The Nantahala Outdoor Center rose rapidly from a scrappy operation spawned by idealistic river rats in the 1970s to one of the largest and most renowned outfitters in the country. Now in its 40th year, NOC has struggled during the past decade to reconcile its founding philosophy — that of like-minded outdoors lovers carving out a living doing what they loved — with changing economic realities.
When Nantahala Outdoor Center burst onto the whitewater scene 40 years ago, it became ground zero for a new world of paddling — one where boundaries of the sport were being pushed, old paradigms were being broken, and new realities were being forged.
Paddlers wanted to be a part of it, and as a result NOC rapidly amassed a deep bench of the most elite canoeists and kayakers in the country. It was one of the few places where paddlers could make their living at their sport.
“The cadre of people we had here was unbelievable in those early days,” said John Burton, a former paddling Olympian and one of the early NOC pioneers who still works at the company today.
The dizzying concentration of paddling greats at NOC created a buzz around the Nantahala that was integral to its early success.
“This has been the center of expertise in the paddling world,” one of NOC’s founders Payson Kennedy said.
NOC was appealing to paddlers who reveled in the minutiae of the sport — particularly as they experimented with new ways of teaching the growing masses, said Bunny Johns, another NOC pioneer and one of the top female paddlers in the country in the 1970s and early ‘80s.
Staffers would spend hours dissecting the mechanics and physics of paddling in order to hone their teaching techniques — translating the fluid, almost intuitive body movements into anatomical step-by-step instructions for beginners. Take the roll, for example, a move kayakers yearn to master.
“Before, it was like, ‘You do your body like this,’” Johns said, rotating her body and lunging her arms in the mock-movement of a kayak roll.
Over dinner, instructors would share strategies for getting students to keep their head down through the roll, or how to pick up with their knee.
“They pioneered a fairly elegant way to teach people how to do the roll,” Johns said. “It was so exciting that people talked about it all the time.”
By year three, six of the paddlers from the 1972 U.S. Olympic team were staffers at NOC, launching a tradition of greatness on the Nantahala that persists today.
Kennedy admits he can’t take credit for the strategy, however.
“It just kind of happened,” he said.
What began as an accident proved an invaluable business strategy.
“It established real street credibility,” said Mark Singleton, the head of NOC’s marketing department from 1990 to 2002.
Come to NOC, and you would be paddling among the greats. But by the 1990s, the company was getting further removed from that aura.
“You had to go back to the first 1972 Olympics to get that,” Singleton said.
Not wanting to rest on past laurels, NOC leaders realized they needed to proactively position themselves at the center of the elite paddling world.
Further, the paddling competition of the 1996 summer Olympics would be staged on the nearby Ocoee River. It was a time to shine, and an opportunity they didn’t want to squander.
“We wanted to have a big presence around that close-by Olympics,” said Wayne Dickert, a top national paddler and whitewater author who worked at NOC for two decades.
The challenge, however, was to consciously replicate the natural attraction and draw NOC had for pro paddlers in its early days. NOC no longer had a lock on the river outfitter market for paddlers wanting to make their living on the water while training. There were other places they could go and have access to whitewater as a job perk.
To lure them, NOC put up the money to hire and pay a director for the Nantahala Racing Club in the early 1990s and continuing through 1996. Anyone racing under the banner of the club would have access to a formal instructor, training regimen and organizer.
“Before, it was just a bunch of NOC staffers, a bunch of guys who said ‘Hey, we are the Nantahala Racing Club,’” Dickert said.
The plan worked. Ultimately, six out of the seven paddlers on the 1996 Olympic Team trained at NOC.
“It was a renewal of NOC’s commitment to the highest levels of the sport. It gave us something we could really hang out hat on in terms of our marketing,” Singleton said. “It didn’t only drive business, although it was certainly very successful in that, but it also helped to reinforce an athletic culture.”
The man tasked with making it happen was Joe Jacobi, who was hired as that first-ever director of the Nantahala Racing Team. Jacobi knew first hand what a great place NOC was to work while training. Jacobi came to NOC as a dishwasher in 1989 while training as an Olympic hopeful for the ’92 games.
“It was the perfect job to do while training,” Jacobi said, who washed dishes in the morning and evening and filled his days with river workouts.
Jacobi was 19 when he came to NOC, and he describes those early years as magical. He lived in company housing, had a company meal plan, used the company laundry. He didn’t have to worry about the hassles of normal life, like grocery shopping or commuting to work. His life was self-contained and revolved around the river.
“The support of the NOC community, I couldn’t put words on what that meant to me,” Jacobi said.
One of the biggest perks he remembers: the company meal plan.
“When you are training, you get hungry a lot, and the whole food thing was very appealing to us,” Jacobi said.
Aside from the food itself was the dinner table conversation.
“The quality of conversation we would get into about kayaking and paddling and how paddling was taught and sold and how you would accomplish results on the elite side of it was stimulating and engaging,” Jacobi said.
Meanwhile, the star paddlers were worth their weight in gold when it came to NOC’s appeal for guests. Sutton Bacon, who would later become NOC’s president and CEO, paddled on the Nantahala as a child during those years. Bacon ticked off the Olympic paddlers he rubbed elbows with as a boy while paddling on the same river as them — there’s been 22 Olympic paddlers on NOC’s staff in all its 40-year history.
“I remember NOC vividly in the ‘90s, which in many ways was the heyday of NOC,” Bacon said. “Part of it I would have to caveat as nostalgia, but there was an electricity. All the paddling experts who were writing the books and producing videos were NOC staff members. That level of energy was probably the biggest remembrance as an NOC guest years ago that I want to make sure we replicate today.”
Horace Holden remembers the deal like it was yesterday.
He set out from Atlanta with a few blank checks in his pocket and a portable typewriter on the back seat of his car. He checked in to his favorite room in the 14-unit Tote ‘n’ Tarry motel, a mom-and-pop on the banks of the Nantahala River that catered to paddlers, and waited for an innocuous moment to strike up a conversation with the owner, Vincent Gassaway.
“I didn’t want him to think I was very interested,” Holden recalled. “I said, ‘How did your summer go?’ and he said, ‘Not too well.’ I said, ‘Well, you’ve never thought of selling this place have you?’ And he said, ‘Well I’ve thought about it.’”
A few minutes later, Holden went back to his room, typed up a contract and wrote a $1,000 check as earnest money to buy Gassaway’s motel, gas station and 40 acres on the river.
Forty year later, as Holden toured the grounds of the Nantahala Outdoor Center flashing his signature charismatic smile to the throngs of tourists and seasonal employees already swarming the place in these early days of summer, it’s easy to see how Holden transformed the isolated gorge into a bustling outfitter’s campus and one of the most successful river operations in the country.
He’ll claim the recipe for success lay with the Nantahala itself. But in fact, it was Holden’s own infectious idealism that carried the vision forward.
Holden had been staging paddling races on the Nantahala River since 1969. By 1971, the race was attracting hundreds of paddlers eager for competition venues in the growing sport of whitewater.
