While many of us may not have had the chance to pull our kayaks and whitewater rafts out of storage for the season yet, Ten Mile Creek Kayaks store owner Matti Wade is already in midseason form. He logged his 24th river run of the year Friday after work.
“I’m not waiting. I’m paddling as much as I can,” he said of starting his kayaking season back on March 7. “That’s the earliest I’ve ever gone.”
Besides just being an avid paddler, missing the majority of last year’s whitewater season with a torn bicep might have something to do with his early-season enthusiasm — he injured it trying to free a boat he’d pinned on Ten Mile creek last spring.
But for the 41-year-old former pro skier, paddling isn’t just a pastime, it’s also his livelihood.
“The community needed a boat shop plain and simple,” he said of his decision to open Ten Mile Creek Kayaks in 2008.
When the town of Frisco announced it would build a whitewater park feature — essentially outside his condo’s front door — on Ten Mile Creek, the idea was born. He said the area had been without a kayak shop for five years prior to his store’s opening.
“Working for them (building the park) really sparked my imagination more for the kayak shop. I just felt like it was a niche.”
When the retail space above his condo became available it seemed almost fortuitous — not unlike his introduction to kayaking eight years earlier in 2000.
Now the small shop has become a staple of the local paddling community with his “regulars” dropping in all spring and summer long to chat about river flows and stock up on gear.
“I’m not really a tourist shop,” he said with a smile, sitting behind the shop’s counter after hours, sipping a beer — after a paddling session on the blue. “I’m a locals shop.”
Wade said his shop’s popularity spread strictly by word of mouth, and he’s since developed a stable of “customers for life.” With the store now well established, if it’s during business hours, there’s a good chance he’ll be the one there to greet you and help with your paddling needs.
“This is what I do,” he said of his seven-day-a-week spring work schedule. “I’m a one-man show. I really don’t have any days off April, May, June.”
But it wasn’t always like that for Wade. The former pro skier and now longtime Summit County resident came to Colorado from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula at age 20 with little in mind beyond a love of snow, and even less in his pocket.
“I moved out here in ’92 with a backpack and $200,” he said sipping his beer with a smile. “I heard there was snow here and it was sunny.”
Mostly living out of his van in those days, he competed as a pro skier.
Having started as a ski jumper and body builder in high school, the 6-foot-5, 275-pound Wade dropped 50 pounds and transitioned to mogul skiing, eventually moving on to ski cross at the World Cup level. As big-mountain skiing grew as a discipline he transitioned once more, earning sponsors and traveling the world to compete.
“It was a lot more fun,” he said of big-mountain competition, enjoying the freedom that came with freestyle events. “I could look at this mountain zone and it was like painting the mountain.”
The shift to kayaking came in 2000 after a ski crash that resulted in a shoulder injury, six cracked ribs and a broken finger.
His girlfriend at the time introduced him to paddling.
“For rehabbing my shoulder and my hand I started boating,” he said. And the love grew from there.
Wade continued big-mountain competition but began to realize the toll it could take and the potential for serious consequences.
“Some really good friends of mine died,” he said, shifting to a slightly more somber tone. Eventually it was no longer worth it. The potential danger began to outweigh the rush and the reward. “We were hucking ourselves off of cliffs for $500,” he said.
That reality struck home for good in January 2008 when his close friend Billy Poole died shooting a Warren Miller film in Utah.
Wade remembered driving to a nearby competition when a search-and-rescue helicopter flew overhead. He had just called Billy and left a message about the upcoming event.
“There’s a fine line,” he said looking back. One day you’re competing, the next “you’re a ski event, a legacy.”
Wade opened the shop — which he said Poole was going to be a part of — the following May. He walked away from competition soon after.
These days it might be a slower, more sedentary life for the former pro, but he chases that same rush on the river and looks back fondly on his skiing days.
“Skiing has given me the ability to see the world,” he said. Wade still coaches for the Woodward at Copper freestyle program during the winters.
With his first child on the way, however, the risks seem like they might continue to be a little more calculated than they once were.
Firmly intrenched in the paddling world, it looks like he’ll be here for many years to come.
“River people are awesome. That community just made me draw towards it even more.”