Mike Mills: Founder/CEO of Buffalo Outdoor Center

Mike Mills is founder and CEO of the Buffalo Outdoor Center – a kayak and canoe outfitter in Ponca, Arkansas. A few weeks ago, we chatted with him about the 2012 drought and how it impacted his business.

brYoon Kim: I heard that you guys had shut down early last year.
Mike Mills: We closed on May 20th, but we moved down river on April 20th. Ponca is the most scenic part of the river. When you move down river, you get a certain percentage of people who don’t want to float from there. It was pretty much the worst season I’ve seen in 39 years of being here. Good thing that we’ve diversified as a company to camping, zip-line and lodging – we lost 5,000 people for canoe season.

YK: How does climate and weather patterns affect your business?
MM: Obviously the majority of floods happen in March, April and May. I remember in the early 80s or late 70s we had a weather pattern where it rained every Saturday and the water was so high that it flooded every time.

I’ve been flying a hot-air balloon since the 80s. The first 20 years the predominant wind in the mornings at 3k feet came out of the southwest. About 13 years ago the wind switch to the southeast. It’s difficult to predict warming and climate, but we seem to have more erratic weather patterns in the recent past.

We softened as a society about 30 years ago. If we wanted to go canoeing we’d go whether it was raining or snowing. The baby boom generation got spoiled, and they spoiled their kids. We have better materials, but we only use them for style. If the weather map says high wind on Saturday then they stay home and don’t go to the river.

YK: Can you talk a bit about the floods in ’09 and what that did to your business?
MM: On the upper Buffalo – a 48 hour flood was a bad flood. In 09 we had a flood – the publicity went down that we had a bad flood, but it was over in about 2 days.

YK: Compare that to the drought of 2012.
MM: ’09 didn’t affect us like last year. We completely shut down canoeing operations mid-May which is the earliest we’ve ever shut down. The drought was a more negative than the flood. We have a flood almost every year. Give the flood 48 hours and it’s over.

br2YK: What about this year?
MM: We look great right now. Rain in February is not what I need. I’d rather have it up and running now than be too low though. Typically for the Ozarks, a front comes through once a week.

YK: What are your best years so far?
MM: 1978, ’99, 2001 and ’06. Those were all stellar years for canoeing, kayaking and rafting.

YK: Do you see irregular weather affecting your business more in the future?
MM: We had an ice storm in ’09. 2.5 inches of ice and snow shut down our power for 15 days – that’s devastating. We had to tell customers that had rented cabins that they couldn’t come. Once again, I’m a bit more skeptical on the erratic weather patterns. It might just be a part of the way it is. The more evidence that scientists are able to uncover the more I’ll believe.

For me – I’m optimistic – it’ll rain and the river will continue to run.

YK: Does snowpack effect the river?
MM: Snowmelt is directly related to snowpack, so for a raft company in CO it’s important to have good snowpack. Snowpack affects river outfitters and some more eastern in the Adirondack. Not for us.