and help with the rental service.
The consortium at 231 Outfitters will also include Mark Ringlever, who plans to introduce an alternative form of fly fishing that he’s offered in the Florida Keys, Bahamas, and Central America. Ringlever described this brand of shallow-water fly fishing as extremely difficult but likely to catch on locally. “People come to the state for fly fishing, which is a niche sport,” he said. “This new, fresh approach to carp and bass fishing requires a specialized skiff that will be operating out of 231 Outfitters. This type of fly fishing has been a growing trend out west, and it’s perfect for people who want alternatives to river fishing.”
Troy Daily’s TC Cycle Pub is another new partner. The original cycle pub – which puts pedalers on a sort of bike/trolley -- will remain at The Filling Station across town, but a second cycle pub will be housed at 231 Outfitters. This version will focus on the Ale Trail, a collection of nine local breweries featured in a passport that culminates in a commemorative pint glass after receiving stamps at each venue. After Daily’s Paddles for Pints kayaking events (using Sutherland’s kayaks) last August sold out quickly, he said teaming up with Sutherland via 231 Outfitters was a natural fit. “The outdoor adventures that [Mike’s businesses offer] really works well with what I’m doing with the breweries,” Daily said.
FOR LOCALS, TOO
Though he’s positioned for the tourist crowds and interests, Sutherland said he’s just as committed to appeal to the local market. He said many of his events and programs are built to remind locals to take advantage of the natural beauty of the area, including Power Island and the Boardman River, which The River’s website calls “the life blood, the main artery, the miracle of a watershed, so life giving and necessary.”
To learn more about 231 Outfitters and The River, visit http://therivertraversecity.com/.