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.
Rafting outfitters in the Nantahala Gorge have arrived at a compromise with summer camps and colleges vying for the chance to take kids down the Nantahala River without going through an existing commercial outfitter.
The U.S. Forest Service issues only a limited number of permits for commercial traffic on the river. Camps and colleges that don’t have a permit but want to take their kids paddling have to sign up for a trip with one of the outfitters.
A coalition of summer camps and colleges want to use their own staff, however, which often includes experienced paddlers, and avoid paying a commercial outfitter for the service of a down-river escort. They asked the forest service to up the number of permits issued on the river, setting off a months-long debate over how to balance demand on the Nantahala.
During the thick of summer tourist season, outfitter traffic on the Nantahala is akin to finely tuned, well-oiled clock gears.
An average of 200,000 people a year ran the Nantahala over the last five years — most of that crammed into a mere three months. Between 85 and 90 percent of river traffic is with a commercial outfitter, according to the forest service.
Moving thousands of rafters on and off the river in a day is no small feat given the narrow road, dearth of parking and cramped put-ins and take-outs.
While Nantahala Outdoor Center has its own take-out on its property, the rest of the raft outfitters share two take-outs.
Guides must get their loads of giddy and adrenaline-pumped rafters to the shore, out of their boat, out of their life jackets, then onto a bus — plus the rafts strapped on top — within 10 minutes to make room for the next bus waiting in the wings.
“We all work together to make sure that we are not clogging these places up. We understand the importance to make sure things move smoothly. It is a concerted effort,” said Kevin Gibbs, CEO of Wildwater and president of the Nantahala Gorge Association, an affiliation of rafters.
The same goes for put-ins, which are equally short on space.
The forest service initially considered granting up to 36 new commercial permits — compared to the 16 they have now. Doing so would have also opened the door for new commercial outfitters — not just camps and colleges — to start doing business on the Nantahala.
Rafting outfitters feared an influx of camps, colleges and new commercial guides running their own trips down the river would create an untenable free-for-all.
Guides unaccustomed to the hustle of the river would clog up the works. And guides unfamiliar with the river’s more treacherous spots could also pose safety risks, the existing outfitters argued, pointing to Big Wesser Falls just downstream of the commercial take-out.
“If you miss the take-out, you are going to want to paddle really, really hard to get to shore because there is a very large rapid just below it that no one paddles commercially,” Gibbs said. “It is very difficult, and it can be very dangerous. That is one of our initial concerns.”
After studying the issue for much of the last year, the forest service decided against new commercial permits for raft trips, it announced last week.
But the forest service did make a concession that pleases camps and colleges. The forest service will issue a dozen new permits for guided kayak and canoe trips on the river. The permits will only be good Monday through Thursday, however, avoiding the busy weekends. Group size and the number of trips a year are also limited for those seeking the new permits.
Mike Wilkins, chief forest ranger for the Nantahala District, said the facilities and infrastructure in the Gorge simply can’t accommodate more traffic.
“It is really hard to move lots of people in and out quickly,” Wilkins said.
Both the outfitters and camps say the decision strikes a balance between giving camps more flexibility to take their own kids down the river yet guarding against the type of mayhem outfitters feared.
“I think that Mike listened to everybody’s concerns, not just the folks interested in coming here but the folks who are already here,” Gibbs said.
Wilkins said he wasn’t exactly aiming for a compromise, although that’s what it’s being called.
“I don’t know about a compromise but I was trying to weigh all the factors,” Wilkins said. “I guess in my mind, I wasn’t as concerned about the purely recreational use as the ability to give young people instruction.”
Wilkins didn’t want to deny a summer camp from teaching its kids how to paddle on the river.
After all Sutton Bacon, the CEO of NOC, first learned how to kayak at summer camp.
“We can all personally attest to the value of being introduced to whitewater paddling on the Nantahala at a young age,” Bacon said. “To that end, NOC strongly supports the use of the Nantahala River by a wide variety of groups and camps that expose young people to whitewater paddle sports.”
Gordon Strayhorn, president of the N.C. Youth Camp Association, said the new permits should satisfy camps for the most part. Camps are primarily interested in taking their kids kayaking and canoeing anyway — not rafting, Strayhorn said.
Strayhorn, who is the head of Camp Illahee, said paddling has been part of their summer camp program for decades. “Organized youth summer camps have been using the Nantahala River for more than 60 years and represented the first recreational use of the river, long before permits and outfitters existed,” Strayhorn said.
They have forest service permits on every other river in the region — French Broad, Ocoee, Chattooga, Nolichucky and the Pigeon. The Nantahala was the only they couldn’t run with their own guides but instead had to go through a commercial outfitter, he said.
Strayhorn said the forest service was right to open up new permits on the Nantahala.
One logistical concern still troubles the outfitters, however. Unlike the outfitters, camps and colleges don’t have a home base in the Gorge. Where will their van drivers park for three hours while their students run the river? Where will they change into dry clothes afterward? Where will they use the bathroom?
“Several business owners are concerned these people would come and stop at their outposts,” Gibbs said.
