Rutabaga Paddlesports: Rooted in the Outdoors and Community

Paddleboards
Photo by Eric Tadsen

The name Rutabaga is from the Frank Zappa song Call Any Vegetable (Absolutely Free, 1967). You can hear Rutabaga being yodeled about half-way through the song.

Rutabaga Paddlesports is not your typical outdoor recreational store. One of the few shops that specializes in paddlesports with some camping and clothing on the side, you’ll find when visiting Rutabaga an impressive display of canoes, kayaks and paddling accessories, and people passionate about sharing their love and expertise about paddlesports.

Rutabaga started in 1976 in the first owner’s basement as Rutabaga Whitewater Supply and grew from there. Rutabaga’s first store was on the corner of Fish Hatchery & Park Streets at a gas station, then South Park Street, and finally in 1993 to their current location at 220 W. Broadway Avenue in Monona.

Darren Bush, a self-proclaimed high-functioning introvert, purchased Rutabaga in 2002. Before that, in 1990, he had worked at Rutabaga as a part-timer on weekends while balancing a full-time position as a statistician at various agencies in state government. When he realized he wasn’t really challenged in his career, he made the decision to make paddling his full-time profession. “Just to see what would happen. Turns out I stayed a lot longer than I thought I would.”

Rutabaga’s mission statement is “To create and foster communities to help people enjoy the outdoors.” Darren was deliberate in making this the focus of his store. He knows it’s, “all about relationships with our customers, if we don’t go out and build them every day, then we don’t deserve their business.”

Photograph by Eric Tadsen

An impact Rutabaga has on the community are the various programs created to bring people together who are interested or wanting to know more about paddling. Rutabaga’s Youth Programs serves over 600 children a year, many from underprivileged communities, with support through scholarships. Private and public organizations, community centers, and nonprofit groups all work together to get kids on the water. Rutabaga Outdoor Programs teaches adult classes as well, from beginning courses to master classes.

Safety is incorporated into all of their programs. Most drownings related to paddlesports result from poor judgment, such as not wearing life jackets (PFDs), and very often, alcohol is involved. Paddling is not inherently dangerous, and using common sense and precautions like wearing life jackets and leaving the alcohol on shore radically reduces accidents or fatalities.

Rutabaga’s Door County Sea Kayak Symposium, where 175 participants get a weekend of intensive instruction, is held in Door County every July. It’s a quality experience with over 30 instructors, and they provide an evening meal where everyone gets together “under a big circus tent to celebrate successes. If you haven’t kayaked before, the first step is learning how to capsize, the first step to overcoming any fear you might have of being caught in the kayak.”

Another popular and renowned event Rutabaga hosts is Canoecopia, the world’s largest paddlesports expo for consumers. Held at the Alliant Energy Center every March, Canoecopia features over 250 vendors and exhibitors, and speakers give seminars about paddling skills and destinations. “People come from all over the world to Canoecopia,” says Darren. “This year we had paddlers fly in from Iceland. … It’s like a paddling smorgasbord.”

Photograph by Eric Tadsen

Even at a huge event like Canoecopia, it’s all about community. Many people have been coming to this event for two or three decades. Darren shares an example of a father and son that meet every year at Canoecopia; the father is from Oregon and his son lives on the east coast, so they meet for the weekend and spend time with each other and people who love to paddle.

Darren has his own fleet of a dozen or so canoes and half a dozen kayaks, and compares it to the different types of shoes used for activities. “Like shoes, different boats have different applications. Paddling the boundary waters, you want a light and fast boat. On a small, rocky river, you want a boat that is shorter and more maneuverable.” His fleet varies from an Algonquin native-built birchbark canoe (on display at Rutabaga) to an ultralight Kevlar tripper that weighs just 33 pounds.

Customers can test boats on the pond behind the store, getting expert advice before purchasing. “My goal for people coming to the store is for them to get to the point where their skills are developed and they don’t have to think about it. They’ll enjoy their boats more because they’ll have the skills to handle anything they may encounter in their paddling.”

Darren has paddled all over the world, but finds the best places to paddle are right in his neighborhood, like Lake Wingra (close to his house and Arboretum)—a unique experience of paddling in the city but surrounded by trees. He also enjoys the Wisconsin River, Baraboo River, Dells area (especially in October), and the rivers of Driftless area.

Photograph by Eric Tadsen

When asked why people paddle, Darren says that paddling is a tool—people use it for many reasons, some solitary, some social. While stamina and endurance are needed for racing, Darren considers his paddling more like kinetic mediation. “I’m not a go-fast guy anymore, unless I have to be. I figure the last one off the water wins.” Sea kayaking is sort of like aquatic backpacking, is great for people looking for a low-impact exercise with less strain on their bodies. “Old backpackers love sea kayaks. Same gear, new scenery.”

Kayak fishing is also growing in popularity. “A fully outfitted fishing kayak can take you places you can’t go in a powerboat, like where the water is only four inches deep.” Plus, kayaks are easier to transport, quieter, and simpler, and that gives you the advantage in capturing your next trophy fish. Kayak-fishing tournaments are starting to pop up all over North America.

As well as numerous industry awards and honors, Rutabaga was voted one of the Top 50 Places to Work in the entire outdoor industry by Outside Magazine. Darren explains, “I just hire good people and teach them what they need to know. I hire for a person’s character, not their skills.” Darren sums up that “my life and work are the same thing. I love people and forming relationships. Many of my best friends come from working at Rutabaga.”

With 28 years working at Rutabaga, Darren has too many inspiring and amazing stories to count from people he’s helped along life’s journey to the perfect getaway. Darren recalls people coming up to him excited to share their stories and experiences of paddling all over the world. “Customers have come back to the store and told us after we helped with the purchase of their boats say ‘You’ve changed our lives.’”

Photograph by Barbara Wilson

Krystle Engh Naab is a freelance writer and copy editor for Madison Essentials.