Today I’m talking with Colorado businesswoman Sheri Tingey. Sheri pioneered an entire adventure sport, while many her age were mulling retirement. Recently, on her 77th birthday, Sheri Tingey finally saw her dream come true.
Two decades and dozens of prototypes later, Alpacka Raft launched the Valkyrie. Suited for Class V whitewater, this pack raft is the closest resemblance of a hard shell kayak ever made. It’s the culmination of Sheri’s ambitions since she designed the modern-day pack raft and built the brand 22 years ago. Her idea blossomed into a 50-employee company, making the brand a leader in the outdoor industry and one of the largest employers in the small mountain town of Mancos, CO.
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Let’s start with how you got into the outdoors.
You know, honestly, I’ve been in the outdoors from the time I can remember
I was born and raised in Phoenix. I, from the time I was a very small child, I hated the heat, didn’t, you know, didn’t want anything to do with that. But there was a camp out of Prescott and my dad would build cabins for them.
I only have a tiny memory of that, but by the next year, that and that camp was everything about being in the outdoors.
And how did you learn how to sew and make things?
I come from the generation that women still, you know, sewed.
My grandmother lived with us and she made all of our clothes, in those days. You know, today it, it is kind of interesting, sewing has become one of these lost arts that’s sort of, redefining itself again.
But when I was young, clothing was very expensive and so most people sewed. My grandmother lived in a little tiny cabin out and back and she had a little singer. And you know, she didn’t so much teach us as my sister and I would just watch her and she let us use the sewing machine. And so by the time Rogue was five and I was three. We started sewing.
Where’d you learn to kayak?
Yep. I, I had moved to Jackson Hole in 1967, and lived there for many years till we moved to Alaska. And I started kayaking. I got invited on a trip on the Owyhee River. Some friends who were, uh, ski friends who had and you, I’m trying to think, this would be about 1971.
Okay. Something like that. Mm-hmm. 72 maybe. And you know, at that time there were kayaks on the East coast and there were some kayaks in Seattle and Los Angeles, but almost nothing in the Rocky Mountains. Kayaking had not hit yet. I was a water fanatic and I am invited on this trip on the Owyhee River, and there were four kayaks and one raft. And I, of course, was in the raft and I had never seen kayaks before. And I took one look at those things and went, oh my God, this is the way you, you know, all of a sudden you have waves, you have water, it’s like the ocean. So the, uh, last day of the trip, the three of us that were in the raft, they traded off and let us play in the kayaks. And I just was, you know, it was love the second I got in and I was like, oh my God, I am home.
Did that also get you in rafting?
You know, I was never a quote-unquote rafter. I think rafts are great, but particularly then, even now, you need a lot of stuff for a raft. You need at least four people and a lot of stuff. You need a good trailer. You need all this stuff. There’s nothing small about owning a raft, but buying this world-famous that weighed, you know, what, 25 pounds or something? You could throw it in the back of the car. Looking back I realized, wow, those were dots, that those were the dots in the line of development for building pack rafts that I would’ve never even remotely thought about. It was this reality that, wow, I don’t want a huge raft. I want something I can throw in the back of the car. I want something that, you know, can support my kayak trip.
Share with us the early days from that first boat. Sounds like you made your first boat and played around with it. How long after that first boat did the company start?
Two years earlier, Thor went to Colorado College, which is a school that had an adventure program that gave grants for basically adventure travel. And it was done because one of the previous alumni, Rick Kellogg was a climber and he was killed on Mount Foraker and his parents had a fair amount of money and started a fund at this college for travel.
So Thor won a grant his sophomore year, and there were five of them. And that year they took a, I don’t know what it was, like a three-week or a month trip at that point.
So, the idea was always there, but there wasn’t a boat. And so long story short, the summer before Thor’s first trip, Roman Dial and Carl Tobin had done a thing called heli biking the Alaska Range. They started at the Alaska-Yukon border and followed the Alaska range up and ended up at Lake Clark.
They were gone all summer and they had their bikes and they had these little pack rafts that were made by Sherpa. So that was the year before Thor won his grant. And we knew Roman. So when Thor was trying to figure out what he wanted to do, my ex and I said at the time, you should talk to Roman, cuz Roman just knows so much about travel in the state.
And so Roman kind of put Thor onto making a pack raft, quote unquote work, and do this last third of the trip that they’d done. And so they did that year. And those boats, they bought little $79.95 Sevylors. So with almost every mile, one of the boats out of the five would sink and they, you know, they just repaired and repaired and repaired and repaired.
And so any rate, when he returned from that trip, he said, I will never ever, ever, ever take a Sevylor anywhere again. And so fast forward two years and, and he has a trip again, and there was another gentleman named Curtis, his last name was Curtis. He was a Boeing engineer, and in one of those bust economies, he started building these beautiful little boats, but it was made out of tissue paper practically. He was a high-country lake fisherman, and that’s what they were designed for.
