Why a World-Champion Kayaker Chose Rural Tennessee for His Kayak Business

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Photo by Michael D. Tedesco

After getting his first kayak at the age of 15, Eric “EJ” Jackson says he became hooked on the paddle sport – and now, with the creation of Sparta-based Jackson Kayak, he’s sharing that passion with others while also bringing dozens of jobs to the White County community.

“I had no idea what a gem White County and Tennessee would be for running a business until I got it going,” says Jackson, who is widely known as the most accomplished kayaker in history. “It was pure coincidence that I started my business here. Every step of the way, our great state and county and the Upper Cumberland Development District have helped us. I am so happy I am here.”

Photo by Michael D. Tedesco

Jackson Launches a Career as a World Champion Kayaker

Although he grew up on the water and was no stranger to kayaking, Jackson says a summer job in Maine as a whitewater photographer shooting for rafting companies helped him hone his skills in the sport as a young man.

Shortly thereafter, in 1984, he moved to Maryland – where the U.S. Olympic team trained for slalom kayaking and began training full time in hopes of making the team himself.

His dream came true in 1989. That year, Jackson competed in the Canoe and Kayak Slalom World Championships and the Canoe Slalom World Cup, both hosted by the International Canoe Federation, and he went on to compete in the 1992 Summer Olympic Games in Barcelona, where he finished 13th in the K-1 (kayak single) men’s event and was the top American finisher.

Photo by Michael D. Tedesco

Jackson says his breakout year was 1993, when he won the Kayak Freestyle World Championships held on Tennessee’s Ocoee River. Following that win, he continued racking up accolades, including three additional first-place finishes at the Kayak Freestyle World Championships, and between 1998 and 2009, Jackson won most of the more than 150 events in which he competed.

Since then, he’s been inducted into the International Whitewater Hall of Fame and received a lifetime achievement award at the World Paddle Awards in 2015. In addition, Jackson is the recipient of two Everest Awards, which are also known as Oscars of the Outdoor Industry.

Photo by Michael D. Tedesco

Rural Middle Tennessee Welcomes Jackson Kayak

After spending several years traveling around the U.S. and beyond, Jackson and his wife, Kristine, along with their two children, Emily and Dane, put down roots in Rock Island, and they’ve been Tennessee residents ever since.

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“Rock Island provided me one of the best training grounds for my kayaking (on the Caney Fork River), was friendly and warm, and the kids loved it,” Jackson says. “When we were on the way to Twin Falls in 2002, we saw land for sale on Powerhouse Road, right where I kayak, and by 2003, that land was ours.”

That same year, Jackson launched Jackson Kayak, which grew out of a desire to make a kayak for his son. He soon found a business partner in Tony Lunt, a rancher, skier and kayaker from Arizona. The duo opened Jackson Kayak’s first location in a former laundromat in Rock Island, where they built approximately 5,000 high-end kayaks over the course of two years. In 2006, they opened their current 100,000-square-foot facility in Sparta in which the company manufactures a wide variety of products – including kayaks, of course – as well as specialty coolers under the Orion Coolers brand, playground slides, road barriers and dog kennels.

Photo by Michael D. Tedesco

“Jackson Kayak is innovative and an industry leader,” Jackson says. “So much of what we do is driven by the top performers in our sports, which today are primarily whitewater kayaking and kayak fishing. We use our products every day, and as a result, we know how to improve them and make them better. Our whitewater kayaks are lightweight, comfortable, durable and dry, and the most common comment we hear from our fishing kayak customers is ‘You thought of everything.’”

Now employing about 150 people and sending its products to distributors around the world, more growth is on the horizon for the White County-based business as Jackson Kayak releases new product lines annually.

Photo by Michael D. Tedesco

When Jackson isn’t busy at work, he can often be found competing or paddling with his children – both of whom are also award-winning kayakers – often on the Caney Fork River in their home community as well as the Cumberland Plateau.

“The Cumberland Plateau offers a host of amazing creeks and rivers that are not well publicized,” Jackson says. “There are tons of ‘floats’ for the novice that are amazing ways to get out in the wild and see the land, go fishing and cool off in the summer.”

Photo by Michael D. Tedesco

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