By Stephanie Vermillion
In 1994, Michael Gowen led his first Golden Isles kayaking tour—and between wildlife encounters and endless water escapades, he hasn’t looked back since. Here’s the behind-the-biz story of this local paddling legend.
From unspoiled beaches to captivating wildlife encounters, nature immersions abound across the Golden Isles—but few plunge guests into the thick of it like a local kayak tour, especially with SouthEast Adventure Outfitters. This legacy tour company is the brainchild of Michael Gowen, a longtime Golden Isles paddler who knows coastal Georgia’s web of waterways better than most.
“We have a huge trail system here— it’s just all wet,” says Gowen, a St. Simon’s Island resident. Gowen launched SouthEast Adventure Outfitters from his driveway back in 1994; he was among the first to introduce paddling to the region. But, as the growth of Southeast Adventure Outfitters shows—they now have two locations with multiple daily tours—it’s obvious he won’t be the last.
“The beauty of our area is that the great majority is undeveloped. Between St. Simon’s and Savannah, there’s about 70 undeveloped miles of coasts, and within 100 miles of the coast, we have about one-third of the eastern seaboard’s marshes,” he says. “You could go every day and never see it all.”
Sure, he has yet to see all of Georgia’s coastline, but in nearly 30 years, Gowen has seen quite a bit. That’s one reason his company’s tours are so popular. Gowen and his crew know exactly where and when to paddle for peak wildlife, nature, and scenery. In fact, this blend of biodiversity drew Gowen to Golden Isles paddling in the first place.
“This is one of the most productive ecosystems in the world,” he says, noting just a day ago, he and tour guests watched cormorants fishing as sly pelicans waited to steal a snack—with leaping dolphins piercing dense fog in the distance. “We always see something different, something we’ve never seen before—and that’s true for almost every trip.”
SouthEast Adventure Outfitters is beloved for its uniqueness, giving guests a front-seat view of coastal Georgia’s vast ecosystems, but going from driveway to local paddle-sport powerhouse didn’t happen overnight. Gowen launched Southeast Adventure Outfitters as a side hustle while working at local restaurant Crabdaddy’s nearly 30 years ago.
His first official tour was not for the faint of heart: He led a group from upstate New York on a one-week paddling adventure through Georgia’s tangle of wetland, marsh, and sea. “It was a great feeling to know we were finally floating,” he says.
And alongside Gowen’s partner Cindy Dennard, SouthEast Adventure Outfitters has been not just floating, but flourishing—particularly with kayaking’s recent boom in popularity. “When we started, kayaks weren’t really well known,” Gowen says. “It’s been gratifying to see the whole sport grow, and I feel lucky to be in such a beautiful part of the world that people like visiting.”
Today’s tour options range from two-hour trips to half-day adventures. Gowen says he does still offer longer custom trips as well (to book this, you’ll have to call the shop.) And, while wildlife sightings do still amaze him, Gowen says these days, it’s the people that remind him why he started SouthEast Adventure Outfitters in the first place.
“I call our front door a great filter,” he says, noting the number of friends he’s made throughout nearly 30 years in business. “It filters humanity down to the folks that like being outdoors—and I like that filter.”