Profitt Report: Making a living on the Rifle River, this livery is still family-owned

Jenny Russell Canoe Livery 7.20.18 38.Copy.01.jpg
Photo credit: Andrew Fergerson{ }

We only get 15 weekends between Memorial Day and Labor Day to enjoy our Pure Michigan summer. That means for Robert and Leslie Russell, only 15 weekends to make their living.

“It’s very short, high impact, boom,” said Robert. He and his wife own Russell Canoe Livery and Campgrounds in Omer. The business has been in their family for 59 years.

“I was six-years-old, my father started the canoe business out of our yard,” Robert said, “to make extra money because my sister was in the hospital with a rare disease of the heart.”

Robert said the Rifle River you see today is nothing like back then but over the years, he and his wife carved out their place by the water.

“In the beginning, we lived in a house trailer right in the camp ground, people knocked at your door all time of night, Leslie said, “we used to sit on a picnic table, not in a store, waiting for people to come in, it was a very different time.”

The saying “slow and steady wins the race” perfectly describes how they grew over the years.

“We did a lot of improvements, we did borrow some money but didn’t overextend ourselves, that's probably the best thing we did,” Leslie said.

With Mother Nature as a business partner, that mindset has helped them survive financially.

“We had that rain in February and it broke the ice two-foot thick and it came down and jammed, backed up into our camp ground,” Robert said, “there was homes above us that were devastated, canoes, kayaks, trailers.”

However, Robert said his mom, who took over the business after his father died, taught him how to emotionally survive these set-backs.

“She was so tough. She lost her son, killed on the highway. She lost my father, she lost her next husband, her parents. She just died a couple years ago, yeah, she taught me all those types of values,” Robert said.

Today, they have two campgrounds and rent canoes for a few hours, or up to five days.

One of the most rewarding parts of the business is holding this space for families to gather, laugh and be together.

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