As the largest outfitter in the Gorge and with prime real estate on both sides of the river near the take-out, Nantahala Outdoor Center would likely be a prime target. NOC CEO Sutton Bacon doesn’t want their campus to become a staging area for other groups. Not when parking in the Gorge is at such a premium.
“Of course, we want to be as welcoming as possible, but it is also unfair to expect NOC to bear the entire burden of providing public access for all of these groups, especially if it means there is not enough parking for our own guests,” Bacon said.
That remains one of the biggest outstanding issues: what facilities will these groups use if they don’t go through an outfitters? Bacon said NOC is already getting queries from camps wondering whether they could use NOC as a staging area. But striking deals with up to a dozen individual camps or colleges would be challenging.
Bacon thinks a better solution would be giving an umbrella permit to the Youth Camp Association. NOC could then negotiate usage of its facilities with just one entity. And with one umbrella permit for all the camps, they could better divvy up use on the river to avoid all coming on the same day.
Outfitters downplayed their financial motive in opposing new commercial permits on the river. But they admitted that there is not an unlimited amount of rafting business on the river.
Wilkins said economic concerns among existing outfitters partly weighed into his decision not to allow new commercial raft companies but instead limit new permits to guided canoe and kayak trips. He realizes the existing outfitters have a lot at stake.
Outfitters made approximately $2.8 million on guided trips on the Nanty in fiscal year 2010, based on forest service data. The number only includes revenue on river trips — not T-shirts, food sales and other purchases rafters likely make.
Outfitters pay 3 percent of revenue made on guided trips to the forest service for a commercial permit.
Outfitters will obviously lose some revenue once camps can take their own kids down river. But Strayhorn said the economic benefits outweigh it.
“I don’t think camps being permitted on the river will negatively impact the economy of the region at all. I think it will improve it,” Strayhorn said.
Summer camps in Jackson, Buncombe, Transylvania and Henderson counties alone have a combined economic impact of $365 million, according to an economic impact study by N.C. State University, he said.
The decision will essentially put an end to teaching trips the Carolina Canoe Club historically led on the Nantahala, according to Spencer Muse, president of the Carolina Canoe Club.
The Carolina Canoe Club holds paddling workshops and rescue training on the Nantahala River for its 1,000 members. Since participants pay to go on the trips, it counts as a commercial operation and thus needs a permit.
Supportive of the club’s mission, Nantahala Outdoor Center used to let the club do its trips under the auspice of NOC’s permit. But the forest service put an end to that three years ago.
Lacking a commercial permit of its own, Carolina Canoe Club stopped charging its members for the courses so it didn’t count as a commercial trip. But the club can’t indefinitely bear the cost of hosting the trips without being able to charge those who come, Muse said.
Muse said the handful of new permits the forest service has agreed to issue are useless for his group since they aren’t valid on weekends. The club has always done its trips on weekends — since the people going on them as well as the instructors have jobs.
Muse said the club only goes on two trips a year, and would be willing to do them outside the peak summer season, such as early May or mid-September, when crowding isn’t an issue.
“We are only talking about two weekends a year we use the Nantahala,” Muse said.
If they can’t find a solution, the club will likely move its paddling instruction weekends to the Gauley River.
“It is a little odd to have West Virginia be the location for Carolina Canoe Club’s main teaching activities,” Muse said.
Commercial outfitters must have a permit from the forest service to run raft trips on the Nantahala River. The same goes for a guide leading a group of kayakers — or even escorting a single kayaker for a paddling lesson — if money is exchanging hands.
But if your buddy owns a raft and offers to take you and a few friends on a trip down the Nanty and he doesn’t charge you for it, no commercial permit is required.
The number of outfitters on the river has dropped over the years, along with the number of permits. As outfitters have gone out of business, the forest service closed out their permit rather than opening it up to new takers.
Ten years ago, there were 21 commercial permits. Today, there are only 16.
Most permits are held by commercial raft companies, but a few do belong to institutions. Western Carolina University has a permit, for example, and is able to teach paddling to its students on the river without going through an outfitter.
12: outfitters based in the Gorge
16: permits to entities operating commercial trips on the river
200,000: people going down the river each year
90: percent of river traffic that goes through an outfitter
Nantahala Outdoor Center raft guides can finally relax after working the busiest season the outfitter has seen in the last 10 years.
“There are a lot of sore shoulders,” said Charles Connor, director of marketing at NOC. “We’re all kind of walking around in a daze right now.”
July was by far the busiest month, with business soaring 20 percent higher than last year’s numbers. On some days, NOC was sending out a guided trip every 15 minutes — not to mention the other 11 rafting outfitters that operate in the Gorge.
The company tapped anyone trained to guide, from the CEO to the dishwasher, and head guides taxied them down to the river to meet demand.
“One of our biggest desires is not to turn anybody away,” said Charlie Allen, head guide or “czar” as they are nicknamed on trips.
This summer, NOC has seen total guided trips companywide shoot up by 13 percent from last year, and 15 percent on the Nantahala. The most growth was seen on the Pigeon River in Tennessee where trips increased by 50 percent.
“We’re definitely growing on a strong trajectory over there,” said Conner.
