Batten down the hatches, the 2013 ICF Canoe Freestyle World Championships are coming.
“This event shows how this tiny town can come together and work together,” said Joe Rowland. “Everybody involved has invested a lot of time and energy into making a natural connection between Bryson City and the Nantahala Gorge.”
Whitewater fanatics wait in line for their chance to do tricks, flips, spins and somersaults with their play boats on the Tuckasegee River near last Saturday for annual Kayak Demo Day. The day was unseasonably sunny and warm. It featured a full lineup of freestyle practice sessions, kayak instruction and top-of-the-line equipment for anyone to use.
The range of skill sets was also apparent, from first-time freestyle kayakers struggling to stay upright to seasoned experts honing their skills. But the common denominator is connecting with the river, and reveling over the latest boats, said Jenna White, a graduate student at nearby Western Carolina University and one of the event’s organizers.
The recurring deluge of heavy rains has brought paddlers out of hibernation and onto Western North Carolina rivers over the past few weeks.
The steep-walled gorge of Nantahala River may be one of the best spots to host a world class, extreme kayak competition — at least that’s what the organizers of the upcoming 2012 International Canoe Federation Freestyle World Cup final are hoping.
The competition, slated for Sep. 7-9 in front of the Nantahala Outdoor Center, will feature over more than freestyle kayaking, squirt-boating and canoeing athletes from more than a dozen countries, including Australia, Costa Rica, Slovakia, Japan and Russia. But the secret to making the river a churning pool of boat acrobatics and assorted water moves is hidden beneath the surface.
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.
As Tommy Yon carried his kayak up the side of a waterfall in Tennessee, he tried not to over-think the 100-foot drop that awaited him.
“I didn’t want to hesitate and psych myself out,” said Yon, who lives along the Nantahala River in Swain County.
Bald River Falls is not a commonplace run for kayakers. But, something in Yon told him that he could make it, that he needed to try it.
“I guess I was just feeling it that day,” Yon said.
To the non-paddling spectator, Yon’s daredevil stunts might seem like a leap of faith, more of a free fall with a kayak around his waist. But in an instant, he sized up which ledges to aim for, which rocks to avoid. He calculated the likely thrust of the boat and where it would hit as it pummeled down the falls into the roaring, churning froth below.
With three people running safety at the bottom of the falls in case something went awry, Yon climbed into his boat. Butterflies collected in his stomach, and he prayed to God that his intuition and calculations were correct. And, they were. Yon floated down the 100-foot waterfall as if it was a mere 20-footer. Everything was in slow motion, Yon said.
The day had started as a laid-back and relaxing kayaking trip with friends. But, when Yon drove along Tellico River Road, he stopped the car without warning halfway across a bridge overlooking Bald River Falls. Yon saw the line and knew what to do — how he could safely navigate the precipitous drop of a 100-foot waterfall. And, his intuition and knowledge served him well that day.
With about 20 years of experience under his belt, Yon, a professional freestyle kayaker, has cultivated a mixture of instinct, physics and practice that allows him to dare such feats.
The 27-year-old Nantahala native grew up along the river, helping his mom and dad at their boiled peanut stand that sat about mile away from the Nantahala Outdoor Center. Everyday, or nearly everyday, Yon would sneak away from the stand along U.S. 19 and watch groups of people take to the water.
Although kayaking does not define who Yon is, his love of all things water-related is undeniably a major part of his life. Yon has been on the water since he was 7 years old.
“That is all I wanted to do is be in the water,” said Yon, who works as a rafting guiding and soon as a kayaking instructor at Nantahala Outdoor Center.
“It makes me so excited to see someone almost touching base with something,” Yon said, adding that he loves giving people a few words of advice or little nudge that helps them conquer a move.
Yon is a first-rate paddler of all manners, from steep-ass creek paddling to swift down-river slalom. But his forte — one that happens to be in the limelight right now — is freestyle paddling. In freestyle paddling, kayakers perform tricks for a certain period of time and are scored based on difficulty and variety.
“Freestyle, to me, is like a different form of walking or dancing or skating or doing anything, but you’re on water,” Yon said. “I feel more balanced an controlled on water than I do on my own two feet. I’m a klutz when it comes to land.”
Yon is an ideal example of an outlier, as defined by author Malcolm Gladwell. He has put in his 10,000-plus hours and like any successful person, takes his passion for something to a whole new level.
About age 7 or 8, Yon’s dad bought him a ducky, an inflatable kayak of sorts, and then, he slowly accrued enough gear to get his first kayak.
