Sam and Joanne Walker sit at a picnic table beneath shade trees above Barnardsville, each with eyes twinkling in what looks like a shared 44-year bond of congenial mischief. Around them is their forest adventure-land, Navitat.
“It all started from the guy who wouldn’t go to college,” says Sam of his eldest son, John, now 42. Twenty-three years ago John became involved in an Outward Bound camp that included ropes course challenges and activities for kids in trouble with the law. As a junior counselor he helped rehab the course, then designed and built a new one the following year. He spent the next ten years driving around the country, building climbing towers and ropes courses, living out of a 15-passenger van that he’d outfitted as both home and workshop. In Alaska he designed the United States’ first canopy tour and altogether built three there. With his sister, Sarah, doing the bookkeeping, he started Bonsai Design, based in Colorado, now one of the leading zip-line tour designers.
After Sam retired from real estate development in the suburban Detroit area, the Walkers moved to Scottsdale for six years. Sam hated the Arizona summer heat and the lack of trees. When their youngest child, Austin, settled in West Asheville and began raising a family, declaring that he would never leave this area, Joanne and Sam moved to Biltmore Lake. Pushed by John, and fortuitously joined by Michigan friend and landscape architect Ken Stamps, Navitat was born in 2009 in the bonus room above the Walkers’ garage. “I moved my sewing stuff out, and five people moved in,” says Joanne. A year later they moved to new quarters in Barnardsville. While Sam took care of finances and negotiated the 240 acre lease, and Ken took on CEO responsibilities, Joanne started the retail side of the business. “I said one day, don’t you think we ought to sell T-shirts?” “Yeah,” said Sam, “some people might buy a shirt or whatever.” That small single wall display produced more than twice as much volume as expected in the first year, and more than five times that revenue in the second.
Navitat has opened a new zip-line operation in Knoxville recently, and plans are in the works for a third in New Jersey about an hour from Manhattan. Sam credits his son’s vision. “He’s really an artist in the forest. You can do a zip-line any place. They have a long zip-line in Las Vegas, right on the Strip. They make lots of money. But we wanted to create an environment where people would get away from their urban rat race, and come out into the woods and be educated about the woods and have a thrilling experience at the same time. That’s what he wanted to create. Navitat: navigating the habitat in a new and different way.”
This article originally appeared in The Biltmore Beacon newspaper.