Christmas Trees: Bankrolling Paddlers’ Passions in the Southeast


The tin roof and walls of the construction trailer amplify the sounds of a steady rain outside. From our front facing window, we can see the rain coming down in sheets; a strong wind blows through the parking lot, but our Christmas trees stand tall and strong like soldiers on guard.

It’s December and we’re coming off one of the driest years any of us can remember in addition to record-setting forest fires in the Southeast, and the rain has finally arrived. Sadly, none of us—a group of about a dozen whitewater paddlers, raft guides, and instructors—can take off and enjoy it. We’re confined to watch the river gauges shoot up and the social media posts trickle in from the comfort of construction trailers scattered throughout several parking lots in metro Atlanta. The irony is thick, but we smile wryly and salute our fellow boaters taking off for a much-needed quench.

It’s the off-season.

With some fluctuation nationally and not accounting for international travel, much of the whitewater world sees boom May to September. As a river professional myself, our season generally boots up around mid-March and keeps us relatively busy through October. For most perennial river professionals, though, that leaves anywhere from four to six months of dry work; the rivers may still be running, but the tourism season winds down along with temperatures and hours for work. The bills, however, keep coming. And for those of us whose path continues to head toward adventure, we search for ways to fill in the gaps left by the close of our whitewater seasons.

Some guides or instructors find themselves with complementary employment, like primary or higher education, using the river as a getaway and the tourist season as a break from the school year. Others will change with the season, trading paddles for ski poles or snowboards. In my corner of the world, though, starting the week before Thanksgiving, a small annual migration occurs bringing paddlers from all nooks of the Southeast to metro Atlanta to sell Christmas trees.

Big John’s Christmas Trees is a small, family operation that has been selling trees in Metro Atlanta since 1949. The namesake, Big John, owned a restaurant known for its soft serve ice cream. After experiencing his own off-season, he started selling Christmas trees in the parking lot. One thing led to another and years later, his Christmas tree business has grown into a year-round operation with a definitive high season, requiring an influx of extra hands from mid-November to just before Christmas.

How Big John’s became a clearinghouse for whitewater dirtbags in their off-season, no one seems to know. From Chattooga guides to instructors, intrepid explorers to video boaters, the Christmas tree retail business in Atlanta, Georgia, has seen us all. Just this past year, I sold a Christmas tree to a guy who had worked for Big John’s back in the early 2000s. “It was kind of weird back then,” he mused, “all these whitewater people here from all over the Southeast. I don’t know where they all came from.” I laughed and let him know not much has changed.

Part of the draw is certainly the timing for a good paycheck in exchange for a few weeks worth of work. The work is hard; we all come together two Wednesdays before Thanksgiving for a meeting, share a group meal together, and then say goodbye as we disperse throughout the metropolitan area to become more or less tethered to our lots for the next four to six weeks. It turns out that the trade skills of the whitewater world—heavy lifting, knot tying, specific knowledge, and the ‘raft guide talk’—transfer well to tree sales. No one has to double check the tree tie-downs and our on-water personas that come so naturally—laden with puns and bad jokes—enriches the customer experience.

More often than once, small talk with customers will lead to questions about what we do the rest of the year; many folks seem to think the tree business merges into the firework sales once the weather warms up, but a few people with wandering eyes will notice kayaks tucked away in the bushes or still stacked on roof racks. I relish the opportunity to tell them about my on-season instead.

The whitewater chasers of Big John’s Christmas Trees dish a little on the weird skills that come along with seasonal gigs, the rad trips they’ve taken as a result of some extra cash, and why they just can’t stay away from sap and needles year after year.

Chris & Lydia Wing
When I first met my husband, Chris, back in 2010, he had already been working for Big John’s for several seasons. He was using the money earned before the holidays to fund travel and training for freestyle competitions throughout the United States. Not yet a kayaker myself and unfamiliar with the whitewater world’s penchant for dirtbagging, I struggled to wrap my head around the comic descriptions of living on a parking lot in a construction trailer for several weeks. But for the first two years of our relationship, Chris packed up a box of red and green t-shirts, a pair of Carhartt overalls, and stashed away his kayaking gear to head south.