Yon said he practiced everyday unless he had gotten himself good and worn out.
“I maybe missed one day a week, two days a week. Maybe,” Yon said.
Yon soon began learning rolls, where you intentionally capsize the kayak and then return to the upright position, and then doing enders, where the front of the kayak is plunged into the water and the boat stands up vertically.
“From then forward, I went full forward into kayaking and never looked back,” Yon said.
Although practice makes perfect, Yon said he spends more time on land thinking about the physics of a trick — a McNasty or Donkey Flip or Phoenix Monkey — before he takes to the water to try it.
“I spend more time out of the boat than in the boat thinking about it,” Yon said.
For him, it’s about being able to visualize himself mastering a move, using his mind’s eye to watch how the position of his paddle affects his trajectory. Yon talks about kayaking the way a chess master might discuss his strategies. He puts a large amount of forethought into the combination of tricks he performs at competitions.
“I need to be thinking about when I do a move here where I am gonna land and what move is possible over there,” Yon said.
Although his plans may change once he gets on the water, Yon is never unprepared.
“I have done everything in kayaking as I possibly could because I have wanted it. I have wanted it for myself,” Yon said. “This is the lifestyle that I chose, and I love it.”
Of all the tricks he has performed and the places he has traveled, Yon said the crowning moment of his kayaking career was attaining pro-status several years ago.
“Being able to do all the trick of all the people that I followed who were my heroes,” Yon said. “I am paddling better than I have ever dreamed of paddling. I am happy.”
Yon is a member of Team Pyranha and competes in freestyle kayaking competitions around the U.S. And, unlike other sports, like hockey or football, the competition remains friendly.
“We are out there to encourage people,” Yon said.
If someone lands a complicated trick or combination, everyone is cheering him or her on, Yon said. In freestyle competitions, each kayaker racks up points based on a few set tricks that the judges expect to see, how they combine tricks into a continuous move and on other maneuvers that they toss into the mix.
About 60 kayakers are expected to compete in this year’s Nantahala Outdoor Center Freestyle Shootout from April 20-22 in the Nantahala Gorge near Bryson City.
The Shootout will be a trial run, although on a much smaller scale, of world freestyle paddling championships being held on the Nantahala in September of 2012 and again in 2013.
“The Freestyle Shootout is always a highly competitive event, and we look forward to athletes turning up the heat this year as they ramp up their training for the Worlds,” said Zuzana Vanha, event coordinator with the Nantahala Outdoors Center.
The NOC Freestyle Shootout will be the first official freestyle event to be held at the newly enhanced Nantahala Wave, designed for the upcoming World Cup in 2012 and World Championship in 2013.
The Wave is manmade contraption below the surface that changes the contour of the river bottom and kicks up waves and holes for kayakers to do tricks on.
Paddlers have been toying with the contraption to get the best wave results. A final model isn’t yet settled on.
“This event will give athletes an opportunity to give feedback about the (Wave) and express their opinions about what they would like to see as the Nantahala Gorge Organizing Committee prepares for the final round of fine-tuning,” Vanha said.
The NOC is expecting several hundred spectators during the course of the weekend, Vanha said.
Athletes get two 45-second runs to do their tricks, but the number of rounds will depend on athlete participation. The top winners from Saturday’s round will go on to the finals Sunday.
Freestyle paddling competition begins at 11 a.m. both Saturday and Sunday. Other event highlights include:
• Paddler Feedback Session at 6 p.m., April 20, at Slow Joe’s Café. An opportunity for athletes to make their opinion heard as the Nantahala Gorge Organizing Committee prepares for the final round of fine-tuning on the Nantahala 2013 Wave.
• Chris Gratmans, of TerraVida Threads, will discuss the psychology of paddling at 7 p.m., April 20, at Slow Joe’s Café.
• The Science of Hydraulic Engineering beside The Wave at 2 p.m. April 21.
• Stand up Paddleboard Head-to-Head Race at 6 p.m., April 21, at the near Slow Joe’s Café. Competitors will negotiate a slalom course on their way down stream.
• Dagger Dash Attainment Race at 2:30 p.m., April 22.
Slow Joe’s Café will offer live music each night starting at 8 p.m.
The weekend will also feature Demo Days, the NOC’s annual spring vendor fair and gear demo event. Guests can choose from more than 60 boats and test-paddle them for free on the Nantahala throughout the weekend. Manufacturer representatives will be on hand to answer questions about the gear, and the Outfitter’s Store will be offering deals on kayaks and accessories.
