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Samuel Ellis, Rock Town River Outfitters

Samuel Ellis

Listen to Learn:

  • How tour guides train for white water rafting
  • How you can create a business out of your passion and a niche in the market
  • When it is safe and dangerous to kayak in the Arkansas River

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A Little Rock native, Samuel Ellis attended college at University of Central Arkansas. After graduating, Ellis moved to Colorado and trained to be a whitewater rafting guide for the summer. When the summer ended, he returned to Little Rock and took a position at a law firm. During a trip to Portland, Oregon, he noticed the community of sports enthusiasts that took advantage of the river that runs through that city. Upon returning to Little Rock, he met with the owners of Rockwater Marina and in the spring of 2017 he opened Rock Town River Outfitters, a kayaking tour business. In 2018, he bought a storefront in the River Market that rents bicycles. He kept the staff and solicited help from his friend in Oregon, who moved to Little Rock to manage the business. The bicycle space operates under the Rock Town River Outfitters umbrella. Both businesses offer unique views of the capital city.

Up In Your Business is a Radio Show by FlagandBanner.com

Kerry McCoy with guest Samuel Ellis and announcer Gray McCoy Kerry McCoy with guest Samuel Ellis and announcer Gray McCoy



[00:00:08] GM: Welcome to Up in Your Business with Kerry McCoy, a production of flagandbanner.com. Through storytelling and conversational interviews, this weekly radio show and podcast offers listeners firsthand insight into starting and running a business, the ups and downs of risk-taking and the commonalities of successful people. Connect with Kerry through her candid, often funny and informative weekly blog. There, you’ll read, learn and comment on life as a 21st century wife, mother, daughter and entrepreneur. And now it’s time for Kerry McCoy to get all up in your business.


[00:00:40] KM: Thank you, Gray. You just heard from my son, Gray. First time for him to ever read for me. It was really good. Thank you, child.

Like Gray said, I’m Kerry McCoy and it’s time for me to get up in your business. If for some reason you miss any part of this show or you would like to hear it again, there is a way, and Gray is going to tell you how.

[00:00:59] GM: Listen to all UIYB past and present interviews by going to flagandbanner.com and clicking on radio show to find a directory. Podcasts are also available on all listening platforms by searching Up in Your Business with Kerry McCoy.

Did you know you can also sign up for the Watercooler Weekly? A once a week email that notifies you of our upcoming guests as well as all the happenings at Dreamland Ballroom, the sales at flagandbanner.com, links to Brave Magazine articles and Kerry’s current blog posts. All that in one weekly email, or you may simply like flagandbanner.com’s Facebook page for timely notifications.

Back to you, Kerry.

[00:01:35] KM: Thank you, Gray. If you’re tuning in to this broadcast for the first time, welcome. This show, Up in Your business with Kerry McCoy, began as a platform for me, a small business owner and a guest to pay forward our experiential knowledge in a conversational way. Originally, my team and I thought it would speak to entrepreneurs and want to be entrepreneurs, but it seems to have a wider audience appeal because, after all, who isn’t inspired by everyday people’s American-made stories?

To see people in their totality is humanizing. We all thirst to connect and make sense of an overcomplicated world, and on this show we have the luxury of time to go deeper than a mere soundbite or a headline, and my favorite part, we always learn something.

After interviewing over 100 successful people, I’ve learned there is a common thread among most my guest. Many of them are creative. They believe in a higher power and they had the heart of a teacher. My guest today is no exception. This life enthusiast, Mr. Samuel Ellis, is founder of Rock Town River Outfitters in Little Rock’s River Market District on the Arkansas River.

This young scientist turned entrepreneur is going to tell us about his adventures, life as a whitewater rafting guide in Colorado. His professional life as an energy scientist and consultant for integrity. His entrepreneurial life as a founder and owner/operator of Rock Town River Outfitters, and last, we’ll ask him about his after hour life as the fiddler and his band, The Cons of Formant. I have no idea what that means, but we’re going to find out. In reading about Samuel Ellis, he seems to live three lives all running parallel to each other. I feel like we’re kind of kindred souls over there.

It is a pleasure to welcome to the table, river maven, musician and entrepreneur, Mr. Samuel Ellis.

[00:03:33] SE: That is by far the best introduction I have ever gotten. Thank you so much for having me on your show.

[00:03:38] KM: You’re welcome.

[00:03:38] SE: That is fantastic.

[00:03:39] KM: I am so glad you’re here first time for you to be on my show.

[00:03:43] SE: This is wonderful. I love what you’ve done to the place.

[00:03:45] KM: I know. It’s great. Do people call you Sam or Samuel.

[00:03:48] SE: My mom name me Samuel, so I usually introduce myself as Samuel, but it’s usually whatever you can yell the loudest.

[00:03:54] KM: I’ve been calling you Samuel throughout this interview and when I was talking about you and telling other people about it. So I never saw anyone refer to you as Sam. So, Samuel, you went to school in Conway, Arkansas. You got a degree in environmental studies.

[00:04:07] SE: I did. I graduated there. I went to UCA and got an environmental degree actually in city planning. So when I graduated from college, I actually took a job as a professional whitewater raft guide in Colorado.

[00:04:24] KM: You didn’t want to go straight into your career.

[00:04:25] SE: Well, I didn’t know exactly what my career was going to be at the moment, and whitewater rafting seemed way more fun than a day job at the time and something that I was really interested in.

[00:04:34] KM: Did you have friends up there and you just decided to take off or go beat them or just go off on your own?

[00:04:40] SE: A friend of mine that I went to high school with and we actually room together all through college, he went up there on a trip to go see a friend and we did it in weekends. So we drove up after class on a Friday, came back on a Sunday just in time for class on Monday, to and from Colorado. Standing on the banks, it was kind of like, “Man! We both want to do this.”

So we both took a job. We both didn’t know anybody up there when we moved, and we really didn’t have the job until you finished three weeks of training, which was a learning to do whitewater rescue and all the first aid and swimming the rapids and all the worst case scenarios and late may, which sounds wonderful here in Little Rock, but in Colorado, there’s still snowfall and snow on the ground. So you’re learning all the whitewater rescue situations during some pretty cold times. I don’t know if my mom ever really found out about how cold we were the whole time. She probably wouldn’t have loved to known that.

