Surf’s up on the Nanty: Paddler feedback integral to honing the new ‘Wave’

The common phrase heard among kayakers daring the Nantahala’s new wave: “It’s getting there.”

The Wave in the Nantahala Gorge received an overall lukewarm response from paddlers during a formal unveiling Friday. Most kayakers said they liked the apparatus, which creates waves and holes for doing tricks and stunts, but definitely think it could improve.

“Every time they tweak it, it keeps getting continually better,” said Jared Smith, a 29-year-old who has been kayaking for three years. “They still got a little bit of work to do before it’s world class, but it’s definitely getting there.”

The Wave needs to be “fluffier and smoother,” he said, adding that the experts need to adjust dams on either side of the wave or adjust how the water flows from upstream.

“When they get it done, it’s going to be a lot more user friendly to intermediate paddlers,” Smith said, adding that once they perfect The Wave he will be on the Nantahala all the time. Though, he said, it is hard to imagine kayaking more than he already does.

Daniel Dutton, 34, said his first experience on the new wave was “OK” compared to what he expected. The debut of the new wave on the Nantahala has been highly anticipated for months.

In the past, the water sport enthusiasts created waves and holes by stacking up rocks underwater by hand. These different features set the stage for freestyle kayaking — a paddling sport characterized by technical tricks and highly stylized moves such as spins, turns, cartwheels and flips.

Dutton is one of the many kayakers who used to help move rocks in the riverbed to create the wave near the Nantahala Outdoors Center before the new mechanical element was installed at a cost of $300,000, mostly paid for with a Golden Leaf Foundation Grant.

“It’s progress,” said Dutton, who has kayaked for nearly 20 years. “It needs to be tuned a little bit more. Right at this time, it’s a really short and fast in the middle.”

Pro paddlers descended on the river last week to test it out and offer their feedback. That feedback is exactly what organizers were looking for.

The Wave will serve as the site of two world championships in the next two years — the 2012 World Cup of Freestyle Kayaking and the 2013 World Freestyle Kayaking Championship. Honing The Wave is a top priority before the events.

“This thing is going to be fantastic, but it’s going to take some time,” said Lee Leibfarth, head of the world’s organizing committee and NOC’s chief operating officer.

They will not tune The Wave again for another couple of weeks as they process the paddlers’ input and wait for lower water levels. The tuning will involve, among other things, changing the configuration of concrete blocks — a sort of cross between giant stairsteps and piano keys bolted to the main foundation of The Wave, Leibfarth said.

Although it’s still a work in progress, The Wave is getting closer and closer to professional quality.

“From all the steps we’ve gone through in the last month, this is the best we’ve had so far,” Dutton said.

The team of experts from McLaughlin Whitewater Design Group, who masterminded the contraption’s creation, and area water sport enthusiasts will keep working on The Wave this week, he said, guaranteeing that they will get it to produce the effects that kayakers want.

“These guys don’t quit. They’ve all been very dedicated to it. So yeah, they won’t stop until we’re real happy,” Dutton said.

Several kayakers complained that they hit The Wave’s concrete ledge when attempting to perform tricks, making it more difficult for freestyle kayakers to use it for its intended purpose.

“It seems like if you plug to do a loop … I tend to hit the bottom level of concrete blocks,” said Rowan Staurt.

At 15, Staurt was by far the youngest kayaker testing The Wave Friday but not the least experienced. Stuart, whose parents kayaked, began liking the sport about five years ago.

“It’s hard not to, growing up around here,” Stuart said.

She was one of the few who said she currently preferred the old man-made wave.

“I don’t love it,” Stuart said. “I think it’s kind of hard to stay in it, and it’s not retentive.”

Stuart said the old wave allowed kayakers to stay in it longer and was easier to learn tricks on. She also suggested that the makers add some wing dams to the eddies, where people wait for their turn to show their chops, so that the kayakers are not hitting each other.

A positive of the new wave, however, is that high water will not affect it. With the old hand-built wave, the force of the water during high flows would shift the rocks, forcing them to start the process of making a wave again. Once The Wave is adjusted, it will stay in place.

Ryan Baudrand, 37, said Friday’s version of The Wave is a “big improvement from what it was on day one.”

