Eco-tourism business brings 'big medicine' to Watauga Lake

By Julie Fann
tar Staff

For a moment, banish from your mind's eye the stereotypical picture of life on a lake during a southeastern summer. Disregard the distended beer bellies of men holding cans of beer and ignore the screech of jet skis.
   Instead, focus on silent, still water surrounded by lush, green forest. Imagine the sun on your skin as you touch smooth, clean rock that descends gracefully into a bed of moss. Listen to birds singing. Rest. Be.
   That is the experience Jonathan Grogan, owner of Off-the-Beaten-Path Adventures, wants to provide customers who visit his business in search of an outdoor experience.
   "Connecting to nature facilitates our connection to ourselves, and when we're connected to ourselves, I think we have a more open-minded perspective on the world. It's medicine to be out here," Grogan said.
   Although eco-tourism is a term that is popular in other regions of America, it is a somewhat new idea in the southeast, and OTBPA is the first eco-tourism outfit to establish on Watauga Lake.
   "Eco-tourism in this area is a new thing, and I hope this area is ready for it; the natural world is ready for it," Grogan said. The purpose of OTBPA is to engage individuals in the natural world with as minimal an impact to the environment as possible.
   "Basically, it is what is called 'leave no trace' ethics in which, whatever you bring on your back your bring out with you. It's an observational and educational type of experience," Grogan said.
   A native of Connecticut, Grogan is a graduate of Appalachian State University and holds a bachelor's degree in Latin American Studies. He has traveled and studied in South America, particularly Costa Rica and Ecuador.
   "I've studied ecology and sustainable agriculture, basically dealing with a lot of cultural issues and international development," he said.
   The land that surrounds Watauga Lake is one of the oldest deciduous rainforests in the world, making it a perfect place to educate the public about ecology and environmental preservation, which Grogan said is an important aspect of his business but not the entire focus.
   "I offer a bit of everything from one-hour kayak trips, to guided tours, to two or three-day camping and kayaking trips." Renting a canoe or kayak for one hour costs just $10. Also, customers can rent one for an entire day and explore the lake by themselves.
   "But if they want some local history, some ecological history; if they want to get a little more connection to this place and understand it a little more, I offer guided trips in which I educate them about the area here," Grogan said.
   For a really spectacular experience, Grogan takes small groups on whole day guided tours that also feature meals he cooks himself. "I do gourmet cooking too, so I take guests out on tours then give them a sample menu of different dishes I cook, which range from Asian to Italian," he said.
   Grogan works hard to dispel any fear his customers have about kayaking and the outdoors. He is CPR and First Aid certified and makes teaching safety a priority. He said often people have a misconception about kayaking that, though understandable, isn't necessary.
   "People think lake kayaking is dangerous when, actually, kayaks are extremely stable, and their hulls are about the same size as canoes, but they are lower to the water and much more comfortable," he said.
   Kayak originally means "hunter's boat" in the Inuet language and, therefore, kayaking is a kind of hunting process. The paddles themselves are "feathered," or twisted, so that one can move smoothly and quietly through the water, like a hunter.
   Grogan started OTBPA this summer with some money he had saved, a small business loan, and helpful advice from Terry McKinney and Tom Anderson who work with East Tennessee State University's Department of Economic Development.
   "I owe so much to those guys because they've just been paramount in developing this business. They guided me through the business plan process and, basically, told me when I had unrealistic expectations," Grogan said. The ETSU grant-funded program is designed to help small businesses get established in Johnson County and the surrounding area.
   "They are a wonderful resource for anyone in Johnson County wanting to start a small business, and it's free, that's the beauty of it," Grogan said.
   Educating the public about the environment is, according to Grogan, the only way to facilitate positive change and responsibility. Referring to a decrease in the fresh water supply due to several factors such as population growth and commercial logging, Grogan said the public is in denial about the environment.
   "We're sending people to the moon without polluting. The technology is there to save the planet, but there are huge corporate interests. People don't want to lose making millions of dollars. The only way the world will change is if these corporate entities change," he said.
   Grogan also plans to initiate trips to Costa Rica for high school students in the fall, during the offseason. OTBPA opens in early May and closes in October. The business also offers kayaking lessons for adults and children.
   "Here on the water is, like the Indians say, big medicine. You can be sad or angry and get away in these mountains and become transformed. I'd venture to say that I could cure 75 percent of people's illnesses if they came out here," Grogan said.
   For more information about Off-the-Beaten-Path Adventures, call (423) 727 4653.