[00:05:35] KM: You think, “Oh, I’ve made a mistake.”

[00:05:38] SE: There was a couple of times where in the beginning of it I was like, “Oh my lanta! This is miserable learning to do this stuff and having to train that hard to be comfortable,” and essentially what you’re doing is you’re just teaching your body how to handle shock, because no matter what you’re doing, you go into 50-degree water and your body doesn’t know what to do. So you get really cold and the body goes into shock. So we kind of went through the rough and rugged side of that. So we got used to shock and you really ever go through it anymore. When I’m on the water here in Little Rock, it makes the water a lot warmer.

[00:06:10] KM: Just thinking about it. So you did it all summer?

[00:06:12] SE: I did. Yup. My first year was in 2011 I believe. Worked for a company out there and ended up being one of the best summers of my life, at least at the time, and little did I know what that would lead me to later down the road. But I definitely set the standard and set the foundation for my river experience and for what I wanted to do in life.

[00:06:37] KM: So you decided to come – What made you decide to come back home?

[00:06:41] SE: I came home and got a real job, made mom happy.

[00:06:44] KM: Because winter came and you’re like, “I’ve got to get off the river. I’m going to go into shock again.”

[00:06:48] SE: It is seasonal. It is seasonal, for sure. Actually, a local band I play in, we just released our first album when I left. So I actually got emails and words and calls from them saying, “Hey, this album is really being light and people want us to play some shows. If you come back, we’re going to keep playing.” So it was kind of a pull for the band as well as getting back and finishing the last little bit of school.

[00:07:19] KM: So you got a job at Integrity?

[00:07:22] SE: No. Integrity, there’s a few things before that. I actually took a job in a law firm right after coming back from Colorado.

[00:07:29] KM: Are you a lawyer also?

[00:07:29] SE: I am not a lawyer at all.

[00:07:31] KM: But I did see that you had a law position one time.

[00:07:34] SE: I did.

[00:07:35] KM: There was something about that on LinkedIn or something.

[00:07:37] SE: Mm-hmm. I worked at a law firm downtown. I went from whitewater rafting and camping every night to a cube farm, being a liaison between our company lawyers and some companies that we worked with.

[00:07:54] KM: Did you say a cube farm?

[00:07:56] SE: Yeah, a cube farm.

[00:07:57] KM: I never heard that. Okay.

[00:07:58] SE: You never heard that?

[00:07:58] KM: No. I like it.

[00:08:00] SE: Aha. It’s a –

[00:08:00] KM: I have a visual. I know what you mean.

[00:08:01] SE: Okay.

[00:08:04] KM: So you did that. Didn’t fit.

[00:08:05] SE: It didn’t fit, and it was inside a lot. Imagine the cube farm would be.

[00:08:12] KM: Another kind of shock.

[00:08:14] SE: It led me to want to find kind of that balance of being outside, doing what I love as well as making the career choices to make some money to pay all the bills, and that led me to actually getting out on the Arkansas River in my own little personal whitewater kayak at the time. I got out and the adventure is a little further and further every time, because probably like anybody else I grew up in Little Rock, my mom told me, “Don’t go near the Arkansas River. It’s dangerous.”

[00:08:43] KM: Yeah, we’re going to talk about that.

[00:08:44] SE: Like good kids. I believed her and I said, “Okay.” But then you get to the point – Well, after coming back and being a professional whitewater raft guide, it was really hard to figure out why this river seems so dangerous. So naturally I would get out in it and explore further and further, and that nature kind of led me to –

[00:09:03] KM: So you had never been on the Arkansas River prior to you coming back from the Colorado River episode of your life.

[00:09:09] SE: Not in a paddle boat of any kind. I’ve been on the river in a fishing boat.

[00:09:14] KM: So this passion for being on the river didn’t start as a youth.

[00:09:19] SE: Being on the water, yes. Being on the Arkansas River, no. I grew up kayaking and canoeing with my family on weekend trips and then my brother, he taught me how to roll in our family pond coming back from a class where he learned in college. He had a roll in class in college. I didn’t know that was a thing.

[00:09:37] KM: I didn’t know that was either. Roll in your family pond. Where does your family live? What did they do?

[00:09:43] SE: So I grew up on a three-acre pond here in Little Rock on Stagecoach Road. It’s now a wedding venue, an outdoor wedding venue called Alda’s Magnolia Hill.

[00:09:57] KM: You grew up there.

[00:09:58] SE: Mm-hmm.

[00:09:59] KM: How interesting.

[00:10:00] SE: Are you familiar with place? Have you ever been –

[00:10:02] KM: I know exactly where you’re talking about.

[00:10:03] SE: Oh, okay. Yeah.

[00:10:04] KM: I think probably all the listeners do to.

[00:10:07] SE: It is a fantastic place.

[00:10:07] KM: So you did get a job for a little while in your degree of your environmental studies, which was for city planning, because you did work for I think a popup in Little Rock?

[00:10:18] SE: I did. That was one of the things I was really excited about. My brother was involved in it before me and he got me interested. I think the first year, he hired our band to play in it. By hired I think we volunteered just to play for people. But I got involved as a chair committee and got more involved in what they’re doing, and part of that was making temporary furniture and equipment for changing a city for just a weekend.

[00:10:49] KM: For popping up in a city.

[00:10:50] SE: For popping up in a city. So that was really a great way to show a community what they could be temporarily.

[00:10:57] KM: But are you still working for Integrity?

[00:10:59] SE: I am. I still work at Integrity.

[00:11:01] KM: Which is an environmental studies.

[00:11:03] SE: Which is a sustainability firm.

[00:11:04] KM: Weather and climate or –

[00:11:06] SE: No. Actually, it’s energy studies. You’re right. So I personally work on our lighting side. We do everything from solar, to sustainability and building, lead certifications. Then I’m on the lighting side. So we go through and change out fluorescent bulbs to LED.

[00:11:25] KM: Aha. You sell light bulbs.

[00:11:27] SE: I’m a light bulb counter. It’s really more of a professional light bulb counter would be a good term for that, yeah.

[00:11:33] KM: Yeah, it’s worth it though. You could get a big savings.

[00:11:36] SE: It is. It is. It’s good to work for a company that I actually like what they’re doing.