The first day kayakers were allowed to test the waters, the river was sticky, meaning it was easy to ride for a longer period of time, but it was also aggressive. By Friday, The Wave was “more friendly” but had a smaller pocket for performing tricks, said Baudrand, who works for Endless River Adventures and has ridden on the Nantahala for 14 years.

Baudrand said he would like to see a bigger eddy, or waiting wing for riders, and more wave.

“I think probably they will have to get a little bit more water into it, to widen it — maybe widen the actual pocket of the hole,” Baudrand said.

Friday’s wave took on more of a smiley face shape and forced kayakers into one spot rather than giving them several places to perform their tricks.

“This is the only way it’s going to get better is people coming out here, practicing, trying, giving their input,” Baudrand said.

Head over heels: New wave shaper comes to the Nantahala River

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


How to build a wave shaper

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.


Here to stay

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.


Wrangling water out of the Nanty

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


World class rapids

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.

Hike, bike, paddle, fish, climb: OutdoorAthlon coming to Franklin has it all

Joe and Dawn Johnson of Atlanta might be making another trip to the mountains next weekend after learning about the WNC OutdoorAthlon in Franklin Oct. 8 and 9.

The couple both enjoy mountain biking, and she jogs routinely for exercise — making them perfect candidates to enjoy a smorgasbord of events lined up for the family outdoor recreation event. The Johnsons were on the Blue Ridge Parkway last week riding motorcycles and enjoying the start of the fall’s leaf show.

“It sounds like fun,” Joe Johnson said, before openly speculating with his wife about whether they could angle more time off from work to make the trip back that soon to Western North Carolina.

That’s exactly the kind of response Rob Gasbarro and Cory McCall of Outfitter 76 in Franklin were hoping to generate. The business partners believe Macon County is destined, by virtue of its location and superb outdoor opportunities, to become as big an outdoor draw as such traditional stalwarts as the Nantahala Gorge.

The future’s uncertain. But what is certain is that Gasbarro and McCall, who are touting the event as “the biggest little event in the Southeast,” are hoping, even expecting, thousands to show up for the OutdoorAthlon.

So what is it? Everything, really, to do with the outdoors — think Mountain Sports Festival in Asheville; or, the Guest Appreciation Festival at the Nantahala Outdoor Center.

Here’s what’s lined up: Food, music, an outdoor triathlon, a kid’s duathlon, a 5K, an Ultimate Frisbee Team Tournament and corn hole tournament. Free clinics for fly-fishing, paddle sports, stand-up paddling, rock climbing; do-it-yourself bike maintenance and demos, backpacking and camping demo’s and more. The outdoor triathlon offers a twist on the standard trifecta — with a line-up of paddling, mountain biking and trail running instead of swimming, road biking and road running.

There are 40 vendors scheduled, plus eight food vendors. The event is free.

“It’s going well,” Gasbarro said of the organizational aspects of putting together such a gargantuan undertaking. “We’ve got lots and lots of volunteers.”

The two men also have lined up $7,000 worth of “giveaways” from outdoor specialty companies.

The events are taking place at the Cullasaja Park along Macon County’s greenway, located off Fox Ridge Road near the flea market on Highlands Road in Franklin.

Gasbarro, taking a break from minding the front desk last week at Outfitter 76 to chat about the festival, noted that remote parking is being set up, and two buses courtesy of Macon County Schools will be used to shuttle people to the event.

Visit for more information.



The event runs Saturday, Oct. 8, and Sunday, Oct. 9, in Franklin at the Cullasaja Park. There is no entrance fee.

Events start both days at noon. Here are some key events:


• 12:30-2 p.m. Honey Locust 5K

• 12:30 Bicycle maintenance clinis

• 1 p.m. fly fishing clinic

• 1 p.m. beginner mountain bike ride

• 2-3 p.m. Kids’ duathlon

• 2 p.m. intro to kayaking

• 2-5 p.m. Ultimate Frisbee Tournament

• 3:45 p.m. intro to disc golf


• 12 p.m. putting and long drive disc golf competition

• 12 p.m. fly casting clinic

• 2 p.m. backpacking clinic

• 12-3 p.m. Paddle parade on the Little Tennessee

• 2-4:30 p.m. Adventure Triathlon (paddle, mtn bike, trail run)

• ­­3 p.m. intro to stand-up paddling

Gorge gets a boost with new wave feature

The Nantahala River will soon boast one of the preeminent freestyle paddling features in the country — a patented apparatus that will create waves and holes used by trick kayakers.