“The third year I said ‘Let’s call it the Southeastern championship,’” Holden recalled. “They said ‘You can’t do that.’ I said, ‘Why not? It’s the Southeast.’”
If Holden can think it up, he’s apt to try it.
Years later, Holden learned that Gassaway had bragged about the deal to the owner of a filling station up the road.
“Finally, I found somebody who was fool enough to buy the place,” Gassaway allegedly said of Holden.
Holden simply had a hunch — a hunch something here would work. What exactly, he wasn’t quite sure, but something.
At the time, Holden ran a summer camp in Georgia, and originally envisioned the Nantahala as a great outpost for his camp. Or maybe as a whitewater teaching center and paddling clinics for canoe clubs.
For good measure, Holden figured he could always serve up guided raft trips to help cover the annual mortgage.
But Holden, who was dedicated to running his summer camp, realized he needed a partner. He turned to his childhood friend, Payson Kennedy. The two had attended church together as boys.
“He was honest as the day was long,” Holden said, when asked why he picked Kennedy. Plus, Holden thought, Kennedy worked at Georgia Tech and had his summers off, giving Kennedy flexibility to oversee the yet-to-be-determined venture on the Nantahala.
“I asked him ‘Would you like to start a little canoeing operation?’” Holden recounted.
Kennedy was already looking for a lifestyle change and was about to go work for Outward Bound wilderness school when Holden approached him. Kennedy sold his house to raise money to become a co-founder of NOC along with Holden. The two would ultimately remain the majority stockholders for 40 years.
When asked about how he knew it would work, Holden says he didn’t.
“You can’t know. You can never know,” Holden said.
Somehow, though, it seems like he did.
When Payson and Aurelia Kennedy quit their jobs in Atlanta, cashed out their retirement, packed up their four children and headed for the wild and rugged Nantahala River 40 years ago, their mothers weren’t sure what had gotten into them.
The idea that tourists would pay $10 a head to go rafting down the river — enough of them to put food on the family’s table no less — sounded ludicrous.
“It seemed like a harebrain plan,” Aurelia admitted.
They had a fleet of just four rafts and used the family van to transport river runners that first year. They lived on savings and hope while scrapping out a vision of a paddling outpost.
“The only accounting was the checkbook,” Payson recalled. “I didn’t even keep account of how many people we took, but I made an estimate at the end of the first year we took 800 down the Nantahala and 400 down the Chattooga — which is less than we take in one day now.”
By year three, however, they were still losing money. Even Aurelia had begun to have her doubts.
“When I was in charge of three restaurants and four children, Payson had to listen to me have some flying fits those first years,” said Aurelia, who found a teaching job in nearby Andrews to supplement the family.
Indeed, it wasn’t easy. Payson and Aurelia slogged through 80- to 100-hour work weeks trying to realize their dream. Along with the raft trips, the fledgling Nantahala Outdoor Center had a small motel, a gas station, restaurants and a paddling school.
“It was erratic business,” Payson said. “Everybody did everything. We didn’t have specific jobs. If motel rooms needed cleaning, we cleaned motel rooms. I was once the breakfast cook. But, it was such a fun atmosphere. Everybody had a good time together even though it was hard work and long hours.”
The kids — ages 10, 12, 14 and 16 that first year on the river — were expected to pull their weight. They washed dishes, made beds in the motel, guided raft trips and took care of horses in the stable. By the second year, the kids got $20 a week, plus room and board of course, Payson added.
It wasn’t until nearly a decade later, when the company cleared $1 million in annual revenue for the first time, that Aurelia’s mother relented her initial doubts. Years would pass before Payson’s mother confessed to squirreling away savings during those early years in anticipation of bailing her son out when he had to throw in the towel and come back home.
The couple, joined by a love of paddling and the outdoor lifestyle, were as committed to each other as they were to NOC. They had their first date at 14, and never seemed to get over that teenage love affair.
As they flipped through an old family photo album at their kitchen table last week, Aurelia planted her hand on a picture of Payson taken in 1972, his shaggy brown beard and tanned skin looking as wild and rugged as the river he called home.
“Isn’t he handsome?” Aurelia said.
The page turned and landed on a photo of Aurelia resting against a large boulder taken in that same era.
“Isn’t she beautiful?” countered Payson, who’s about to turn 80.
As the Nantahala Outdoor Center stares down its 40th anniversary, few companies, let alone a river outfitter with such humble beginnings, could claim the kind of growth NOC has witnessed. It’s come a long way from the four rafts and family van used by the Kennedys to shuttle those first guests down the Nantahala. Today, NOC boasts a fleet of 1,000 rafts, 120 busses and 850 employees during peak season — shepherding 150,000 rafters down the Nantahala and 6 other rivers in the southern mountains each year.
Looking back, Payson said he never doubted their dream would work.
“We could see the people coming off the trips were so exhilarated, and it was growing by word of mouth. So I knew it was a matter of time,” Payson said.
When the Nantahala Outdoor Center was launched in 1972, paddling was still a newfangled sport.
“Very few people paddled. In that era if you saw a car with a boat, you usually knew who it was. It was that small,” said Bunny Johns, one of NOC’s early pioneers who logged nearly three decades at the company.
For paddlers who wanted to eat, sleep and breathe whitewater, NOC stood out. There were only two other river outfitters in the entire Southeast.
“The idea that you could really give of yourself for the betterment of the outdoors and expose more people to the outdoors and make a living doing it was very unique for 1972,” said Joe Jacobi, an Olympic gold medalist who worked at NOC as a dishwasher in the early 1990s and is now the director of USA Whitewater.
Whether it would work as a business or not was somewhat untested, however, and took a hefty dose of idealism by the Kennedy’s and fellow founder Horace Holden.
“You put out your concept and your dream in a unique and engaging way, and you just start,” Jacobi said. “If you think it is worthwhile to take kids down the Nantahala River, you just start doing it — and that’s where the buy-in and appeal came from.”
Like so many of NOC’s early pioneers, John Burton gave up a promising, big-city, high-paying career for life on the river. His epiphany came at a rather inopportune time — at the outset of an all-day interview with the investment banking giant Goldman Sachs on Wall Street in the 1970s.
“About an hour into the interviews, I knew I was in the wrong place. I was not motivated by money. I could not go to Wall Street. I said, ‘Well I’ll see you later,’” Burton recalled. “I came to the Outdoor Center because it totally fit with my value set.”
Burton quit his job as an investment advisor making $16,000 a year for a job at NOC that paid just $7,000 a year. Burton had been on the 1972 Olympic team and a member of the U.S. paddling team for four years. More than half his fellow paddlers from that 1972 team — including all three women from the team — had already found their way to NOC.
“It was sort of a network of paddlers. Those who decided we wanted to train, that we wanted to get good at it, NOC was a place where you could get paid to work in the world of paddling and be surrounded by your friends and get paid to be on the river guiding rafts or teaching canoeing,” said Burton.
Burton came along in the nick of time. The skill set NOC needed most, it turned out, wasn’t another paddling pro, but his financial smarts.