[00:11:41] KM: Oh, good. So you’ve been there a while.

[00:11:43] SE: I have. I’ve been there for over four years I believe.

[00:11:46] KM: Oh, wow! That is good. So this is a great place to take a break. When we come back, we’ll continue our conversation with Mr. Samuel Ellis, founder and owner of Rock Town River Outfitters, a canoe and bike rental shop in Little Rock’s River Market District, Rock Water Marina that guides sunset tours atop of kayak on the Arkansas River. It’s going to be interesting.

In this next segment we’ll talk about his startup business venture. Is it everything he thought it would be? What tours and rentals he offers? Safety on the Arkansas River? His everyday environmental concerns that he sees in his professional life, and last, about being a fiddle player in his band, The Con of Formant. We’ll be back after the break.


[00:12:27] GM: Over 40 years ago with only $400, Kerry founded Arkansas Flag & Banner. During the last four decades, the business has grown and changed starting with door-to-door sales, then telemarketing, to mail order and catalogue sales, and now a third of their sales come through the internet. This past year, Flag & Banner added another internet feature; live chatting.

Over time, Kerry’s business and leadership knowledge grew. As early as 2004, she began sharing her knowledge with her weekly blog. In 2009, she founded the nonprofit; Friends of Dreamland Ballroom. In 2014, Brave Magazine, a biannual publication. Today, she has branched out into radio with this very production, podcast and livestream on Facebook.

Each week on this show you’ll hear candid conversations between her and her guests about real-world experiences on a variety of businesses and topics that we hope you’ll find interesting and inspiring. If you would like to ask Kerry a question or share your story, send an email to kerry@flagandbanner.com or send her a message on flagandbanner.com’s Facebook page.


[00:13:34] KM: Thank you, Gray. You’re doing a really good job. Isn’t he? Look, Zach’s in the other room going, “Yeah! He’s doing. I’m so glad I didn’t have to read it.” Look, he gives me the thumb up. “Oh! Thank you, Gray, for reading that.”

[00:13:46] GM: Thanks, mom.

[00:13:47] KM: You’re welcome. You’re listening to Up in Your Business with me, Kerry McCoy, and I’m speaking today with Mr. Samuel Ellis, founder and owner of Rock Town River Outfitters, a canoe and bike rental shop that offers sunset kayaking tours on the Arkansas River. All right, it’s time. We’ve talked about you moving back to Little Rock. Before the break we talked about you graduating with an environmental studies from the University of Arkansas – Or what –

[00:14:14] SE: University of Central Arkansas.

[00:14:15] KM: University of Central Arkansas in Conway, Arkansas. Going off like a young man to go float the Colorado River and become a guide and how cold it was. Then you learned CPR and a lot of good skills.

[00:14:29] SE: Helpful tools.

[00:14:30] KM: Helpful tools. I hope you’re around if I have a heart attack or something. Now you’ve moved back to Little Rock because you got to earn money and it’s gotten cold up there in Colorado, and your band want you to come back and play with them. So we’re back in Little Rock. You tried to be a lawyer, and now you’ve gone to work at Entergy. You like it. You’ve been there four years.

[00:14:54] SE: Yeah.

[00:14:55] KM: So how did Rock Town River Outfitters fit into this? Because you’ve still got your other job.

[00:15:00] SE: I do.

[00:15:01] KM: So how did that all come to be?

[00:15:02] SE: Well, it evolved, I would say, because it was – I didn’t know what I was starting when I started it. I saw a need for it, because when I first started kayaking on the Arkansas River, a little guy in a little boat. Nobody would ever go with me, because everybody thought it was so dangerous.

[00:15:24] KM: Did you just say little guy in a little boat? You are not that little. How tall are you?

[00:15:28] SE: I’m a tall 5’5”.

[00:15:30] KM: That’s not that little. You’re taller than Bruno Mars.

[00:15:33] SE: I’ll take that. Yeah.

[00:15:35] KM: Look at what a rockstar he is. Go ahead.

[00:15:38] SE: I got a tall heart. So I came back and I would go on these trips by myself because nobody would go with me because they thought it was dangerous, and I would take pictures of beautiful sunsets and all the wildlife I saw. I mean, I really had the whole place to myself. Of course, people started seeing these pictures with social media growing the way it did. Next thing I know people are starting to ask to go with me. Friends are wanting to go to the point where I ended up finding old boats to take some friends out on because nobody had their own boat. Then it really dawned on me that Little Rock could use this as a way to showcase itself.

[00:16:14] KM: When you say boat, you’re talking about kayaks.

[00:16:15] SE: I’m sorry, kayaks. Yes, kayaks. Little 13-toot sit inside and sit on top kayaks, manpowered.

[00:16:23] KM: Mm-hmm.

[00:16:25] SE: So I came into my dad one day and I said I had an idea, and I ended up buying three kayaks with all the moneys that I had, that I had saved up, and got the business license and found out how to get insurance for a company like this. A friend of mine that I worked with at the time gave me an old kayak that he found in his yard and he had grown a little too heavy for, and he gave it to me and I didn’t know anything about it. Ended up taking a look at it, and it was an old, old fiber glass kayak that I actually fixed up and made it my guide boat that year.

So that way my customers could be in the brand new boats that I just bought and I was in this old, hopefully it doesn’t sink that trip, kayak as the tour guide.

[00:17:14] KM: Probably heavy.

[00:17:16] SE: Actually, no. It’s Fiber glass. It was fairly light. I think that’s one of the reasons why I liked it. I ended up giving it a new paint job. If you come to my bike shop in downtown River Market, you’ll see it actually hanging up on the wall. Now that we’ve grown a little bit, I’ve been able to buy myself a boat to take guests out in other than just this one. So I still have it proudly hanging on the bike shop wall.

[00:17:37] KM: So you started your business, because there was a need. You found a niche. First of all, you’re following your passion. Then there became a need and you saw a niche market, and you didn’t have any money to invest particularly, did you?

[00:17:53] SE: No. Not really. I told myself two things. I’d never buy a brand new car and I’d never buy a brand new kayak. Those are the things that craigslist and aftermarket deals are made for, and I found myself unwrapping three brand new kayaks for this company.

[00:18:09] KM: Oh, wow! So you decide this is viable.

