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Launching a legacy: Nantahala Outdoor Center ascends from a meager outpost to river prodigy

When Payson and Aurelia Kennedy quit their jobs in Atlanta, cashed out their retirement, packed up their four children and headed for the wild and rugged Nantahala River 40 years ago, their mothers weren’t sure what had gotten into them.

The idea that tourists would pay $10 a head to go rafting down the river — enough of them to put food on the family’s table no less — sounded ludicrous.

“It seemed like a harebrain plan,” Aurelia admitted.

They had a fleet of just four rafts and used the family van to transport river runners that first year. They lived on savings and hope while scrapping out a vision of a paddling outpost.

“The only accounting was the checkbook,” Payson recalled. “I didn’t even keep account of how many people we took, but I made an estimate at the end of the first year we took 800 down the Nantahala and 400 down the Chattooga — which is less than we take in one day now.”

By year three, however, they were still losing money. Even Aurelia had begun to have her doubts.

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“When I was in charge of three restaurants and four children, Payson had to listen to me have some flying fits those first years,” said Aurelia, who found a teaching job in nearby Andrews to supplement the family.

Indeed, it wasn’t easy. Payson and Aurelia slogged through 80- to 100-hour work weeks trying to realize their dream. Along with the raft trips, the fledgling Nantahala Outdoor Center had a small motel, a gas station, restaurants and a paddling school.

“It was erratic business,” Payson said. “Everybody did everything. We didn’t have specific jobs. If motel rooms needed cleaning, we cleaned motel rooms. I was once the breakfast cook. But, it was such a fun atmosphere. Everybody had a good time together even though it was hard work and long hours.”

The kids —  ages 10, 12, 14 and 16 that first year on the river — were expected to pull their weight. They washed dishes, made beds in the motel, guided raft trips and took care of horses in the stable. By the second year, the kids got $20 a week, plus room and board of course, Payson added.

It wasn’t until nearly a decade later, when the company cleared $1 million in annual revenue for the first time, that Aurelia’s mother relented her initial doubts. Years would pass before Payson’s mother confessed to squirreling away savings during those early years in anticipation of bailing her son out when he had to throw in the towel and come back home.

The couple, joined by a love of paddling and the outdoor lifestyle, were as committed to each other as they were to NOC. They had their first date at 14, and never seemed to get over that teenage love affair.

As they flipped through an old family photo album at their kitchen table last week, Aurelia planted her hand on a picture of Payson taken in 1972, his shaggy brown beard and tanned skin looking as wild and rugged as the river he called home.

“Isn’t he handsome?” Aurelia said.

The page turned and landed on a photo of Aurelia resting against a large boulder taken in that same era.

“Isn’t she beautiful?” countered Payson, who’s about to turn 80.

As the Nantahala Outdoor Center stares down its 40th anniversary, few companies, let alone a river outfitter with such humble beginnings, could claim the kind of growth NOC has witnessed. It’s come a long way from the four rafts and family van used by the Kennedys to shuttle those first guests down the Nantahala. Today, NOC boasts a fleet of 1,000 rafts, 120 busses and 850 employees during peak season — shepherding 150,000 rafters down the Nantahala and 6 other rivers in the southern mountains each year.

Looking back, Payson said he never doubted their dream would work.

“We could see the people coming off the trips were so exhilarated, and it was growing by word of mouth. So I knew it was a matter of time,” Payson said.

When the Nantahala Outdoor Center was launched in 1972, paddling was still a newfangled sport.

“Very few people paddled. In that era if you saw a car with a boat, you usually knew who it was. It was that small,” said Bunny Johns, one of NOC’s early pioneers who logged nearly three decades at the company.

For paddlers who wanted to eat, sleep and breathe whitewater, NOC stood out. There were only two other river outfitters in the entire Southeast.

“The idea that you could really give of yourself for the betterment of the outdoors and expose more people to the outdoors and make a living doing it was very unique for 1972,” said Joe Jacobi, an Olympic gold medalist who worked at NOC as a dishwasher in the early 1990s and is now the director of USA Whitewater.

Whether it would work as a business or not was somewhat untested, however, and took a hefty dose of idealism by the Kennedy’s and fellow founder Horace Holden.

“You put out your concept and your dream in a unique and engaging way, and you just start,” Jacobi said. “If you think it is worthwhile to take kids down the Nantahala River, you just start doing it — and that’s where the buy-in and appeal came from.”