“It was a seat-of-the-pants operation for sure,” Burton said, recalling the state of the company’s checkbook and recordkeeping when he came on board in 1975.
Burton quickly became Payson Kennedy’s right-hand man as vice president.
“We were a great team,” Burton said. “He was the philosopher and visionary, and I had the business skill set to support that.”
Working at NOC came with sacrifices. The pay was small, hours were long, and the work was seasonal.
The work ethic Payson’s own family exemplified in those earlier years — rising to the occasion and pitching in wherever needed — was expected from everyone.
“Everybody did it all. We washed dishes; we guided rafts; we built the buildings,” Burton said.
But no one seemed to mind, Burton said. Everyone who came to NOC did so for the same reason as the Kennedys.
“When we came up here, it was not a business decision but a lifestyle decision,” Payson said. “We assumed we would make less money than if we stayed in Atlanta, but we would be working with friends who enjoyed the same activities we did.”
It’s one of the lasting legacies from those early years. Everyone can still be called on to pinch hit in any area, no matter what your official job duties are. At 79, Payson can still be found pinch-hitting as a raft guide on busy summer weekends. It extends to the team of new investors who assumed a majority stake in NOC earlier this year.
“If they were here on the weekend and I said, ‘We just had two housekeepers not show up and we have 50 beds to make,’ they would say, ‘I’ll go make beds for you.’ That is so critical,” Burton said. “They aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty.”
Forty years ago, the Kennedys’ and Holden’s goal was not necessarily to build one of the world’s premier river outfitters. Instead, they wanted to carve out a place where like-minded river rats could scratch out a modest living doing what they loved — and that they would be in it together.
“From the beginning, that was the guiding the principle, not that some people would be working for the owners, but it would be a community of friends working together,” Payson said.
NOC had the spirit of communal living. Employees were fed through company meal plans and lived in NOC housing quarters. Everyone worked, ate, slept and played alongside each other.
“That community kept us all there,” Johns said.
There was even a daycare for NOC employees with children. Joe Jacobi, who worked at NOC while training for the Olympics in the early 1990s, recalled one of his Olympic teammates who was a daycare worker.
“You had a national champion whitewater kayaker soon to be an Olympian who would work in the daycare taking care of other paddlers’ children. Just think about that for a minute,” Jacobi said. “There was a very tight sense of community. There was a high level of buy in.”
Early on, the company developed an employee-stock plan that would give employees shares in the company. It was a financial benefit, but more so it was a way of creating a sense of buy-in and communal ownership.
While NOC no longer has a corner on the market when it comes to finding jobs in the outdoor industry, it’s still considered among the cream of the crop.
“The Nantahala Gorge is a pretty appealing place for anybody who is interested in a broad range of outdoor opportunities, whether it be paddling, mountain biking, hiking or camping, there is a lot going on in the Gorge,” said Mark Singleton, the head of NOC’s marketing department from 1990 to 2002. Singleton still lives in Jackson County and is the executive director American Whitewater, a national paddling advocacy organization.
To some, the seasonal nature of the job was one of its greatest perks. Footloose and fancy free, summer whitewater guides could take to the ski slopes of the Rockies by winter or travel to South America without being tied down.
“If you don’t have kids and your needs are small, you can make it work,” Johns said.
But the seasonal ebb and flow — being thrust into unemployment six months of the year and struggling to find work — was a deal killer for others, particularly those who wanted to start a family.
“They’ll do it a few years until they want to get married and have kids and then decide they can’t afford to stay. Some do stay and live on the low income and enjoy life but don’t expect to get a whole lot of money,” Payson said. “If the business wasn’t so seasonal, it would be easy. It’s that seasonality that makes it tough to survive.”
NOC can’t entirely shut down in the off-season, of course. A core cadre has to run the place year-round, from marketing to IT to finance to planning out next year’s programs.
Those who stuck around long enough — and had skills deemed useful to the business side of the operation — could sometimes finagle their way into a year-round job.
Such was the case with Wayne Dickert, one of the championship paddlers NOC proudly claimed on its who’s-who of paddling instructors for two decades. When he started in the mid-1980s, however, he was just a lowly seasonal raft guide. Dickert spent his winters working for Silver Creek Paddles, a mom-and-pop company just down the road in the Gorge that made hand-crafted wooden paddles. Never straying far from the paddling arena, he also cobbled together a part-time winter income repairing banged up fiberglass boats and broken paddles.
Why not give up and get a real job?
“I bought into the whole idea and loved being able to give people that outdoor experience,” Dickert said.
Of all the ingredients that set the stage for NOC’s unprecedented success, none was as unexpected and out of ordinary than the release of the movie “Deliverance” in 1972, set on a rural river not far from the Nantahala. The blockbuster movie catapulted Southern Appalachian paddling into the consciousness of mainstream America and captured the public imagination.
“That gave us a flurry of interest and excitement and attention,” said Payson, who starred as Burt Kennedy’s stunt double in the movie.
Four decades later, paddlers still sport T-shirts that say “Paddle faster, I hear banjo music.”
The movie was a game changer, according to NOC historians.
“It was that spirit of the urban adventurer, and NOC served as a destination point that spoke to that,” Jacobi said.
The same year, whitewater paddling made its debut as an Olympic sport.
Ultimately, the Kennedy’s and Holden had impeccable timing, even though they can’t take credit for planning it that way.
“That is the beauty of it — it is a little bit of a leap of faith,” Jacobi said.
Jacobi sees a parallel in the evolution and rise of NOC to the sport of kayaking.
“When you put a boat on the river, it is kind of like chaos in a controlled environment, and you don’t know every time how it is going to work out, and that is part of the appeal of it,” Jacobi said.
When the Kennedy’s first showed up with their meager collection of rafts hawking guided trips down the river, the rural community where they made their home wasn’t entirely sure what to make of them.
“We were looked at as those weird people,” said Johns. “It has been a gradual process.”
The long hair and beards sported by many of the male paddlers earned them an instant label of hippies in a rural region of Appalachia not exactly known for its liberal leanings.
“Some didn’t like these outsiders coming in,” Payson admitted. It was probably the toughest on his children, who had to leave the protected river community in the Gorge and venture into Bryson City for school.
“For me personally, and I feel just about everybody would agree with this, Bryson City and the Gorge tend to be two different fish bowls,” Dickert said. “There is cross over, they go into each other’s world. The Gorge comes in to do shopping and everything else, but there hasn’t been a lot of social interaction between the two.”
Far from its early days of being ostracized, NOC has become a dominant force in the landscape of Swain County — both economically and socially.
“Carolina Builders I think were the first ones to look at us and say, ‘These people are OK. They pay their bills,’” Johns recalled.
On the business side, NOC was a virtual gravy train, pulling in thousands of tourists ripe for the plucking. NOC rapidly rose in the ranks as a major employer.
“People certainly realized what it meant to this whole area,” Johns said. Kennedy agrees the business community was the first to welcome NOC into the fold.
