Published on October 21st, 2013 | by Josh Hafner
YP Spotlight: Brad Argo finds comfort in nature and wants others to follow him outdoors
No one gets left out in Moravia, as Brad Argo recalls it.
The southern Iowa town is so small — 653 at last census — that a kid growing up there can almost feel opportunities at his fingertips. You want to play on the school’s baseball team? Sure. Why not try out for football, too? Did you think about entering the speech contest? Kids in small towns with graduating classes of 24 students don’t have to specialize to avoid being left out. They’re invited to do it all.
“You were always encouraged to do everything you possibly could,” said Argo, who lettered in four different sports at Moravia High. “That’s always been my mindset, and I got a lot of that from where I grew up.”
In Des Moines — a city that feels to many like a big small town — Argo has again fallen into multiple roles: video producer, entrepreneur and ping-pong league coordinator to name a few. Argo added another in 2012: professional outdoorsman.
As the founder and head of Argo Adventures, he wants to turn more Iowans on to the outdoors through guided trips by foot, bike, kayak or canoe.
“I just wanted to put everything on my back, go away for a week or two and see what I was worth,” –Brad Argo
At 35, one might consider Argo a veteran young professional. He’s got a lively spirit and a wiry frame, but his beard grows out mostly gray. Through the lenses of business, media and culture, he’s seen Des Moines change over the last dozen years. But he says his adventure here isn’t over yet.
Living out of doors was the norm for Argo from a young age. He grew up on the outskirts of Moravia in a house with a pasture in back and horses that he recalls fondly. His father and uncles ran a century farm with soybeans, corn and cattle. He explored the grounds with a BB gun.
“I just wanted to put everything on my back, go away for a week or two and see what I was worth,” he said. He would head up into mountains or down a trail and return two weeks later a little bit different, he said, a little bit changed. Food tasted better. Friendships felt deeper. He even felt better about himself.
“There were times when it wasn’t fun at all. But being uncomfortable is part of the adventure,” said Argo.
He speaks in an almost Californian drawl for a guy who grew up nowhere near an ocean. “That’s a piece of life: Not always feeling comfortable.”
It wasn’t comfortable when Argo, after earning a journalism degree at Iowa State, moved to take a job at TV station KREX-TV in Grand Junction, Colo. Yes, Grand Junction was near paradise for an outdoors fanatic, but it wasn’t home. It wasn’t his roots. It wasn’t Iowa. That and it was a starter market for TV journalists in 2000, netting him about $15,000 a year to live on. He jumped to a station in Missoula, Mont. — again, a beautiful area but again, not home — before landing back in central Iowa at the then-just-starting but now-defunct newsroom at KDSM-TV, the Fox station in Des Moines.
Argo took to journalism because he likes telling stories. He likes traveling to tell stories and he likes talking to people to tell those stories. Every day is different in this business. It’s an adventure in itself. Argo’s work was quickly noticed by a news director at NBC affiliate WHO-TV in Des Moines, and Argo found himself working a reporter and videographer gig with another newbie, Dan Winters.
“He made it fun,” said Winters, who became WHO’s evening co-anchor last fall. “That always, especially when I was a young reporter, made my job so much easier.”
During his five years at WHO, Argo logged a lot of road time with Winters. Iowa TV journalists drive out in a lot of snowstorms and floods and burn through a lot of company cars. Yet for years, Winters recalls Argo, a minimalist, sticking with this ancient, red Ford station wagon named Pumper. It had several hundred thousand miles on it, Winters said, and Argo refused to have it replaced. He drove the car until it died, Winters said. Argo even got Winters to recycle more.
“Brad has a different value set than a lot of people,” Winters said.
It was that value set, plus an adopted dog named Pepper, that convinced the normally nomadic Argo to settle in and buy a home in Des Moines. The place was a public nuisance, an 1888 gutted-out bungalow at the bottom of Sherman Hill, where Argo now serves as a neighborhood board member. Back in Moravia, Argo’s mom had dragged him to home tours and antiques markets and fostered a general appreciation for keeping old things and making them new.
Over several years, Argo had the place restored using reclaimed wood from an old barn near Winterset. Part of his high school’s former basketball court functions as a makeshift wall.
“That home defines me a lot,” he said. It also helps keep him anchored in Des Moines instead of somewhere in California. Argo has looked at the West Coast. It’s nice, but it’s no Des Moines, he said: “I know what’s possible here.”
Des Moines made it possible for Argo to co-found and grow Blur Mediaworks, the video production company he left WHO to dive into in 2008. In the last five years, he started noticing more and more Iowans strapping canoes to their cars or hitting bike trails on the weekends. He slowly got the vision for Argo Adventures, his latest endeavor. With a small team of friends and a basement full of outdoors gear, Argo hopes 2014 will be the year his namesake business really pushes off. He plans to offer urban canoe trips down the Raccoon River next spring.
Zachary Mannheimer, founder of the Des Moines Social Club, said Argo was one of the first supporters of his arts nonprofit when it opened shop a few years ago. Argo helps run King Pong, the club’s table tennis league, and Mannheimer said the two share a vision for creative potential they see in Des Moines.
“Des Moines is one of the only cities I feel that you can still pioneer in,” Mannheimer said. “Argo is still a pioneer. He might literally be a pioneer with Argo Adventures.”
Young professional and veteran outdoorsman Brad Argo’s company aims to awaken the adventurous side in metro area residents. The outdoor guide leads expeditions down Iowa’s rivers and trails. He will offer urban canoe trips down the Raccoon River next spring.
Argo’s favorite places for a quick getaway
The park sits at the end of a great stretch of the Maquoketa River and is home to some of the best sport climbing in the state. For those who aren’t as adventurous, the park also offers some great hiking as well. The only drawback of the park is it doesn’t offer camping on site anymore. www.mycountyparks.com/county/Jones/Park/Pictured-Rocks.aspx
2. Walnut Woods State Park
Right in Des Moines’ backyard, this park has great camping for groups. It’s a great place to hop onto the Raccoon River and float to downtown Des Moines via Water Works park. This is my favorite place to cross country ski in the winter and to take my dog when he’s itching to get out.
3. Rathbun Lake/Honey Creek Resort State Park
I couldn’t resist the urge to promote my hometown. The lake was actually built on a portion of my family’s land that was purchased by the government in the ’50s in order to build the reservoir. The area offers great fishing, boating, camping and hiking.
The necessities you need for a weeklong getaway:
Waterproof jacket/hood and pants and or poncho
Sport sandals/water shoes
Change of clothes
Water and water bottle
First aid kit
Weather radio or functional smart phone
Maps of the area