Paddling among the greats

Like so many of NOC’s early pioneers, John Burton gave up a promising, big-city, high-paying career for life on the river. His epiphany came at a rather inopportune time — at the outset of an all-day interview with the investment banking giant Goldman Sachs on Wall Street in the 1970s.

“About an hour into the interviews, I knew I was in the wrong place. I was not motivated by money. I could not go to Wall Street. I said, ‘Well I’ll see you later,’” Burton recalled. “I came to the Outdoor Center because it totally fit with my value set.”

Burton quit his job as an investment advisor making $16,000 a year for a job at NOC that paid just $7,000 a year. Burton had been on the 1972 Olympic team and a member of the U.S. paddling team for four years. More than half his fellow paddlers from that 1972 team — including all three women from the team — had already found their way to NOC.

“It was sort of a network of paddlers. Those who decided we wanted to train, that we wanted to get good at it, NOC was a place where you could get paid to work in the world of paddling and be surrounded by your friends and get paid to be on the river guiding rafts or teaching canoeing,” said Burton.

Burton came along in the nick of time. The skill set NOC needed most, it turned out, wasn’t another paddling pro, but his financial smarts.

“It was a seat-of-the-pants operation for sure,” Burton said, recalling the state of the company’s checkbook and recordkeeping when he came on board in 1975.

Burton quickly became Payson Kennedy’s right-hand man as vice president.

“We were a great team,” Burton said. “He was the philosopher and visionary, and I had the business skill set to support that.”


Creating a community

Working at NOC came with sacrifices. The pay was small, hours were long, and the work was seasonal.

The work ethic Payson’s own family exemplified in those earlier years — rising to the occasion and pitching in wherever needed — was expected from everyone.

“Everybody did it all. We washed dishes; we guided rafts; we built the buildings,” Burton said.

But no one seemed to mind, Burton said. Everyone who came to NOC did so for the same reason as the Kennedys.

“When we came up here, it was not a business decision but a lifestyle decision,” Payson said. “We assumed we would make less money than if we stayed in Atlanta, but we would be working with friends who enjoyed the same activities we did.”

It’s one of the lasting legacies from those early years. Everyone can still be called on to pinch hit in any area, no matter what your official job duties are. At 79, Payson can still be found pinch-hitting as a raft guide on busy summer weekends. It extends to the team of new investors who assumed a majority stake in NOC earlier this year.

“If they were here on the weekend and I said, ‘We just had two housekeepers not show up and we have 50 beds to make,’ they would say, ‘I’ll go make beds for you.’ That is so critical,” Burton said. “They aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty.”

Forty years ago, the Kennedys’ and Holden’s goal was not necessarily to build one of the world’s premier river outfitters. Instead, they wanted to carve out a place where like-minded river rats could scratch out a modest living doing what they loved — and that they would be in it together.

“From the beginning, that was the guiding the principle, not that some people would be working for the owners, but it would be a community of friends working together,” Payson said.

NOC had the spirit of communal living. Employees were fed through company meal plans and lived in NOC housing quarters. Everyone worked, ate, slept and played alongside each other.

“That community kept us all there,” Johns said.

There was even a daycare for NOC employees with children. Joe Jacobi, who worked at NOC while training for the Olympics in the early 1990s, recalled one of his Olympic teammates who was a daycare worker.

“You had a national champion whitewater kayaker soon to be an Olympian who would work in the daycare taking care of other paddlers’ children. Just think about that for a minute,” Jacobi said. “There was a very tight sense of community. There was a high level of buy in.”

Early on, the company developed an employee-stock plan that would give employees shares in the company. It was a financial benefit, but more so it was a way of creating a sense of buy-in and communal ownership.

While NOC no longer has a corner on the market when it comes to finding jobs in the outdoor industry, it’s still considered among the cream of the crop.

“The Nantahala Gorge is a pretty appealing place for anybody who is interested in a broad range of outdoor opportunities, whether it be paddling, mountain biking, hiking or camping, there is a lot going on in the Gorge,” said Mark Singleton, the head of NOC’s marketing department from 1990 to 2002. Singleton still lives in Jackson County and is the executive director American Whitewater, a national paddling advocacy organization.


