By Tyler Allen Explorebigsky.com Staff Writer

BOZEMAN, Mont., PUCON, Chile – Rivers, Lakes, Oceans has been supplying Central and South American boaters with quality water gear since spring of 2009. Started by Bozemanite Mike Garcia, Rios, Lagos, Mares – as it’s known in Latin America – imports most of its goods to the world-class boating destinations of Costa Rica and Pucon, Chile.

Mike, 59, spent time kayaking in Chile years ago, just as the rivers were becoming well known. “I saw this resource developing and what they were paying for products,” he said. “I said, ‘You guys are really getting dinged.’ It was the same in Costa Rica.”

He was already in the business, having founded the Bozeman outdoor store Northern Lights Trading Co. in 1979. When he sold Northern Lights in 2008, it was “the onus to do something down there.” He started in fall 2008, imported his first product to South America in spring 2009, and sent the first large shipment of boats south that summer, just in time for runoff in the Andes.

His three sons are all passionate kayakers who’ve gravitated to Chile in recent years, drawn by its wealth of previously un-paddled rivers. The oldest, Ian, 26, has spent the past nine winters in South America and has lived in Pucon for much of the last five years, where he’s an integral part of the business. Having married a Chilean woman, Ian will become a legal citizen this year.

Evan Garcia, 23, will be in South America this winter, his sixth season filming for kayak movies and searching out first descents. Between them, Ian and Evan have more than 50 first descents in South America. Mike’s youngest, Nate, is 21 and has already been south three times; he’s currently attending the University of Montana in Missoula.

Chile’s recreation economy is growing, Mike says. He visits the country twice a year, for work and play, and every year he sees more people getting out and recreating.

Today, Rivers, Lakes, Oceans imports products from more than 20 U.S. companies to Latin America. It has a warehouse in Costa Rica, and a warehouse and storefront in Pucon. It sells to hotels, outfitters, governments and private boaters – both from the shop in Pucon and over the Internet.

Because boating in Chile tends to be cold, the company sells a lot of drysuits and wetsuits. It also sells whitewater kayaks (both play boats and creek boats), ocean kayaks, fishing kayaks, rafts, paddles, oars and boating accessories.

Ian works in the Pucon storefront, along with his father during Mike’s typical three-month stay. Mike employs a few locals as well, but says they don’t know the product as well. “We want people to buy the right product for the right purpose.”

Rivers, Lakes, Oceans does most of its business from October to March. With high water in Chile generally Nov. 1 through March, the Pucon store is busiest during that time of year, as well. However, Mike says, the paddling season there is year round because of the wet climate.

Because it takes so much product down at once, Rivers, Lakes, Oceans can offer better pricing, Mike said. Plus, it has the advantage of owning all its own shipping containers, which cuts down the freight rate per unit. The boats and accessories are consolidated into the containers in Charleston, S.C., where they’re loaded onto large ships. A 17 – 24 day passage takes them through the Panama Canal, and down the West Coast.

At the dock in Chile, all the product is immediately assessed a 20 percent value-added tax by the Aduanas, or customs agents.

“A lot of things disappear down there,” Mike said. “The Aduanas may not be trustworthy. We’ve had some goods disappear in Venezuela, and we make the Peruvians carry their own goods over the border. We don’t really have that problem in Chile and Costa Rica.”

Locals buy more than 90 percent of Rivers, Lakes, Oceans’ products, with the balance being purchased by Americans and Europeans on vacation. Customers expect to see a U.S. coastguard stamp on all life jackets, Mike said.

Mike bought back Northern Lights in July 2010 along with Barrel Mountaineering – which closed September 2011 – and the Barn, which primarily sold boats and accessories until closing this fall. He did so when the interim owner gave five days’ notice before he was going to begin liquidating all three stores.

“[That] put a chink in my armor as far as being semi-retired,” Mike said.

He’s busy with both companies now, especially since he’s looking for a new location where he can merge Northern Lights and the Barn, which closed its doors Oct. 1.

For Rivers, Lakes, Oceans, which started just as the recreation market in Latin America was beginning to blossom, things are looking up. As the emerging economies in Central and South America create a larger middle class with more time and money to recreate, the market should continue to improve, Mike says.

And a country that enjoys its natural resources is more likely to conserve them, something that’s important to Mike as an outdoorsman and a business owner in the recreation industry. He cited dam and mining projects in Chile that have been halted by public opposition in the last decade.

“[Outdoor recreation] has awoken the Chileans and Argentineans in the Patagonia region as to the precious commodity they have . . . the beauty, the mountains, the water,” Mike said. “It’s paying dividends. Both countries are trying to be better stewards of that resource.”