NEW MILFORD – The economic potential of the Housatonic River is being realized by a Cornwall business that brought boat rentals to the New Milford River Trail Greenway.
The public park, next to the iconic Veterans Memorial Bridge, opened in mid-June.
The green space is part of the town’s ongoing river redevelopment project and it offers a walking and biking path, a launch, a fishing hole and picnic area, too, that overlooks the Housatonic.
Though there is plenty of open space for picnicking and land sports, there was no way to get on the water without owning a kayak or canoe that prompted Clarke Outdoors to set up a makeshift rental spot across from Young’s Field to offer a fleet of boats for paddlers to choose from. They have kayaks, canoes and stand-up paddleboards.
Mark and Jenifer Clarke, husband and wife co-owners, are pleased to grow their business with their latest kayak rental business in New Milford.
Their two other kayak rental locations are at Burr Pond State Park in Torrington and Lake Waramaug State Park in Kent.
“It has been a long time since we opened a new location. We’re happy and it’s great to see that the town is excited about us and is so supportive,” said Jenifer Clarke. “It’s encouraging. They really enhanced the riverbank and the river walk.”
It was Mayor David Gronbach’s idea to bring kayak rentals to the community and to tourists.
He’s an avid kayaker and said the underused 2.5-mile stretch of tranquil water on the Housatonic “is one of the most beautiful stretches in Connecticut.” He “paddles the river” and is oftentimes the only one out enjoying the water. Now, he hopes the experience will be fun for beginner paddlers.
Eric Davis of Goshen is a seasonal employee and graduate student who’s in charge of the kayak rentals in New Milford.
“What I love about my job is that I get to work outside in an easygoing environment. I definitely like meeting all the different people. Kayaking is something to do with the whole family. I especially like to see the kids’ faces. They’re hyped up and many are excited to be on a boat for the first time,” said Davis.
Clarke Outdoors has been in business for over 40 years and employs 12 people, including four of their grown children who help when needed. They have more than 100 kayaks and canoes in their fleet.
Mark and Jenifer Clarke, of Lakeville, also own a specialty retail store on Route 7 in West Cornwall, across from the Housatonic River. They carry a large selection of canoe and kayak equipment and accessories for paddlers of all skill levels.
They also rent canoes and kayaks on the river and provide a shuttle service for the West Cornwall stretch of the Housatonic River. They offer kayak lessons, whitewater instruction and canoe clinics, too.
Mark Clarke, a nine-time National Canoe Champion and nationally ranked kayaker, who competed professionally for over 20 years, and still races a few times a year, oversees the kayak and whitewater instruction programs. He and the instructors are certified by the American Canoe Association.
For now, the New Milford location will only offer rentals. Tours and lessons are a possibility if they find there’s a demand for it.
Mark Clarke first opened the business with his brother Stephen Clarke after he graduated from college and it was out of necessity. They started out doing tours then opened the small retail shop.
“I was trying to be a serious boat racer and realized I could never have a serious job because I was on the road all the time. Nobody would hire me with my schedule. We were our own bosses and that was our entire motivation. We did what we wanted to do and we were getting better at it. We became true experts in the field. It was a ton of fun and we met a lot of wacky people because of this job. It was like the Wild West before we had customers,” reminisced Mark Clarke.
“Then one day, my brother said, ‘I’m out of here. I’m tired of being poor. I’m going back to college,’ so that’s just what he did.”
He and his brother were into adventure sports early on in life. Growing up on a small horse farm in East Canaan, “there were no rules.” The Konkapot River and Squabble Brook ran through the property, so they were naturally drawn to water activities of all kinds. “There was something going on there all the time. I’d saddle up a horse and take off for the day or ride a tractor around the property,” he said.
In 1979, Mark and Jenifer Clarke married. “I remember our first date was a Class III rapid. I picked up boating, paddling and snow skiing because of him,” she said. At one point, she too, was involved in kayak racing.
Shortly after, she began to manage the retail shop and that’s when the business began to really grow.
“I do everything else Mark doesn’t do. He’s always on the water and the ‘fix everything guy.’ I also do paperwork and payroll. He’s bored by that.”
“I fix stuff, I guide trips and I teach lessons. It’s pretty basic.”
He repairs boats at the store and enjoys designing boats as well. Through the years he sold many of his designs. “Mad River Canoe once bought a design,” he said.
As for their four children, paddling and adventure sports run in the family. They got their passion for paddling and snow skiing from both parents. “Andy made it to the Junior Olympics in kayaking. However, three kids regressed and became snowboarders,” Jenifer Clarke said with humor.
Kayak and Canoe Rental Availability at The New Milford River Trail:
Weather dependent, Clarke Outdoors opens at 10 a.m. on Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday.
On Friday and Monday, the last boat is out at 4 p.m. and back by 5 p.m.
On Saturday and Sunday, the last boat is out by 5 p.m. and back by 6 p.m.
Single Kayak – $10 an hour, double kayak or canoe – $15 an hour, SUPs – $10 for a half hour or $15 for an hour.
All rentals include life vests and paddles. Open until Labor Day.
What is the New Milford River Trail?
“It’s an envisioned 13-mile trail following the Housatonic and Still Rivers from Gaylordsville in the north, through downtown New Milford, then continuing to Brookfield in the south where it will connect with the Still River Greenway. Phase I, which is approximately 5 miles, was completed in 2012 and includes Sega Meadows Park and the less-traveled, scenic River Road,” said Lisa Arasim, Co-Founder and Treasurer of the New Milford River Trail Association.
Funded by the General Electric Housatonic Restoration settlement grant, the remaining 8 miles of trail should be determined by the end of summer. The engineering firm Milone & MacBroom are studying possible routes.
If you’d like to read more posts like this one, please follow CandlewoodLakeMagazine on Facebook.
This article is by Alicia Sakal. The feature originally appeared online on July 22, 2017 and on the Business front page in the July 23, 2017 edition of Republican-American, a regional daily newspaper in 36 towns and cities in Litchfield County and Greater Waterbury, Connecticut.