Seasonal work

To some, the seasonal nature of the job was one of its greatest perks. Footloose and fancy free, summer whitewater guides could take to the ski slopes of the Rockies by winter or travel to South America without being tied down.

“If you don’t have kids and your needs are small, you can make it work,” Johns said.

But the seasonal ebb and flow — being thrust into unemployment six months of the year and struggling to find work — was a deal killer for others, particularly those who wanted to start a family.

“They’ll do it a few years until they want to get married and have kids and then decide they can’t afford to stay. Some do stay and live on the low income and enjoy life but don’t expect to get a whole lot of money,” Payson said. “If the business wasn’t so seasonal, it would be easy. It’s that seasonality that makes it tough to survive.”

NOC can’t entirely shut down in the off-season, of course. A core cadre has to run the place year-round, from marketing to IT to finance to planning out next year’s programs.

Those who stuck around long enough — and had skills deemed useful to the business side of the operation — could sometimes finagle their way into a year-round job.

Such was the case with Wayne Dickert, one of the championship paddlers NOC proudly claimed on its who’s-who of paddling instructors for two decades. When he started in the mid-1980s, however, he was just a lowly seasonal raft guide. Dickert spent his winters working for Silver Creek Paddles, a mom-and-pop company just down the road in the Gorge that made hand-crafted wooden paddles. Never straying far from the paddling arena, he also cobbled together a part-time winter income repairing banged up fiberglass boats and broken paddles.

Why not give up and get a real job?

“I bought into the whole idea and loved being able to give people that outdoor experience,” Dickert said.


The “Deliverance” factor

Of all the ingredients that set the stage for NOC’s unprecedented success, none was as unexpected and out of ordinary than the release of the movie “Deliverance” in 1972, set on a rural river not far from the Nantahala. The blockbuster movie catapulted Southern Appalachian paddling into the consciousness of mainstream America and captured the public imagination.

“That gave us a flurry of interest and excitement and attention,” said Payson, who starred as Burt Kennedy’s stunt double in the movie.

Four decades later, paddlers still sport T-shirts that say “Paddle faster, I hear banjo music.”

The movie was a game changer, according to NOC historians.

“It was that spirit of the urban adventurer, and NOC served as a destination point that spoke to that,” Jacobi said.

The same year, whitewater paddling made its debut as an Olympic sport.

Ultimately, the Kennedy’s and Holden had impeccable timing, even though they can’t take credit for planning it that way.

“That is the beauty of it — it is a little bit of a leap of faith,” Jacobi said.

Jacobi sees a parallel in the evolution and rise of NOC to the sport of kayaking.

“When you put a boat on the river, it is kind of like chaos in a controlled environment, and you don’t know every time how it is going to work out, and that is part of the appeal of it,” Jacobi said.


Luke-warm welcome

When the Kennedy’s first showed up with their meager collection of rafts hawking guided trips down the river, the rural community where they made their home wasn’t entirely sure what to make of them.

“We were looked at as those weird people,” said Johns. “It has been a gradual process.”

The long hair and beards sported by many of the male paddlers earned them an instant label of hippies in a rural region of Appalachia not exactly known for its liberal leanings.

“Some didn’t like these outsiders coming in,” Payson admitted. It was probably the toughest on his children, who had to leave the protected river community in the Gorge and venture into Bryson City for school.

“For me personally, and I feel just about everybody would agree with this, Bryson City and the Gorge tend to be two different fish bowls,” Dickert said. “There is cross over, they go into each other’s world. The Gorge comes in to do shopping and everything else, but there hasn’t been a lot of social interaction between the two.”

Far from its early days of being ostracized, NOC has become a dominant force in the landscape of Swain County — both economically and socially.

“Carolina Builders I think were the first ones to look at us and say, ‘These people are OK. They pay their bills,’” Johns recalled.

On the business side, NOC was a virtual gravy train, pulling in thousands of tourists ripe for the plucking. NOC rapidly rose in the ranks as a major employer.

“People certainly realized what it meant to this whole area,” Johns said. Kennedy agrees the business community was the first to welcome NOC into the fold.

But, there’s been a social acceptance too — thanks in part to people like Wayne Dickert. Dickert left his job with NOC this year to become the full-time minister of the United Methodist Church in downtown Bryson City.

Dickert is a walking, talking example of what’s likely NOC’s greatest gift to the region: people.

Hundreds of people have come to the mountains to work at NOC, whether for a couple of summers or half their lives like Dickert, and then found their way into the wider community, from construction workers to school teachers.

