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Outfitter has devoted decades to Rappahannock
By RUSTY DENNEN
Bill Micks took his first paddling trip on the Rappahannock River with the Boy Scouts in 1958.
It was a life-changing moment, says Micks, who lived up the hill from the river at the time, off College Avenue. His boyhood paddling trips with George Brumble, a local veterinarian and Scout leader, led to a lifelong love of the Rappahannock, decades of service to Friends of the Rappahannock, and a business that has catered to river-lovers for 40 years.
The two-day paddling and camping trip “stuck with me,” says Micks, 64, a retired school teacher and co-owner of the Virginia Outdoor Center on Fall Hill Avenue.
“All through my Scouting experience and through high school, [Brumble] would call and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to paddle the Shenandoah or the James. If you’re home, we’ve got an extra boat.’”
Micks, raised by his aunt, went off to college with a yearning for the Rappahannock lodged in his heart, friends say. He attended Ferrum College, transferred to Virginia Commonwealth University and got a teaching degree.
Soon, he was a physical education teacher and coach in Stafford County—his day job for the next 31 years. But he couldn’t shake a connection with the river.
“When I got out of college, that was what I wanted to do,” he says.
In the summer of 1972, he borrowed $1,000, bought three Grumman canoes, paddles, life jackets and started teaching American Red Cross canoeing classes.
“I kept that equipment in the backyard on Powhatan Street,” he recalls.
At the time, a local boat dealer was selling canoes, but no one was renting them. Micks saw a business opportunity, forming Rappahannock Canoe Rentals.
“The spinoff from that was [that] I thought people might be interested in river trips,” he says.
So he began offering them that year, becoming the area’s first outfitter.
The following season, he bought another couple of canoes, and the business slowly began to grow. He ran the business after his school day, on evenings and weekends.
In 1975, Micks incorporated the company, and married his wife, Denise, a teacher and Spotsylvania County native. She remembers one of their first dates—a paddling outing. She had never been in a boat on the river.
“We came to a landing area downstream, and he found a flat rock, built a fire on the ground and put that rock over the fire. Then he cooked the best, juiciest hamburger I’ve ever had in my life,” she says.
The kicker came after they were heading back to the landing.
“It starts to get dark, we’re going downstream and I’m a little apprehensive. Then I hear this tremendous roar.”
Micks, she recalls, told her, “If the front of the boat takes a sharp drop down, jump out and away from the canoe.”
That roar was water flowing over the Embrey Dam. Micks was enjoying his joke.
When they arrived near the structure, which would be demolished in 2004, they portaged around it, put back in on the Rappahannock Canal and paddled up near Micks’ home.
“I figured that if we survived that date and moved forward, it was meant to be ,” she says. “Since the day we were married, I was involved in the business in some respect.”
RIVER AND COMPANY
When they married, the Mickses had about 20 canoes and had opened the Lean Downstream Whitewater Shack on Powhatan Street. The shop had some paddling equipment.
Their daughter, Katharine, was born in 1980, and she grew up in the business. She now lives in Raleigh, N.C., and, like her father, has had a lifelong love of the outdoors, her parents say.
“Little did I realize that all those experiences would guide me through my adult life,” says Micks, who is still going strong in the business, with Denise’s help. “When I think back on it, it’s pretty incredible.”
In the early 1980s, he began running float trips from Eley’s Ford and Kelly’s Ford down the river. In the meantime, two other outfitters had arrived on the scene: Clore Brothers outfitters at Motts Run and Rappahannock River Campground in Richardsville.
“It was all local” clientele back then, Micks said. Eventually, the business needed more space.
“I talked to the city about leasing some land at Old Mill Park, but they didn’t want to do that,” he recalled.
Then, Bess and Fred Turk, who were taking one of his canoe classes, suggested he talk with Bess’ mother, Butler Franklin. Franklin owned the Fall Hill estate overlooking the river along Fall Hill Avenue. She agreed to lease him a chunk of land then known as Sandy Bottom along the river, for 30 years. It was a big decision for two school teachers.
“I had to mortgage my house and come up with the money to build a building. I just couldn’t stop,” Micks says. “I just saw all these things opening up.”
The Rappahannock Outdoor Educational Center took two years to build, and the labor was all done by friends who pitched in, Micks said. The couple spent weekends there; Katharine had a small bunk bed in the office.
“Her swimming pool was a canoe or raft full of water, and that’s what she played in,” Denise said.
FOCUS ON SAFETY
One of Micks’ early concerns was river safety, prompted by an accident in which two children playing on top of Embrey Dam were washed over into the rushing river below. One of them drowned.
