#OptOutside on the water: Toledo Bend Reservoir, Texas

Cruising over the waters of Toledo Bend Reservoir, Texas.

Another Black Friday came and went, and for the third straight year, a good chunk of the masses decided to forgo the sales and head outside. Kudos to REI for kickstarting the #OptOutside movement, and everything it symbolizes (specifically, what it must mean to its employees).

For me, it’s usually meant hiking or trail running. But this year it was different. A good chunk of my family met up at a lake house on the shores of Toledo Bend Reservoir in east Texas for the holiday, and anytime you’re at a lake like this one, time on the water trumps all.

My niece’s husband is definitely a lake guy. Fishing, water skiing or just cruising around, he loves the water. Back when Liz and Mitchel were dating, he picked up a boat for $300, with some wondering if it would ever be seaworthy. Mitchel had it on the water that day.

The boat has been nicknamed the Black Pearl. Great name for this vessel, as it may be a bit worn, but pulls its weight and has a bit of a legend. You can fish from it, pull a skier and, amazingly, get some work done. As it turns out, the Pearl has a history that goes beyond being a reclaimed wreckage.

Back when Hurricane Harvey was busy dumping a year’s worth of rain on Houston, many neighborhoods were flooded. Folks were trapped in their swamped homes, with nowhere to get food, water and decent shelter. A call went out for people with boats to help these folks out.

Enter the Black Pearl, with Mitchel and Liz helping some folk escape flooded homes to safety.

Flooded Houstonians get a lift to safety on the Black Pearl after Hurricane Harvey.

Over the weekend, we used it to pull of 50-foot log off a beach, haul it to boat ramp and eventually cut it into sections that were used to line the out ring of a now under-construction fire pit.

Reclaiming some driftwood for a project at my sister’s lake house. It took some doing, but Mitchel and his trusty boat got it back to shore and ready for the job.

As it turns out, the Pearl is a good working boat.

But Black Friday on the Black Pearl was more about fun. We took the girls out for a cruise, checking out flooded trees on the lake where eagles had their nests. The lake is lined with houses of varying sizes, but it also is dotted with islands and surrounded by the Sabine National Forest and state park land on the Louisiana side. Toledo Bend is a popular destination for bass fishing tournaments, and plenty of anglers were on the water.

We mixed up our cruise with full-throttled blasts and slower runs to see the sights. Sunny skies and cold beer mixed nicely with the tunes playing from on-board speakers in the bow. It was a great way to kill a couple of hours before dinner.

Mitchel in his element, piloting the Black Pearl.

My turn at the wheel. I haven’t driven a boat since I was a kid.

The next day featured some free time and calm waters. I’d been eating a ton, so some exercise seemed appropriate. Poking around the garage, I found a flatwater kayak and all the gear needed to go out on the water.

The kayak was hot pink. All that was missing were some My Little Pony decals to complete the picture, but I didn’t care. That sucker was going in the water with me in it.

Something to keep in mind: I’ve never been in a kayak. Canoe? Sure. Many times. And rafts. But never a kayak.

This was a good time with a good view.

It takes some getting used to. Since this was a shorter boat, keeping it straight was a bit of work, but manageable. Every now and then I got into a rhythm, paddling outside the main boating channels and staying relatively close to shore, never more than a few hundred feet from the beach.

At times, I’d stop paddling just to listen. If there weren’t any boats speeding by, the quiet was interrupted only by the water lapping against the side of the hull.

What I found is that type of gentle quiet is very similar to what I experience when I stop in the middle of a hike just to listen to the sounds of the woods or the breeze atop a summit. With so much noise around us at all times, we need those moments of quiet. Life has been pretty noisy lately, so those couple of hours on the kayak were a soothing balm.

Even though I live close to a number of lakes, I’m more of a trail guy. I don’t think that’s going to change. But mixing things up has its perks, and there’s plenty of good to be found on the water. And just like those #OptOutside days on the trail, Black Friday on the water was way better than fighting crowds looking for the next-best deal on the next-best doo-dad. Gimme a power boat or a kayak any time.

Bob Doucette

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Five thoughts on REI’s #OptOutside Black Friday campaign

If you want to shop here on Black Friday, you're outta luck. (Wikipedia Commons photo)

If you want to shop here on Black Friday, you’re outta luck. (Wikipedia Commons photo)

Outdoor retailer REI made big news Monday when its corporate leadership announced that it would not open its stores on Black Friday.

