A Driftless Interview with Darren Bush, Owner, Rutabaga Paddlesports – Madison, WI

So, what’s your story? Where were you born? How long have you been here in the Driftless, What keeps you here?
I was born through no fault of my own in California. I married a woman from southwest Wisconsin and fell in love with Wisconsin as well! My roots are well and truly tapped into the Driftless.

Tell us about what you do for work or your business, and how long have you been doing this?
I sell canoes and kayaks and camping equipment, car racks to carry gear, and outdoor equipment and clothing. Basically, we’re Toys R Us for people who like to be outside. We have a school to teach paddling and other skills (first aid for one), and we rent boats out of our Lake Monona livery.

Tell us about a project or accomplishment that you consider to be the most significant in your career with your business.
Honestly, I am most proud when my staff can afford to buy houses and go on nice vacations. We run a sustainable business, and I’m proud we can provide health insurance and all the bennies, 401K, etc. It just means I make less, and I’m cool with that. We’re building a store that’s twice the size and three times nicer than the old building we’re in now. I’ll be proud of that when it’s done. 🙂

We’re constantly making things better, faster, smarter, or less expensive. We leverage technology or improve processes. In other words, we strive to do more—with less. Tell us about a recent project or problem that you made better, faster, smarter, more efficient, or less expensive.
COVID forced us to look at everything we do and make it safer, with less contact, etc. We found that curbside pick-up or local delivery or appointments for boat pick-up were also more convenient for the customer. We closed Sunday during the pandemic and never reopened on Sunday, so we have more staff on at the same time, which means better communication and efficiency.

Tell us about one person that you’ve met, that stands apart from the rest, or has influenced you while here in the Driftless.
It’s not one person, it’s a family. Ruth and Luke Zahm and their progeny are like family. Their passion for making amazing food and putting the flyover country on the world map for cuisine is one thing; their passion for the area itself is nourishing. You can tell they love it.

What do you wish other people knew about you or your business?
Come talk to us, we love telling our story. You don’t have to buy anything. Just stop and say howdy.


Let’s get to know more about Darren on a Personal Level

How would you describe yourself?
There’s a loaded question…I don’t usually describe myself to anyone, I just show up, and what you see is what you get. I get the same feeling when someone asks to send a headshot. I’m usually the guy behind the camera. But here it goes.

I am a high-functioning introvert. I’ve given keynote addresses to audiences with close to a thousand faces staring at me, but put me in a cocktail party with 30 people I don’t know and I’ll crawl under the table and assume the fetal position until the party’s over or people are too drunk to notice me. My favorite group is six people around a campfire, but because I love people, many think that I’m an extrovert. Nope.

Other than that, I’m devoted to my biggest fan, Stephanie, my wife of 37 years (we were babies when we married). I have two great kids who I also count as friends and we love traveling together.

What is your biggest accomplishment?
Another question no one has ever asked me.
Making a lot of people happy by doing what I do.

Have you read any good books?
A few thousand of them. How much time do you have? Latest good read: Braiding Sweetgrass.

Who is your personal hero?
Anyone who lives an authentic life. Jesus (the radical, not the sanitized one), Mahatma Gandhi, Gregory Boyle, Thomas Merton, John Muir, etc.

But the one who I really revere is my grandfather, H. Ray Bush, a saint of a man whose gentle nature belied his rough childhood building railroad track in the Utah deserts with his father and brothers. Grampa was the kindest person I ever met, but if you did wrong by someone he loved, God help you. He chewed iron and spit nails, but was absolutely gentle with every living thing. I still wear his wedding ring.

Do you have a life philosophy that you live by?
You can’t ever be too compassionate. I believe we as humans need to do all we can do to make the world kinder. There’s so much hate spewed by people who hate themselves.

What do you like most about yourself?
Cringe…I had to ask my wife.
She said I love to learn new things constantly. I am learning to play the banjo at 59 years old. My brain needs some stretching.