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.
When Phil Watford traded in his paddle for a tool belt, giving up his far-cooler job as a kayak instructor for more lucrative construction work, he thought his days of reporting to duty on the water were over.
But this month, Watford found himself back at his old stomping grounds as part of the carpentry crew building a wave-making apparatus on the Nantahala River.
“I was real excited to find out I would be working on this. Pretty stoked actually,” Watford said.
He admits it is pretty new territory.
“First wave shaper,” Watford said.
It’ll probably be his last as well. They’re rare beasts — the Nantahala will soon be home to one of only four custom-built wave shapers on a natural river in the U.S.
“It’s pretty tricky,” Watford said, musing over the blueprints during one of the early days on the job. “These things aren’t real standard.”
As a paddler himself, Watford can’t wait to test out the fruits of his labor when the job is done.
“It should kick up a pretty nice wave,” said Watford, a kayaker and former paddling instructor at Nantahala Outdoor Center.
While paddlers are eager to put the new wave through the paces of their freestyle moves, the $300,000 project has a lot more riding on it than the thrills and amusement of Nantahala play boaters. The wave — to be known officially as The Wave — will provide the stage for the 2013 World Freestyle Kayaking Championship and the 2012 Freestyle World Cup.
“In another two years, there will be 10,000 people in this spot watching the best paddlers in the world compete,” said Lee Leibfarth, chairman of the Worlds organizing committee for the Nantahala venue. Leibfarth is also chief operating officer for the Nantahala Outdoor Center.
The wave should be finished in another two weeks. A makeshift dam keeping water out of the work zone will be torn down and water will be turned loose over the wave on Dec. 1.
Paddlers across Western North Carolina already have the date circled on their calendars, plotting how to get off work to see the wave debut and get an answer to the big question: how good will it be?
“We are all going to be wide-eyed,” Leibfarth said.
Leibfarth has humbly volunteered to take the first spin, but it’s not guaranteed to go well. The hydraulics and energy of the wave will be totally untested and the first trip down the wave will be unchartered territory.
The melded concrete mass of the wave shaper will sit two to three feet below the surface, but if the submerged contraption works like it is supposed to, it should create a near perfect wave on top of the water — a sort of perpetual motion machine for kayakers to surf and do tricks on.
There will be plenty of paddlers queued up behind Leibfarth that first day, including some of the top names in freestyle kayaking from across the country.
“There are definitely things we will be looking for,” Leibfarth said. “Based on their feedback, we are going to fine tune it to get it the best it can be.”
The first day will be an experiment in toying with a couple dozen adjustable blocks that fit into notches of the poured concrete form.
“The blocks can dynamically and radically change how the river feature performs,” Leibfarth said. “They can be mixed and matched to find the optimum tuning.”
It’s novel, perhaps, to those who mostly watch rivers from the shore. But for those who run them, what happens on the surface is all about the topography of the river bottom down below.
Freestyle boat designers and manufacturers will also be on hand for the roll out, honing their own plans for a new boat design or two that pays homage to the new Nantahala wave.
“They are going to be front and center,” Leibfarth said. “The paddling industry is very excited about having this feature here.”
So paddlers could keep tabs on the work, NOC footed the bill for a web cam trained on the wave construction site this month.
“It is such a unique project. The Nantahala is such a big part of people’s lives, we knew people would want to be a part of it,” said Charles Connor, the marketing director of NOC. “I think it is pretty near universal excitement.”
The web cam was such a hit, however, that it couldn’t take all the traffic.
“It was bottoming out because so many people were watching it,” Connor said.
Just a few days into the project, NOC upped the bandwidth for nearly unlimited streaming capacity, so watch away at www.noc.com/live.
The contract to build the wave shaper went to Bill Baxter, a contractor from Swain County and a paddler himself.
“Being a paddler, he understands the nuances of the river, the challenges of the river,” said Leibfarth.
Baxter’s crew includes at least 10 other paddlers.
“There are some incredible kayakers who are part of the construction crew,” said Leibfarth. Talk about employee buy-in.
The first step of the job was building a makeshift dam to dewater the river channel around the work zone. Next was the rather unsightly job of excavating the river bottom.
They dug down about four feet and poured a big concrete slab or the waver shaper to sit on. Crews also dug out a deeper pool below the wave where paddlers end up when they are flushed out of the wave — either voluntarily when their turn is up or if they wash out.