“There were a series of incidents involving young people in the Rappahannock,” Micks recalls.
He developed a river-safety curriculum that was adopted by city, Spotsylvania and Stafford schools, and he got a grant from Rappahannock United Way to produce a related video also used in schools. “It was about all the things that people need to be aware of to have a good, fun, safe time.”
There’s been an ongoing need for such education; more than 80 people have drowned in the Rappahannock since 1985.
Because of his proximity to the water, Micks and his paddling buddies over the years have helped with many river rescues, including one on July 4, 2003, in which 16 teens on a church outing had to be pulled from the rain-swollen Rappahannock.
Along with river safety, Micks’ interest in conservation grew as more people turned to the river for recreation.
Friends of the Rappahannock, which would become a major focus for Micks, formed in 1985. He quickly made connections there, as their mutual interests converged.
Two years later, FOR moved from its small office downtown into Micks’ building. “Little did any of us realize how far [FOR] would go,” Micks says.
John Tippett, FOR’s executive director since 1995, says the two made an early connection on the river.
“The very first thing we did was a paddle trip from Motts to FOR [headquarters]. We were talking and getting to know each other, and I knew I had come into a very special organization,” Tippett says.
Micks, he says, “has so many decades of experience in this area, and he’s constantly able to make connections. He has a very positive tone and he believes so much in our mission.”
Tippett says Micks helped get the word out about FOR’s conservation, education and stewardship activities, usually working quietly in the background, leaving the spotlight to others.
“He’s seen us through our birth to today, and that has proven invaluable to me.”
Micks is the reason that FOR has a permanent home on the river. When the 12 acres he was leasing was put up for sale in 2007, he gave up his lease and right of first refusal to buy the property.
Doug Stewart, a local financial consultant, purchased the property, then gave it to FOR, complete with a conservation easement protecting the land from most types of development, in perpetuity.
Tippett says Micks was among those responsible for some of the most important conservation efforts.
One was the removal of the Embrey Dam in 2004 to allow passage for migratory fish. And in 2006, the City Council and several conservation agencies placed a conservation easement on more than 4,200 acres of city-owned riverfront land along the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers.
FOR named a shelter on its property in honor of Micks’ service. Micks recently donated a trailer and 10 canoes for FOR’s lower-Rappahannock programs.
Tom Van Arsdall, a longtime friend who moved to the area to be close to the Rappahannock and work with FOR, first met Micks on the river in the early 1970s.
A consultant who now lives on a houseboat on Kent Island, Md., Van Arsdall recalls, “A buddy of mine borrowed my beat-up Grumman canoe to go on an overnight trip. They thought it would be easy water.”
It wasn’t. The canoe got wrapped around a rock.
When Van Arsdall got there, Micks was there too. “Bill got some people to pry it loose.”
The two got to know each other well, on and off the river.
“He’s genuine. He doesn’t pretend to be somebody he’s not.”
When Van Arsdall would seek his advice, Micks “had a way of getting past the mumbo–jumbo and high-sounding arguments.”
MAKING IT WORK
He says Micks was always giving back to the river.
“He was a terrible businessman, and I mean that as a compliment. He would say, ‘Hey, I don’t want to make any money at this thing. What I want to do is work with kids and Scouts.’”
Early on, Micks worked with local Boy Scout troops, helping them with Eagle projects to clean up the riverbanks, create camping areas and help preserve the deteriorating 19th-century Rappahannock Canal locks. He says there have been more than 30 such projects to date.
Micks says the business started off slow, with one helper. Now he has 12 seasonal workers, mostly local students, and about 120 canoes and kayaks, along with float tubes.
The paddling season starts in May. May and June—eight weekends—he says, are the best for temperature and river levels.
“July, August and September are usually very dry, and you lose a lot of recreational trips,” he says. “Sometimes the river comes back in October,” offering a brief window for fall paddling.
“You’re lucky to get 12 to 15 weekends a year to pay your bills.”
Denise adds, “In the infamous words of Bill Micks, ‘It’s been a character-building situation.’”
In 2000, Micks’ and four other businesses teamed up to create the Virginia Outdoor Center on the Fall Hill Avenue property. John Garman, then-owner of Mountain Skills, is co-owner of VOC.
Micks says he’s still happy managing the business, but that one day he hopes to hand off some of the responsibilities.
He wants more time to paddle his canoe in favorite spots. His top four paddling picks: the Rappahannock, Middle Fork of the Salmon River in central Idaho, Nolichucky in Tennessee, and the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.
The Rappahannock, he says, will always be in a category by itself.
“It just created its own magic and never left me.”
Rusty Dennen: 540/374-5431