The Wave Shaper will arrive just in time for a major world freestyle championship being held on the river in 2013, bringing 500 paddlers from 45 different countries and thousands of spectators to the Gorge. A $195,000 grant from the Golden Leaf Foundation was awarded to the Swain County Tourism Development Authority to fund construction of the wave.

“It will make us one of the premium whitewater kayaking places in the world,” said Brad Walker, chairman of the Swain tourism agency.

The wave is designed for freestyle kayaking — a paddling sport filled with technical tricks and highly-stylized moves, including spins, turns, cartwheels and flips that often involve the boater going completely airborne. The paddler surfs in place while performing the maneuvers on top of the wave.

The Nantahala will be one of only three rivers in the country using the cutting edge technology of the Wave Shaper, the creation of McLaughlin Whitewater Design Group based in Denver.

The Nantahala isn’t without a wave now — it couldn’t have landed the ICF Freestyle World Championships in 2013 without one. It was built by zealous paddlers on the Nanty who manhandled rocks around the riverbed to craft a high-caliber feature. And that in itself is impressive.

“A wave is very finicky. It is really hard to produce a good wave,” said Rick McLaughlin, owner of the McLaughlin Whitewater Design Group.

But it is susceptible to shifting currents and wash outs —far too tenuous to hang a world championship of this caliber on.

“Whenever there is a big rain you lose the feature you have to start all over again,” said Karen Proctor Wilmot, the executive director of the Swain County Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Development Authority. “They knew we could have one big rain during the event and be out there moving rocks and looking a little foolish.”

Such a faux pas could also cause quite a stir.

“Having a feature change during the course of a competition wouldn’t be fair to all the other athletes,” said Lee Leibfarth, an NOC paddling instructor and a lead organizer of the event.

Organizers said success of the event hinged on a proper wave. Otherwise, it would be like playing Wimbledon on a court with a sagging net, or the Super Bowl on patchy turf.

Walker said they couldn’t let that happen.

“It is very important to make it a superior event,” Walker said.

Not just for the paddlers, and not even the 7,000 to 10,000 people descending on the Gorge daily during the weeklong event, but for the tens of thousands who will be watching on TV. Freestyle kayaking is a popular sport in Europe and its followers will be tuned in by the masses.

But when the World Championship has come and gone, the wave will still be here.

“One of the goals is to have a legacy behind all the money we are spending here, not just this one event,” Leibfarth said. “Now we have a feature to attract expert level paddlers.”

Freestyle paddlers will come here to try the wave not just for vacation, but pros will likely move here to train.

Nearly every whitewater river has a natural wave or two by default, but not all waves are created equal.

“There are very few good waves that are dependable,” said McLaughlin.

Engineered waves on rivers out West have wild fluctuations in flow, with great conditions during the spring snowmelt but not come summer.

Thanks to the Nantahala Dam upriver of the Gorge, a reliable flow of water is released by Duke Energy to keep flows on the paddling section of the Nanty consistent.

“The appeal here is we have pretty consistent conditions all the time. Unlike other places where it depends on a particular water level,” Leibfarth said.

Other freestyle waves are just a pain to get to — in the middle of nowhere or with no parking.

Another plus for this wave: freestyle trick paddlers won’t have to continuously move aside to make way for other river users. The wave is downstream of the main takeout for rafters and general paddlers.

Another kicker that will make this wave great: there’s somewhere for paddlers to hang in the water while waiting to run the wave. A few dozen paddlers can be stacked up around a good wave, taking turns round-robin style.

“You want the want eddies to the side of the wave to be calm so you aren’t struggling to stay there as you wait to queue in to the wave,” said McLaughlin.


An economic and tourism boon

What the wave will do for the Nantahala Gorge and surrounding area — creating jobs, raising the region’s profile, nurturing a niche industry — seems right up the alley of the Golden Leaf Foundation, which awards grants to rural communities for economic development projects. River recreation in the Nantahala Gorge is already an $85.9 million a year industry, according to a study by Western Carolina University.

