The executive director of Audubon South Carolina calls Kathie Livingston a “one-woman conservation enterprise,” a description that she would probably be embarrassed about on many levels.

But as humble as she is, the 51-year-old’s love of nature, and especially the South Carolina Lowcountry, has been demonstrated daily, weekly and annually for years in her walks as much as in her talks.

For Livingston, creating Nature Adventure Outfitters 15 years ago was more about advancing the cause of conservation than anything else.

“My life has never been about money,” says Livingston, whose outings from several locations in the Lowcountry took a whopping 10,000 people on mini-adventures in area creeks, rivers, swamps and refuges this year, so far.

“It’s been about giving back to the environment and doing what I can do to make a difference, especially for wildlife ... I’ve long believed that one of the best ways to get people to care about the environment is to get them into it to see why it’s important.”

Giving more

Family members, including husband Steve Livingston and 21-year-old son James Tillman Bradley, say her love of nature also extends to supporting an array of local, regional and national conservation organizations.

They say she has donated tens of thousands of dollars over the years to groups such as Coastal Conservation League, The Nature Conservancy, The Birds of Prey Center, Sierra Club, East Cooper Land Trust and Keeper of the Wild, among others.

Keeper of the Wild founder and Director Janet Kinser says Livingston has been helping her organization, which helps injured and orphaned mammals, for years.

Kinser says that if Livingston’s annual paddle doesn’t raise $2,000 for her group, Livingston will make up the difference out of her own pocket.

In fact, between her donations, reinvesting money into the business and paying her staff well (including annual Christmas bonuses), Livingston didn’t actually pay herself until a year and a half ago. The only reason she did that was because she felt like she needed to start a nest egg for retirement.

Admittedly, Livingston says she was only able to not pay herself after she and husband Steve, who shares her love of nature, “kind of made a pact to live off one (his) salary” in the late 1990s. He made enough as city of Charleston’s parks director, with oversight over projects that are now landmarks, such as Charleston Waterfront Park and the S.C. Aquarium, to support the family. He retired five years ago and is enjoying retirement by practicing fiddle and restoring old tractors.

“We started a business at a time when I was working,” he says. “The business was able to grow because she put money back into it — equipment, employees and training — along with supporting the nonprofit organizations that support the same missions we do.”

Connecting with nature

The intimate relationship that Kathie Livingston has had with nature all her life also has made her sensitive to tangible threats to it.

Her biggest concern is climate change.

“It’s huge and it’s happening. It was brought to my attention in 1970s when nobody believed it. I believe it’s both natural and man-made and I believe we have got to do something as a people to curtail it,” says Livingston, noting the impacts on wildlife.

Among the local signs of climate change, she notes, are “crazy tides.”

“We paddled in the parking lot (at Shem Creek) twice last year. The exponential high tides are flooding nesting areas that normally would have had their young develop. We’ve noticed pelican drownings. We’re seeing overwintering species that don’t normally overwinter. The manatees hanging out longer.”

She also notices that water temperatures continue to be warmer longer every year.

“Today is Oct. 23 and it’s still 73 degrees in the water. I remember that in the past, we weren’t able to do in-water instruction at Labor Day because the water was so chilly.”

Yet she underscores an increasing theme of climate change: that it’s not just about warming but the “exponential of everything going,” notably the severity of storms, droughts, fires, winds and temperatures.

A Midwestern girl

Kathie Livingston is a native of the Midwest who quickly naturalized to her Lowcountry environs immediately after college.

She was born a Peacock (her maiden name), in Flint, Mich., in August 1962 and developed her love of nature while growing up on a farm in Indiana, where she regularly rode horses.

She attended the University of Michigan in the early 1980s with the desire to “save the Earth.” She received a bachelor’s degree in natural resource planning with a minor in ecology.

Despite having attention deficit disorder, which was not labeled at the time, she graduated in 1984 with honors. She helped support herself by playing guitar and singing.

A first job at the Audubon Society’s Francis Beidler Forest brought to her the South Carolina Lowcountry. It was a perfect launch for her.

“That swamp, Beidler Forest, is very special and it just immersed me in the world I wanted to be in as a naturalist. I learned about the wetlands of South Carolina and decided this is exactly where I wanted to be,” she recalls.

“Being there was like getting a masters and doctorate, almost, by being immersed in that environment with Mike Dawson (the center’s director) and Norman Brunswig (Audubon South Carolina director).”

From there, though, she went through a series of jobs, including the head park naturalist for the city of Charleston parks department where she eventually met and married Livingston in 1995.

“I didn’t know him for five years (while working for the city). When I first met him on a canoeing trip, it was like meeting the Wizard of Oz. He was the big dog on the porch.”

After “a brief romance,” they wed with Steve becoming the stepfather of Kathie’s 3-year-old son, James Tillman Bradley.

Birth of NAO

The marriage came at about the same time she was being transferred to the city’s recreation department and when she started hearing the call of starting her own business.

Steve and Kathie Livingston had searched and found a place to create their eventual homestead, a 12-acre “in holding,” or private tract, within the Francis Marion National Forest. Initially, the family lived in 460-square-foot cabin on the property as they studied the property for their eventual 3,000-square-foot home, built with plenty of sweat equity.

Living deep in the woods, where male bobcats can be heard fighting and owls have “hoot-outs,” further inspired Kathie to pursue her own path.

“As an ecologist and naturalist, I wanted to get people in the wilderness to see the natural side of Charleston, for people to know there’s more to Charleston than a beautiful city ... I wanted to get people into the national forest to horseback ride, kayak, canoe, hike and bike,” recalls Livingston, noting that they had 16 horses.

They started by buying $3,000 worth of kayaks and using a 1986 Ford pick-up to haul a horse trailer and kayaks.

“We realized really quick that kayaks don’t have vet bills,” says Livingston, of their eventual gravitation to paddling.

“In the beginning, we got a lot of laughs from competitors, but now we have over 130 kayak seats (single and tandem) and do canoes. We own 40 SUPs (stand-up paddleboards), and employ 25 people, of which three are full-time and year-round.”

Extended family

Livingston feels fortunate to have staff members who not only share her devotion to a greater mission but who have backgrounds steeped in natural history.

Among them are long-time McClellanville residents Eddie Stroman and John Dupre, kayak guides in their 60s, who offer extra charm to adventurers.

“I’m very lucky to have them,” says Livingston, adding that her younger staff offer similarly interesting backgrounds. One young woman called for a job while hiking in Bolivia and is now considering a hike across Africa.

A job of leading paddling and hiking trips isn’t easy. From March to September, many work 70 to 80 hours a week, often seven days a week.

“A lot of the times during the season we have to ask ourselves when was the last day you had off? That’s how busy we are. Our full-time people are incredible. They never ask for days off. We have to make ourselves take days off. Everybody is so dedicated and they care so much.”

Part of that work ethic involves consciously practicing “kaizen,” a Japanese practice that means “change for the best.” So despite the long days, Livingston say some staffers will come in an hour or two before work, go on solo paddle, and meditate before actually working.

The hand-off

Another Eastern concept may be at work in Livingston’s life and business: karma.

Nature Adventure Outfitters appears to have a life after Kathie and Steve decide to start exploring the world in retirement.

Her son, James Tillman Bradley, wants to take it over and is studying small business entrepreneurship in preparation for it. He plans to continue her mission.

“Her passion for the environment has definitely rubbed off on me,” says Bradley, adding that her compassion for the environment and wildlife also extends to people.

Reach David Quick at 937-5516 or dquick@postand courier.com.