I have better than average reflexes and situational awareness. My friends in the armed services tell me that people with that skill live longer in combat. Thank goodness I never had to test it in combat, but it certainly comes in handy running rivers and doing swiftwater rescues.

If you could change the world, what would you change?
Climate change, and the greed that brought us climate change.

What do you think is the meaning of life?
To learn as much as we can about everything and share it.

Do you prefer working alone, or do you like working with others?

What’s something that no one would guess about you?
I’m not a very self-confident person even after so many years of doing cool things. But I’m also not afraid to make mistakes, which is why I keep doing cool things between the failures.

What is your deepest belief about life?
We are all children of God, and we need to remember that we’re all connected.

If you could wake up anywhere tomorrow, where would it be?
Piazza Duomo, Ragusa Ibla, Sicilia.

If you could be doing anything, anywhere right now, what and where would it be?
What I’m doing right now, where I am. I don’t think that way.

What’s the one thing you wish you could have a do-over for?
I could have been kinder.

How do you work on yourself?

What’s one thing you’ve had to overcome in your life?
Bipolar disorder. My father suffered from it, and I inherited it. The difference is we have better meds than he did, so I’m good. I just wish I had them sooner in life, but not having them taught me compassion for those who suffer as well.

How do you handle being in a bad mood?
Go outside and play the banjo. Play with my dog Lucy.

Who is the most important person in your life?
My wife. I am who I am because she is who she is. And my guess is she would say the same thing about me.

What did you learn about yourself from any of your previous relationships?
That’s a weird question. I learn about myself from all my relationships, past and present.

What question do you always want people to ask you about yourself?
Whatever they want to ask. I’m an open book.

What is your favorite music, or What is your all-time favorite song, or What ‘one’ song do you think a person should listen to at least once?
Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.2, second movement. Best piece of music ever written. But any of the Bach Motets will do it too.

If you weren’t here running your business or doing the work you do, what would you be doing instead?

How has this pandemic affected YOU or YOUR BUSINESS here in the Driftless? (positively or negatively)
That’s an essay, not a sentence. Overall, positively after slamming us against the wall and holding me by the throat, forcing me to change. Sometimes it takes a shock to the system.

What is another name you would give the Driftless?

What is your favorite season in the Driftless & why?
All of them, but May and October stand out.

Tell us of an experience / memory you had with Driftless lakes, rivers, or waterways?
I love paddling along the fern and moss-covered limestone cliffs and smelling them. I don’t know why, but the smell is one I wish I could bottle.

Is there any place in the world you have been that reminds you of, or is similar to, the Driftless.
The Driftless has its own Spirit. There’s only one.

What are some of your favorite places to go for fun here in the Driftless?
All the rivers, but the Kickapoo and the Grant are two Wisconsin favorites. I like the Turkey and Yellow on the Iowa side.

What are some of your favorite (non-commercial) places to eat here in the Driftless
Rockton Bar’s Chicken BBQ on Sundays is pretty epic. I love the pie from Borgens and the Driftless Cafe is a favorite.

If you were to tell a friend to come and visit the Driftless Area, and they ask “Why” … What would you tell them?
You can’t understand it until you see it. Then you’ll never want to leave.

Are you a Cat or Dog person?

Are you an Early Bird or Late Owl?
Neither, I’ll stick with Monkey

If given the opportunity, would you go to outer space (moon, mars, space stations)?

What color socks are you currently wearing?

What skill or instrument would you like to learn or play?
I play all the ones I want to play.

What 1 message would you put in a bottle?
It’s all gonna be okay.

What was your very first job?
Mixing mortar for a bricklayer.

If any, what would be your dream job?
I already have it.

How / where did you meet your best friend?
At a party in college.

What does your dream vacation look like?
My life is my vacation. But Italy…that’s my place.


Tell us a short joke or punchline.
An anteater walks into a bar.
The bartender says “Hey, why the long face?”

If you could learn another language, what would that be?

I Would Rather …
Live on a small boat