But, there’s been a social acceptance too — thanks in part to people like Wayne Dickert. Dickert left his job with NOC this year to become the full-time minister of the United Methodist Church in downtown Bryson City.
Dickert is a walking, talking example of what’s likely NOC’s greatest gift to the region: people.
Hundreds of people have come to the mountains to work at NOC, whether for a couple of summers or half their lives like Dickert, and then found their way into the wider community, from construction workers to school teachers.
“As they come out of the Gorge and go into different jobs, it helps cross over the two communities,” Dickert said. “You start to develop relationships and see beyond what labels that might be attached to them.”
On his desk in the church office, a fistful of ballpoint pens baring the name of the church have been stuffed into a stainless steel cup with NOC’s logo — a pointed symbol of how the two worlds of NOC and the greater Swain community have merged.
“That’s been the biggest factor,” Payson Kennedy said of winning the community’s acceptance. “Having employees that decided to stay here and buy homes and build homes and get married and have children in the schools.”
Keeping up with its own growth was one of the biggest challenges faced by NOC during the first two decades.
The original founders felt at times like they’d jumped on board a runaway train.
“There were some years they intentionally cut back on their marketing efforts because they thought they were growing too big,” Dickert said. “NOC was it. NOC was the place.”
In 1978, six years after its own launch, NOC saw its first competition spring up — and welcomed it.
“At that time interest in whitewater was growing so rapidly, we still had all the business we could handle. It was all about how many guides could we train, how many buses could we add,” Payson recalled.
But as more and more rafting outfitters jostled for a piece of the action, the Nantahala showed signs of stress. Fear that it would become overrun by commercial trips and undermine its very essence prompted the national forest service, which controls most of the land along the river, to cap the number of outfitters in 1984. A new permit system was implemented for paddlers, a move NOC by that time welcomed.
To outsiders, NOC seemed to be rolling in success by the mid-1980s. Tens of thousands of people were flocking in droves to the fabled river outpost. Despite the booming business seen three short months of the year, NOC never stopped fighting and scrapping to ensure its viability.
“NOC has a checkered history. It never made a lot of money,” Johns said. “We struggled some years. We might have an up year one year and plan for another up and it goes down a little bit.”
Margins were always uncomfortably thin, and hiccups could seem like earthquakes. By the mid-1990s, the steady growth enjoyed during the first 25 years began to taper off and NOC entered an era of slow decline.
The list of reasons was long and varied, from forces outside NOC’s control — like the birth of artificial whitewater training centers and a national decline in paddling — to internal decisions, like hanging on to employee perks the company could no longer afford.
By the end of the ‘90s, NOC had posted three years of continuous losses. What worked in the past clearly wasn’t working anymore, but the company’s long-time leaders were reluctant to change.
“They realized we’ve got to change our vision, but they struggled with that and went back and forth a lot,” Dickert said. “They struggled with going from a bunch of cool hippies who hung out at the river and raft-guided, to at some point they grew large enough they had to think like a corporation.”
A tumultuous decade followed, and where the future will end up is still not entirely clear.
The Kennedys and Holden sold their majority stake in the company earlier this year, turning the reins of NOC over to a group of six young businessmen from the Atlanta area — including NOC’s own Sutton Bacon, who has been the CEO for five years. The new owners see NOC as a place to merge their love of outdoor recreation with their business and investment acumen.
Their interest in NOC isn’t entirely business-driven. They are all paddlers. They all have young children. And they all want NOC to be part of their own families’ lives for another 40 years, Sutton said.
While Holden and the Kennedys have kept some of their shares and seats on the board of directors, the changing of the guard clearly marks the end of an era. Money put up by the investors allowed NOC to buy out the remnants of the employee stock plan that had once been a symbol of NOC’s communal philosophy.
For Bacon, the responsibility he and other investors have to steer NOC into the next generation — balancing the financial realities of the times without losing the values that made NOC what it is — is all too real. NOC could not be replicated if starting out today, Bacon said.
“NOC started as a very pioneering young venture with great dreams and aspirations,” said Bacon. “I would say through the determination, wisdom and luck of Horace and Payson and many others, most the those visions came true.”
It was the perfect intersection of time and place — but it’s the unique philosophy planted deep in NOC’s company spirit during the formative years that has set the stage for an enduring legacy.
“No other businessman, and I’ll use that in quotations, would even fathom taking care of the employees and staff and the community and putting himself last and profit last as Payson Kennedy did,” Bacon said. “There is nothing like NOC — I have traveled and looked.”
The Nantahala Outdoor Center rose rapidly from a scrappy operation spawned by idealistic river rats in the 1970s to one of the largest and most renowned outfitters in the country. Now in its 40th year, NOC has struggled during the past decade to reconcile its founding philosophy with changing economic realities.
See The Smoky Mountain News next week for a look at factors behind NOC’s most tumultuous decade and its next generation.
A group of new owners has taken the reins of Nantahala Outdoor Center, a generational milestone for the outfitter that has grown from a small fleet of rafts in the early 1970s to a diversified multi-million operation under the leadership of its two founders.
The recent sale has transferred majority control to a new group of owners — six businessmen from the Atlanta area who are merging their love of outdoor recreation with their business and investment acumen. One of those investors is NOC’s own Sutton Bacon, who has been the CEO for five years.
“All the investors including myself have young children and want to expose their own families to the outdoor lifestyle,” Bacon said. “It is a terribly exciting time. We see NOC as being uniquely positioned to reconnect American families to the outdoors.”
Forty years ago, it would have been a long shot to predict the scrappy operation launched by a couple of river rats would spawn a booming whitewater industry in Western North Carolina and catapult the Nantahala into an international paddling destination.
The storied legacy of those founders, Horace Holden and Payson and Aurelia Kennedy, will continue at NOC. They will retain partial but now minority ownership of NOC and keep their seats on the company’s board of directors.
While they plan to stick around and see that their founding philosophy and vision for NOC lives on, they are now entering their 80s and were ready to take a step back.
As NOC celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, the new owners plan on being around for the next 40, Bacon said.
“There is no divestment prospect. We aren’t thinking ‘let’s shape the company up and sell it in seven years for more than we bought it for,’” Bacon said. “This is a long-term hold.”
Bacon deserves credit for brokering the deal. He tapped old friends from the Atlanta business circles he once traveled in as a management consultant. Those friends in turn brought a couple more to the table, ultimately amassing a group of six like-minded investors.
The identity of all the investors isn’t public for now, but Bacon ticked off a quick list of their business backgrounds and expertise. Their collective resumes include investment banking, law, private equity, marketing and real estate experts.
As a true test of their mettle, the investors spent a week at NOC last year going through raft guide training school, getting wet and learning first hand what the frontline of NOC is all about.
By all accounts, the investors weren’t the only ones doing their due diligence during the year-long courtship. Likewise, the Kennedys and Holdens, intent on finding suitors who shared their philosophy, were sizing up the investors.
“The company intentionally wanted to bring on values-aligned investors,” Bacon said. “We wanted people to invest in the company, not just buy the company. I think our founders wanted to preserve their legacy and their heritage.”
