Don't judge a book by it's cover, right?!

We met up with Sarah Raley, part owner of Waco Paddle Company, to learn more about the business of the Brazos. What we didn't know is – for Sarah, there is way more behind the word "marine" than water sports. Here's a gorgeous example of local leadership AND the, no doubt, interesting journey of this mother of two. 

How did Waco Paddle Company get its start?

Ross Harris was a part of a store that started in 2012 called Outdoor Waco. It was bought by Bicycle World, who later sold the water rentals portion of the business to husband and wife duo Ross and Beth Harris in 2016. The couple, along with Beth's sister, Sarah Raley as the trifecta of this partnership, rebranded as Waco Paddle Company.

With Ross having been a part of water rentals on the Brazos since 2012, and the three having been interested in the outdoors – we're talking rock climbing, camping, mountain biking, swimming, canoe and stand-up paddling, it just seemed a great opportunity to take. Before the Harrises had their first child in 2015, Beth was the Director of Recreational Services at Methodist Children's Home for five years. She was an outdoor recreation major at Baylor (Ross and Sarah's alma mater as well!). The leap fit who the Harrises are, each having made Waco their home since 2002 and 2003.

The Harris family

The Harris family

Ross shared with us, "We love being able to offer a fun, affordable, and different experience that Wacoans and their families can enjoy. We highly value our role as a member of the broader community and want to play a substantive role in the growth and improvement of the city for all residents."

Sarah, how did you get involved in Waco Paddle Company?

"I came to Baylor in 2005. My husband went there too; he stayed after he graduated and taught middle school. We left for me to go to law school in Austin. I joined the Marine Corps and I was a judge advocate-- I was a lawyer in the Marine Corps up until last year. We were living in Okinawa, Japan. The last time we visited home before we moved back to the States, we were visiting family in Austin + Dallas + Waco + we were just like - man, Waco is such a great place. I mean, we went to Baylor and my husband has always loved Waco but doing things like the zoo and the Mayborn with young kids is incredible. Cameron park is so great. We love being downtown; there's a lot of fun growth going on. We were like - let's move to Waco! The timing worked out. Beth + Ross were expecting their second child and were wanting some additional help with the business and I thought - ok, let's do it! It kind of worked out perfectly for me to come on board. When I asked my husband about it, he said, I love the idea of buying and investing where we live.

We really feel strongly that Waco Paddle Company can add value to people's lives. Get them outdoors. It's fun and relaxing; it's adventurous. It's an activity, exercise and you don't even mean it to be. Sometimes when you're on the water it feels like you're by yourself. There's nothing else going on. It's a fun thing to be a part of. No one gets off the water, comes back in upset or disappointed. We deal with the best customers because they're always so happy. They're having a good time, spending time with friends or family, it's what they want to do."

Owners of Waco Paddle Company, (L-R) Sarah Raley, Ross and Beth Harris

Owners of Waco Paddle Company, (L-R) Sarah Raley, Ross and Beth Harris

How did you get involved in the military? 

"So I was in law school at UT in Austin. We had a Public Service Career Day where a bunch of government services and non-profits set up their booths in the law school. I met a selection officer who was a captain in the Marine Corps and he was talking about the different things I would do as a lawyer in the Marine Corps. I thought the idea sounded very cool but before I committed to anything with the Marine Corps, I talked with someone in the Army, the Navy, the Air Force just to get an idea of the different programs - how things would look different in the different branches of the military.

There were two reasons I chose the Marine Corps: I spent six months in Quantico, Virginia at the basic school training to be a rifle platoon commander. The Marine Corps treats everyone like they're an unrestricted line officer. That means any officer is trained to command an infantry platoon. So, if you're on the ground in a country where we're fighting a war, at any time you need to, you can pick up a rifle and lead the platoon into battle. I thought it was really cool. And then I got to Virginia and thought, this is a terrible idea! because i was carrying heavy packs, marching, and spending time in field exercises where we'd go outside for days or weeks at a time training to be a platoon commander! I thought - if i'm going to do the military, I should learn how to do everything - I should learn how to shoot a rifle and shoot a pistol and actually know what this stuff is. The second reason was very similar: the Marine Corps treats its lawyers like they're any other marine officer. You don't get any special treatment. 

