Bluffton Packet

Kayaking fan finds a way to combine work and play

Eric Burns is doing business on his cell phone.

He's talking about dates, times and everything else that involves getting a client to the right place at the right time.

The arrangements are not being discussed from inside an air-conditioned office, where windows are sealed shut and cubicles are no bigger than closets.

Today, Burns' office is on Mackays Creek from inside the cockpit of a 12-foot kayak.

The 42-year-old Bluffton resident is the organizer of a kayak club called the Sea Island Paddling Society and the owner of a kayak tour guide company.

"I've always played on the water," Burns said, gently paddling through the creek's calm waters. "I spent all my summers down here. We fished, we crabbed, we shrimped. Anything we could do on the water."

Burns, who grew up in High Point, N.C., found his way into the kayaking business -- he owns -- after years of working other jobs. He was mostly in the food and beverage industry in his 20s, after he moved to the region. He later worked as a nature instructor for the Disney's Hilton Head Island Resort.

"I even worked as a property manager on the island and in Central America," said Burns, who is married and has two young children.

But he was always drawn to the marine life of the Lowcountry, having spent summers at the family beach house on the May River.

Burns said after years in the restaurant business and all the after-hours partying, he knew it was time to make a lifestyle change. He combined his interest and knowledge of the region's waterways and turned it into a business.

"I named the company 'marshgrass' because it all starts with the grass," he said.

After the sun bakes the grass and photosynthesizes it, the water flushes up and lifts the bioplanktons. The fish, shrimp and crab eat the bioplanktons. And the dolphins return to the inland waters every year to eat the fish, Burns explained.

"It's all one tight, little revolving ecosystem," he said.

Burns said he takes paddlers of all experience levels to many of different areas. Recently, groups ventured to Tybee Island and Fort Fredrick in Beaufort. During a September full moon, he arranged a night paddle on Mackays Creek.

Kathy Lutz, who lives in Hampton Hall, is just learning to kayak. Lutz said she was determined to try something new when she turned 60 last year. She formed a neighborhood kayak group and hired Burns as the instructor.

"I was a nervous wreck. This was way out of my comfort zone," Lutz said about her first outing on the May River. "Eric's been very patient about encouraging me."

Jacqueline Frier of Hilton Head Island also is new to kayaking. The massage therapist joined the Sea Island Paddling Society, which has about 200 members.

"The club is a group of like-minded people who love the outdoors in the Lowcountry," she said. "It's so great to be that close to all the wildlife, the marsh grass and the oysters."