It wouldn’t be until that second year that I would have the chance to visit Chris on the tree lot, in all its glory, and begin to further understand the complexity of retailing Christmas trees in an urban jungle and the sacrifices of comfort and recreation that went in to chasing a paycheck during a predictably slow time of year. Chris’s focus soon shifted from funding freestyle training to filling in the gaps while starting a paddling school. Still today, even with H2O Dreams going strong, the reliable work remains keystone in helping to get the life-long dream of teaching kayaking full-time off the ground.

Photo: Yang Shui

Since then, migrating to Big John’s every November has funded everything from investments in business equipment to program development, like international adventure travel to South America or starting up an amateur racing club. “I can’t stay away,” Chris chuckles, and after two seasons as an assistant lot manager with him, I tend to agree. The physical labor, demanding work hours, and niche knowledge base intrigues us, as kayak instructors, and allows our educator brains to keep ticking in the same direction while giving us a mmuch-neededbreak at the end of our paddling season. “It always comes at the right time of year, when I’m in need of changing gears and recharging to gain motivation for a new season,” Chris explains.

This year’s season even saw a few attainment workouts on Atlanta’s popular Metro Hooch, an urban stretch of river that offers excellent whitewater training and served as a reprieve from the lot. The hard work we put in during this year’s off-season stint sent us home to jumpstart new projects at H2o Dreams and utilize the coming months to get ourselves strong and healthy for another year teaching on the water. The most exciting fruit from this season’s labor: A gym membership! Dirtbags need strength training, too.

Andrew Koch
A staple kayak instructor for the Nantahala Outdoor Center for more than 10 years, chances are you’ve seen Andrew Koch on the chilly waters of the Nantahala River at least once. “I do a little bit of everything,” Andrew explains when talking about his work as an instructor, as he works with everyone from youth paddlers to seasoned kayakers, and even dabbles in SUP. He credits the dynamic, demanding nature of the whitewater classroom to what keeps him coming back year after year, and gains the most gratification working with kids who someday grow to surpass his own skills. “Some of the kids I’ve worked with just have through-the-roof talent. Kayaking really can change a person’s life.”

The gradual wind down of the instruction season leaves Andrew with more opportunity: the chance to earn some extra money selling Christmas trees and fund travel during his few months off, but it doesn’t always come easy. “The off-season can break you down. You’ll make sacrifices; you work long days all at once just so you can live the dream the rest of the year,” says Andrew. Living the dream might include what’s next for Andrew, which will involve buying and traveling out of a van in New Zealand, in an effort to reconnect through some disconnection. “Kayaking, surfing, and just being free.”

And if anyone knows how to travel, it’s Andrew. “Chile and the Rio Baker with Jon Clark, a yoga certification and amazing rock climbing in Thailand, surfing in Bali, SUP in Peru, and of course the Grand Canyon,” he lists, with a bit of a gleam in his eye. It’s not hard to feel like some part of Andrew doesn’t want to leave a stretch of this Earth unexplored, but he takes his time discovering what’s around him in order to make it count. “Take a month. Eat the food, befriend the locals, and experience the culture. Find yourself in nature in some way.”

Leanne Kinney
It’s hard to know which time of year is Leanne Kinney’s off-season since it’s tough to find her sitting still. Now hailing from Chattanooga, TN, the Rochester, NY native credits her outdoor wanderlust to an article in Backpacker Magazine she read back in college. “I wound up working in Denali National Park for a summer as a result,” Leanne recalls. It was there she made a few lifelong friends and decided to pursue another summer season working together, this time as a raft guide on the Ocoee River in Tennessee. Though her college experiences fed her growing hunger to play outside more and more, she still found herself confined to a demanding and rigorous job in the financial sector after graduating. “I thought that’s what I was supposed to do,” she says in reference to packing up and committing to the 9-to-5. “But I learned there were other ways to be successful outside societal norms, and there’s different ways to measure success.”

