HARPERS FERRY — Walter “Lee” Baihly was a man with a vision. He had the ability to see things that, at the time, others couldn’t.
He blazed trails, but he was also concerned about ecosystems, according to Matt Knott, the owner of River Riders Outfitters in Jefferson County. Baihly was the founder of the area’s first outfitting company, River & Trail Outfitters, but he was generous enough to offer help to the businesses that came after him, rather than viewing them as competitors.
“What’s good for one of us is good for all of us,” said Knott, who came to the area as a river guide in 1994 and bought the business he now owns in 1998. “That’s one of the biggest lessons I learned from him.”
Baihly died Nov. 1 after being struck by a car in the Martinsburg Lowe’s parking lot. He was 78.
“He always gave me tips and suggestions,” Knott said. “He was a just a good guy. He was always into the relationship side of things. It wasn’t about making money. I think it worked for him.”
George Heffner Jr, the owner of Harpers Ferry Adventure Center, also held Baihly in high esteem.
“He was always that guy who was willing to help,” Heffner said. “He was a very humble man, very well respected in the industry. He was definitely one of the pioneers.”
There are currently three businesses in and around Harpers Ferry that offer rafting, canoeing or tubing on the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers.
The service offers outdoors enthusiasts an incredible value — a chance to take a whitewater trip down the river without having to buy or rent and transport boats, tubes or rafts and life preservers or even worry about having to lug all that equipment from the car to the starting point, which could be miles in some cases. Each group also has an instructor to help ensure their safety.
It’s a great idea and Baihly was the person who came up with it for this area. He started River & Trail Outfitters in 1972, a year after moving his family to Knoxville, Md.
At the time, Baihly was directing the Partnership Program for the Peace Corps in Washington. As a side gig, he started renting out canoes on weekends. By 1976, that side job had developed into full-time employment.
Being the first had its advantages and disadvantages. The chief advantage was that Baihly was first in the area — and among the first in the country. The biggest disadvantage was that there wasn’t a blueprint for such a business to follow, according to Heffner, who launched Butts Tubing with his father. That business later became BTI Whitewater before being renamed Harpers Ferry Adventure Center.
“I did it in the ‘90s with my dad and everyone thought we were crazy.” Heffner said.
Baihly was miles ahead of everyone else in the outdoor adventure game — especially in the Eastern Panhandle.
Rafting first got popular as a result of the movie Deliverance, a 1972 thriller starring Burt Reynolds, Jon Voight and Ned Beatty about a canoeing trip down a fictional river in Northern Georgia that went horribly wrong. The movie brought tourists to that area of Georgia and it helped kick start an industry.
Heffner said that most any high profile movie has an effect.
“Any time you have a movie like that about rafting, people are going to want to go do it,” Heffner said. “Another movie that I thought made a huge difference was River Wild. The industry grew because of that movie.”
River Wild was a 1994 movie about a rafting trip down a river that goes horribly wrong, this time, starring Meryl Streep.
Heffner marveled at Baihly’s foresight.
“Lee was 20 years ahead of that,” Hefner said. “He was on top of it.”