The match is probably as good as it gets: businessmen willing and able to personally invest millions of dollars in a river outfitter don’t come along every day, especially ones who are philosophically vested in what NOC is all about.
NOC promotes individualism and the lifestyle of “work hard, play hard,” Bacon said.
For Bacon, his increased ownership share along with his continued role as CEO brings a lifelong passion full-circle. Before he was even big enough to lift his own kayak on top of the car, Bacon made regular weekend pilgrimages from Atlanta to kayak on the Nantahala thanks to an indulgent mother.
“NOC was my absolute favorite place on the entire earth,” Bacon said.
That drove him to cash in the big-city life and fast-paced business climate of Atlanta for life in Western North Carolina and a chance to steer the place he idolized as a child.
“It is an emotional connection I have had since a child,” Bacon said. “It was a very deliberate decision. It is a lifestyle.”
The new investors mark another type of transition for NOC: it will no longer be largely employee-owned.
Money put up by the investors allowed NOC to buy out the remnants of an employee stock plan the company had operated under for three decades.
The ESOP (employee stock ownership plan) had once been a hallmark of NOC.
“The company founders had a vision of employee participation in the company’s success from the very beginning,” Bacon said.
It was economically advantageous, but it had a larger social purpose.
“To foster a sense of esprit de corps, so staff would go the extra mile,” Bacon said.
For years, NOC wore its employee-owned status as a badge of honor.
“‘Employee-owned company’ was on all its letterhead and stationary,” Bacon said. “It was a significant cultural piece of NOC. It was something NOC was known for.”
But, NOC began phasing out the ESOP around 2002 when new legal and reporting requirements were imposed in the wake of Enron and Worldcom scandals.
“Regulations became extremely onerous,” Bacon said, and costly to administer.
While no new employees could buy in, those who already owned company shares through the ESOP remained on the books. At the height of participation, several hundred employees were enrolled in the ESOP and accounted for two-thirds of the company’s ownership. But recently the numbers had dwindled to just 60, most whom didn’t even work at NOC anymore.
“It no longer served its intended social or economic purpose,” Bacon said. “It was literally just costing the company money to keep the plan going. It was significant.”
At the time of the recent buyout, employee-owned stock accounted for about one-third of the company’s total ownership. Of those who still owned NOC stock, some receive a “significant” pay out, Bacon said.
“It has been a fantastic investment,” Bacon said of the ESOP. “It has outpaced in many years the stock market.”
NOC has 200 year-round full-time employees, but that swells to as many as 900 during peak season.
Of its huge seasonal workforce, about half are purely transient, mostly college students looking for summer jobs.
But, NOC also enjoys a core base of regular seasonal workers who return year after year, with just a three- to four-month hiatus in the winter.
“They are reliable and consistent and awesome and what makes NOC NOC,” Bacon said of their returning seasonal workers. “Even without the ESOP, NOC’s unique guest-centric culture will continue.”
Nantahala Outdoor Center plans to build new on-site lodging on their campus in the Nantahala Gorge, thanks to working capital put up by a new team of investors.
Plans are still in the very early stages and will be developed during the coming year as part of a forward-looking strategic development process. The move will help NOC position itself as a full-service tourism destination and diversify its market.
NOC owns 450 acres on the river, but the footprint of its campus is only about 60 acres currently.
“We have a significant development opportunity. We are not landlocked in any way,” CEO Sutton Bacon said, despite otherwise being surrounded by national forest service land in Swain County.
NOC currently has lodging for about 200 people in bunkhouse style accommodations and mid-scale hotel rooms. The additional lodging will help NOC cater to a new demographic of tourist.
NOC also plans to invigorate its outdoor adventure line, not only in its traditional paddling arena but also in mountain biking, fly-fishing, outdoor photography, wilderness skills and other areas. NOC has already made forays into these new offerings over the past decade and plans to further ramp up its offerings as an outfitter of all things outdoors.
In the same vein, NOC will re-launch a line of guided international adventure travel excursions.
NOC has also seen success in two new outdoor retail storefronts, one in Gatlinburg and one in Asheville inside the Grove Park Inn, where guests can shop for outdoor gear and apparel as well as book outdoor adventure trips. NOC plans to capitalize on its well-known brand to augment the retail sector.
The company plans to bring in a consultant to help lead brainstorming sessions as it develops plans to carry NOC into the future.
“These are the things we know are going to be on the list, but there will probably be others,” Bacon said.
The common phrase heard among kayakers daring the Nantahala’s new wave: “It’s getting there.”
The Wave in the Nantahala Gorge received an overall lukewarm response from paddlers during a formal unveiling Friday. Most kayakers said they liked the apparatus, which creates waves and holes for doing tricks and stunts, but definitely think it could improve.
“Every time they tweak it, it keeps getting continually better,” said Jared Smith, a 29-year-old who has been kayaking for three years. “They still got a little bit of work to do before it’s world class, but it’s definitely getting there.”
The Wave needs to be “fluffier and smoother,” he said, adding that the experts need to adjust dams on either side of the wave or adjust how the water flows from upstream.
“When they get it done, it’s going to be a lot more user friendly to intermediate paddlers,” Smith said, adding that once they perfect The Wave he will be on the Nantahala all the time. Though, he said, it is hard to imagine kayaking more than he already does.
Daniel Dutton, 34, said his first experience on the new wave was “OK” compared to what he expected. The debut of the new wave on the Nantahala has been highly anticipated for months.
In the past, the water sport enthusiasts created waves and holes by stacking up rocks underwater by hand. These different features set the stage for freestyle kayaking — a paddling sport characterized by technical tricks and highly stylized moves such as spins, turns, cartwheels and flips.
Dutton is one of the many kayakers who used to help move rocks in the riverbed to create the wave near the Nantahala Outdoors Center before the new mechanical element was installed at a cost of $300,000, mostly paid for with a Golden Leaf Foundation Grant.
“It’s progress,” said Dutton, who has kayaked for nearly 20 years. “It needs to be tuned a little bit more. Right at this time, it’s a really short and fast in the middle.”
Pro paddlers descended on the river last week to test it out and offer their feedback. That feedback is exactly what organizers were looking for.
The Wave will serve as the site of two world championships in the next two years — the 2012 World Cup of Freestyle Kayaking and the 2013 World Freestyle Kayaking Championship. Honing The Wave is a top priority before the events.
“This thing is going to be fantastic, but it’s going to take some time,” said Lee Leibfarth, head of the world’s organizing committee and NOC’s chief operating officer.
They will not tune The Wave again for another couple of weeks as they process the paddlers’ input and wait for lower water levels. The tuning will involve, among other things, changing the configuration of concrete blocks — a sort of cross between giant stairsteps and piano keys bolted to the main foundation of The Wave, Leibfarth said.
Although it’s still a work in progress, The Wave is getting closer and closer to professional quality.
“From all the steps we’ve gone through in the last month, this is the best we’ve had so far,” Dutton said.
