“SO, YOU BUILD BOATS IN THE DESERT?” Errol Baade has heard the question many times in his tenure at Aztec-based Jack’s Plastic Welding (JPW), which designs and manufactures everything from river rafts and dry bags to science equipment for studying coral reefs to small inflatable inserts for the boots of NASA astronauts. Established in Colorado in 1988, JPW moved to New Mexico in 1990, where now-retired founder Jack Kloepfer and semiretired Baade first worked out of a remodeled chicken coop. They eventually relocated to a pair of warehouses in Aztec, where they’ve created new designs for outdoor recreation and scientific needs around the world.

The Aztec company makes dry bags, rafts, and more.

Jack and I were friends. I met him in college at Utah State. I got out of college with a degree in watershed science. We started out in the whitewater industry. First thing we built was dry bags. The guy who started 4Corners Riversports, up in Durango, [Colorado], was starting to run catarafts. They wanted to run the upper Animas from Silverton [Colorado] down, so we built the first single-tube catarafts for commercial use. That’s what we became known for.

In 2002, droughts started getting bad. The Animas River dried up. Rafting companies were having a hard time. So we started diversifying. We did prototype work. We first became involved with NASA on a project that was a little inflatable. When you’re in a weightless environment, it’s hard keeping the blood flowing up through the legs. The little inflatable would go under the foot in [astronauts’] boots. We also build a recovery raft and stabilization collar for NASA space capsules that land in the ocean.

I think the community has always been tied to the river. Whitewater is still half the business— when it’s a good year. We’re willing to try different stuff. If it works, it works. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. That’s a big part of our philosophy at work.

Read more: The few miles of the San Juan River that trail the Navajo Dam are prized for trout fishing.