Kayak Memphis is a business that brings new recreational opportunities to Memphis, all from the banks of the Wolf River Harbor in the River Garden Park where Jefferson Avenue meets Riverside Drive. Kayak rentals in Downtown Memphis? And on the Mississippi River? The answer is yes to the former and no to the latter, according to Kayak Memphis owner Harry Babb. The business only allows customers to take kayaks out in the calm waters of the Wolf River Harbor, a three-mile stretch of protected water. Customers can spend a couple of hours casually paddling north three miles before turning around and heading back toward Downtown.
Babb grew up kayaking and canoeing on the Mississippi River from Shelby Forest State Park down into the Wolf River Harbor. When his family discovered the Ghost River section of the Wolf River, it led to the unintentional start of a kayak rental business by his dad and one of his friends. They bought a few boats, set up at the Ghost River and the business began to catch on in popularity. That was in 2005, when Babb was a freshman in high school. In addition to the Ghost River, that business also did guided Mississippi River trips every year. When Babb turned 18, he began further developing the operations and growing Kayak Memphis. Today, Kayak Memphis is a separate business from the original, Ghost River Outfitter.
Babb’s full-time position at Memphis River Parks Partnership led to a kayaking event in April 2018 at Mud Island. That led to a successful July Fourth event, and every boat sold out. The business began operation on the historic Cobblestones along Riverside Drive last August. Then in November, the completion of River Garden Park gave Babb and his business a location to set up a rack to store kayaks for rent. Today, Kayak Memphis operates at The 4th Cup coffee shop in the park as well as a second location on Mud Island near the new “Memphis” sign. The business will shut for the season in November and reopen in March.
Kayak Memphis has steady business from tourists, but it’s not dependent on visitors to Memphis. “One of the things I’m most excited about is the mix of customers,” Babb said. “This doesn’t have to be planned. People walk in the park and don’t even realize we’re there and then decide to do it. The mix is exciting. And it’s next to the Tennessee Welcome Center so the park itself is an attraction.” Babb is excited about the more health-conscious culture of Memphis that leads to more interest in kayaking. “It was only a matter of time,” he said. “Over the past 15 years there has been a transition where as a city and community we are more health conscious and getting outdoors is more of a trend. And with all of these parks that are getting more attention and more green space in the community, people realize the value of outdoors activities.”
The future is bright for Kayak Memphis. Babb wants to open up to school and community groups to offer the activity to more Memphians. Future developments near the water’s edge in Uptown, from a new brewery to other businesses and residences, presents plenty of options for paddlers, too. For more information about Kayak Memphis, visit kayakmemphistours.com.
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