The team of experts from McLaughlin Whitewater Design Group, who masterminded the contraption’s creation, and area water sport enthusiasts will keep working on The Wave this week, he said, guaranteeing that they will get it to produce the effects that kayakers want.
“These guys don’t quit. They’ve all been very dedicated to it. So yeah, they won’t stop until we’re real happy,” Dutton said.
Several kayakers complained that they hit The Wave’s concrete ledge when attempting to perform tricks, making it more difficult for freestyle kayakers to use it for its intended purpose.
“It seems like if you plug to do a loop … I tend to hit the bottom level of concrete blocks,” said Rowan Staurt.
At 15, Staurt was by far the youngest kayaker testing The Wave Friday but not the least experienced. Stuart, whose parents kayaked, began liking the sport about five years ago.
“It’s hard not to, growing up around here,” Stuart said.
She was one of the few who said she currently preferred the old man-made wave.
“I don’t love it,” Stuart said. “I think it’s kind of hard to stay in it, and it’s not retentive.”
Stuart said the old wave allowed kayakers to stay in it longer and was easier to learn tricks on. She also suggested that the makers add some wing dams to the eddies, where people wait for their turn to show their chops, so that the kayakers are not hitting each other.
A positive of the new wave, however, is that high water will not affect it. With the old hand-built wave, the force of the water during high flows would shift the rocks, forcing them to start the process of making a wave again. Once The Wave is adjusted, it will stay in place.
Ryan Baudrand, 37, said Friday’s version of The Wave is a “big improvement from what it was on day one.”
The first day kayakers were allowed to test the waters, the river was sticky, meaning it was easy to ride for a longer period of time, but it was also aggressive. By Friday, The Wave was “more friendly” but had a smaller pocket for performing tricks, said Baudrand, who works for Endless River Adventures and has ridden on the Nantahala for 14 years.
Baudrand said he would like to see a bigger eddy, or waiting wing for riders, and more wave.
“I think probably they will have to get a little bit more water into it, to widen it — maybe widen the actual pocket of the hole,” Baudrand said.
Friday’s wave took on more of a smiley face shape and forced kayakers into one spot rather than giving them several places to perform their tricks.
“This is the only way it’s going to get better is people coming out here, practicing, trying, giving their input,” Baudrand said.
Nantahala Outdoor Center’s popular Guest Appreciation Festival begins Friday, Sept. 23, and continues through the weekend, offering free attractions, live music and entertainment.
The festival, NOC’s way of thanking the company’s guests at the end of the primary paddlesports season, is one of the most popular outdoor lifestyle gatherings in the
Southeast, attracting more than 5,000 visitors.
The 2011 show will feature a new headlining act on Saturday: the King BMX stunt show — a high-flying, dynamic performance. Show performers will use ramps to perform aerial tricks as well as impressive ground-based maneuvers.
This year’s event also features live music performances from five different musical acts appealing to varied musical tastes. Traditionalists will enjoy the old-time Appalachian sounds of Blue Eyed Girl and the hard-driving string music of the Freighthoppers. Modern music fans will hear “high country reggae” from Chalwa, R&B and Soul from the Secret B-Sides and bluegrass, jazz and jam fusion from Brushfire Stankgrass.
Free attractions include rock climbing, storytelling, an interactive mountain bike pump track, educational live animal exhibitions, paddling competitions, outdoor skill demonstrations, face painting, and craft workshops.
The annual Used Gear Sale, where the company sells off its rafting, kayaking and canoeing supplies from the season also is scheduled. Adjacent to this, the Used Gear Sale is a used gear marketplace where enthusiasts buy, sell and trade their gear with other enthusiasts.
NOC’s Outfitter’s Store will also be liquidating its 2011 demo fleet of whitewater and flatwater kayaks, as well as rental mountain bikes.
The Nantahala River will soon boast one of the preeminent freestyle paddling features in the country — a patented apparatus that will create waves and holes used by trick kayakers.
The Wave Shaper will arrive just in time for a major world freestyle championship being held on the river in 2013, bringing 500 paddlers from 45 different countries and thousands of spectators to the Gorge. A $195,000 grant from the Golden Leaf Foundation was awarded to the Swain County Tourism Development Authority to fund construction of the wave.
“It will make us one of the premium whitewater kayaking places in the world,” said Brad Walker, chairman of the Swain tourism agency.
The wave is designed for freestyle kayaking — a paddling sport filled with technical tricks and highly-stylized moves, including spins, turns, cartwheels and flips that often involve the boater going completely airborne. The paddler surfs in place while performing the maneuvers on top of the wave.
The Nantahala will be one of only three rivers in the country using the cutting edge technology of the Wave Shaper, the creation of McLaughlin Whitewater Design Group based in Denver.
The Nantahala isn’t without a wave now — it couldn’t have landed the ICF Freestyle World Championships in 2013 without one. It was built by zealous paddlers on the Nanty who manhandled rocks around the riverbed to craft a high-caliber feature. And that in itself is impressive.
“A wave is very finicky. It is really hard to produce a good wave,” said Rick McLaughlin, owner of the McLaughlin Whitewater Design Group.
But it is susceptible to shifting currents and wash outs —far too tenuous to hang a world championship of this caliber on.
“Whenever there is a big rain you lose the feature you have to start all over again,” said Karen Proctor Wilmot, the executive director of the Swain County Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Development Authority. “They knew we could have one big rain during the event and be out there moving rocks and looking a little foolish.”
Such a faux pas could also cause quite a stir.
“Having a feature change during the course of a competition wouldn’t be fair to all the other athletes,” said Lee Leibfarth, an NOC paddling instructor and a lead organizer of the event.
Organizers said success of the event hinged on a proper wave. Otherwise, it would be like playing Wimbledon on a court with a sagging net, or the Super Bowl on patchy turf.
Walker said they couldn’t let that happen.
“It is very important to make it a superior event,” Walker said.
Not just for the paddlers, and not even the 7,000 to 10,000 people descending on the Gorge daily during the weeklong event, but for the tens of thousands who will be watching on TV. Freestyle kayaking is a popular sport in Europe and its followers will be tuned in by the masses.
But when the World Championship has come and gone, the wave will still be here.
“One of the goals is to have a legacy behind all the money we are spending here, not just this one event,” Leibfarth said. “Now we have a feature to attract expert level paddlers.”
Freestyle paddlers will come here to try the wave not just for vacation, but pros will likely move here to train.
Nearly every whitewater river has a natural wave or two by default, but not all waves are created equal.
“There are very few good waves that are dependable,” said McLaughlin.
Engineered waves on rivers out West have wild fluctuations in flow, with great conditions during the spring snowmelt but not come summer.
Thanks to the Nantahala Dam upriver of the Gorge, a reliable flow of water is released by Duke Energy to keep flows on the paddling section of the Nanty consistent.
“The appeal here is we have pretty consistent conditions all the time. Unlike other places where it depends on a particular water level,” Leibfarth said.
Other freestyle waves are just a pain to get to — in the middle of nowhere or with no parking.
