What better place to run into one of Idaho’s, and the rafting industry’s, most passionate, productive and accomplished players than the banks of Idaho’s South Fork Salmon River?
That’s what happened when Paddling Life took a recent trip to this whitewater gem, bumping into AIRE Inflatables co-founder and co-owner Alan Hamilton when he waved our group of dirtbag kayakers over to their camp (and fed us iced cocktails and leftover spaghetti!). We took the opportunity to catch up with him on all things AIRE, what he thinks of his beloved local South Fork run, and life in McCall (when he’s not interrupting things at the Boise headquarters).
In His Own Words: Company Founder Alan Hamilton
“I graduated from USD ‘79, (not San Diego but unfortunately South Dakota), and moved to Idaho in June and spent the summer unemployed on the beaches of Lake Coeur d’Alene in North Idaho. I eventually got a job at a bank and bounced around northern Idaho at various branches for a year. I finished my training and was transferred to the Moscow branch of First Interstate Bank. While working at the bank in 1980, a fellow employee invited me on my first rafting trip — a private day trip on the lower Selway River in north Idaho. We rented our equipment from the U of I outdoor program. The group had little or no experience. Fortunately, it was a Class II run and we had good wetsuits and lifejackets. We had 4 10’-12’ rafts with four or five people in each.
“My “baptism” was not long in coming. The crew was comprised of our “guide,” who had been rafting once before, two women and myself with no experience at all. First rapid, first wave resulted in my first flip. Fortunately, everything turned out okay. We eventually got the raft to shore with three of the four paddles and all were present and accounted for. The only problem was that we were on the wrong side of the river in regards to the road. We managed to get back over to the road and my companions decided to abandon ship. After shuffling some bodies around, I was put in a raft with two other guys that nobody else wanted to ride with because they were only interested in going for the big stuff. We had a great time and I was hooked on the sport of rafting!
“I met Bill Parks, the owner of Northwest River Supplies, Inc., while working at the bank and rafting with the same group. Bill occasionally joined our weekend outings. In the summer of ‘82, Bill invited me on a preseason Middle Fork of the Salmon River trip. We flew into Indian Creek because the road into Boundary Creek was still not open because of snow. It was my first wilderness trip. I rode in Bill’s raft, while the other two guys ran another boat. It was an exciting high water trip. The Middle Fork was running eight feet at the confluence when we turned the corner to continue down the Main Salmon. The original plan of two weeks turned into just eight days and the trip ended at Spring Bar, 10 miles upstream of Riggins, ID. The Main Salmon was running close to 100,000 cfs and the parking lot at Vinegar Creek was under water. The scariest part was the huge ponderosa pine trees floating with us and the swirly eddy lines. Fifteen months later in the fall of 1983, Bill asked me to be the general manger of NRS. During my time there, I met my future partners in AIRE.
“The first partner I met was Dennis Hill. Dennis was part owner of Seattle Sports at the time. Seattle Sports supplied waterproof bags to NRS and many other companies. Dennis and his partners started Seattle Sports in 1983. Before that he had worked for another company that produced similar products. Dennis and I became better acquainted during a Middle Fork of the Salmon trip in 1985. Dennis would later sell his shares of Seattle Sports and start Newmedics in 1991.
“The second partner, I met was Kris Walker, owner and designer of the Argonaut Catarafts. He visited NRS in the fall of 1984. Bill, Kris and myself went to a pond and rowed his Argonaut cat. The original Argonaut was made of PVC with no Airecells. NRS imported a neoprene version of the Argonaut and paid a royalty to Kris. Kris and I started rafting together on a Grand Canyon trip in 1985. Kris, myself and several other catarafters were in several videos produced by Mike Hamilton (not related). I felt these videos helped to make catarafts popular. AIRE would later produce the Argonaut and call it the Cougar. Kris left AIRE in 1997.
“Greg Ramp started R&R Inflatables in Grants Pass, Ore., in 1984. Greg designed and manufactured the Challenger inflatable kayaks. One of the unique feature of Challenger was a closed-cell foam floor making it a more rigid craft. AIRE would use that feature in future models of the Lynx Series IK and Puma Series rafts. Greg and I first met on a Cascade Outfitter demo trip in 1986. R&R merged with Maravia, a Boise raft manufacturer, around 1987. Greg was the V. of R&D at Maravia. By the end of 1988, Greg had decided to leave Maravia.
