What began with an eager salesman setting up shop out of a pickup truck with life jackets, river shorts, sandals and knives to sell to river guides along Northern California’s major rivers has become a thriving enterprise.
It’ll be 25 years in September since Sierra Nevada Adventure Co. (SNAC), a local outdoor recreation retailer, opened its doors in downtown Sonora.
Since the mid-1990s, SNAC has been at the forefront of the adventure industry’s ever-changing product demands, and the original owners, Shawn and Jill Seale, are still as busy as ever managing the company’s three stores, two of which are in Calaveras County.
Shawn was a river guide for Columbia-based Zephyr Whitewater Rafting on the Camp Nine run of the Stanislaus River in the early 1980s before the section was flooded by New Melones Reservoir. In the early 1990s, he opened up the Eddy Mart, where he started selling gear and supplies to rafting guides and their customers in remote areas along the Kings River outside of Fresno, the Tuolumne River outside of Groveland, the American River by Coloma and Lotus and the Merced River by Midpines in Mariposa County.
The evolution of selling river products eventually ended up including whitewater kayaks, and the Seales led a kayaking school on the lower Stanislaus for a couple of summers before jumping on a chance to expand.
With the original Sonora location, the Seales sought to provide an outlet for rock climbers and backpackers to pick up gear before heading for Yosemite National Park or the Emigrant Wilderness in the Stanislaus National Forest. The location was home to a mountaineering business that was on the verge of closing, and the then-young couple kept it alive, adding kayak rentals to the product mix.
The company’s footprint later expanded to quench the thirst of adventure enthusiasts along the Highway 4 corridor in need of gear, clothing and footwear for water and snow sports.
Its Arnold location features canoes, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards for purchase or rent in the summer, and snowshoes, skis and snowboards in the winter.
Whether it’s to ski Bear Valley or beat the heat at Lake Alpine, the outdoor recreationalists that fuel the business pour in from all corners of the state every year, according to Shawn.
“Arnold is the jumping-off point for people that want to go up and enjoy the forest,” Shawn said in the store last week. “The paddling on this corridor really is remarkable. People come from far away to spend a week out here. We just sent a group of fathers and sons out for four days. It’s because the destination is truly unique. Arnold swells to 30,000 people on busy holidays, so when all of those people are in town, we have more than enough customers, and that includes ski season.”
In the Arnold store, the hustle and bustle of a warm August workday was in full effect. As Jill helped customers at the register, Shawn and Archer Bitner, a young SNAC employee, were pulling a paddleboard off of a rack in the back room. Racks of SNAC-branded shirts, shorts, hats, sunglasses and more lined the walls, and Jack Johnson and Bob Marley songs hummed softly in the background. Coco, a chocolate Lab/German shepherd mix laid on the floor next to stacks of paddleboards and kayaks, waiting for the next adventure on the water.
Shawn said the business sees a mix of newcomers and familiar faces, many of whom are second homeowners in the area.
“We consider anybody that owns a home in Arnold to be a local – even the second homeowners have invested in the town and support local businesses,” Shawn said from behind the counter. “The guy that rented seven canoes (this morning), he is a familiar face because he was standing here doing it last year, too. Another man just walked up and threw seven hats on the counter – we see him every two or three weeks.”
Outside, a Lake Alpine-bound family of four was strapping a paddleboard to the top of their Honda Pilot.
“My parents have a place up here, and we’ve been coming up here for quite a few years renting from (SNAC),” said Deborah Jones, as her husband, Matt, worked with Archer to fasten the board to the family car. “They’re our go-to for sure. We love them.”
The Seales opened the Arnold location about 23 years ago in the midst of a recreational kayak boom, Shawn said. A demand for flat-water kayaks was growing at the time, as the only options on the market were expensive and unnecessarily hefty boats made for kayaking in the ocean.
“When those boats were being invented, we were right there,” Shawn said. “There were some crazy years there where it was truly remarkable how many kayaks we sold.”
That’s the nature of the outdoor recreation industry, according to Shawn, “As one thing starts to slow down, another takes off. Our job is to make sure to stay on top of what people want, and then we promote it.”
The latest wave of vessels to hit the water over the past four years has been the stand-up paddleboard, Shawn said. As for on-land recreation trends, SNAC has thrown itself into the disc golf market as well, as it’s grown in popularity in recent years.
In addition to recreation trends, the company’s product line is largely influenced by the weather. A good snow year means more ski and snowboard rentals and a longer season, while periods of drought and hot weather will keep the team busy renting out paddleboards and kayaks for a longer chunk of the year.
“There’s a joke in our industry that we’re all just farmers,” Shawn said.
In 2008, SNAC opened its lifestyle division in downtown Murphys to expand outside of sporting goods into clothing and footwear – reflecting a trend that many outdoor recreation companies have followed over the past 25 years, Shawn said.
The business has boomed thanks to the extensive network of local businesses and events held in the area throughout the year, according to Jill.
Hitting the quarter-century mark has been a proud moment for the Seales for many reasons.
“It’s been a long road and when you look back on it, I am really proud of our SNAC family,” Jill said. “We’ve been around long enough to see young people become parents. We’ve enjoyed being such a big part of the community, not just getting people outdoors, but supporting the community through different programs like the youth mentoring program, donating kayaks to the Murphys Community Park, helping the disc golf community.”
Shawn echoed that sentiment, adding that he’s pleased that the outdoor character of the Highway 4 and Highway 108 communities have stayed intact over the past few decades.
“Twenty-five years is long enough for a place to change drastically,” Shawn said. “I’m glad that I still want to live here and operate a business here … there are places not very far away that are being severely impacted by things. I can’t say that about Ebbetts or Sonora pass. There are still places where people can get away and enjoy solitude and nature. I’m proud of the fact that our corridor has chosen to do the right thing. There aren’t a bunch of chain stores, chain restaurants (and it remains) a truly unique destination for people to come visit.”