Photo by Dan Cook Troy Gore assembles a boat at Jackson Kayak in Sparta, Tenn. Since the company began at nearby Rock Island in 2003, it has shipped whitewater kayaks to all continents except Antarctica.
ROCK ISLAND, Tenn. — World champion kayaker Eric Jackson believed he had found a pretty good place to build whitewater boats when he moved here with his family in November of 2002.
He built a home near the Great Falls of the Caney Fork River, a place the family had often visited, and set up business in a nearby 700-square-foot building.
Success followed. A little more than a year later, Jackson Kayak boats began to be shipped practically everywhere around the world. The total is approaching 7,000, and the company is now the fourth largest maker of whitewater kayaks — behind Wave Sport, Dagger and Liquid Logic and one notch ahead of established British firm Pyranha Kayaks.
The company sold 2,527 in 2004 and 2,688 in 2005, and this year’s total reached 1,691 with the shipment of 177 boats this past week. And Jackson, who used to travel full-time in a motorhome with his family and their Dalmatians, recently closed the purchase of a 92,000-square-foot building in Sparta. They had been renting space in the facility, the former home of the Red Cap Industries company that moved to Mexico.
"We outgrew our original facility here at Rock Island," Jackson said. "We had to rent space at the old Levi’s plant for a while. We started looking for a new location."
They’ll have a lot of room for expansion.
"We’re only using about 40,000 square feet," he said, adding that he may lease out some of the rest.
The company began pretty much with just his family — including wife Kristine and children Emily, now 16, and Dane, 12 — but has grown to 25 employees. All have a strong appreciation for whitewater sports.
Before moving to Rock Island, the Jacksons usually spent two months each year practicing at the base of the Great Falls. Since establishing the business, they have lived in a home on a 20-acre tract they bought. They plan to move into a new house on the property later this year.
Eric represented the United States in the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. He is the world champion in men’s kayaking for the third time.
Growing up in New Hampshire and Maine, he began participating in the sport with his dad, an engineer, at the age of 6. He attended the University of Maine before moving south.
Photo by Dan Cook Caney Creek Falls drops into the Collins River at Rock Island, Tenn., creating a great playground for kayakers. Eric Jackson founded Jackson Kayak there three years ago.
His children likewise took up kayaking at early ages, and both have won competitions around the world. They are homeschooled, which enables the family to travel throughout the year. They wintered in Australia for two years, perfecting their skills, and last winter they spent six weeks in the African countries of Uganda and Zambia. They practiced in the Nile River as it comes out of massive Lake Victoria.
Jackson is happy with his home base, however. Nearby, the Caney Fork drops majestically into the Collins River, creating a turbulence that is recognized globally for its challenge. "The water is awesome," he said. "I’m one mile from one of the best whitewater spots in the world."
His company’s biggest customer is an European distributor. A Japanese business is the second largest.
"There are about 300 places in the United States that sell some whitewater kayaks, and there are a hundred more that are pretty active," Jackson said. "We are in 55 U.S. dealerships, and we’ve kind of cherry-picked the best."
He thinks his company has done well largely because of having more size range than any other brand.
"Primarily because we start with kids kayaks," he said. "Nobody else makes kids kayaks."
The Jackson family’s international interests go beyond kayaking and business. The children have gone to great lengths to help others, in fact.
"Emily did two projects (in Africa) into which she put 100 percent of the money she won in competition last year," Eric said. "She raised almost $18,000 in donations."
The money refurbished a primary school for more than 1,000 students. "The buildings were really decrepit," Jackson said. "There were dirt floors with no benches."
Two African youths who show a lot of promise will soon benefit from Dane’s benevolence.
"There were two kids from an orphanage who are my son’s age and who are really smart and well-mannered," Eric said. "But they just don’t have the money to go to high school. It costs $46 a month. Dane’s raising money and is going to be sending those two kids through high school." World championships have led to championing the world.