River Sports Owner Equips Adventure-Seekers to Seize the Day

You never know how one trip can change someone’s life.

That’s the idea that started it all for Ed McAlister, founder of River Sports Outfitters. Originally from West Tennessee, Ed moved to Knoxville to attend the University of Tennessee. While working as an engineer, it was his own unexpected adventure—backcountry skiing in Colorado—that made him want to share that with others. He was selling and trading hard-to-find outdoor gear from his home when friends encouraged him to open a retail shop. In 1984, he found a small storefront on Sutherland Avenue that remains his flagship store.

In the years since, River Sports opened a second retail location in Cedar Bluff and The Climbing Center, a full indoor rock climbing gym on-site at the Sutherland Avenue store. River Sports manages seasonal biking and water sport rentals at several local parks, including The Cove, Ijams Nature Center, Lenoir City Park and others. Whether through sale or rental, Ed’s goal has always been getting people the gear they need to do what they love, especially if it’s trying something new.

“They might get hooked, or maybe they won’t like it,” he says. “What matters is giving people experiences they wouldn’t have had otherwise.”

In an era where enthusiasts can find everything from hiking sandals to stand-up paddleboards online, such an idealistic approach may seem quaint, but it’s working for Ed. He believes in the passion and training of his employees and the company culture of both educating and listening to the customer. He has personal relationships with all his vendors to learn about consumer needs, trends and products, but he and his staff are also users who share their own experiences and those they hear on the trail.  

“We listen to every single customer,” Ed says, which is why he chooses to support local businesses with his own money as well. “I know they’re giving back to the community in a continuous way.”

While he says online shopping has changed the market more in the last four years than the previous 30, perception is helping trend part of the traffic back toward local businesses. Consumers are seeing the value of keeping money in the local economy rather than a corporate conglomerate. While he hopes the shift toward shopping local continues, Ed is ready to face changes to the market as they come. His best business advice has been, “Don’t get set in your ways, or in two years you won’t be around.”

While Ed plans to continue growing his business and serving the community, he takes life one day at a time. Getting people excited about being outside is a dream come true for him, and every day is a new adventure.

“I don’t care who you are or where you are age-wise or anything else, you never get today back,” Ed smiles as he shares the mantra by which he lives. It was that carpe diem mentality that led him to open River Sports Outfitters 36 years ago, and it still drives him today.

“You better enjoy today, because that’s one less day you have to enjoy. Use this day to the fullest.”