“After five years, I resigned my position as VP and general manager of NRS and moved to southern Idaho. I was approached by Dennis and Kris to consider starting a company and shortly thereafter by Greg as well. By pooling our resources, AIRE was incorporated in March of 1989. Greg, Kris and I each were quarter owners and put in $9,000 each. Dennis and Bob Perlatti, his partner at Seattle Sports, gave equipment, material and financial support from Seattle. They would split the remaining quarter of the AIRE equity. Dennis would later buy Bob’s share.
“Our first order was from a New England company to build inflatable collars for aluminum hull RIBs. We actually made some of the collars at Seattle Sports/ Seattle Tarp. AIRE’s first whitewater order, thanks to Jack Nelson, came from Cascade Outfitters for some Cougar cataraft tubes. Even with this good start to the business, it would be a full year and half before Greg, Alan and Kris started drawing a salary.
“My major focus was bookkeeping, marketing and sales. My banking background and previous sales experience served me well. In the beginning, we all worked in production as well. Greg Ramp became president, and is still in charge of production and design. He uses various computer programs to design our different products. Kris did purchasing and design before he left. Dennis was and is an active advisor. We are all high-performance AIREcraft test pilots. We rented space in Garden City and purchased our equipment. Two sewing machines, a radio frequency welder, a rotary welder and a computer costing us about $15,000. Greg recommended and spearheaded the use of the AIREcell system in our boats.
“Over the years, AIRE has used fabrics from all over the world. The original PVC material we used came from Heywinkel a Germany company. We used it for several years before switching to a French PVC fabric from Ferrari in the mid-nineties. The Ferrari fabric is still our current fabric. Ferrari has a unique precontraint fabric. During the coating process, most fabrics tension the base cloth only in the length direction. Precontraint means that the base fabric is tensioned by length and width during the coating process, so the fabric has very little stretch when inflated. This is crucial for seam strength and consistency. Since we use the AIREcell system, we order PVC fabric with 70 percent of the coating on the outside and 30 percent of the coating on the inside. This means that our current 43-ounce material has approximately 30 ounces of coating on the outside of the fabric for more abrasion and ultraviolet protection. This type of fabric coating also helps reduce the weight of our boats and counters the extra weight of the inner AIREcell. The urethane fabrics for both the outer skin and the AIREcells are currently made in the United States
“In 1995, Jim Dean, AIRE and the owners of Seattle Sports started Outcast Sporting Gear, Inc. It marketed a line of fishing inflatables — small cats, float tubes and accessories used initially for flyfishing – and was located across the street from AIRE in Garden City. In 2002, AIRE bought out the other owners of Outcast and moved it to our new factory in Meridian, ID. Shortly thereafter, AIRE started another product line. AIRE Industrial was formed to make products for the secondary spill containment. It uses similar materials and manufacturing techniques as our other products. The products are berms, bladders and products used for preventing chemical spills.
“AIRE offers several different lines of products. The AIRE branded inflatables are made at our Meridian Factory. The Tributary line of inflatables are made overseas. Outcast Sporting Gear and Fish Cat fishing inflatable boats are either made at the AIRE factory or are imported depending on the model. Almost all of the industrial products are made in our factory in Meridian. We currently have around 60,000 square feet and about 40 employees.
“In 2008, I stepped down from my position and assumed an advisory role. Dan Allumbaugh has taken over my duties and is the vice president and general manager of AIRE. Dan started at Outcast in 1995 and was promoted to general manger in 1997. Dan and our many loyal employees, some who have been with us for more than 20 years, continue to strive to provide the best products and best custom service.”
Bonus: AIRE History 101
In the spring of 1989, four of the top professionals in river running and inflatable raft design got together in Boise, ID, and formed AIRE, Inc. (Fun Fact: AIRE is an acronym for Argonaut Inflatable Research & Engineering.)
The founders, Alan Hamilton, Greg Ramp, Kris Walker, and Dennis Hill all came from various corners of the young whitewater industry with a goal to develop the very best river crafts — whitewater boats that were more durable, safer, easier to repair, and didn’t require glued seams to keep the boats together. Voila! the AIREcell system was born.
With two sewing machines, a radio frequency welder, a rotary welder and a $15,000 computer, AIRE was up and running. The company’s first whitewater order came from Cascade Outfitters for some Cougar cataraft tubes. By the early 1990s AIRE had made its mark in the industry, becoming well known for its two-layer boat system, 10-year no-fault warranty, and owners going big on the North Fork of the Payette in catarafts and inflatable kayaks. Through the 2000s, AIRE continued to expand and grow, moving manufacturing to Meridian, ID, acquiring Outcast Sporting Gear, creating the Tributary line, and started the AIRE Industrial division.
AIRE has been making whitewater boats for 30 years. Each year brings new improvements, new boat models, new fabrics, and new technology.
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