[00:18:14] SE: Mm-hmm.

[00:18:15] KM: When did you decide, “I’m going to go get a city permit and I must turn this into a business.”

[00:18:20] SE: It was probably while I was still working. I think I just started working at Integrity and it was great to work long days and then I wanted to be on the water, and that’s when more and more people started showing some interest in this.

[00:18:35] KM: How did they find out about you? Just from Instagram?

[00:18:39] SE: Facebook really. Yeah.

[00:18:42] KM: And you put your contact information in there. You start a business page on Facebook?

[00:18:46] SE: I did. I started a business page on Facebook. I actually was moving all the kayaks that I had on top of my 2006 Subaru and I had made a big banner to go on the back of it. It looked like Pops Kayaking Rental at the time, which it really was, really. But it was just a little way. I had my cellphone number and –

[00:19:07] KM: So you used Facebook. You used your vehicle. You used word of mouth.

[00:19:12] SE: Mm-hmm. Luckily, I paddled up to Rock Water Marina one day, which I didn’t know existed until I started really putting together a business plan for what I wanted to do.

[00:19:23] KM: Which is the private marina on the North Little Rock side.

[00:19:26] SE: Correct. Rock Water Marina is in Rock Water Village. It’s the new big neighborhood development right there in North Little Rock.

[00:19:33] KM: Used to be Vestal’s –

[00:19:34] SE: It was. It was Vestal’s –

[00:19:36] KM: Forest or something.

[00:19:37] SE: Mm-hmm. So they still have the big smokestack there from the greenhouses. That’s the easiest way to see it from the river, from anywhere. But I called the number on Google for that Marina and said, “Hey, I’ve got some questions about your Marina.” Left a voicemail, “and please call me back.” I got a callback about five minutes later from one of the owners and they said, “What do you want to do? When can you start? How can we help?” I think they just kind of got wind that I was wanting to do something on the water. I think it would really create a lot of traffic, and their marina was such a perfect place for it. So that really fit in well. So now we had a location. I had some boats and some people were starting to find out about us. So that really kind of came together to bring up a little bit of traffic.

[00:20:26] KM: So you rented a slip on his marina?

[00:20:28] SE: No, I didn’t rent a slip. I actually technically rented like a two-foot section of the walkway and I built some racks that hold on my kayaks off the water and/or off the walkway.

[00:20:41] KM: So he let you just put in there.

[00:20:43] SE: Yeah. Essentially, he had the marina and then a little bitty low-water dock that was really made for emergency vessels or anything that needed come up off the water at that point, and also the row club was in that stretch of the water at the time. It was made a perfect little spot for me, because I could put my boats on the water, get people down close to the water and get them in their boat, versus a marina is made for stepping up onto your pontoon boat or houseboat or that thing.

[00:21:10] KM: Oh!

[00:21:11] SE: So it was the perfect little spot for my little kayaking plan.

[00:21:15] KM: It’s kind of meant to be.

[00:21:16] SE: It really was.

[00:21:17] KM: So that was Rock Water Marina, but that’s not where your story is today.

[00:21:22] SE: Well, it is one of my locations.

[00:21:24] KM: It’s one of your put-ins, but your actual store is now –

[00:21:27] SE: We did. We took over the bike shop that’s in the River Market. I mean, in the River Market. We’re used to be Bobby’s Bike Hike. So it’s been a bike rental and tour company there for the last five years. He called me and said that they had to move back to Chicago and kind of said, “You’re the one that would be the most interested,” and I think that would do the best job of taking this rental side on. Then at the time, I didn’t have any money to buy into a whole bunch of bicycles, and I was the river guy.

So I kind of said no and I kind of was like, “That’s too much to bite off,” and everything that I’ve had reason to say no for kind of worked itself out to where I really didn’t have an argument. Then the big thing for me was if this shuts down and that turns into another little food stand or something, then Little Rock has no bike rentals. So all of our tourism that comes in from out of state and stays in the downtown area would have no way to see how beautiful our 15-mile bike trail is.

So then I felt like it was a responsibility of mine, and I was up to that. I didn’t know at the time, but I was definitely up to the challenge. It turned out to be a great spot. We’re right in the middle of Downtown Little Rock. We have all of our bicycles out and about and we’ve remodeled the place a little bit. We’ve got two 14-foot kayaks sitting in the middle of the street. So if you drive down Clinton Avenue, it’s really hard to miss.

[00:22:58] KM: It looks like a lot is going on. It looks exciting. It looks fun. It looks young. It makes me want to rent a bike, even though I have a bike. But even if you have a bike, you don’t have to take your bike down there. You can just go down there and rent one and takeoff. So you could see the river from the bike trail, 15 miles, or you can see the river from afloat.

[00:23:16] SE: Right.

[00:23:16] KM: Do you let people go, rent your kayaks and go out without you, or is it only tours?

[00:23:20] SE: No, we do rentals. So luckily, in the last two years that I’ve been at Rock Water Marina, on our tours through downtown, those are guided, and we don’t let people just go down that by themselves, at least in our boats. It’s open water. People are allowed to get out and see it no matter what they want. I don’t own the water. But behind Rock Water Marina is a stretch of sandbars and islands that really protects everything from the main channel, any boat traffic. It’s really crazy, because if you put in the water and you go just out a little bit from Rock Water Marina, if you go left, you’re going right through the heart of downtown. If you go right, you go into these islands and sandbars and you don’t see any other buildings. You feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere.

[00:24:10] KM: What Now, say that again. If you leave Rock Water Marina and you go downstream and you stay to the right, you see Downtown Little Rock.

[00:24:22] SE: You go underneath Baring Cross Bridge, which is the functioning train bridge right there. That still raises and lowers for barge traffic. You go underneath all the bridges through downtown.

[00:24:31] KM: Yeah, six bridges. Yeah, but not really six. But if you go on the left side, on the North Little Rock side, you’re saying that you can go between a sandbar?

[00:24:43] SE: Mm-hmm. So just upstream from Rock Water Marina.

[00:24:46] KM: Oh, upstream.

