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Our Story

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Founders Bruce and Karen standing by a kayak perched up against a house

Founding the Company

I built a house in southern Vermont in the summer of 1986. It was dry that year and by the end of July, I needed a whitewater fix, but didn’t know where to find one. Grasping at straws after a brief thundershower the night before, my friend Bob and I went for a drive around the area looking for running water.

We didn’t find any until we crossed the Massachusetts border following the Deerfield River downstream. We were disheartened at that point, since all the creeks we had visited were just as low as they had been before the thunderstorm, but we drove on anyway. After a few miles, the Deerfield started to look promising – it had much more flow than anything else we had seen and there were several riffles that hinted at steeper rapids downstream. Feeling a little more hopeful, we continued driving and were finally rewarded with a solid class III rapid right next to the road at the base of a long rocky ridge that disappeared underwater at the meat of the rapid. As a bonus, it was running at a solid medium water level even in this summer when it seemed that the tap to every other river around had been shut off.

The name of that rapid was Zoar Gap and it has become an important place to me over the years. After discovering it that day, we learned that water levels at Zoar Gap are controlled by a dam 5 miles upstream and that it generally has high enough flows for paddling year round. Friends and I who were involved in whitewater slalom racing began to frequent “The Gap” for training sessions and we organized some informal races there.

Then, in 1989, having trained hard for the US Whitewater Team, I flipped during a run at the team trials and failed to make it. I had no other plans than to race at the World Championships that summer, so I found myself without a clear focus – a state I wasn’t familiar with. I still loved paddling and adventure sports in general, and I had seasonal work as a carpenter, but it became clear that, at 28, my racing days were over and it was time to find a career.

Having only just come to that conclusion, I hadn’t done much thinking about what my next step would be when I found myself in a car making the familiar drive to Zoar Gap with a couple of friends. One asked what my plans were and I rattled off a list that included business school, law school, geology grad school, starting an outdoor center and architecture school. My friend asked about the outdoor center and I said a few of us had discussed it on and off, but that it was not realistic given that I had no business experience and even less money. When he asked where we would do it, I said, “Zoar Gap” and the rest of the hour and a half drive was taken up with brainstorming which eventually led to the idea for Zoar Outdoor. It turned out our timing was inadvertently perfect since the dams on the Deerfield River were just coming up for relicensing through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and that provided a once-in-forty-year opening to improve recreational flows and timing on the river.

Convincing my wife, Karen, and our founding partner, Peter Franzoso, to come along for the ride was easier than I thought it might be. I commuted back and forth from our home in northwest Connecticut for a month or two before moving full-time to Charlemont and by June of 1989, we were incorporated, had purchased the Moses Rice property where Zoar Outdoor is still based, and were running raft trips on the Deerfield.

– Bruce Lessels, Founder