Man's love of Smith River at heart of new business

October 25, 2005

Harvest funded rivers and trails project yields speedy private sector benefit

Martinsville Bulletin Staff Writer

Growing up in Fieldale, Buster Ferguson spent a lot of time on the Smith River, appreciating its natural beauty as well as the fishing.

Now, Ferguson, who is the director of the Fieldale Community Center, is starting a venture that, he hopes, will give others the opportunity to appreciate the river as much as he does.

Called Smith River Junction, Ferguson is opening a recreation business that will rent canoes, kayaks and even an eight-person whitewater raft.

"It's the first time this has been done, as far as I know," he said.

Although he has considered the idea before, Ferguson is convinced this is the right time for the enterprise for several reasons.

"I read that the Smith River is as clean now as it's been since the 1930s," he said. "I wouldn't have tried this at all 20 or 30 years ago."

Also, Ferguson said a river and trails program eventually should bring walking trails along part of the river. The project, funded with local, state and federal dollars, will create a series of walking trails in the region that run along old trail beds and beside rivers.

Locally, the Martinsville-Henry County Rivers and Trails Group has started the Fieldale Demonstration Trail that will begin near the bridge over the Smith River near the Fieldale ballpark and run about a mile along River Road.

"I think in the next five years the Smith River is really going to be developed," he said. "I wanted to get a little bit ahead of it (the development)."

And Ferguson said he has the right location to do just that.

"I've got this property at Smith River Junction and it's an ideal place for it (the business)," he said.

The property borders the river and customers can leave their cars there while he transports them and the canoe or kayak to a put-in point. He said they simply come down the river and return to the business. The junction is on South River Road about a mile upriver from the Martinsville hydroelectric dam just south of the city.

Three different trip lengths will be offered: three miles, seven miles or 12 miles.

The 12-mile run starts at Philpott Dam, Ferguson said.

Most of the time, the tranquility of the river is ideal for canoeing and kayaking, he said. When the dam is generating power and the river level rises, the whitewater raft can be used.

"I've done it," he said, "and it gives you a pretty good ride."

Ferguson said experienced kayakers and rafters also can make runs when the river level is up, but those not so accomplished should do it only when the level is normal.

While Ferguson wants the operation to be successful, he said making money is not his primary motivation.

"I'm not trying to get rich," he said. "I want to provide some family recreation. There's not much around here for families to do together. Spending a few hours or a whole day on the river ... what better way can you spend a Saturday or Sunday afternoon than floating down the river with your family?"

Ferguson said there is no time limit on the trips so customers can fish along the way, stop for a picnic or just float along and try to spot some of the wildlife, from deer and turkey to geese and minks.

It's a self-guided tour, he said, but he is in the process of putting together a map of the river.

"We'll have a map this spring," he said. "It'll point out different things to look for" and they will include any points of historic or scenic interest. Also, he wants to install mile markers along the way so customers will know where they are.

Ferguson said some areas may be too shallow for the canoes and kayaks if the river is unusually low, so customers may have to get out and carry their boats for a short distance. But he anticipates that if it happens at all, it will be rare.

If his venture is successful, he said he eventually will add more services, such as kayak lessons.

"Where there's a want, I'm going to try to accommodate it," he said. "I'm jumping into the water with this (business). But I wanted to be first, the pioneer of it."

Ferguson is convinced the demand will be there once people start taking trips and see what they have been missing.

"I've been on the river all my life," he said. "I want to see other people enjoy it. If you live here, you may take it for granted. People may not know what a beautiful river it is."

Costs for the trips are:

3-mile run
Kayak $15
Canoe $10 per person
Raft $15 per person

7-mile run
Kayak $25
Canoe $15 per person
Raft $25 per person

12-mile run
Kayak $35
Canoe $20 per person
Raft $35 per person


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