One of my summers - I went to Officer Training Camp - spent 10 weeks being tested to see if you can be commissioned as an officer. My platoon started with 73 females and we ended with 37 at the end. It's pretty hard core stuff. It's a very strange experience if you're not familiar with the military, which I wasn't.

Then I went to the Naval Justice School in Newport, Rhode Island where they talk about military-specific law and the procedures of court marshals and different things that come up in the military that don't come up in typical practice.

After that, we went to Okinowa, Japan. We were there for three and a half years. I did different jobs while I was there but most recently, I was a prosecutor. So, marines that get in trouble, commit crimes – I would be prosecuting their cases. We moved around a lot, had two babies in Okinowa, Japan and came back in August of 2017.

Between Beth and Ross and us, we have four kids ages three and under. We have a three year old and a two year old. We have lots of little helpers (that are the opposite of helpful)," she laughed.

Sarah and one of her sons, on the last day of her official military service.

Sarah and one of her sons, on the last day of her official military service.

Did you enjoy your time in the military? 

"If we didn't have to move every three years and never get to live in Texas, it's something we would have kept doing. My parents are in Georgetown. I have a brother in Cedar Park. My husband's family is in the Dallas area. We feel very rooted to Texas and there aren't any Marine Corps bases in Texas. So, unless I could get connected to a different base, which would be very unlikely, we'd be moving every three years for the next twenty years - east coast, west coast, Japan, Hawaii -- great places to live but, we wanted to be back in Texas. We wanted to be in central Texas, we wanted to be by family. We wanted to feel like we were putting down roots somewhere. We wanted our kids to go to the same school growing up and not be moving every few years.

It was a very interesting, very valuable thing to go through, though there were certainly parts of it I didn't enjoy. One great thing about practicing law in the military is you get thrown into the deep end right off the bat. I was prosecuting a sexual assault case and our judge was a reserve colonel getting his reserve time by coming over and presiding over some of our cases.

It turned out that he was an assistant U.S. attorney in Austin. He said, the kind of cases you just prosecuted, you would have had to be in my office for 10 years to have even been a fourth seat on a case like this and you're getting to do it. 

It was an incredible experience both from the military side but also the law side - to be given the responsibility-- no one is babysitting you; you're going to have to figure it out or you're going to fail.

Overall, the experience was very, very good.” 

What do you love about Waco from a family perspective and in general?

“From the family perspective, it's very easy.

We live in the Dean Highland area. We love the area; those old homes are beautiful and intricate - the woodwork and the stonework on a lot of them. Our house was built in 1938.

Where we are, we're 10 minutes from anything. If we want to take the kids -- the zoo is 10 minutes away. I think our zoo really punches above its weight for a city this size. I think it's easily on par with, if not better than, the Fort Worth Zoo and the Dallas Zoo and you don't have to pay for parking! My husband loves playing disc golf. We took our kids disc golfing probably 20 times this summer we just kind of wander around while he plays disc golf. The kids and I kind of just kind of followed him around through these beautiful parks. The city has done such a good job capitalizing on the development of downtown. It seems as if a lot of time and effort has been put into beautifying our parks. Brazos Park East, from when we were in school is really finished out and beautiful and very easy to traverse, and is still natural and enjoyable.

Being able to be very close to a downtown of a city with no traffic, to where we can get anywhere we want to be with no traffic and with ease kind of drew us as a family.

We left the military thinking we would be moving back to Austin. Austin's changed so much not only from when I was in law school and in high school. Everything is so much harder to do there. It's easier to do things in Waco. It's easy to get out and find good food. It's easy to get out and enjoy the farmers market. There aren't so many people that you can't find parking, you don't have to pay for parking. It's just easy to take advantage of all the stuff that's going on.

From just a general perspective and a business perspective, I'm gonna steal this from Waco Chamber of Commerce. They did a blog post for Act Locally that I read. It was like-- five things to potential new businesses that are maybe going to come to town. I don't remember all of them but the one that really stood out to me was this idea that Waco had a strong spirit of collaboration. They were talking about how the business community, the local government, the different education institutions, as well as non-profit organizations all work together for the growth of Waco and the development of Waco and for the success of Waco and everyone is working together essentially to better the community. When I read it I was like - yeah that is so true. If you see different programs that are going on in downtown, it's like everyone's working together. Everyone's moving toward this common goal of let's make Waco better for everyone and just always be trying to do that - always be trying to make Waco better for everyone. Even when Waco is even more awesome that it is now, we want to be making Waco better for everyone. I think that's something we all really like and we hope that Waco Paddle Company can be a part of that and is a part of that."