Interest in the Nantahala has been piqued with the Nantahala River Gorge being named earlier this year the site of the 2013 World Freestyle Kayaking Championships.
Raft guide Joe Dean, 63, said there were 1,829 people rafting on the Nantahala on a single Saturday, creating choke points.
“Being on the river, there can almost be gridlock,” said Dean.
The only blemish on this summer’s record has been the Cheoah River near Robbinsville. The release schedule of water from the dam hasn’t been conducive to recreational rafting, according to Conner.
“Some of the interest that we had in 2007 when it was first available is kind of waning a little bit,” said Conner.
Theories abound on why this summer was particularly successful, especially when NOC didn’t undertake a major marketing campaign.
The record hot weather helped pull folks from Atlanta, Asheville, Knoxville, Chattanooga and the Research Triangle to Western North Carolina’s cool mountain rivers.
“Some of the old-timers say it needs to be 95 in Atlanta,” said Allen. “That’s when the cars crank up and they head for the mountains. If it’s 85, they may go down to one of the South Carolina beaches.”
NOC was thankful that the weather was hot, but not hot enough to create drought conditions.
“The weather is so particular that you need to really have a perfect season like this,” said Conner. “You need heat, and you need just the right amount of rain.”
“This year, everything worked in our favor,” said Allen, who likens the weather conditions needed for rafting to those needed for farming.
The improving economy may be another factor.
NOC’s rafting director Cathy Kennedy, who has worked at the company for 40 years, said the rafting industry has traditionally done well in a down economy. Many who can’t afford a weeklong trip to Disney World will opt for a day trip on the river.
“It’s a pretty economical vacation,” said Kennedy.
“People have probably decided, ‘Well, the economy’s bad, but we still have to live,’” said Dean. “It’s dawned on them that it’s not going to change right away, might as well have some fun.”
The Gulf oil crisis might have also sent vacationers away from the those beaches and to the Smokies.
“Raft guides were coming off the river saying, ‘Everyone in my boat said they didn’t want to go to the beach,’” said Allen.
According to Kennedy, some late booking church groups canceled their trip to the Gulf Coast beaches and came instead to the mountains.
Not anticipating the stars to align this season, NOC had stuck with hiring the standard 150 to 200 raft guides across its seven river operations. Next year will probably not be any different.
“We’ll probably wait and see,” said Conner.
The challenging summer has been good for the local economy and for guides’ paychecks, but NOC employees say they are ready to wind down.
“I think we’re all grateful it happened, and we’re all grateful that it’s coming to an end,” Dean said.
Big names in paddling will dish up their best stunts and tricks in the NOC Freestyle Shootout kayak rodeo on the Nantahala River this weekend, April 17 and 18.
Freestyle kayaking, like skateboarding or snowboarding on a half-pipe, involves technical tricks and highly-stylized moves — including spins, turns, cartwheels and flips that often involve the boater going completely airborne.
The NOC Shootout is one of only six events in the country where paddlers can get points toward the USA Freestyle Kayaking national championship series. Paddlers are hoping freestyle will be recognized as an official Olympic sport for the 2012 games.
The NOC competition begins late Saturday morning and runs throughout the afternoon. The top five paddlers in each class advance to finals on Sunday. Awards ceremony is Sunday evening with $10,000 in cash and prizes.
Throughout both days, visitors can enjoy a festival-like atmosphere with DJ Terrence Young. Saturday evening, The River Bottom Nightmare Band featuring members of Asheville’s Firecracker Jazz Band will perform at The Pourover Pub at NOC.
The wave feature on the river will be lit up for an “open surf” on Friday evening, April 16, after which Eric Jackson, founder of Jackson Kayak, will give a talk on the rules, moves and scoring of freestyle kayaking at The Pourover.
noc.com or 800.232.7238.
Nantahala Outdoor Center’s Demo Days is Saturday, April 17, where more than 60 kayaks and canoes will be available for free test-paddles on the river.
A 248-acre tract known as Rainbow Springs at the headwaters of the Nantahala River in Macon County has been protected through a conservation agreement between the long-time landowners and the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee.
The property owners, Myra Waldroop and her family, were honored with the Land Conservationist of the Year Award by the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee this month.
The tract is adjacent to Nantahala National Forest lands in the Standing Indian area and contains nearly 4,000 feet of the Nantahala River. It lies on either side of the Waterfall Scenic Byway, which runs from Rosman in Transylvania County to Murphy.
The property has been in the family since the 1850s, at first as a hunting and fishing retreat then a site for family vacations.
“Many family traditions live on,” said Myra. “With this long history, my family and I decided we wanted this property protected from development. The LTLT was our solution. We appreciate working with the folks at LTLT.”
During the 1920s and ‘30s, the Ritter Lumber Company operated in one of the meadows. A thriving lumber town included a post office, commissary, hotel and school. A railroad hauled lumber down the river to be shipped away. In 1948, Myra’s father, Carl Slagle, retired to Rainbow Springs, and later, Myra inherited a portion of the property where both of her daughters now live. The property is currently used for farming and sustainable timber harvest.
“The Waldroop Family conserved their land because of their love of the land and the heritage that the land represents,” said Sharon Taylor with LTLT.