Conner, marketing director for the NOC, is finalizing the preparations for the upcoming 2013 ICF Canoe Freestyle World Championships that will be held Sept. 2-8 at the center in the Nantahala Gorge.
“We’re going to have people from all over the world here and watching it live online,” he said. “Everybody from the organizing and event committees to local businesses and Swain County residents have come together and are working very hard to accommodate everyone. It’s a great example of a public/private partnership.”
The entire process has been almost three full years in the making, with still more details to be ironed out before the expected 10,000 spectators a day arrive at the facility. Starting with their bid application in 2011, the NOC has done several modifications to the property, all with the hope of making sure the world-class event isn’t the last to take place in this pristine outdoor location.
“Our goal really is to try and minimize our permanent impact on the landscape,” Conner said. “A lot of what we’ve done for the championships is temporary, with the key features remaining for future use.”
At the heart of those key features is “The Wave,” a $300,000 concrete wave-making apparatus in the river. It creates a perfect wave every time, which allows the paddlers to continually hit it to perform the tricks and techniques used in the championships.
“With The Wave, we’re able to modify the water to make it harder or easier, something that’s challenging for seasoned athletes and also user friendly for families and beginners,” said Zuzana Vanha, events coordinator at the NOC.
Surrounding The Wave, the NOC leveled out their river walkways, which provide the grounds with a firm, even surface to place bleachers and other spectator seating. Besides the bleachers, there will also be premium and VIP areas in and around Big Wesser BBQ + Brew, whose outdoor patio area was recently built for the championships. Amid a bustling “mini village” will be a beer garden, music stage, craft vendors and artisans from around the area that are being set up through the Stecoah Valley Cultural Arts Center in nearby Robbinsville.
An opening ceremony will be held in downtown Bryson City on Sept. 2. The athlete parade will be at 6 p.m., with live music and activities to be held around the town. The NOC is currently in the process of building a ramp into the Tuckasegee River, which will launch the athletes and their kayaks into the water for all to see from the Everett Street bridge.
“As a community, we’re trying to embrace all of this and show our international guests the best of Bryson City and Swain County,” Vanha said. “We’re trying to set this to be our model for river festivals. We want to have these big events every year, where we’re not only bringing in people from Asheville and Chattanooga, but also Atlanta and Florida.”
Tapping the shoulders of Bryson City-based Smoky Mountain Jetboats, the NOC had the company weld together a large portable judge’s platform that can be placed in the river and adjusted to the needs of each event. The NOC will also be using a revolutionary scoreboard. The 16-foot jumbotron will be installed on the river as part of a brand new digital scoring system. In the past, judges scored with a notepad, pencil and calculator, with final results taking hours to compute. Now, with the digital touchscreen system, results are immediately calculated and placed on the board.
“It’s like starting a fire with flint to then having a fireplace with a switch to start the flames,” Vanha laughed. “With the new system, athletes now know instantly what tricks are happening, what the scores are and what they need to do to win.”
“The best part is the announcers will also have this immediate information at their use, which makes the event unfold live,” Conner added.
So, what about parking? With the infamous narrow roads and cramped roadway through the gorge, the NOC has everything figured out in getting spectators to and from the venue. There will be a 24-hour shuttle to and from Bryson City, as well as numerous parking lots spread throughout the gorge, where another fleet of shuttles will run.
“We want to get people as close to the event as possible,” Conner said. “We want this event to be as spectator friendly as possible.”
Conner estimates the entire cost of the renovations and additions to be around $500,000. The funds are a mix of private sponsors and public grants, with $200,000 coming from the Golden Leaf Foundation, a North Carolina nonprofit organization that aids in rural economic development.
Plans are in the works for a TV production crew to film the entire event, which will result in an hour-long documentary that can be a promotional tool for the area. With just a few weeks until the competition, it’s all hands on deck for the championships. And with that comes an enormous sense of pride for Western North Carolina in showcasing its outdoor beauty to the world.
“We’ve already got a great reputation for outdoor sports, but we want to push that message out further,” Conner said. “The legacy for this event will be the unity between everyone in this area in showing that Swain County is one of the best outdoor places in the world.”
Want to go?
The 2013 ICF Canoe Freestyle World Championships will be held Sept. 2-8 at the Nantahala Outdoor Center in the Nantahala Gorge. Live music, crafters, vendors and activities will be offered throughout the week alongside the events. The opening ceremony and athlete parade will be at 6 p.m. Sept. 2 in downtown Bryson City. An Appalachian Heritage Day will be held in Bryson City on Sept. 5.