A pandemic-driven spike in outdoor activities appears to be sticking around this summer, as kayaks are on backorder in many places and outdoor shops are seeing a continuing sales and rental boom.
In Wausau, Divepoint Scuba, which for nearly a decade rented kayaks at its location on the Wisconsin River, is closed for the season, with a sign posted in the window reading that manufacturers "have NO KAYAKS available to SELL or RENT."
The story behind the closure turns out to be a little more complicated.
Divepoint owner Bob Butt, who still operates the store’s main location in Stevens Point, said he hesitated to restock equipment for the Wausau store in late 2020, because the location is for sale.
"Last fall, we sold all our rentals off because we had people screaming for it," Butt said. "I was selling it off at premium prices for a used boat. New stuff was going at full price, no questions asked."
But once they'd sold that inventory, restocking was no simple matter, Butt said. The lead times to get new kayaks back in stock are months long, and in some cases over a year. When he places orders for any sort of gear now, he says, he asks the sales reps what they have in their warehouse and what is available to ship that day. He's learned not to rely on estimated shipping times from overseas suppliers.
The kayak shortage is the latest sign of how the coronavirus pandemic both boosted demand for outdoor gear and disrupted traditional supply chains. And even as indoor activities reopen this summer in Wisconsin and across the nation, sellers say demand for outdoor gear looks stronger than ever.
The pandemic led to a boom in 2020 in outdoor activities, which could be done without high risk of COVID-19 transmission. State parks saw a huge jump in attendance. Bicycles were backordered for much of the year. Sales of canoes, kayaks and camping gear soared compared to 2019.
At the same time demand was up, the international supply chain for many of the goods was breaking down. Asian manufacturers were shut down. In some cases, the raw materials used to make goods became scarce. The declining supply and rising demand made paddling gear and other outdoor stuff among the hardest-to-find consumer goods of the pandemic era.
But even as more people are taking traditional vacations this summer and otherwise returning to pre-pandemic activities, the newfound interest in outdoor activities hasn't flagged.
"If I had to order kayaks, I'd be a little bit worried," said Jack Beshoar of Apostle Islands Kayak. The Bayfield-based rental business has enough inventory to cater to customers. Beshoar said they're seeing record numbers of early-season tours, and preparing for a big season in their busiest time, which typically starts July 1.
Like Apostle Islands Kayak, Kim Kinsey of the Wisconsin Rapids stand-up paddleboarding rental business SUP the Rapids said she has the inventory in place to meet her rental customers' needs. And Kinsey said it helps that her supplier is a California-based company.
"The boards that I get are a little bit more expensive and durable," Kinsey said. "They're not from China. They're not pieces of junk that can be purchased at Menards or Walmart or Fleet Farm."
Butt said he and other shop owners refer to the cheaper, more disposable — and now very backordered — crafts as KSOs, or "kayak-shaped objects."
What's clear is that there is still a high demand for just about anything shaped like a kayak. Around the Madison area, someone has posted hand-lettered signs that read "I BUY KAYAKS" with a phone number. WPR left repeated messages at the number on the sign; the person buying kayaks in Madison did not return calls to share whether they had any success with the tactic.
On Wednesday, Rutabaga Paddlesports, the popular Monona shop, posted to Facebook rare news of a fresh shipment of kayaks.
"Nice to see the boat racks looking full again," they wrote, "but surely these won't last long!"