Harry Jameson was looking in his rearview mirror one afternoon last year, watching as the passengers debarked with their inner tubes on their way to tackle the Esopus Creek, when he saw it-the look of fear. "I went over to the customer and I said, 'Are you afraid?' And she said, 'I'm scared to death,'" Jameson recalls. "Now I'd been doing this for 24 years, and every year this happens. So I said, 'I want you to harness that anxiety and fear. I want you to transmutate it into excitement. I want you to accept this river for what it is, and go with the flow.'"
Needless to say, the woman took her tube down the creek, bumps and all, and ended up back at the Town Tinker in Phoenicia with nothing more serious than a good experience.
Going with the flow is something Jameson has been doing since he started his business a quarter-century ago. Originally purchased as a way to store his two vintage vehicles after a porcupine chewed through the tires of one of them one winter, the red barn that now serves 20,000 people a season was "falling down. I got it for a song," Jameson says. While his initial intention was to set up a repair shop (hence the "tinker" in the name), Jameson decided to try renting tubes as well. "I wanted to see if I could make a business out of something that was a kid's pastime," he adds.
He went to Sears and bought a "$320.65 compressor on sale," found 200 old inner tubes around town, set up a sign, and the business took off. The first year, he rented 1,000 inner tubes. "I decided at that point that it was my destiny to tell the masses," Jameson notes. The second year, following billboards and radio advertisements, he rented 4,000 tubes. By the third year, 12,000 tubes were rented-and he had set up a transportation system using old school buses and the recently renovated Catskill Mountain Railroad.
"You take a sleepy little hamlet and throw in thousands of extra people; they call that making an impact," Jameson recalls. "A lot of people loved it. A lot of people didn't like it at all." As a result of the local controversies that ensued, Jameson sat on the first of three tubing committees set up by the community, and now participates in a variety of other volunteer positions as well.
Jameson lived in Westchester County until he was 12 years old, then moved to Chichester ("Phoenicia was the big city," he says with a laugh) after his father visited a friend's cabin nearby. Jameson's new friends told him about tubing, and he soon learned all the ins and outs. "We'd go to the local garage and see if there were any old tubes to be had. Sometimes we had to patch them up, or work in the garage sweeping the floors in order to get one," he recalls. "Somebody's mom or dad with a pick-up truck would drive us as far upstream as we could start. We'd spend the whole day on the river. We'd not only pack our lunches but our fishing poles as well. We'd end up in Boiceville, and then have to call somebody to come pick us up."
Though he wanted to stay in the area, there was little opportunity after high school. "I could be on the town road crew, the county road crew or the state road crew, or working in a sawmill," he says. Instead, he went into the Navy and specialized in operating flight training simulators, which he parlayed into a job once he left the service. But he got tired of traveling and decided he wanted to make the Catskills his home. After retreating to 266 acres near Phoenicia with no electricity, running water, or heat for six months, he realized that though he could probably get a job at IBM, he didn't want to. "I thought I'd have to put my suit and tie back on, and I didn't want to do that," he says with a smile.
Now he comes to work in overalls and finds himself doing everything from clearing branches and trees from the creek to fixing one of the "14 things with wheels" he operates. "It really takes all year to run the business," Jameson admits. "We do all of the marketing, the Web site needs to be updated, the brochure needs to be updated. We need to make sure the buses are up and running."
In addition to three full-size buses, the business also encompasses wet suits, river sneakers, life vests, and the specially designed inner tubes with wooden platforms, to protect the customers' more delicate parts from the creek's sharp rocks. The Town Tinker has 13 employees in addition to Jessica Boyer, general manager of operations, who is now a medical school student and has been with the business for seven years. "All types of people come tubing," she points out. "Big people, smart people, not-so-smart people, athletically challenged." The company runs two courses, one for experienced tubers only that starts northwest of the barn, and another for beginners that starts at the barn and goes southeast.
For Jameson, who turned 51 this summer and has over the years acquired a lot of real estate, leaving the business is not an option. "I was thinking about this last year. At the age of 50, I'm working with these teenagers and I still feel like I'm 16," he says. "I think age is a state of mind. I'm never going to give up. If I sold everything else, I think I'd keep the business, because I love