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.
Why this year?
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.