It’s one reason the Swain County Tourism Development Authority has thrown its full support behind the 2013 Worlds, and to that end applied for the Golden Leaf grant to build the wave on behalf of the paddling community.

“Obviously we see the Nantahala River as being a huge contributor to the economy both in terms of jobs created and tourism and tax dollars brought in,” said Karen Wilmot, executive director of the Swain County Tourism Authority.

Wilmot said the wave will help draw elite paddlers to the region and bolster river-based tourism, which, in turn, is important to the county’s economy.

The wave will be just downstream of the footbridge at the Nantahala Outdoor Center. Construction will start in the fall and be finished by spring 2012.

The total cost of the project is $300,000, with $105,000 coming from private fundraising. The cost includes design and construction of the wave itself, plus a spectator platform and improved shoreline access.

Accommodating spectators is certainly one of the biggest challenges facing the World Championship. The Great Smoky Mountain Railroad will provide train shuttles from Bryson City to help transport people into the Gorge, where parking is limited to say the least and the single two-lane road in and out gets easily jammed.

But jockeying for a view of the competition from the river shore will be epic. A large viewing platform holding several hundred people will be built jutting out over the river using money from the Golden Leaf grant.

There will be separate platforms for judges and media covering the event. All of them will come in pieces that can be put up and taken down for events.



The super cool Wave Shaper: how it works

Paddling pros can spend hours debating and analyzing the subtle nuances of a wave or hole. Just like the Eskimos with over a hundred words to describe what the rest of us would just call “snow,” paddlers have derived their own endless vocabulary to size up and dissect a wave’s performance — how it pushes, pulls, its depth, its loft, its slope and, above all, its “sticky-ness.”

And if there was ever such a group, you’ll find them on the Nantahala. The Nantahala River boasts more Olympic paddlers per capita than anywhere else in the world. It’s a magnet for super geeky paddling types — the ones kayak manufacturers turn to for feedback when testing new designs.

“I don’t think there is a more sophisticated paddling community than the Nantahala Gorge,” said Risa Shimoda with the McLaughlin Whitewater Group.

Rick McLaughlin, the owner of the McLaughlin Whitewater Design Group based in Denver, has been experimenting with river shaping for more than 25 years, refining the mechanics to meet paddlers’ increasingly sophisticated desire.

“In a river with hydraulics, sometimes what you get is the opposite of what you think you might get,” McLaughlin said. “It is a bit of science and a bit of art.”

McLaughlin learned through trial and error with giant scale models. His team builds massive fiberglass tanks up to 100 feet long to study the cross-section of moving water and what it does when contraptions beneath the surface are manipulated this way or that.

“We have a bunch of theories, but our computer models are still limited. The best way to analyze and predict is by building an actual model,” McLaughlin said.

McLaughlin has been chasing one sought-after quality in particular: “sticky-ness.” The stickier the wave, the easier it is to ride, allowing paddlers to perform trick after trick before being ejected. And even stickier than a wave is a “hole,” where the river swoops in like a big scoop has been taken out, setting the stage for a different arsenal of tricks.

McLaughlin has perfected the design with his latest apparatus — the Wave Shaper — which makes both holes and waves that can be adjusted at will to change the characteristics of the river.

Each river is different — its width, depth and flow — requiring slightly different design, but the premise of the Wave Shaper is the same.

“It looks like a louvered door laid on its side that goes up and down and out and in,” said Shimoda.

“There are infinite configurations that allows the operator to change the shape of the water,” Shimoda said.

The Nantahala will be the third river in the county to have a Wave Shaper. A scale model for the Nantahala feature is under construction already with installation scheduled for this fall and winter.

It will create endless opportunities for freestyle paddling.

“We can have this great surfing wave for beginners and then crank it up for the pros in a competition,” said Lee Leibfarth, a paddling expert with Nantahala Outdoor Center and organizer of the 2013 World Kayaking Championship.

A perfect wave for rafters is different from a perfect wave for kayakers. And the optimum wave for someone playing around on a surf board is different from the preferred wave of a person laying on a bogie board.