Thor was climbing Denali when the boat arrived. And I unpacked this thing and I took one look and I thought, oh my God, you are so toast
You’re not even gonna get off the lake in this thing. So I went down to Joanne Fabrics, and in those days they actually had some Pack Cloth and glued it on the bottom, at least to give him something of a floor. Then he got off Denali and heads off on this trip.
And so when he returned, as they say, I weighed that boat and I weighed about three and a half pounds when it left, and it was close to 15 pounds. at the end of the year when it came back and it was just patch on patch on patch. And that’s when he said, can you build me a boat and like a dummy I said, uh, yeah.
Are there any future projects you guys are working on that you can talk about?
Well, you know, and what’s been fun the Valkyrie, this last boat that just came out. I lovingly call her the bitch because she is the bitch. Dustin and I, and Thor and everyone, we’ve worked so long on this boat.
There are so many things we learned off of that boat. Uh, just like with all, all of these things, you know, it’s that classic progression, right, that you learn a new technique, well then you take back and you know, it drips down to all the others and, oh, we can do this now, we can do that now. And there are so many things I learned off of building the Valkyrie that I can now take forward into some of these other boats that I’m doing that I wouldn’t even thought about.
So do you get outside much? Do you get to paddle a lot?
The last two years, to be honest, I’ve been real active up till about two years ago, and then my chronic fatigue just came out of the closet again. And so it’ll, well, It’s life. At least I’m functioning again. The most I get out is I bought, I broke down and bought a nice electric bike. I’m trying to ski a little bit this winter, but I’m also starting to get Healthier.
Do you have any suggestions or advice for folks wanting to get into the outdoor adventure business?
One, don’t be afraid of it. It’s one of the things that happens, and it was a, one of the biggest lessons for me, you know, I had my business making ski clothing. I started in 1968, you know, and went till 1981. And at that point was, when all there were so many little tiny manufacturers like myself and then Patagonia, Chouinard at that time, and North Face and all those guys all of a sudden just exploded, blew up. And all of us in this, in the industry that were little thought, this is the end.
You know, there’s, there’s no hope. There’s no room for anybody else. And what I came to find out many years later is, that’s not true because as these companies get bigger, they, you can’t be great big and be cutting edge. It just doesn’t work. If you, the more people you sell to, the more you have to dumb down your, gears the wrong word, but in a way it’s, it, it has to be more standard.
There’s always room on the cutting edge. Yeah. If you’re gonna try to do something standardized, yeah you might have some problems, you know, then you’re fighting the big voice. But if you can make something really good that’s out there on that edge that has a market, absolutely you can do it. I think the most difficult thing today is, which didn’t used to be such a problem is getting your hands on the fabrics that you need. Some of those companies are not so willing to sell the good stuff, but, you can find your way through it. It you just have to be persistent. You can do it, but just be careful about where you start and you don’t need to be a giant. Start small and let it grow, you know? That’s perfect.
Do you have a favorite piece of outdoor gear under a hundred dollars that you use a lot that you like?
When I saw that, I chuckled. Several years ago we had moved into Anchorage. There was an article in the paper about a man and his son uh, out in the Bethel area, which is, well it’s out in the big delta there. Anyway, it was early June and I, I don’t even remember the river that they were running, but they had come around a corner, you know, they’re out in the middle of absolute nowhere and the entire river was frozen over and they went under the ice. Long story short, it wasn’t too far. The whole thing went under and they broke out the other side and you know, they lost everything. He and his son survived because he had a waterproof lighter. And in those days I always had lighters and I always put ’em in plastic baggies and everything, and never thought that, but any rate, I went down and I bought a waterproof lighter and It’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever owned, and it is such an incredible safety thing to have that, you know, this thing’s gonna work. That’s a great thing to have.
Do you have a couple favorite Books?
As we wrap up, is there anything else you’d like to say to, or ask of our listeners?
You know, I would say one thing, but I think it’s apropo of this time in particular.
And this is not just alpaca, all of these companies like alpaca, that chose to stay here. People need to understand just how difficult that is for these, companies, to choose to produce in this country. Everything works against you. It’s so easy to say, oh, I’m going abroad and I’m gonna get slave labor and I’m gonna get this and I’m gonna get that and I’m gonna make my big bucks.
Any of these smaller companies that choose to do their production at home. They’re gonna be a little more expensive. But they give people jobs. They’re, there’s just so much about them that people need to recognize that it’s not all about the darn bottom dollar, you know?
So you save five bucks. Uh, think about where you’re buying and why you’re buying it, because there are a lot of companies like ours, especially in the outdoor industry now, there’s many of ’em, Give him a, a good hard look.
Follow up with Sheri
Just call Alpacka and they will get in contact with me and I will contact ’em back.