So being a part of the community Sounds like a  huge value to Waco Paddle Company?

"As Waco Paddle Company, we try to be involved in anything that fits with what we do. Anything that would make sense for us to be involved in as a watercraft rental business on the Brazos, we try and do it. So when there are events on the water like TriWaco or Sharkfest, we provide kayaks for the lifeguards when they go out. We do a quarterly clean up (a river clean up) with Keep Waco Beautiful where they essentially bring in loads and loads of volunteers. When we did it in July, we had over 100 volunteers out there. We get a good number get in kayaks and canoes so they can get trash that's floating down the river but also on the riverbanks that you can't get to from the sidewalks and there are other groups we provide kayaks for. Basically anytime anyone contacts us and says, we want to do a river clean up; can we use your boats? We say, yes. 

We want to be stewards of the river, we want people to appreciate and care for not only the Brazos but Texas waterways in general so we want to be involved in that.

Our dock is going to be the entry point for the swim portion of the IronMan. Barnett's Pub does an Easter Keg Hunt in the spring," she laughed. "We were one of their locations during their scavenger hunt."

"On one level, as a business, we love being able to provide a broader range of experiences for people and to increase opportunity for adventure - to basically give people the opportunity to try something different and to build a community that loves and appreciates the water and loves and appreciates the outdoors.

As a second goal, we want Waco Paddle Company to BE a part of the community so not just offer something to the community but to BE a part of the community and have a positive impact, and have that spirit of collaboration with other organizations no matter where they are - be they government or businesses or educational or non-profit, have that spirit of collaboration with them. Those are the main goals of Waco Paddle Company."

And do it all with four kids under three years old!

"Maybe that's the reason. We all need something to pour our intellectual energy into bc we're dealing with little kids all the time!"

What's it like working with your sister?

"I really enjoy it. My sister and I have been pretty close, since about high school. I've considered her my best friend for a really long time. Even though people always say NEVER work with family. I've really enjoyed it.

One of the main reasons it's been really good is because we both have small children, even when we get together - when we go to the zoo together or we get together and the kids play - most of our time and effort is spent with the kids, so when we meet once a week without kids to talk about whatever it is we need to talk about – whether we're planning the programs or touching base about ordering new merchandise or whatever it is we need to talk about – we spend about an hour to an hour and a half a week without kids, which is really nice. We'll even get out on the water on the paddle boards to talk about stuff. It's nice because it's given us an intentional time to spend time together that doesn't revolve around young children, so I would say overall it's a very positive experience and it's been really fun to do it with her.

It's fun to see my sister in a different capacity. It's fun to plan with her and talk through staffing things and it's fun to see a professional side of her and be involved in that.

What does Waco Paddle offer the community, specifically?

“The bread and butter of our business is rentals on the Brazos. We have stand-up paddle boards; we have single and double kayaks and we have canoes. You can rent those out anywhere from an hour to all day. We see lots of families coming out or people trying this out a first time or a group of girls coming out to visit Magnolia and they're looking for something else fun to do in Waco. Our clientele for rentals is very widespread! We have older couples go out all the time. My parents are in their mid 60s and they love kayaking. They have a couple kayaks that they take out.

What's awesome about kayaking, paddle boarding or canoeing – you can do it when you're older. It doesn't require a lot of physicality to do it. Anyone can do it!

We have infant lifejackets. My niece that's going to turn one soon – she's gone out of couple times. We just put her in a little infant lifejacket and she just sits right in front of you. My boys love it - the scary thing is that my two-year-old loves it so much that I have to keep him from not jumping into the water. Every time we go out there, for any reason, they ask to go out on the boats so it's a really cool thing.

The rentals are so accessible. Our staff gets you set up, they get you your lifejackets. They show you how to hold your paddle; they show you how to do different types of strokes and they help you get on the water so it's so accessible for anyone. For families, for groups, for kids of all ages; it's so great.