The Wave Shaper can be adjusted to cater to every type of paddling audience, something the Nantahala community particularly wanted.

“They would like to be able to fulfill as many needs of as many types of users in as many different types of situations as possible,” Shimoda said.

Who exactly decides how the Wave Shaper should be set each day?

Technically, the Wave Shaper will belong to the Swain County Tourism Development Authority, the entity that got the grant to build it. But the local tourism agency will lease it to the Nantahala Racing Club, which will in turn create a committee to map out a schedule for how the Wave Shaper will function each day.

The Nantahala Racing Club is not a commercial interest, and thus removes any concern among outfitters that one rafting company would use the Wave to its benefit over the other outfitters, Lariat said.

The Wave Shaper isn’t hard to operate, but someone will have to be taught how. At both the other sites sporting Wave Shapers, that person has been dubbed the “Wave Master.”

The Wave Shaper on the Green River in Idaho is remotely controlled through a web site. On the Nantahala, the parts will be adjusted manually, most likely first thing in the morning before the daily water release from the Nantahala Dam when water levels are significantly lower.

The Wave Shaper is made of indestructible metal and what Shimoda calls “super duper vulcanized rubber” to withstand the constant beating and water pressure of a moving river. It comes in a precast concrete box that’s lowered into the river.

The apparatus mostly sits below the river’s surface, and is barely detectable.

“Even though it is manmade, it is not going to feel like a concrete jungle. It is very much organic and part of the river,” Lariat said.

Can you hear me now? Broadband “critical” for Nantahala Gorge before kayaking championships

Organizers said this week that getting the Nantahala Gorge into this century when it comes to telecommunication capabilities is absolutely critical to successfully hosting the kayaking world championship in 2013.

The problem? There’s seems no easy answer to what’s for computer users a Bermuda Triangle of silence: seven or so miles of no broadband capability. Cell phones are equally useless in the steep-walled gorge where reception is unavailable.

Ten thousand visitors a day are predicted to descend into the gorge from Sept. 2-8, 2013, including reporters from around the world, to see the ICF Freestyle World Championships. And before that, the kayaking Junior World Cup will take place in September 2012  — with 5,000 to 6,000 people a day expected. Without broadband, reporters will be unable to cover the competition, which has a major following in Europe.

“We’re waiting on a miracle,” said Juliet Kastorff, owner of Endless Rivers Adventures, a whitewater rafting company in the Nantahala Gorge, of the possibilities of broadband capabilities throughout the area.

Short of that miracle, there also have been discussions with U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, to see if he can help apply, well, pressure on the powers-that-be to bring in broadband.

“Getting broadband access throughout the gorge is a huge priority,” said Sutton Bacon president and CEO of the Nantahala Outdoor Center, the region’s largest whitewater and outdoor outfitter.

Another priority is work on a water feature in the Nantahala. These championships are freestyle, which Bacon explained is similar to kayakers doing tricks and stunts akin to a snowboarders’ showoff on a halfpipe. There is a play feature currently on the Nantahala River, “The Wave,” that is situated near NOC. That has been simply the work of river guides and others hand-stacking rocks, which tend to be washed out in storms, Bacon said.

Firms have been hired to stabilize “The Wave” and “make it a world-championship feature,” he said, adding that the new trick area would not look much different from what’s available now, and would continue to be at the level of “Nantahala-style paddlers.”

McLaughlin Whitewater Design Group of Denver, with the help of local company Heron Associates, will develop the river feature. McLaughlin re-engineered the Ocoee River for the 1996 Olympics, and has extensive experience working with the U.S. Forest Service, Bacon said.

The committee overseeing the world championships has submitted a $200,000 request to Golden Leaf Foundation for money; Nantahala Outdoor Center has contributed $100,000; the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad has chipped in $25,000; the Swain County Tourism Development Authority $70,000; and Duke Energy, $5,000. Smoky Mountain Host will contribute cash, plus in-kind work, according to organizers.

Business, tourism and economic development leaders hoping to capitalize on these events met Thursday (March 24) in Stecoah to continue planning for them and to discuss marketing plans.

Jockeying for space on the Nantahala: Outfitters and summer camps spar over control of river traffic

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.


River squatters

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.