Before, the pool was too shallow and if kayakers flipped, they could hit their head. It’ll be safer now, but it will also give the water flowing over the wave shaper more downhill momentum.
“Now we’ll have a little bit more energy from the water as it drops down,” Leibfarth said.
The wave itself will be deeper than the old one, too, which is good for the aerial acrobatics of the freestylers. To get loft, they burrow their boats below the surface then let their own buoyancy eject them from the water.
For light paddlers, they could get ample lift without burrowing too deep. But heavier boaters have to burrow deeper to get catch the same amount of air, and the wave as it used to be wasn’t deep enough.
“If you really plugged in to do a big trick and threw down on the wave, you could hit your boat on it,” Connor said.
Upstream, rock jetties on both sides of the river will angle toward the wave channel to concentrate the water’s energy right where they want it: up and over the wave shaper.
This week, the wave shaper itself is being poured.
That’s where Watford and the carpentry crew come in. Their job is building a wooden form for the wave shaper — a giant box about the size of an ambulance with irregular stair steps and blocky protrusions. Watford and the carpentry crew built the form on shore first to see how it would go together. This week they are reassembling it in the river bottom.
The contraption will be pumped full of rebar and concrete. Once dry, the wood form will be removed.
The wave shaper was a custom job, designed for the flow and particular nuances of the Nantahala by a specialized river design firm out of Colorado, McLaughlin Whitewater Design Group. They’ve learned that a wave shaper created for one river can’t be plunked down in another one and expect similar results, so they built a scale model of the wave shaper and the Nantahala to test their design before finalizing the blueprints.
The new apparatus might seem bittersweet for paddlers who spent years improvising to make their own wave in the same spot — essentially manhandling large rocks around the riverbed to create the desire effect.
A natural rock ledge underwater that provided a decent, but was leveraged into a far-better feature by zealous paddlers.
But it was susceptible to shifting currents and wash outs —far too tenuous to hang a world championship of this caliber on.
The Nantahala was a perfect venue for the world championship in every other sense: it had the reputation, guaranteed river flows thanks to the Nantahala dam, and not terribly remote — at least as far as most whitewater rivers go.
“What we lacked was a world class freestyle feature that was consistent enough to have a world championship on,” Leibfarth said.
If a rock got knocked loose, it would alter the wave above the surface — and that would be bad news for competitors. The wave has to be the same from one day to the next during the competition to make for a level playing field.
One year, a raft of tourists ran into the wave and knocked some rocks loose during the middle of a competition. Paddlers complained that the wave wasn’t as good afterward and they were at a disadvantage.
Crossing the wave off the to-do list for the championships is a relief, but the venue isn’t exactly ready to go yet.
“What we are working toward is not only having an incredible features for the paddlers, but for the spectators,” Leibfarth said.
That means transforming the shore around The Wave into an arena on the water, from a judge’s platform and media box to stands for the fans.
Risers anchored on shore will extend over the water, putting spectators a stone’ throw from the action on the wave.
While all eyes are on the worlds for now, the championship will come and go, but the wave is for keeps.
“Long after the event, this will be a draw for this area,” Leibfarth said. “This is one of the few purpose built freestyle features in the world. It will attract elite athletes who want to come here from around the world to train.”
Paddlers are lobbying the Olympic committee to add the sport to its line-up as a compliment to slalom paddling. After all, freestyle snowboarding — endeared to the masses thanks to the Flying Tomato — is an Olympic sport, so why not freestyle paddling?
Freestyle junkies will also flock here just to sample the wave — paddlers who might not have had the Nanty on their must-visit list otherwise.
And the wave will continue to be a venue for major freestyle paddling events.
“It will be used all the time,” Connor said.
One of the biggest logistical challenges was getting rid of the water in the river while the wave shaper is built.
A makeshift dam of concrete block and sand bags was built diagonally across the river to channel water away from the site.
Dewatering the channel wouldn’t have been possible without the help of Nantahala Dam upriver, however. The gates on the dam have been shut tight since work began, holding back a lot of the river’s flow.
There’s still some water in the river — thanks to the dozens of creeks feeding into the Nantahala as it slices through the Gorge. But the main stem was cut off by the dam at Nantahala Lake.
Duke Energy, which operates the dam, has been exceedingly helpful, said Lee Leibfarth, chief operating officer of the Nantahala Outdoor Center. Duke sacrificed generating power for a month while the wave was built by holding back all the water. To make room for all that water being held back, Duke lowered the lake level leading up to the work.