Another plus for this wave: freestyle trick paddlers won’t have to continuously move aside to make way for other river users. The wave is downstream of the main takeout for rafters and general paddlers.
Another kicker that will make this wave great: there’s somewhere for paddlers to hang in the water while waiting to run the wave. A few dozen paddlers can be stacked up around a good wave, taking turns round-robin style.
“You want the want eddies to the side of the wave to be calm so you aren’t struggling to stay there as you wait to queue in to the wave,” said McLaughlin.
What the wave will do for the Nantahala Gorge and surrounding area — creating jobs, raising the region’s profile, nurturing a niche industry — seems right up the alley of the Golden Leaf Foundation, which awards grants to rural communities for economic development projects. River recreation in the Nantahala Gorge is already an $85.9 million a year industry, according to a study by Western Carolina University.
It’s one reason the Swain County Tourism Development Authority has thrown its full support behind the 2013 Worlds, and to that end applied for the Golden Leaf grant to build the wave on behalf of the paddling community.
“Obviously we see the Nantahala River as being a huge contributor to the economy both in terms of jobs created and tourism and tax dollars brought in,” said Karen Wilmot, executive director of the Swain County Tourism Authority.
Wilmot said the wave will help draw elite paddlers to the region and bolster river-based tourism, which, in turn, is important to the county’s economy.
The wave will be just downstream of the footbridge at the Nantahala Outdoor Center. Construction will start in the fall and be finished by spring 2012.
The total cost of the project is $300,000, with $105,000 coming from private fundraising. The cost includes design and construction of the wave itself, plus a spectator platform and improved shoreline access.
Accommodating spectators is certainly one of the biggest challenges facing the World Championship. The Great Smoky Mountain Railroad will provide train shuttles from Bryson City to help transport people into the Gorge, where parking is limited to say the least and the single two-lane road in and out gets easily jammed.
But jockeying for a view of the competition from the river shore will be epic. A large viewing platform holding several hundred people will be built jutting out over the river using money from the Golden Leaf grant.
There will be separate platforms for judges and media covering the event. All of them will come in pieces that can be put up and taken down for events.
Paddling pros can spend hours debating and analyzing the subtle nuances of a wave or hole. Just like the Eskimos with over a hundred words to describe what the rest of us would just call “snow,” paddlers have derived their own endless vocabulary to size up and dissect a wave’s performance — how it pushes, pulls, its depth, its loft, its slope and, above all, its “sticky-ness.”
And if there was ever such a group, you’ll find them on the Nantahala. The Nantahala River boasts more Olympic paddlers per capita than anywhere else in the world. It’s a magnet for super geeky paddling types — the ones kayak manufacturers turn to for feedback when testing new designs.
“I don’t think there is a more sophisticated paddling community than the Nantahala Gorge,” said Risa Shimoda with the McLaughlin Whitewater Group.
Rick McLaughlin, the owner of the McLaughlin Whitewater Design Group based in Denver, has been experimenting with river shaping for more than 25 years, refining the mechanics to meet paddlers’ increasingly sophisticated desire.
“In a river with hydraulics, sometimes what you get is the opposite of what you think you might get,” McLaughlin said. “It is a bit of science and a bit of art.”
McLaughlin learned through trial and error with giant scale models. His team builds massive fiberglass tanks up to 100 feet long to study the cross-section of moving water and what it does when contraptions beneath the surface are manipulated this way or that.
“We have a bunch of theories, but our computer models are still limited. The best way to analyze and predict is by building an actual model,” McLaughlin said.
McLaughlin has been chasing one sought-after quality in particular: “sticky-ness.” The stickier the wave, the easier it is to ride, allowing paddlers to perform trick after trick before being ejected. And even stickier than a wave is a “hole,” where the river swoops in like a big scoop has been taken out, setting the stage for a different arsenal of tricks.
McLaughlin has perfected the design with his latest apparatus — the Wave Shaper — which makes both holes and waves that can be adjusted at will to change the characteristics of the river.
Each river is different — its width, depth and flow — requiring slightly different design, but the premise of the Wave Shaper is the same.
“It looks like a louvered door laid on its side that goes up and down and out and in,” said Shimoda.
“There are infinite configurations that allows the operator to change the shape of the water,” Shimoda said.
The Nantahala will be the third river in the county to have a Wave Shaper. A scale model for the Nantahala feature is under construction already with installation scheduled for this fall and winter.
It will create endless opportunities for freestyle paddling.
“We can have this great surfing wave for beginners and then crank it up for the pros in a competition,” said Lee Leibfarth, a paddling expert with Nantahala Outdoor Center and organizer of the 2013 World Kayaking Championship.
A perfect wave for rafters is different from a perfect wave for kayakers. And the optimum wave for someone playing around on a surf board is different from the preferred wave of a person laying on a bogie board.
The Wave Shaper can be adjusted to cater to every type of paddling audience, something the Nantahala community particularly wanted.
“They would like to be able to fulfill as many needs of as many types of users in as many different types of situations as possible,” Shimoda said.
Who exactly decides how the Wave Shaper should be set each day?
Technically, the Wave Shaper will belong to the Swain County Tourism Development Authority, the entity that got the grant to build it. But the local tourism agency will lease it to the Nantahala Racing Club, which will in turn create a committee to map out a schedule for how the Wave Shaper will function each day.
The Nantahala Racing Club is not a commercial interest, and thus removes any concern among outfitters that one rafting company would use the Wave to its benefit over the other outfitters, Lariat said.
The Wave Shaper isn’t hard to operate, but someone will have to be taught how. At both the other sites sporting Wave Shapers, that person has been dubbed the “Wave Master.”
The Wave Shaper on the Green River in Idaho is remotely controlled through a web site. On the Nantahala, the parts will be adjusted manually, most likely first thing in the morning before the daily water release from the Nantahala Dam when water levels are significantly lower.
The Wave Shaper is made of indestructible metal and what Shimoda calls “super duper vulcanized rubber” to withstand the constant beating and water pressure of a moving river. It comes in a precast concrete box that’s lowered into the river.
The apparatus mostly sits below the river’s surface, and is barely detectable.
“Even though it is manmade, it is not going to feel like a concrete jungle. It is very much organic and part of the river,” Lariat said.
Organizers said this week that getting the Nantahala Gorge into this century when it comes to telecommunication capabilities is absolutely critical to successfully hosting the kayaking world championship in 2013.
The problem? There’s seems no easy answer to what’s for computer users a Bermuda Triangle of silence: seven or so miles of no broadband capability. Cell phones are equally useless in the steep-walled gorge where reception is unavailable.
Ten thousand visitors a day are predicted to descend into the gorge from Sept. 2-8, 2013, including reporters from around the world, to see the ICF Freestyle World Championships. And before that, the kayaking Junior World Cup will take place in September 2012 — with 5,000 to 6,000 people a day expected. Without broadband, reporters will be unable to cover the competition, which has a major following in Europe.
“We’re waiting on a miracle,” said Juliet Kastorff, owner of Endless Rivers Adventures, a whitewater rafting company in the Nantahala Gorge, of the possibilities of broadband capabilities throughout the area.