River economics

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

All in the design: NOC experts lend ideas on kayaks

When the new line of 2009 kayaks hits the outfitters’ stores in coming weeks, the mark of paddling guru Wayner Dickert will be lurking beneath more than one hull.

The former Olympic paddler has long been a go-to guy for boat manufacturers. In the trenches at Nantahala Outdoor Center’s paddling school where thousands flock every year to improve their skills, Dickert has a foot soldier’s view of the demands in the boat market.

Of all the boats Dickert consulted on this year, he’s most excited about a new boat by Dagger — the Karnali — named for a mega-river in Nepal. As a paddling instructor, Dickert’s constant challenge to boat makers is to design a kayak that strikes a balance between the mutually exclusive traits desirable to a beginner versus an expert. For example, beginners need a boat that’s stable, thus a flatter hull. But more rounder bottoms move better if you have the skills to handle them.

Another set of attributes that are mutually exclusive: a boat that’s stable when upright, yet easy to flip back up if you capsize.

The new Karnali by Dagger attempts to find the perfect balance of all these with the beginner in mind.

“It was literally built because of our instruction programs,” Dickert said. “We wanted a boat that was easy to paddle, easy to roll and still has great stability. They completely went back to the drawing board and built this boat really around a lot of the comments and recommendations that we had.”

The paddling companies often call on NOC staffers for input when crafting new boats.

“It is pretty common that a manufacturer will call or email and say ‘Hey, we are working on this. What do you think it ought to be?’” Dickert said.

Those called on for advice range from the paddling teachers to the outfitters store. And why not?

“We are the frontrunner for instruction in North America and probably put more people through courses than anybody possibly in the world,” said Robert Bone, NOC’s boat buyer.

As the guy who chooses which boats NOC buys, whether it’s for their rental fleet, for the paddling school or to stock in the outfitters store, Bone is another guy boat makers want to curry favor with.

“It’s a pretty common occurrence,” Bone said of NOC staffers consulting on new boat designs. “We’ve been involved in designing boats for 30 years. It is pretty neat to be thought of in the industry as the people they go to. That’s the cool thing about NOC, is we have that expertise and the manufacturers feel comfortable coming to us and asking what’s going to sell on the marketplace.”


Rival boats

The NOC staffers are equal opportunity consultants.

“Because we carry all the lines, we have a neutral perspective,” Dickert said. “We look at boats from the perspective of what will help our guests become the best paddler they can be.”

In other words, someone looking for a boat — whether to rent for the day or to buy — will be pointed toward the one that best suits their ability and interests out of all the available lines, not just the best out of Liquid Logic’s line, or from Jackson Kayaks’ line.

That means Dickert can be consulting for more than company at a time. On ’09 designs, Dickert lent his two cents to both Dagger and Pyranha. Unbeknownst to each other, both were working on similar tracks, although Dickert couldn’t reveal it until the boats were ready.

“They ended up being so similar that when they saw each other’s boats they said ‘Hey, that’s our boat,’” Dickert said. “They are still definitely different boats and each one has its own special micro niche it will fit into, but each others’ jaw dropped.”

It’s not uncommon for boat makers to head down similar paths, just like car makers or electronic makers come out with similar innovations the same year.

“They knew there was a need in the industry and they ended up getting to similar places to fill that need, so that means to me they called it pretty well,” Dickert said of Dagger’s new Axium and Pyranha’s new Zone.



In exchange for his input, Dickert hopes to earn a free boat when the line comes out. But occasionally, he lands a gig on a prototype team that sees a boat through from inception to the final product.

One such boat was the GT, an innovative boat developed by Dagger a few years ago. Dickert laid down the initial challenge — to find the perfect middle ground between the stability of a play boat and the maneuverability of the river running kayaks.

Here’s a crash course for the non-paddler: a play boat sports a shorter, stubbier, fatter snout good for bouncing around on waves, while a river runner is longer and sleeker. Each boat calls for a specific hull type. The river runner has a displacement hull with a rounded bottom for slicing through the water, while the play boat has a planing hull that’s flatter for sitting on top of the water.

“The challenge was finding a good balance to where you still got the benefit of that flat bottom hull,” Dickert said.