[00:24:47] SE: Upstream. Yeah, if you were to take a right coming out and following the North Little Rock bank, that goes up into Emerald Park and then goes all the way up into Murray Park and then up into Cooks Landing, and then the big dam bridge. Really, everything north of Rock Water Marina is all parks. So you can take a left and go through the downtown and see the beautiful city and the hustle and bustle of the downtown evenings, or you can literally take a right and feel like you’re in a rainforest and not really see another soul.

[00:25:19] KM: But there’s not much current over there.

[00:25:21] SE: No. So that’s the great thing, is since it is protected by all these islands and sandbars, not only is it give us protection from any kind of current, but you can also get out and explore the sandbars.

[00:25:30] KM: I would like to do that, because you start off going upstream when you’re fresh. Then when you’re tired, you get to float home.

[00:25:36] SE: Right. Right. Well, 9, 10 months out of the year, the Arkansas River is essentially a lake.

[00:25:44] KM: That is not true.

[00:25:45] SE: That is, yes. So it’s controlled by Murray Lock and Dam, the big Dam Bridge. The core engineers also releases all their flow rate. So kind of like looking at the weather where I want to know what’s the weather next Thursday. You can actually look at a forecast. So they’re forecasting how much they will release out of the dam, and that’s how I know when it’s safe to put on the water.

[00:26:07] KM: So you don’t have the phone number of the dam operator that

[inaudible 00:26:11] that you call all the time?

[00:26:13] SE: No. How I wish I could just float by and wave, but I don’t know if they could see me.

[00:26:17] KM:

[inaudible 00:26:16]. You should know him personally. Well, that was one of my questions. Is it dangerous? I guess it’s not. Let’s take a quick break and we’ll come back. When we do come back, we’re going to talk about, again, about the dangerousness. We’re going to talk about the products that you sell, the things you can do. You’re teaching people how to build canoes.

[00:26:35] SE: Yes, we are.

[00:26:36] KM: I know. We’re going to continue talking about all the outdoor experiences on the Arkansas River with Mr. Samuel Ellis, founder and owner of Rock Town River Outfitters, a canoe and bike rental shop that offers guided Arkansas river tours atop a kayak. Let’s not forget, Samuel is an environmental scientist. We’ll ask him what he thinks is the biggest and immediate issue facing mother earth, since he’s out on the water all the time. He might have an opinion. Last, we’re going to hear some of his fiddle playing. He brought some of his music from his band, The Con of Formant, and we’re going to find out where that name come from.

After each shows airing, a podcast is made available on all popular listening sites and YouTube. We’ll give you the phone number for calling in when we come back.


[00:27:22] AM: Arkansas Flag & Banner is proud to underwrite Up in Your Business with Kerry McCoy. McCoy began this broadcast with the intention of offering a mentoring platform for those with an entrepreneurial spirit. Through candid conversations and interesting interviews with business and community-minded Arkansans, listeners gain insight into starting and running a business, the ups and down of risk taking, and the commonalities of successful people.

Kerry McCoy, founder and president of Arkansas Flag & Banner believes in paying knowledge and experience forward and developed this radio show as a means of doing so. The biographies, life experiences and wisdom of her guests would likely go unheard if not for this venue. Rarely do people open up for an hour to an audience about their life mistakes, triumphs and pitfalls. This unique radio show allows the listener intimate access into the stories of prominent leaders in our state.

I’m Adrienne McNally, manager of the Arkansas Flag & Banner showroom and gift shop located on the 1st floor of the historic Taborian Hall on the corner of 9th and States Streets in Downtown Little Rock, Arkansas. In business for 43 years, we offer an old-school shopping experience with front door parking, clerks to help you and department store variety.

Open Monday through Friday, 8 to 5:30; and Saturday, 10 to 4.


[00:28:43] KM: You’re listening to Up in Your Business with me, Kerry McCoy, and I’m speaking today with Mr. Samuel Ellis, founder and owner of Rock Town River Outfitters, a canoe and bike rental shop that offers guided sunset tours of the Arkansas River. I am so doing that.

So let’s find out about the dangerousness. You really don’t think it’s dangerous out there?

[00:29:03] SE: So the Arkansas River is just like anything in the nature. There’s a dangerous time and a dangerous place on just about everything. For instance, you wouldn’t go climb Pinnacle Mountain in a lightning storm.

[00:29:16] KM: That is a good point.

[00:29:17] SE: I’m not going to say that the Arkansas River is not dangerous. We’re just wanting to educate people on when it’s safe and how to be safe on it.

[00:29:26] KM: If they’re going out with you, you are so trained, if anything happens. Tell me the scariest thing that’s ever happened to you on Colorado or on the Arkansas River.

[00:29:34] SE: Oh, yeah. Just some trips probably down Browns Canyon in Colorado with some families that you try and teach them how to paddle and how to work as a team and then they don’t. So you got to get them down the river safely no matter what.

[00:29:51] KM: Did they flip?

[00:29:52] SE: We’ve had some people in the water, but that’s kind of part of the fun. We have a couple of rapids that are actually – If we find out, we’ve got a really fun crew. We’ll go the sporty route, we’ll say.

[00:30:04] KM: Oh, there’s a fork in the river?

[00:30:05] SE: The big wave. There’s just different ways to hit different rapids. So some are more splashy than others.

[00:30:12] KM: So nothing dangerous has ever happened to you on the Arkansas River?

[00:30:16] SE: I do lots of keep it from being dangerous for me and anybody that I’m with. The training that I had in Colorado was exceptional in the fact that I’m more comfortable than anybody out on the water for the first time. Then also a little bit of commonsense keeps me away from the dam, for instance, or getting on the water during flood level, or going out if you didn’t know to swim.

[00:30:40] KM: So what are the two months that you can’t go out on the river? Probably right now.

[00:30:43] SE: Yeah, right now is one of them. If you’re listening to this and then you go look at the river right now and then you’re going to think I’m crazy, but right now we have a flood season. So that’s why I say it’s a lake –

[00:30:55] KM: So April and May.

[00:30:56] SE: It changes. It’s usually probably more like April-May or May-June, and the reason for that is because – So the Arkansas River starts in Leadville, Colorado and the rocky mountains. So while everybody is up there skiing all winter, that snow has to melt and go somewhere. So we always have a lot of the snow melt coming from the Arkansas River, which is why the Arkansas River is so much fun to float in Colorado, because that’s where it’s really narrow and there’s a lot of water, and that’s where the whitewater rafting side comes out.

