With the Minnesota and Blue Earth Rivers flowing right through Mankato, the area is a water sports enthusiast’s dream — and Bent River Outfitter has everything you need for a day on the water.
Bent River Outfitter was started in 2011 by Jason Femrite and Adam Steinke, who wanted to get more people out into nature. Steinke said he got the idea when he heard the City of Mankato planned to construct the Riverfront Park Amphitheater.
“I thought, ‘Mankato needs an outdoor business,’” he recalled. “I thought outdoor activity could help rebuild this area.”
Starting Small, Growing Fast
The two friends started with a small fleet of about a dozen kayaks, a 15-passenger van and a trailer. But it didn’t take long until they needed to expand.
“It was quite an adventure that first year,” Femrite said. “We were begging, borrowing and stealing boats to bring out some of our groups.”
Since that first year in 2011, the partners have hired employees and expanded their fleet. One of their secrets to success is trying to offer something new every year, including paddleboarding, canoeing and snowshoeing. You can join a guided excursion or simply rent the equipment to forge ahead into your own adventure.
You’re going to have more fun if you come out in a group, or if you come out with an open mind to meet people. It’s the social aspect of the Outfitter that I think is the fun part.Adam Steinke
The company offers group events throughout the year, such as snowshoe hikes to Morgan Creek Winery near New Ulm, and corporate team building events. Adventurous souls can take a moonlit kayak ride down the river or join a paddleboard yoga class.
No matter what you try, Steinke recommends looking at the whole activity as a social gathering.
“You’re going to have more fun if you come out in a group, or if you come out with an open mind to meet people,” he said. “It’s the social aspect of the Outfitter that I think is the fun part.”
A Community Asset
The partners organize more than 1,000 trips a year, working with customers from around the world. They’ve hosted birthday parties, bachelor parties, family reunions, scout groups and even the U.S.A.F. Thunderbirds when they were in town for Mankato’s Air Show Spectacular in 2015.
“It’s an asset to the community that it’s here,” Steinke said. “People can come to Mankato now and spend a weekend and have enough to do. They’re not going to get bored.”
Steinke and Femrite work with about 10-15 seasonal employees, and they make an effort to hire college students.
“We’re trying to provide opportunities for those students to learn how to run a business,” Femrite said. “We see this business as forever changing; we’ve never had two years be the same as of yet. I think these students are what will keep the Outfitter new and fresh every year.”
Bravest on the Water
Bent River Outfitter assistant manager Kate Barnes began working at Bent River while studying at MSU-Mankato. She guides groups down the river on four-hour excursions, leading them through level one rapids, past nearly a dozen gorgeous waterfalls, under bald eagle nests and more—usually on her trusty paddleboard.
“Paddleboarding is my favorite,” she said, adding that she only began boarding in the last few years. “Everyone is nervous about falling when they start, but it’s more stable than you’d expect.”
Everyone is welcome on the river. Everyone can paddle.Kate Barnes
Barnes said young women are actually the bravest when it comes to trying this new sport trend, though there are a good number of women who enjoy kayaking and canoeing, too.
Last year, the most adventurous women participated in Bent River’s “stand up paddleboard yoga,” which is exactly what it sounds like. There was also “Women on the Water,” a women-only outing that taught basic kayaking skills before leading a group of 40-50 women down the Blue Earth river.
This Strange Year
While Bent River isn’t offering as many guided group activities this year in the wake of COVID-19, it is still offering boat pick-ups and deliveries by appointment. Boat delivery requires a six-person minimum and costs $50. Rentals are also available and include all needed equipment.
No matter your skill level or background, Barnes said that kayaking is something everyone can enjoy.
“Everyone is welcome on the river,” she said. “Everyone can paddle.”