Catching the Wave
A man of all seasons
by Keith Morrill
In 2005 Kenneth “Bert” Roberts left the retail business to buy a kayak and canoe touring business called Smugglers’ Notch Canoe and Kayak Tours. Now renamed Bert’s Boats & Transportation, his Jeffersonville endeavor plans, equips, and facilitates river tours for customers from all over.
Kenneth “Bert” Roberts has been floating downstream — or paddling up it — ever since, as a Boy Scout, he feathered his first paddle. He’s been caught up in a current that has driven both his personal and professional pursuits.
Now, years later and a few miles downriver, he helms Bert’s Boats & Transportation, a canoe and kayak rental and touring service in Jeffersonville. For over a decade, he’s been launching paddlers into and guiding them safely down Vermont’s waterways.
Although Roberts has always been a paddling enthusiast, having spent much of his youth and early adulthood pursuing the activity for both leisure and sport, he took a meandering route to arrive at the riverside field in Jeffersonville that he uses as his livery and summertime base of operations.
As much as he has been a paddling enthusiast, Roberts has also been a downhill disciple, spending his winters bombing down Vermont’s slopes. He graduated from Lyndon State College in 1978 with a degree in ski-area management with a minor in business, and went right to work at the Alpine Shop in South Burlington where he spent the next 22 years as general manager and hard-goods buyer. In ’99, he left the Alpine Shop to split his year between selling canoes and kayaks at Umiak Outfitters in the summer, and winters, helping run AJ’s Ski & Sports in Stowe.
Boating wouldn’t come into the mix professionally until 2003, when Roberts took the initiative to add a boat department to AJ’s, expanding the store’s offerings beyond ski equipment to include canoes and kayaks, a move that included a profit share for himself. It was around this time that — when he saw Green River Canoe (now Vermont Canoe) up for sale — he first considered owning his own paddling business service.
He felt committed, though, to staying the course with the newly launched boat department at AJ’s, at least for a few years. As luck would have it, opportunity again drifted his way when he saw a kayak touring business in Jeffersonville up for sale. He pondered the idea, crunching the numbers while vacationing in Florida with his daughters, and when everything seemed right, he decided to make a move.
Things went quickly and, in 2005, Roberts assumed ownership of the business, then called Smugglers’ Notch Canoe and Kayak Tours. He describes the first year as a steep learning curve, adding with a wry grin, “A lot of the business I semi-learned in college came back to me.”
For starters, his predecessor had operated the business out of the parking lot of a picnic area in Jeffersonville. Roberts quickly remedied the situation, anchoring his livery at the edge of a nearby farmer’s field that sat along the Lamoille River. From there, he dug in, landing his first customers. He says that business has advanced steadily year by year.
The average summer day finds him waking up early to navigate email and phone requests for rentals. Most customers are interested in self-guided tours and want to be on the water between midmorning and early afternoon. He spends the morning driving customers to put-in locations and then runs them through his safety-and-paddling clinic, which teaches proper safety measures and paddling techniques, and which, he says, is entertaining to boot.
Roberts plans customers’ routes to match their skill levels. He chooses put-in locations that will keep them on the river for the requisite tour time, and take them to the point in their river where they have pre-parked their cars and where they leave their boats and equipment for Roberts to pick up later in the day.
A lot of the tours end at Boyden Farms in Cambridge, a business with which Bert’s Boats has developed a symbiotic relationship. Lauri Boyden, co-owner of Boyden Farms, says the traffic generated by Bert’s Boats is welcome. Paddlers get to enjoy some treats such as ice cream there.
“He is such a genuine, friendly, honest person that it’s a pleasure to do business with him because he really gets to know people and gives them a very personal experience through his business,” Boyden says, adding, “He’s always been so conscientious about everything else we have going on at the farm.”
By afternoons Roberts is leading guided tours, including business and group paddling tours for which he occasionally caters a barbecue. One tour he regularly leads is for Champlain Valley Union High School’s incoming freshman class. Physical education teacher Troy Paradee, who helped to initiate the trip, says they come back to Roberts every year because of the unparalleled experience he provides for them.
This is because Roberts is able to assemble a small fleet of boats, around 35 or 40, to get each of the roughly 75 students on the water every year.
“He gives all these kids quick lessons to make them successful on the water,” says Paradee. “He’s right in the water with us in his boat. And he’s really swift. He can get up and down the river pretty quick. So he helps if kids get in trouble; he’s right with us the whole day.” Paradee says the school has repeated the trip yearly and will continue to do so.
Obviously the seasons drive the company. So what does Roberts do with the rest of his year? This seasonal nature of the business has been one of the more interesting challenges Roberts has faced. To remain busy — and employed — throughout the year requires that he be a man of many hats.
Come mid-October, when the fountainhead of paddlers has dried up, Roberts dons his painter’s cap and joins a small team that, in preparation for the coming ski season, paints half of the roughly 400 condo units at Smugglers’ Notch Resort. “It’s a great gig when most everyone else doesn’t have anything to do,” he says.
In winter, he turns to leading people down a different Vermont byway — trading rivers for roads. In August 2014, Roberts purchased the airport shuttle service GM Express, and he now ferries travelers between Burlington International Airport and Smugglers’ Notch Resort. Most of his passengers hail from warmer climates, he says, and they have no interest in trying to navigate Vermont’s snowy roads, just its snowy slopes. Though the business runs year-round, the bulk of it coincides with ski season.
Sometimes scheduling conflicts arise with yet another of Roberts’s winter gigs: working as a boot-fit specialist and hard-goods buyer at Smuggler’s Notch. “I am there specifically to make everybody’s feet happy,” he says. The gig used to take up more of his time, but Roberts has whittled his time there to two nights a week.
To meet the demands of GM Express, he employs three other drivers, including his wife, Mary, whom he met online three and a half years ago and married last June.
In spring, the day after the resort closes, he puts his painter’s garb back on to apply a fresh coat to all those resort condos. This gig wraps up just around the time Vermont rivers have thawed and warmed (at least a little), and customers are thinking about putting in for a little paddling.
“I’m a busy guy,” says Roberts.
Perhaps part of the reason he’s able to maintain such a frenzied schedule is that his children are grown and out of the house, and his wife seems to demand the same frenzied pace. He has two daughters from a previous marriage, Lauren, 24, who works for Cambridge Market and Smugglers’ Notch Resort, and Yohana, 29, a social worker in Manhattan. His wife works for the Department of Children and Families and, in addition to her 40-hour workweek, helps out with both of her husband’s businesses.
The busy year-round schedule doesn’t allow him much downtime, but when he finds the time, he’s usually out skiing or paddling.
“They are the two sports loves of my life,” says Roberts. While skiing wasn’t on the docket as much this winter, he and Mary did celebrate Christmas by paddling on Shelburne Pond. Given a few more years, he’d like to free up a season or two in order to pursue more paddling.
Roberts and a few paddling buddies have their eyes on serious waterways that would take them far from his workaday channels, through portions of Canada and into the Hudson Bay. He speaks of the trip with the fervor reserved for enthusiasts. “That would be a serious adventure.” •