By the time it gets all the way down here, it’s wider. It’s more managed by dams and used for irrigation. So it’s more controlled, but at the same time when we have all that snow melt and then we have all the big rains come through Oklahoma and Arkansas, like we’ve had, they have to let that water flow down, so they open the dams. So right now, essentially, Murray Lock and Dam is running water through it to relieve some of that water.

[00:31:52] KM: So that was a good river fact about where our water comes from. What are some other interesting river facts? I know when you do your tours, you tell everybody everything, because last night I was at girl’s night out and they asked me who was coming on the radio today and I told them, and I cannot believe this, but three of the six girls – We’re talking about 60-year-old women, have been on your tour with you.

[00:32:14] SE: Oh, yeah. I believe it.

[00:32:18] KM: They said it was so informative.

[00:32:19] SE: One of my favorite guest was this little older lady and she was just a super fun spirit. When you see someone walking down the ramp and you’re imagining everything but like the walker, I was kind of like, “Oh, man! Here we go. We got to keep this person like alive and we got to keep them upright and make sure they don’t get too tired and that they enjoy it.”

This little lady came down and she goes, “I missed my 67th high school reunion for this.” I was like, “What? All right. Well, I’m glad you’re here.”

[00:32:53] KM: 67th.

[00:32:53] SE: She turned to her friend and giggled. So who knows what it really was? But she was just a real trickster. As she gets in her boat, she puts her floppy head on and she puts on her gardening gloves and I’m like, “Oh, boy! Here we go.” Once we got on the water, I had trouble keeping up with her. I think she was a fantastic paddler. Since it’s calm and the boats we used are 13-foot, meaning they’re longer and they cut the water a little easier. So they’re easier to paddle. This little lady had no problem at all paddling up and down the Arkansas.

[00:33:26] KM: What if you get stuck out there at night?

[00:33:28] SE: Actually, being out on the night is one of the reasons that I think Rock Town River has done so well. We offer a sunset tour, and we have lights on the boats. It does help in working for a lighting company. I’ve learned a lot.

[00:33:42] KM: Oh, yeah. That’s right.

[00:33:44] SE: So the cool thing is we’ll put it on at sunset. You get to float through downtown. All the bridges light up. I think the first time I did it for myself before I started the company, I had like a headlamp and glow sticks and just about everything imaginable be lit up. Then I got through downtown and I didn’t have anything to see, because the city is so lit up. That’s what’s really amazing and you don’t realize it until you’re out there.

[00:34:12] KM: You probably stick kind of close to the shoreline I would think.

[00:34:15] SE: We do. So since the Arkansas River is commercially navigated. So you’ll see barges out there. You’ll see the big yachts and bast boats. We’re lucky that it is commercially navigated, because if you are on a lake, there’s no traffic, traffic lanes on a lake. It’s just go any which way around the lake you want, but on the Arkansas River, there’s a main channel. So that gives us the safety barrier to be – If we’re outside of that main channel, we’re not worried about getting hit by a barge, or we’re not worried about a bast boat taking us over.

So it’s kind of like a bike staying in a bike lane and staying out on the middle of the road, except for that fact that the main channel, it’s a very small channel compared to the width of the river. So we get this huge, essentially, a river sidewalk to play on.

[00:35:06] KM: Interesting. You also make canoes.

[00:35:11] SE: I do. My dad invited me a couple of years ago to go do a canoe building class with him in Brooklin, Maine, and it was fantastic. It was a long drive, but it was a week of learning how to build canoes. After doing that year after year, I was in another class in Maryland with him, and it was just kind of like, “Why don’t we do this in Little Rock?”

At the time I just took in over the bike shop in the River Market. I knew we weren’t going to do a lot of biking and kayaking in January and February. So I was trying to think of creative ways to use that space, and it just made everything – It just clicked. It was this concept of we can build canoes there, and we’ve got the idea – We didn’t have the material yet, and it was until I was on the way home posting a picture of us building a canoe and said, “Who would like to do this in Little Rock,” that Greg Johnston had reached out to me who someone I’d never met before, and he is the owner of Little Rock Boat Build Supply that I didn’t know excited.

[00:36:17] KM: I didn’t either.

[00:36:18] SE: So he saw my message and was like, “Get in touch with me. Let’s meet up and talk,” and we both really had the same dream. We were just coming at it from very different ways. So these experiences last year really made it a perfect click that we work together, because Rock Town River Outfitters had the name and we had the location, and Little Rock Boat Build Supply had literally that, the supply and the way to actually build these kits our self. They’re designed here locally by Greg Johnston and some of his team. They’re cut out on a CNC machine at a shop in the middle of Downtown.

[00:36:59] KM: What kind of wood?

[00:37:01] SE: It’s okoume, which is essentially a water-grade, marine-grade plywood.

[00:37:06] KM: Wow!

[00:37:07] SE: So we don’t digging them out of an old stump, like it’s not that kind of a canoe. It’s what’s called stitch and glue. So everything is cut out and made as a kit.

[00:37:18] KM: I thought it was made out of yew or something. Ain’t there a type of wood called yew?

[00:37:23] SE: I believe so. Yes.

[00:37:24] KM: I thought they were made out of that.

[00:37:25] SE: Well, you can use a lot of different things. The reason we use the okoume is because it adheres to fiber glass really well and it’s lightweight and waterproof. It’s the perfect wood for what we’re doing.

[00:37:39] KM: You just soak it, shape it, sand it?

[00:37:41] SE: We do. Actually, we cut it into the perfect shape so that when you start building it, it goes together. If you’d lay it out on the floor, it would not look like a canoe.

[00:37:51] KM: Really?

[00:37:51] SE: Aha! That’s the exciting part is –

[00:37:53] KM: It’s kind of like paper cutout dolls.

[00:37:54] SE: It is. The first day you walk in and we take a picture of you in front of your canoe, which is essentially a pile of wood on the floor. Through a five-day class which we offer different ones now, I say we, actually Little Rock Boat Builder Supply is continuing these classes, while I’m using the bike shop for bikes and kayaks again. So even though we’re not building them in the shop, Little Rock Boat Builder Supply is still building this.