After some initial consultations with the designers, they built a few prototypes, and that’s when things got fun. Dickert and a team of three other paddlers hit the water with the prototypes, trading boats over the course of the day to get a feel for each.

“We would sit around and compare notes and say ‘What did you like about this, what did it do well, what did it not do well.’ We would figure out what needed to be changed and they would go back and try to make that happen,” Dickert said.

The team took each new set of prototypes out on the water, refining, refining, refining each time.

“When we got it on the water if it didn’t work out like we thought it would we’d say ‘Let’s change this,’” Dickert recounted. They went through upwards of 15 prototypes this way before Dagger cut them off.

“You try to keep getting it closer and closer, but it’s one of those things where at some point you have to draw a line,” Dickert said. “It is all a compromise.”

Dickert’s hard work was vindicated when the GT got Boat of the Year by Outside magazine that year.

Paddling industry pins hope on new designs to stoke interest

The new lines of kayaks and canoes this year have one mission in common: to lure new converts.

“Most of the manufacturers are coming out with boats that are more beginner and intermediate friendly. This is a push to get more people involved in paddling as new boaters have been declining for the past decade,” said Robert Bone, a boat expert at Nantahala Outdoor Center. “They realize we have to grow this market segment. To keep it viable for the manufacturers, they have to get new people involved, thus the new designs.”

There’s been a decline in paddling for the past eight years, Bone said. Thousands flock to NOC’s courses each year to learn how to paddle. But if newcomers can’t get the hang of it, at least enough see a light at the end of the tunnel, they give up.

“The learning curve is very steep in the first several years,” Bone said.

While it’s more fun for boat makers, who are often world-class paddlers themselves, to design high-power, high performance boats tailored to other experts like them, the NOC crew has help pushed designers into considering the beginners.

“For the beginning paddler you need something that gives them a lot of confidence on the river. They need to get on the river and feel like they can really do it and then they’ll come back and turn it into a life time sport, so that’s what I wanted to do more than anything,” said Wayner Dickert, a world-class paddler and instructor at NOC.

There’s a trade-off when designing a boat — a kayak with high maneuverability for experienced paddlers versus one more likely to stay upright. NOC staffers kept asking the manufacturers for a more forgiving boat, and they finally responded.

“It is nice to have the manufacturers listen to you and develop a boat for your specific market,” Bone said. “We really appreciate that.”

The boat companies are also pitching boats this year that can multi-task. The expert paddler has an arsenal of boats to fill every niche of water imaginable, whether it’s the best boat for making fast tracks on a lake or barreling over class V waterfalls on narrow creeks. Play boats are even tailored toward the type of trick they perform best for, with some handling best for enders and cartwheels and the others for stern squirts and spins.

Dickert has eight boats from that came out in 2008 alone, and doesn’t consider it a lot.

“I am actually pretty lean on boats right now,” Dickert said.

But those just entering the sport haven’t built up their stockpile of boats yet.

They need cross-over boats that aren’t so tailored to just one kind of paddling.

“They’re manufacturing boats to fit a wider range, that caters to that beginner boater who wants to do some of both,” Bone said.

A unique twist on luring more people into paddling is a new two-person kayak by Jackson Kayak. The tandem kayak is the first of its kind in more than a decade and will hopefully help get people hooked.

“You will have somebody experienced in the back of the boat and some one who has never kayaked in their life taking them down river and hopefully get them excited and hopefully get them to buy a boat,” Bone said. “It is all about trying to increase the participation in whitewater paddling.”

There’s another trend Bone sees in boats this year.

“It seems like everybody has kind of gone back to retro designs, little longer designs for river running and stability,” Bone said. “The steam has been dropping from the play boat scene for a while now. That has taken a bit of a backseat to plain old river running in the last couple years.”

Final countdown to the Chattooga decision

There are nine scenarios on the table in the debate over whether paddling should be allowed on the Upper Chattooga. They run the gamut, from a paddling free-for-all to none at all. The scenarios in between limit paddling under various conditions. The forest service most likely will chose one these “compromise” scenarios:

The Chattooga compromise: With solitude at stake, Chattooga recreation to be reined in

A long-awaited decision over paddling on the Upper Chattooga is expected within weeks by the National Forest Service.

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