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River Rat is 20 years old
By Michael Williams,

smoky mountain river rat
More than 150 guests attended a cookout hosted by Smoky Mountain River Rat where they enjoyed barbecue and live entertainment. Image by Michael Williams.

Smoky Mountain River Rat Tubing celebrated their 20th season in grand fashion recently with a cookout for their current and past employees. Now one of the most popular destinations for tourists, River Rat got its start when Shannon Skidmore and his wife Shannan decided to operate the business for a local businessman who simply had “too many irons in the fire.”

river ratIn the summer of 1995, the Skidmores had just graduated from college. Shannan was soon to begin a job as an elementary teacher. Until fall, the couple needed work. Shannon approached businessman Jimmy Waters who owned the business. Waters had several other businesses and simply didn’t have time to get the River Rat Tubing Company off the ground and had no one to operate the facility. In mid-July, with just six weeks remaining of the summer season, the Skidmores convinced waters to let them run the business.

They started with a building in Townsend, 50 tubes (Of which only 25 were inflated) and a ’76 Chevy van, known as Old Faithful, that would be used to haul guests up and down the river. The Skidmores had their share of challenges to overcome.

“The van was old and had shag carpet and an 8-track tape player,” said Shannan Skidmore. “It didn’t have a reverse so we had to make sure we could turn it around with needing to use the reverse. We could get 25 people and 25 tubes into that little van. Those were good times.”

At the end of their abbreviated first season Shannan went to work as a teacher and Shannon went to work building cabins. Waters asked the couple if they would like to buy the business and their answer was a resounding “yes.”

The old van lasted until the fifth season until the Skidmores decided to retire it. During the fifth season the Skidmores lost their lease and moved to the current location at 205 Wears Valley Road in Townsend. Ironically, their move came during July during the same week they had opened for the first time five years earlier. The transition was smooth and their established clientele continued to patronize the business at the new location. The Skidmores moved their now 500-tubes, 2 vans and 20 kayaks to their newly leased building. The couple purchased the property ensuring the River Rat would have a permanent home.

The company expanded its operation in 2007 to include whitewater rafting on the Pigeon River just outside of Gatlinburg. The purchase of USA Raft-Pigeon River compliments Smoky Mountain River Rat. Now, seasonal followers who enjoy tubing the Little River in Townsend can now experience the white-knuckle excitement of whitewater rafting a class IV river.

Over the years the couple has seen numerous employees come and go and have maintained good relationships with these former employees. Many were college kids looking for summer work and simply moved on after graduation. When the Skidmores decided to celebrate their 20th season they reached out to the many former employees to ask them to join in the celebration. Many returned to their old stomping grounds to see old friends and reminisce about the early days of the popular attraction.

The event featured a live band, barbecue and a giant sized water slide intended for children but enjoyed by adults as well. More than 150 guests appeared for the event including former Townsend Mayor Bob Russell who once drove Old Faithful for several summers.

“Smokin' Joe's BBQ catered the event. We wanted to use them because they are local business colleagues who started around the same time as The River Rat and share similar histories,” said Shannan. “It was wonderful to see everyone. Our very first employee came and he brought his children. He has twins and a 2-year-old.”

The Skidmores brought their own children to the festivities. Their children Emily Kate,13, and Joseph, 11, work with their parents continuing the family tradition of creating more vacation memories for their many guests that continue to make the Smoky Mountain River Rat part of their vacation plans.

For more information about the Smoky Mountain River Rat visit the web site or call (865) 448-8888.

Published August 26, 2014

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