The New Flow of Outdoor Recreation in Unicoi County

With near unlimited growth potential, the outdoor adventure and recreation segment is a sweet spot for Unicoi County.  The county has one of the most compelling lists of natural resources and world-class outdoor recreation options on the eastern seaboard.  No matter what your outdoor interest or skill level might be, Unicoi County offers pristine forests, vast mountain wilderness, and their legendary waterways.

With all these amazing natural resources, there has been a swell of young and adventurous entrepreneurs moving to the region to connect their desire for business independence with their passion for the outdoors and adventurous spirit. These young professionals bring with them a ton of vision, energy, and insights that help the entire region create an amazing adventure culture for locals, guests, and those looking to change their lifestyle.

The home of Blue Ridge Paddling is just of the Jackson-Love I-26 exit in South Unicoi County.

The home of Blue Ridge Paddling is just off the Jackson-Love I-26 exit in South Unicoi County.

One of the new pioneering outdoor adventure businesses that has recently opened their doors in Unicoi County is Blue Ridge Paddling, and we had the opportunity to sit down with their owners, Mason and Brannon Schmidt, and their Marketing Manager and Reservationist, Jessie Blitz.  Here’s what they had to share!

Real Wild Unicoi: When did Blue Ridge Paddling open?

Mason: We had a soft open on April 23rd (2022) and our official ribbon-cutting ceremony was on May 23rd.

Real Wild Unicoi: What kinds of experiences, tours, classes, and services does Blue Ridge Paddling offer?

Mason: We are primarily a white-water outfitter.  We have guided rafting and inflatable kayaking trips, premium white-water kayak classes taught by Brannon and I, and lots of tour packages.  We operate tours on most all the main waterways in the area including the Nolichucky, French Broad, Watauga, South Holston, and Watauga Lake. All our teaching and outfitting gear is high quality and top-of-the-line for our guest.

Kayaking classes are one of the activities offered by Blue Ridge Paddling.

Kayaking classes are one of the activities offered by Blue Ridge Paddling.

We’ve purchased all our kayaks from another Unicoi County outdoor recreation operation, Pyranha Kayaks. It’s great having a network of other business owners with shared interests. The Blue Ridge Paddling model is to help our guests and visitors develop relationships through white-water recreation.  So, we keep our group excursions small and personable.  We rarely have more than 12 people within a group, which allows the group and our staff to get to know each other so they can build those relationships through the experience.

All our excursions are pretty bespoke to the group scheduling the trip.  We collect a lot of information about their skill level, their goals, and what they want to experience on the trip.  Then we curate a trip that we believe can best give them that experience.

We have some retail merchandise and equipment available in the Blue Ridge Paddling store, but we have plans to extend that to offer a full range of white-water rafting and kayaking gear for enthusiasts.

Real Wild Unicoi: How did the Blue Ridge Paddling team develop their experience and skills?

Mason: Brannon and I have both been rafting and kayaking instructors for over 7 years.  We are both big outdoor recreation enthusiasts, and have worked as ski and backpacking instructors in Colorado for many years while also spending a lot of our leisure time rafting and kayaking many of the great rivers of the U.S.

Both of us have our degrees in recreation and outdoor education along with an MBA in the Outdoor Industry.  There was never any doubt for either of us that we’d spend our careers enjoying the outdoors.

Real Wild Unicoi: Are you from this area originally?

Mason: We were born in Montgomery, Alabama, and our family regularly came up to the Chattooga River in South Carolina and many of the other rivers in the Appalachian area.  We started coming back to the Nolichucky several years ago as both enthusiasts and as guides.  Finally, we decided to move back to the area and have lived here ever since.

Real Wild Unicoi: Why did you decide to open Blue Ridge Paddling in Unicoi County?

Mason: We studied and researched our options for about 5 years and considered several different cities in the Southeast region.  As we kept looking at the options available, nothing really seemed to have both the natural resources and the local amenities we were looking for as much as Unicoi County.  It was perfect!  So much of the land here is protected and open to visitors that we know the growth will be stable and well-planned, and there are so many different kinds of outdoor adventure experiences to choose from that are all just a few minutes’ drive from a major interstate.

We also loved the people and the culture in Unicoi County.  The people here are so welcoming, and they all seem to have a real love for the natural resources here and protecting them.  We knew Unicoi County was an area that was at the start of what could be an amazing growth trajectory, and we wanted to be a part of that.

Real Wild Unicoi: What have been the things about the Unicoi County area that have been most important to you and your team to successfully launch Blue Ridge Paddling?

Mason: We’re big on building good relationships with other businesses and entrepreneurs in the area.  The outdoor industry as a whole is a very tight knit community, so it’s been good to become part of the local outdoor entrepreneurial community and be able to contribute and be heard.

Real Wild Unicoi: What do you believe the future for Unicoi County looks like for your industry?

Mason: The outdoor recreation industry is going to be a big area of growth for Unicoi County.  I really have a strong belief in that.  There are just so many amazing opportunities and resources here that can be leveraged to create a truly one-of-a-kind outdoor adventure destination for people of all ages, interests, and abilities.

I see a lot of young and energetic entrepreneurs already moving to the area, and I take that as a huge positive sign for our future here.

Real Wild Unicoi: How can people learn more about Blue Ridge Paddling and your programs?

Mason: We have a great website resource that provides a lot of information.  You can visit us at  We also have Instagram and Facebook pages where we share a lot of timely information. We also love to have people just come show up at our location and let us meet them and show them around.  We’re just 20 minutes from Johnson City, TN and 40 minutes from Asheville, NC.

Real Wild Unicoi: How can people contact you directly to learn more or plan a trip?

Mason: You can give us a call directly at (423) 388-6002 or send us an email at




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