Short of that miracle, there also have been discussions with U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, to see if he can help apply, well, pressure on the powers-that-be to bring in broadband.
“Getting broadband access throughout the gorge is a huge priority,” said Sutton Bacon president and CEO of the Nantahala Outdoor Center, the region’s largest whitewater and outdoor outfitter.
Another priority is work on a water feature in the Nantahala. These championships are freestyle, which Bacon explained is similar to kayakers doing tricks and stunts akin to a snowboarders’ showoff on a halfpipe. There is a play feature currently on the Nantahala River, “The Wave,” that is situated near NOC. That has been simply the work of river guides and others hand-stacking rocks, which tend to be washed out in storms, Bacon said.
Firms have been hired to stabilize “The Wave” and “make it a world-championship feature,” he said, adding that the new trick area would not look much different from what’s available now, and would continue to be at the level of “Nantahala-style paddlers.”
McLaughlin Whitewater Design Group of Denver, with the help of local company Heron Associates, will develop the river feature. McLaughlin re-engineered the Ocoee River for the 1996 Olympics, and has extensive experience working with the U.S. Forest Service, Bacon said.
The committee overseeing the world championships has submitted a $200,000 request to Golden Leaf Foundation for money; Nantahala Outdoor Center has contributed $100,000; the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad has chipped in $25,000; the Swain County Tourism Development Authority $70,000; and Duke Energy, $5,000. Smoky Mountain Host will contribute cash, plus in-kind work, according to organizers.
Business, tourism and economic development leaders hoping to capitalize on these events met Thursday (March 24) in Stecoah to continue planning for them and to discuss marketing plans.
Representatives from some of the biggest names in outdoor recreation will soon touch ground in Asheville for the 2010 Outdoor Industry Association’s Rendezvous.
Industry leaders from major brands like Patagonia, The North Face, REI, Merrell, Mountain Hardwear and many more will be flying through the Nantahala River on a whitewater rafting trip and exploring the Smokies by next week.
“The focus of the international outdoor industry will be on our region,” Sutton Bacon, CEO of the Nantahala Outdoor Center, which is hosting the conference.
Bacon and his peers say they hope the Rendezvous will encourage national and international businesses to open up shop in Western North Carolina.
“I think the WNC outdoor industry is certainly rolling out the red carpet,” Bacon said.
The major outdoor conference comes on the heels of Asheville being chosen as the site for a listening session as part of President Barack Obama’s America’s Great Outdoors Initiative earlier this year.
“It’s a validation of the kind of mountain lifestyle that Western North Carolina offers,” said Mark Singleton, executive director of Cullowhee-based American Whitewater.
Christine Fanning, executive director of the Outdoor Foundation, said the Smoky Mountains are iconic for the outdoor industry.
WNC is home to the most visited national park in the country, and two of the most heavily visited national forests in the country, the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Appalachian Trail. The region also serves as headquarters to major outfitters and outdoor retailers in the country.
“If there is a hub of outdoor recreation in the east, Asheville arguably can lay claim to it,” said Frank Hugelmeyer, president and CEO of the Outdoor Industry Association.
A major focus of the OIA Rendezvous will be to gauge the direction the U.S. outdoor industry is headed.
Since outdoor recreation tends to be more affordable than the typical vacation, the recession has actually driven more Americans outside than before.
At Mast General Store in Waynesville, employee Jay Schoon said the economic downturn has indeed brought a boom in business.
We’ve been having one of the best years, if not the best year, that we’ve ever had,” said Schoon, who has worked in the WNC outdoor industry for almost 20 years.
During tough economic times, the relatively low cost of outdoor activities holds clear appeal.
“When you look at hiking, all you need are a pair of shoes and a backpack,” Hugelmeyer said.
Fanning said connecting with nature can also provide physical, emotional and spiritual benefits and a healthy escape from the bad news of the day.
“People really are realizing outdoor recreation is something that can sort of disconnect you from the realities of today,” Fanning said.
Statistics also show that Americans are also opting for shorter outings. Rather than setting out for a week-long backpacking trip, they will take a day hike, mountain bike or go river rafting over the same period.
“The American is becoming a consummate sampler,” Hugelmeyer said.
Still, millions of Americans have yet to step into the great outdoors.
One point to drive across to these consumers, according to Fanning, is that reconnecting with nature doesn’t have to be an expensive or complicated affair.
“You don’t necessarily need to save up and have a once a year or once a lifetime trip to Yosemite,” Fanning said. “You can be right in your backyard.”
With the American population mostly gravitating toward cities and suburbs, Hugelmeyer said OIA hopes there will be great investment in urban parks, not just national parks.
According to OIA, 90 percent of people who participate in outdoor activities now started between the ages of 5 and 18. Children who grew up camping, hiking and biking are more likely to continue as adults. Those who stayed inside as kids likely won’t take up backpacking as adults.
But OIA has found that there is a significant decline in the number of young people participating in outdoor activities. With more technological options for entertainment, youngsters are opting to stay inside. Kids cite lack of time, lack of interest and too much schoolwork as reasons for not getting outdoors more often.
Parents may have to shoulder much of the blame for that.
“Too many find it convenient to park a child in front of a TV set or computer screen,” Hugelmeyer said.
Melanee Lester, manager of Mast General Store in Waynesville, says that kids are often interested in the outdoors but don’t have the support of the parents.
Fanning and Hugelmeyer point out that more outdoor recreation for kids could provide tangible benefits, including better grades, closer family relationships and major health benefits. Those who appreciate the outdoors will also care about conservation and being good environmental stewards.
More outdoor activity could also curb the obesity crisis in the country.
“It’s a very small investment to head off what will be a very large medical bill later on,” Hugelmeyer said.
According to Fanning, the solution will come once parents are given the skills, information and confidence to schedule outdoor activities, and young people are empowered and inspired.
“At the end of the day, this is about parents and families taking personal responsibility to take their kids out,” Hugelmeyer said.
“For all of us who have a passion for the outdoors, we also have a responsibility to pass that passion to the next generation,” Fanning said.
• 48.6 percent of Americans ages 6 and older participated in outdoor recreation.
• Americans made an estimated 11.16 billion outdoor excursions in 2008.
Spike in outdoor activities
• Hiking up by 9 percent
• Camping up by 7 percent.
• Backpacking up by 19 percent.
• Mountain biking up by 10.2 percent.
• Trail running up by 15.2 percent.
Youth less interested
• 6 percent drop in people ages 6-17 participating in outdoor recreation. This number has dropped by 16.7 percent in the previous 3 years.
Most popular activities by participation rate
1. Freshwater, saltwater and fly-fishing: 17 percent of Americans.
2. Car, backyard and RV camping: 15 percent of Americans.
3. Running, jogging and trail running: 15 percent of Americans.
4. Road biking, mountain biking and BMX: 15 percent of Americans.
5. Hiking – 12 percent of Americans.
*Statistics from the Outdoor Industry Association study conducted in 2009.