Public enemy number one for the next two weeks is a catastrophic rainstorm. It would be highly unusual this time of year — more than highly unusual in fact — but the thought of one is so dire it’s enough to keep Leibfarth up at night.
The river channel has to stay dry long enough for the wave’s concrete base to dry. If water comes in contact with it, it’s ruined — tens of thousands of dollars down the drain that would be near impossible to raise again.
The makeshift dam that dewatered the channel around the wave pad can handle regular rains. What it can’t handle, however, is the torrent of water that would barrel down river if Duke Energy had to open its floodgates on Nantahala Lake.
While the lake was lowered in anticipation of holding water back during the work, its capacity could be taxed if there was a severe storm. It would have to be more than a heavy rain or two — more like something of a tropical storm caliber — before Duke would be forced to let some water go.
— By Becky Johnson
The Wave will provide a competition venue for the 2013 International Canoe Federation’s World Freestyle Kayaking Championships bringing 500 paddlers from 45 countries and 10,000 spectators to the Gorge.
Nearly as exciting, the Nantahala will host the Freestyle Kayaking World Cup Finals in 2012. Both events are held in early September.
Joe and Dawn Johnson of Atlanta might be making another trip to the mountains next weekend after learning about the WNC OutdoorAthlon in Franklin Oct. 8 and 9.
The couple both enjoy mountain biking, and she jogs routinely for exercise — making them perfect candidates to enjoy a smorgasbord of events lined up for the family outdoor recreation event. The Johnsons were on the Blue Ridge Parkway last week riding motorcycles and enjoying the start of the fall’s leaf show.
“It sounds like fun,” Joe Johnson said, before openly speculating with his wife about whether they could angle more time off from work to make the trip back that soon to Western North Carolina.
That’s exactly the kind of response Rob Gasbarro and Cory McCall of Outfitter 76 in Franklin were hoping to generate. The business partners believe Macon County is destined, by virtue of its location and superb outdoor opportunities, to become as big an outdoor draw as such traditional stalwarts as the Nantahala Gorge.
The future’s uncertain. But what is certain is that Gasbarro and McCall, who are touting the event as “the biggest little event in the Southeast,” are hoping, even expecting, thousands to show up for the OutdoorAthlon.
So what is it? Everything, really, to do with the outdoors — think Mountain Sports Festival in Asheville; or, the Guest Appreciation Festival at the Nantahala Outdoor Center.
Here’s what’s lined up: Food, music, an outdoor triathlon, a kid’s duathlon, a 5K, an Ultimate Frisbee Team Tournament and corn hole tournament. Free clinics for fly-fishing, paddle sports, stand-up paddling, rock climbing; do-it-yourself bike maintenance and demos, backpacking and camping demo’s and more. The outdoor triathlon offers a twist on the standard trifecta — with a line-up of paddling, mountain biking and trail running instead of swimming, road biking and road running.
There are 40 vendors scheduled, plus eight food vendors. The event is free.
“It’s going well,” Gasbarro said of the organizational aspects of putting together such a gargantuan undertaking. “We’ve got lots and lots of volunteers.”
The two men also have lined up $7,000 worth of “giveaways” from outdoor specialty companies.
The events are taking place at the Cullasaja Park along Macon County’s greenway, located off Fox Ridge Road near the flea market on Highlands Road in Franklin.
Gasbarro, taking a break from minding the front desk last week at Outfitter 76 to chat about the festival, noted that remote parking is being set up, and two buses courtesy of Macon County Schools will be used to shuttle people to the event.
Visit www.outdoorathlon.com for more information.
The event runs Saturday, Oct. 8, and Sunday, Oct. 9, in Franklin at the Cullasaja Park. There is no entrance fee.
Events start both days at noon. Here are some key events:
• 12:30-2 p.m. Honey Locust 5K
• 12:30 Bicycle maintenance clinis
• 1 p.m. fly fishing clinic
• 1 p.m. beginner mountain bike ride
• 2-3 p.m. Kids’ duathlon
• 2 p.m. intro to kayaking
• 2-5 p.m. Ultimate Frisbee Tournament
• 3:45 p.m. intro to disc golf
• 12 p.m. putting and long drive disc golf competition
• 12 p.m. fly casting clinic
• 2 p.m. backpacking clinic
• 12-3 p.m. Paddle parade on the Little Tennessee
• 2-4:30 p.m. Adventure Triathlon (paddle, mtn bike, trail run)
• 3 p.m. intro to stand-up paddling
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.