[00:38:18] KM: So is that what you do in the winter when you can’t do a lot of biking and maybe – Because it seems like a seasonal business? You teach people how to build canoes in the off season and then you rent bikes and kayaks and do tours in the peak seasons?

[00:38:33] SE: It is.

[00:38:34] KM: Is it everything you thought it’d be, or is it more?

[00:38:37] SE: Oh, it’s more. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I started this idea, but it’s grown organically and it’s grown faster than I thought it would. So we’re definitely having some growing pains, but everything that I thought there might be an interest for in Little Rock it might be good for Little Rock. Little Rock locals and Little Rock travellers have really shown interest in it and it’s also generated a lot of traffic in the downtown area and new interests in making something more unique than you can find in a lot of other cities for just Little Rock.

[00:39:11] KM: Don’t you do – I don’t even know if you could that in Memphis. I bet you can’t get a Kayak to go on the Mississippi River in Memphis.

[00:39:19] SE: I haven’t got to paddle the Mississippi yet.

[00:39:20] KM: Would you do that?

[00:39:21] SE: Oh, totally. Yeah. I think it’d be fantastic. I mean, it’s just like anything. There’s different places.

[00:39:26] KM: They probably got big bike lanes on the Mississippi –

[00:39:27] SE: Big bike lanes, yeah. It’s just something very unique that Little Rock has to offer, and it’s this natural resource that goes through both Little Rock and North Little Rock.

[00:39:40] KM: You do food tours?

[00:39:41] SE: We do.

[00:39:42] KM: I saw that on your website. Everybody needs to know. You have the best website with the best pictures. Everybody should go there.

[00:39:48] SE: Well, thank you.

[00:39:48] KM: It will wet your appetite to want to get out there. How do people find out when you’re offering tours, when you’re offering workshops?

[00:39:58] SE: So our website is the best way to look at our different tours and options. Also, our Facebook page. We do keep everything, all of our events on there. But if you want to book anything that we do, any service that we do, of course you can visit our website, which I can assume that it’ll be probably the first time you’ve kayaked on the Arkansas River. So you’re going to have a million questions. So that’s why our phone number is right underneath it. I do get a lot of calls that are saying, “We looked at your website. How do you do this? What is it? Is it safe? Can I bring my kids? Will my grandma be able to come with us?”

[00:40:33] KM: Can you bring your kids?

[00:40:35] SE: We do have family days as well. So even for some of the younger kids at the Marina during safe little water levels, we have a little spot where we can get some of the kids out. For rentals, we do –

[00:40:47] KM: Like what age is kids?

[00:40:48] SE: So for what we do for our tours for being in your own boat, 16 is our limit for that. Then for being in some of our double tandem boats where two people are in, we do also down to 11. That’s of course in the protected – The water there at Rock Water Marina.

[00:41:10] KM: Mm-hmm. So you could groups. You can do singles.

[00:41:13] SE: Yes. Actually, one of our biggest events we had this year so far was a big party for a school that they’re graduating and they wanted to have a big party. So all the parents were out grilling at the Marina, at Rock Water Marina. They ended up blowing a huge blowup movie screen and watch a projector movie on the boat house, which is pretty fantastic. Then we had all of our kayaks out.

[00:41:39] KM: Did you ask a friend from Oregon to come and help run –

[00:41:42] SE: I did. The good same friend of mine that I moved to Colorado with and became whitewater raft guys at first year, he continued working in Colorado when I came back home from Arkansas. Then he moved out to Portland, Oregon and took a job as a kayak instructor for a company out there. It was when I was visiting him that I was looking out on the river over the Columbia and realized that there was nightlife and boats and people of all ages were still out there on the river. I just said, “Why is Little Rock not like this?”

So, again, the way the world works out, he ended up coming back to Little Rock about the time that I took over the bike shop and realized I was way over my head and really needs some help. So he stuck around and was able to help me out and get things a little bit more sturdy and get a good foundation going and he’s been helping me on the river. Because before that, I was the only one that could do any of our tours, because I’m a licensed tour guide, or a licensed raft guide. I’m not going to put one of our young, new hires straight out of high school taking guided tours down the Arkansas River.

[00:42:51] KM: How many boys do you have?

[00:42:53] SE: Well, as of right now, we’re still in the early season. A lot of my staff is either in school or teaching school.

[00:43:00] KM: How many will you have this summer?

[00:43:01] SE: We’ll probably have around between 7 and 9.

[00:43:05] KM: That’s a lot of business you’re doing in the summer.

[00:43:07] SE: It is a lot of business.

[00:43:07] KM: Let me tell everybody that you’re listening to Up in Your Business with me, Kerry McCoy, and that I’m speaking today with Mr. Samuel Ellis, founder and owner of Rock Town River Outfitters, a canoe and bike rental shop that also offers guided tours at the Arkansas River located in Little Rock’s River Market District and the Rock Water Marina on the Arkansas River.

So you do food tours.

[00:43:29] SE: We do. We do food tours.

[00:43:32] KM: You just do everything.

[00:43:33] SE: Well, there’s a lot of –

[00:43:33] KM: What would our city be doing if you weren’t here? Thank you so much, Samuel.

[00:43:36] SE: There’s a lot of fun things to do in the city.

[00:43:39] KM: Thank you for making all these stuff available to people that visit us.

[00:43:43] SE: Well, and growing up here, Little Rock is very different 20 years ago.

[00:43:47] KM: Boy, it is.

[00:43:48] SE: So there’s more to do than just go to Professor Ball, or the movies nowadays. Not that those are still not fun, but I would have loved to have any of these opportunities, whether it’d be a part-time job working for a company like this when I was in high school and coming out of college, or just a place to hang out and go be on the river and know that it’s okay and safe and your mom is not going to kill you if she finds out, and these activities are here.

[00:44:18] KM: Samuel, are you married?

[00:44:19] SE: I am not married.

[00:44:21] KM: Oh!

[00:44:22] SE: I am not married. I have a dog and my own business. That’s about all I can handle right now.

[00:44:26] KM: You can’t handle anything else right now. Let’s talk about you are – Is it a fiddle player or a violinist, and what is the difference?

[00:44:34] SE: Both.

[00:44:36] KM: Are they the same thing?