Along with our rentals, we've been doing night paddles on Friday nights. So you go out from 8-10PM (and we bump the time up a bit to make sure people catch the sunset) and you watch the sunset on the river and then you get to paddle at night time which it's just a different type of adventure because it's dark but what's really cool about downtown Waco is that all of the bridges are lit up and you're paddling by the light of the suspension bridge. We've had people come out for every single one and they get off the water and say, when's the next one? We'll see you then! It's just a different experience than paddling during the day. We actually did a night paddle on the 4th of July because, you know they do the fireworks over McLane stadium. We sold out. We sent out all of our boats that have lights on them and we sold out. It's just different. It's so peaceful. There's even less ambient noise out there. It has a different feel to it.”

What about for kids?

“We did camps this summer. (It probably doesn't hurt that it's like 100 degrees outside!)

Ross had done these river camps when Outdoor Waco did them, so the framework of what we wanted to do came from that experience. And then Beth used her outdoor rec education, with some input from Ross, and came up with the program for camp.

The idea was the kids would learn how to operate all of our different water craft – kayaks, canoes, and stand up paddle boards - but in a really fun way. So they would play Capture the Flag and do races to practice the paddle techniques they were learning. On their last day, they did an extended paddle trip down the Brazos. They put in at the MCC dock and they would spend the entirety of that day paddling back to our dock, so they got to go through the bluffs of Cameron Park. When we were getting ready to pull the trigger I was like, man! This is really cool! I was just really excited we got to offer that to kids. Unless you're a part of Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts – I mean people don't get to do that kind of stuff, really. Kids don't wake up saying, oh, I'm going to paddle like two miles on the Brazos.

It took them like three to four hours, depending on the group. They took snacks and water breaks but it really puts them to the test. I thought that was really cool. We're going to do that for sure next year. We loved it. The kids loved it. We got great feedback from all the parents. We ended up with about 10 kids per session. We would do up to 20 kids per session but we'd never have a ratio beyond one staff for every five campers.”

What is it like for you being a local business owner in Waco?

“Right now is a really good time to be a small business owner in Waco because there's a lot of support. It's like that thing, rising tide raises all boats. Everyone is trying to push each other up right now. A lot of the other small business owners feel similar to us, we all want to work together and be apart of the community.

There's a lot of interesting collaborations happening with events - there's a lot of fun stuff that's going on and it all comes from the community supporting small business owners right now-- and it's just the community at large, not just people but Waco has an entrepreneurial spirit - the city of Waco, where it's like - you have this feeling that everyone is like, how can we make things better, what can we do differently? What can we add that we don't have? Everyone seems to be bringing that spirit so I think it's fun.

And then, again, with Waco Paddle Company, we love the interactions with the people that come out and paddle because we get people from all over the place. We have a ton of people from Waco that come out regularly that now we see and recognize and want to try something different and then we have people that are coming for whatever reason to visit Waco or they're driving through or we get people who are driving down to go paddling at Waco Paddle Company! I was like - oh, we're like a destination now! 

The Brazos is such a great resource and paddling in downtown Waco is beautiful. All the bridges are really beautiful. You can go down towards Baylor and see the stadium or paddle up to Cameron Park and see the bluffs – so many things to see and it's just a fun thing to do.

We are planning, for the fall, to offer paddle trips to everyone on Saturdays. Kind of what we did for camp but we're going to do a different put in location. Not all of the details have been hammered out but, people would come to Waco Paddle Company and we would transport everyone and the boats to a put in location. It takes paddlers out of the totally urban realm and takes people into more adventure. When you paddle on the Brazos, you don't see any homes or things like that, it gives you a good sense of adventure.”

What's next for you guys? 

“We have different irons in the fire. We want some of the things we're working on to grow, maybe beyond our location and programs, but they're not developed enough to talk about.

Our personality as a business is to be pushing forward. We're always going to be looking for new opportunities to do, hopefully some of them available next summer. 

I do want to say, we have great staff. They're young; they're enthusiastic and have great energy. They work hard and want people to be safe and comfortable on the water. They answer questions. I really enjoy watching our staff interact with people down at the dock and talk about their paddling options. We get feedback from customers all the time about friendly staff. And we like that because it goes with our goal that this is going to brighten someone's day, to be a positive experience for someone.”

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