Jockeying for space on the Nantahala: Outfitters and summer camps spar over control of river trafficWritten by Becky Johnson
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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.”
Yes to kayaks, no to rafts
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.
Out in the cold
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.
How permits on the Nantahala work
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.
By the numbers
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