[00:44:36] SE: It is the same thing. I think the only difference is how fast you tap your foot. There’s a lot of those different strokes. So I grew up playing classical violin. My mom put a fiddle in my hand or a violin at the time, and I practiced 30 minutes before school every day. I actually ended up taking a little bit of bluegrass lesson I think when she could see my attention starting to wane. That led me to playing fiddle out at the farmers market at Saturday mornings in the River Market when I was about 13 or 14-years-old. So it’s kind of funny that it turned around where I was essentially a little kid playing fiddle at the River Market, to now getting to own my own shop and welcoming guests and showing Little Rock tours to locals, all the fun things to do

[inaudible 00:45:27].

[00:45:27] KM: You play the fiddle down there at your place?

[00:45:29] SE: I don’t do it quite often as I used to when I was a little kid playing down there.

[00:45:34] KM: That probably brings some people into your shop. So the name of your band is The Con of Formant.

[00:45:41] SE: The Cons of Formant. Correct. The Cons of Formant.

[00:45:43] KM: The Cons of Formant. So I had to look up what formant looked –

[00:45:47] SE: Oh, you did your research. Okay.

[00:45:48] KM: I had to, because I had no idea what that – It’s a phonetic science. This is what Wikipedia said. Each of several prominent bands frequency that determine the phonetic quality of a vowel.

[00:46:06] SE: That is a way fancier way of saying it is different parts of a sound wave and sound speech, a formant.

[00:46:14] KM: So why the cons.

[00:46:16] SE: So –

[00:46:17] KM: Anti? The cons?

[00:46:18] SE: Actually it was because we, the four people in the band, we all met in college essentially. We all played in different bands at the time, whether it’d be any little college band that we are wanting to play in or playing at a bar, a gig, but we would all get out of our shows and then we would just come to one of the houses one of us lived in and play music all day.

We all had very different tastes in music, and I think it was us getting together starting our own band that it wasn’t bluegrass. It wasn’t rock. It wasn’t country. It was a mixture of all these things.

[00:47:00] KM: The Cons of Formant.

[00:47:01] SE: Aha, it was kind of a manipulation –

[00:47:02] KM: The is the hardest name for anybody to remember. All right, let’s play some of their music. Let’s play one of his songs before we – What song is this?

[00:47:10] SE: This is Tributaries

[inaudible 00:47:11] conversation.

[00:47:14] KM: Oh, there you go.

[00:48:05] SE: That’s good stuff.

It’s hard to hear this without singing the harmony. But, yeah, that’s some Cons of Formant right there. We’ve been playing music since – Gosh! I don’t even know. It’s been almost 10 years now.

[00:48:34] KM: I love it. Who was singing?

[00:48:35] SE: That’s David Bise, our lead singer there. So it’s David Bise, and Drew Morse is our other vocalist and banjo player and mandolin player. Then Patrick Pipkin base and kick drum.

[00:48:51] KM: Good job. So where do people find out where you’re playing?

[00:48:55] SE: We have a Facebook, of course, The Cons of Formant, then Instagram. We actually have a website as well, so the consofformant.com.

[00:49:03] KM: I watched some of your music on your website. It was good.

[00:49:05] SE: Oh, thank you very much.

[00:49:06] KM: You are a jumpin’ fiddle player.

[00:49:08] SE: I don’t stand still very well.

[00:49:09] KM: No, you don’t. It’s fun to watch you.

[00:49:12] SE: I think that’s because of the years of playing at the farmers market where you couldn’t just play your music. You kind of had to put on a little bit of a show.

[00:49:18] KM: Oh, you put on a show.

[00:49:19] SE: It’s still in my blood.

[00:49:21] KM: It’s good. It’s really, really good. I have a gift for you, Samuel Ellis. You know Ellis Island.

[00:49:29] SE: I do.

[00:49:30] KM: Ellis Island, the guy that founded Ellis Island was named Samuel Ellis, because when I Googled your name, his name –

[00:49:35] SE: He’s more important than me. He probably came up first.

[00:49:38] KM: He was a merchant in New York who owns Ellis Island. So did your mother name you after Samuel Ellis?

[00:49:42] SE: No, it’s a family name actually.

[00:49:45] KM: You may be related.

[00:49:47] SE: Very much so. When people can’t remember my name, I’m like, “You know, like the island.” Then they go, “Okay. Sweet.”

[00:49:52] KM: Aha. There’s your gift.

[00:49:52] SE: Well, thank you very much. That’s beautiful.

[00:49:53] KM: That’s a U.S. and Arkansas flag, a desk set that you can put up down there at the –

[00:49:58] SE: This will go in the bike shop.

[00:49:59] KM: It will go great in the bike shop. So who’s my guest next week, Gray?

[00:50:04] GM: Guest next week is Ann McCoy, Whitehouse Social Secretary under the Clinton Administration.

[00:50:09] KM: So I have to do full disclosure. She’s my mother-in-law, and it’s three days after mother’s day. So I thought she is – I’ve interviewed her before. She is a perfect southern lady, and she has the best stories to tell about the inauguration, about moving into the Whitehouse, about some of the protocol and the etiquette that they have to do there. It’s really fascinating. It’s not a political show. She did not work in the west wing. She worked in the east wing, and it’s all about the dinners that she had with people. She met Nelson Mandela. At one point she had met the leaders of everybody in the free world.

Sam, thanks again for joining me. For those listeners out there who might have a great entrepreneurial story that they’d like to share, send a brief bio and your contact info to kerry@flagandbanner.com and someone will be in touch.

Last, to our listeners, thank you for spending time with us. If you think this program has been about you, you’re right, but it’s also been for me. Thank you for letting us fulfill our destiny. Our hope today is that you’ve heard or learned something that’s been inspiring and/or enlightening and that it, whatever it is, will help you up your business, your independence, your life.

I’m Kerry McCoy and I’ll see you next week. Until then, be brave and keep it up.


[00:51:28] GM: You’ve been listening to Up in Your Business with Kerry McCoy, a production of flagandbanner.com. If you missed any part of the show or want to learn about Up in Your Business, go to flagandbanner.com and click on radio show or subscribe to the weekly podcast wherever you like to listen. All interviews are recorded and posted the following week with links to resources you heard discussed on today’s show.

Kerry’s goal, to help you live the American dream.


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