This is a serious commitment for any retail company, as Black Friday — the day after Thanksgiving — is usually the biggest in-store shopping day of the year, and kicks off the industry’s most crucial period. Christmas is our excuse to buy a lot of stuff, after all, and there are a lot of consumers who know outdoorsy types who’d love a jacket, a tent, a pair of skis or some sort of gadget to go play outside.

The move is much more than a spontaneous measure of goodwill. It has plenty of layers. So here’s some snapshot thoughts of what REI’s Black Friday announcement means:

This was a seriously thought-out plan. The decision was packaged well, complete with its own social media hashtag, #OptOutside, and a web page that asks visitors to participate in their own version of Black Friday. It’s interactive, slick, and very visual. And its framework fits nicely with a younger generation’s aptitude for making statements of belief and values through social media outlets. Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram are being peppered with beautiful images, provided by REI, that express people’s desire to forego the shopping mania of Nov. 27 for some good times outside. REI’s CEO didn’t just dream this up over the weekend. This is a carefully crafted media campaign designed to make REI stand out from other retailers.

REI is taking a risk. Undoubtedly, REI will lose sales it ordinarily would have earned from shoppers flooding its brick-and-mortar stores. Other outdoor retailers that are more online-based, but still have physical stores, could get away with this more easily, but not REI. Online shopping is plenty big with REI, but this is a company committed to in-store sales. Closing on Black Friday won’t put REI out of business, but it will feel this. The bottom line will be affected.

REI is the type of company that can get away with this. The first question a lot of people unfamiliar with REI’s business model would ask is, “What are the shareholders going to say?” But REI is not a publicly traded company. Despite its huge presence and impact on the outdoor retail industry, REI is still a co-op of members, just like it was when it was founded. This gives REI more latitude on decisions like this than, say, Macy’s, Target or Wal-Mart.

#OptOutside is a major statement of corporate values. The company’s CEO, Jerry Stritzke, had this to say in an open letter to customers: “For 76 years, our co-op has been dedicated to one thing and one thing only: a life outdoors. We believe that being outside makes our lives better. And Black Friday is the perfect time to remind ourselves of this essential truth.” This move goes beyond counterintuitive, as other retailers are opening not only earlier on Black Friday, but also on Thanksgiving Day. So while employees of those companies will have to work long hours and may have to squeeze in a Thanksgiving meal around their Thursday shift, REI employees will be getting paid not to work on Black Friday. So not only is the company going to lose money on sales, but will also spend money on workers who won’t be generating income for REI. In the corporate world, you don’t make this sort of financial commitment unless you really believe in it.

The Friday after Thanksgiving looks like this. And increasingly, so does Thanksgiving Day. (eiu.edu photo)

The Friday after Thanksgiving looks like this. And increasingly, so does Thanksgiving Day. (eiu.edu photo)

#OptOutside is also a strong statement to change overall cultural values. You’ve seen the footage of frenzied Black Friday shoppers gobbling up TVs, gadgets, clothes and toys, surging through glass doors and whipping out credit cards like it was the last day shopping would ever be allowed. People camping outside stores. Stories of hapless consumers being trampled by hordes of single-minded buyers. Even fights breaking out, sometimes with weapons. These are the extremes of Black Friday, to be sure, and the stories make the online rounds as endless Thanksgiving holiday clickbait. But they exist. REI is pumping an alternative narrative hard, that instead of spending so much energy buying stuff, that maybe we should spend the day burning energy on a bike, hiking a trail, climbing a crag or camping with friends. The storyline is that time outdoors is far more memorable and fulfilling than cashing in on doorbuster sales. Consumerism drives the economy and keeps millions of people employed, but too much of a profitable thing can be toxic. That’s my thinking, anyway, and at first glance, that appears to be the idea REI is trying to convey as well.

Here's the view I hope to get on Black Friday as I #OptOutside. (Wikipedia Commons photo)

Here’s the view I hope to get on Black Friday as I #OptOutside. (Wikipedia Commons photo)

My plans for Black Friday have been developing over the past several weeks, long before #OptOutside was made public. I’m going to be in Tennessee that week, and if the weather and logistics cooperate, I’ll be in the Smokies hiking a mountain. But in spirit, I’m all in for #OptOutside. Who knows how long REI will keep this up, but I hope it becomes a lasting — and growing — trend.

So what do you all think? Will you shop till you drop, or are you going to get outdoors instead? And what do you think of what REI is doing? Give me a shout in the comments.

Bob Doucette