“As they come out of the Gorge and go into different jobs, it helps cross over the two communities,” Dickert said. “You start to develop relationships and see beyond what labels that might be attached to them.”

On his desk in the church office, a fistful of ballpoint pens baring the name of the church have been stuffed into a stainless steel cup with NOC’s logo — a pointed symbol of how the two worlds of NOC and the greater Swain community have merged.

“That’s been the biggest factor,” Payson Kennedy said of winning the community’s acceptance. “Having employees that decided to stay here and buy homes and build homes and get married and have children in the schools.”


Change on the horizon

Keeping up with its own growth was one of the biggest challenges faced by NOC during the first two decades.

The original founders felt at times like they’d jumped on board a runaway train.

“There were some years they intentionally cut back on their marketing efforts because they thought they were growing too big,” Dickert said. “NOC was it. NOC was the place.”

In 1978, six years after its own launch, NOC saw its first competition spring up — and welcomed it.

“At that time interest in whitewater was growing so rapidly, we still had all the business we could handle. It was all about how many guides could we train, how many buses could we add,” Payson recalled.

But as more and more rafting outfitters jostled for a piece of the action, the Nantahala showed signs of stress. Fear that it would become overrun by commercial trips and undermine its very essence prompted the national forest service, which controls most of the land along the river, to cap the number of outfitters in 1984. A new permit system was implemented for paddlers, a move NOC by that time welcomed.

To outsiders, NOC seemed to be rolling in success by the mid-1980s. Tens of thousands of people were flocking in droves to the fabled river outpost. Despite the booming business seen three short months of the year, NOC never stopped fighting and scrapping to ensure its viability.

“NOC has a checkered history. It never made a lot of money,” Johns said. “We struggled some years. We might have an up year one year and plan for another up and it goes down a little bit.”

Margins were always uncomfortably thin, and hiccups could seem like earthquakes. By the mid-1990s, the steady growth enjoyed during the first 25 years began to taper off and NOC entered an era of slow decline.

The list of reasons was long and varied, from forces outside NOC’s control — like the birth of artificial whitewater training centers and a national decline in paddling — to internal decisions, like hanging on to employee perks the company could no longer afford.

By the end of the ‘90s, NOC had posted three years of continuous losses. What worked in the past clearly wasn’t working anymore, but the company’s long-time leaders were reluctant to change.

“They realized we’ve got to change our vision, but they struggled with that and went back and forth a lot,” Dickert said. “They struggled with going from a bunch of cool hippies who hung out at the river and raft-guided, to at some point they grew large enough they had to think like a corporation.”

A tumultuous decade followed, and where the future will end up is still not entirely clear.

The Kennedys and Holden sold their majority stake in the company earlier this year, turning the reins of NOC over to a group of six young businessmen from the Atlanta area — including NOC’s own Sutton Bacon, who has been the CEO for five years. The new owners see NOC as a place to merge their love of outdoor recreation with their business and investment acumen.

Their interest in NOC isn’t entirely business-driven. They are all paddlers. They all have young children. And they all want NOC to be part of their own families’ lives for another 40 years, Sutton said.

While Holden and the Kennedys have kept some of their shares and seats on the board of directors, the changing of the guard clearly marks the end of an era. Money put up by the investors allowed NOC to buy out the remnants of the employee stock plan that had once been a symbol of NOC’s communal philosophy.

For Bacon, the responsibility he and other investors have to steer NOC into the next generation — balancing the financial realities of the times without losing the values that made NOC what it is — is all too real. NOC could not be replicated if starting out today, Bacon said.

“NOC started as a very pioneering young venture with great dreams and aspirations,” said Bacon. “I would say through the determination, wisdom and luck of Horace and Payson and many others, most the those visions came true.”

It was the perfect intersection of time and place — but it’s the unique philosophy planted deep in NOC’s company spirit during the formative years that has set the stage for an enduring legacy.

“No other businessman, and I’ll use that in quotations, would even fathom taking care of the employees and staff and the community and putting himself last and profit last as Payson Kennedy did,” Bacon said. “There is nothing like NOC — I have traveled and looked.”


Coming next week: NOC reinvented

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 with changing economic realities.

See The Smoky Mountain News next week for a look at factors behind NOC’s most tumultuous decade and its next generation.

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