Fifteen years and still paddling

Steamboat-based magazine celebrates a big birthday

Eugene Buchanan and his staff at Paddler magazine have figured out how to navigate the braided currents of career and leisure time.

The full-time staff of seven (five based in Steamboat Springs) puts out a bimonthly, 55,000-circulation national magazine. Paddler is celebrating its 15th anniversary with the issue on newsstands.

Paddler magazine hopes to attract many of the best whitewater kayakers in North America to Steamboat Springs on May 29 to celebrate its 15th anniversary and compete for $4,000 in prizes during the Paddler Pro Invitational. The kayakers will compete in the wild water of Fish Creek during the height of spring runoff and show off their freestyle moves in Charlie's Hole in downtown Steamboat.

Copies of Paddler are available at Bud Werner Memorial Library.

It publishes from a modest suite of upstairs offices in a funky little red house in the middle of a river sports Mecca.

"We can go out on our lunch hour and be paddling in the C-Hole" on the Yampa River, Buchanan said. "That's what has kept me in the game."

The longtime publisher and editor-in-chief of Paddler readily confesses that he came very close to making Paddler's home river the Animas instead of the Yampa.

"I moved the magazine up here in 1992," Buchanan said. "It was a difficult decision between Steamboat and Durango."

Ultimately, the relative ease of traveling to Denver from Steamboat, coupled with the presence of kayak manufacturer WaveSport in Oak Creek, won out.

More than Paddler

Today, in addition to publishing Paddler six times a year, Buchanan's staff publishes two other magazines for the American Canoe Association, based in Washington, D.C.

Kayaker, devoted to enthusiasts of whitewater kayaking, is in its fourth year of publishing two times a year. Steamboat Springs kayaker Kevin Dombey will be the cover boy of the spring issue, which was in the proofing stages this week.

In addition, the staff puts out a quarterly trade magazine entitled Paddle Dealer.

Paddler attempts to cover all aspects of canoeing, kayaking and rafting. It offers coverage of exotic expeditions to remote rivers and oceans as well as destinations closer to home.

The anniversary issue reprises the top 15 stories in the magazine's history.

Paddler wasn't always affiliated with the American Canoe Association, and the story about how the magazine and Buchanan reached a confluence in Steamboat has as many twists as the Green River in Dinosaur National Monument.

Buchanan, who worked as a newspaper reporter in Telluride, moved to Boulder in the late 1980s. He was a full-time staff writer for the Denver Business Journal, covering the slumping commercial real estate industry and airport issues. The experience was valuable, but his heart was in outdoor sports.

"The Denver Business Journal is where I really cut my teeth, but I was freelancing for Powder and other ski magazines," Buchanan recalled.

He also wrote a regular column for Paddler, which was based in California at the time. It was a little unsettling when the small magazine group that included Paddler was sold to a buyer who was most interested in acquiring a magazine titled Avocado Grower.

The new owner was savvy enough to acquire two other paddling sports titles and combine them to build the subscription base. Or, as Buchanan put it in a recent column, he made guacamole from avocados.

The owner appointed the editor of one of the new magazines to preside over the expanded Paddler, but he died a year later. Buchanan, 28 at the time, was promptly retained on a contract basis to edit the magazine. He moved the staff (which consisted of himself) to Steamboat a year later.

The American Canoe Assoc--iation purchased the magazine in 1997, when paddling sports were growing in popularity. The nonprofit ACA, founded in 1880, is the nation's oldest "waterway-based conservation organization."

Staying afloat

The influence of the ACA has been a stabilizing one for Paddler. Of its 50,000 members, almost 20,000 receive the magazine as a benefit of the annual dues of $40.

"That's been a great component," Buchanan said. "We don't have to spend marketing money in order to retain the magazine's subscription base."

Ownership by the ACA also presents the challenge of generating editorial content that appeals to a diverse readership.

Steamboat and the Colorado Rockies are devoted to whitewater rafting and kayaking. However, Paddler must appeal to a family audience and people who paddle traditional canoes on mellower rivers and lakes. The magazine's content also must attract adventurous people living in coastal America, where sea kayaks are favored. Paddler's content also reflects the growing number of fishermen who are using specially fitted sea kayaks as stealth platforms from which to angle for spooky fish that prowl saltwater flats in places such as Florida.

Today, Paddler's business operations are based at ACA offices in Washington, D.C. The editorial employees' work, advertising sales and design of the publication take place in Steamboat.

Melissa Van Arsdale is the art director, Kevin Thompson is the advertising director, Leighann McLaughlin is the production coordinator, and Jeff Moag is the managing editor. They all report to Buchanan.

Navigating the future

The paddling sports industry has exited the boom of the '90s, Buchanan said, yet there is tremendous upside in the number of Americans who take part in the sport at least once a year. The Outdoor Industries Association reports that when people who enjoyed a commercial paddling trip are taken into account, 50 million Americans experienced the sport last year.

At the same time, kayaking has seen a significant consolidation am----ong manufacturers, which has challenged publishers in the field.

WaveSport was acquired by Confluence, which subsequently merged with WaterMark. The latter already had acquired two of the biggest brand names in kayaking -- Dagger and Perception.

"We have a great staff, and we're doing well," Buchanan said.

The staff is looking forward to Memorial Day, when Paddler will join presenting sponsor Dagger to host the Paddler Pro Invitational kayak competition in Steamboat.

-- To reach Tom Ross, call 871-4205

or e-mail

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