Leanne quit her job in finance nearly five years ago and never looked back. “Working for myself, I now have the flexibility to drop it all and go skiing or hop on a river trip,” Leanne explains of her business flipping houses in Chattanooga. On seasonal work to fill in the gaps: “The places that work takes you, the unconventional skills you gain, and the people you meet,” is by far the best part of ebbing and flowing with the seasons. “Sometimes it feels like as soon as you find your rhythm, though, it’s time to pack up and move on.”

After a few seasons working the Christmas tree gig, Leanne now uses the funds she earns from those tough few weeks of work to bankroll some grand adventures. “Hitchhiking through Patagonia, three weeks on the Grand Canyon, sailing from Newfoundland to Iceland, rowing the Middle Fork of the Salmon…” to name a few. Those summers raft guiding on the Ocoee, by the way, easily transferred to smooth operation and big fun rowing classic whitewater on coveted permitted rivers. The freedom she finds in self-employment and digging deep in seasonal work allows Leanne to dream big when it comes to what’s next. “The US Rockies for an undetermined amount of time, skiing and hopefully pulling a permit for Gates of Lodore as well as getting on the Yampa River.” And on a whim, learning to surf in Nicaragua.

Abby Perrin
Abby Perrin of Long Creek, South Carolina, can’t take your call right now; she’s on a motorcycle tour of India with her mom and brother. Growing up with the legendary Chattooga River in her backyard fostered a love of water and adventure at a young age. “Raft guide, kayak instructor, ski bum, bartender in New Zealand, farm hand…” Abby rattles off a list of odd jobs she’s taken both during the typical whitewater on-season and throughout the rest of the year, too. It seems she’s done a little bit of everything over the years, and when I suggest she might be a quintessential dirtbag, she laughs. “I have really cool communities. I get to be in the world and learn how to take care of myself and make myself happy.” The amazing people she meets along the way seem to sweeten the deal even more.

Because of her off-season endeavors, Abby has been able to travel the world. “The freedom, flexibility, and new skill sets found in off-season work are real handy,” Abby explains, but it’s not always a walk in the park. With flexibility and freedom come flux, unpredictability, and relationships cut short. “Always moving around, it can be hard to connect in a meaningful way. It’s tough to find people who have the same lifestyle.”

Abby’s grin leads me to believe that the juice is worth the squeeze. “Transformation isn’t easy. It’s hard, but it’s worth it.”

Sam Fulbright
“Really hard work for great pay, or really fun work for not so great pay,” Sam Fulbright laughs when asked about seasonal work. The Chattanooga, TN native would know; he has more than a few seasons teaching kayaking, chasing rain, and living out of a vehicle under his belt. Whether it’s slinging trees or wrangling boats, seasonal work is dense grind with little down time until the season’s up; that’s the nature of the beast. “Working in the seasonal world can set you on a bit of a burn out schedule,” Sam explains. “It’s important to have an end-date to keep you sane.”

Sam’s gears changed a bit when joining the non-profit world a few years back, but he couldn’t quit the seasonal endeavor for good. The few weeks he spends with the Christmas tree team gives him the freedom to lean in to his passion for volunteer activism, and he stays true to his dirtbag kayaker roots in the process. “Kayaktivism is a sort of floatilla with a message,” he tells. “There’s something accessible and attractive about the bright, colorful kayaks in the water, and it makes action feel more approachable.” Sam’s first foray with kayaktivism was with helping to coordinate a kayak-led protest in Seattle’s Elliot Bay in opposition to Arctic drilling. Since then, Sam has continued to be instrumental in training engaged citizens throughout the Southeast to use their love of water to send a clear message.

The cushion provided through seasonal work has also allowed Sam to reconnect with a childhood dream and his wandering ways: converting an ambulance into an adventure-mobile. “It’s the perfect assault vehicle,” says Sam. Dedicated adventure wheels will make mini-adventures like day trips to nearby whitewater, Tennessee trails, or serving communities through activism that much easier, and it keeps Sam motivated for whatever is next. “I don’t really know,” he trails off, but at least he’ll have the rig to get there.