Downward row: NOC guide canoes to world record waterfall run

out frIt wasn’t until Brad McMillan got his canoe on the water that the moment hit him. He’d been preparing for this for a long time, both mentally and physically, and he’d just watched his three friends in kayaks descend the falls before him. But once in the water, he struggled to keep the calm of that preparation. Nothing makes the idea of running a 70-foot-high waterfall more concrete than, well, pushing off to run a 70-foot-high waterfall. 

NOC nears finish line in preparing for kayaking worlds

out frSitting at a picnic table alongside the Nantahala River, Charles Conner watches the fast moving water. It’s may be a peaceful sunny morning at the Nantahala Outdoor Center, but it’s the calm before the storm.

“Right now, we’re really excited but anxious because there’s so much left to do,” he said. 

‘Jono’ Bryant blends his taste for adventure and medical skills toward a greater good

coverIt was a rather strange place to have a life-changing epiphany, but there he was, on the set of a British reality TV show in 2007, deep in the bowels of the Borneo jungles, when Jonathon Bryant found a purpose in life. 

Set in some of the most remote jungles on the planet, “Adrenaline Junkie” was shooting its third series. Starring Jack Osbourne, son of the famous rocker Ozzy, and five tag-alongs, the show took viewers through the primitive Pacific island, encountering wild boar, bloodsucking leeches and the secluded people of the Penan, exotically adorned with drooping ear lobes, weighted earrings and body tattoos.

Leap of faith by NOC bus driver saves paddler from watery death

fr rescueWhen Rob Kelly climbed behind the wheel of a bus two Saturdays ago for a relatively routine assignment shuttling paddlers up and down the Nantahala River, little did he know he would soon be face to face with death and hold a fellow kayaker’s life in his hands.

Walking on water: Aura of greatness takes root at NOC

When Nantahala Outdoor Center burst onto the whitewater scene 40 years ago, it became ground zero for a new world of paddling — one where boundaries of the sport were being pushed, old paradigms were being broken, and new realities were being forged.

Paddlers wanted to be a part of it, and as a result NOC rapidly amassed a deep bench of the most elite canoeists and kayakers in the country. It was one of the few places where paddlers could make their living at their sport.

“The cadre of people we had here was unbelievable in those early days,” said John Burton, a former paddling Olympian and one of the early NOC pioneers who still works at the company today.

The dizzying concentration of paddling greats at NOC created a buzz around the Nantahala that was integral to its early success.

“This has been the center of expertise in the paddling world,” one of NOC’s founders Payson Kennedy said.

NOC was appealing to paddlers who reveled in the minutiae of the sport — particularly as they experimented with new ways of teaching the growing masses, said Bunny Johns, another NOC pioneer and one of the top female paddlers in the country in the 1970s and early ‘80s.

Staffers would spend hours dissecting the mechanics and physics of paddling in order to hone their teaching techniques — translating the fluid, almost intuitive body movements into anatomical step-by-step instructions for beginners. Take the roll, for example, a move kayakers yearn to master.

“Before, it was like, ‘You do your body like this,’” Johns said, rotating her body and lunging her arms in the mock-movement of a kayak roll.

Over dinner, instructors would share strategies for getting students to keep their head down through the roll, or how to pick up with their knee.

“They pioneered a fairly elegant way to teach people how to do the roll,” Johns said. “It was so exciting that people talked about it all the time.”

By year three, six of the paddlers from the 1972 U.S. Olympic team were staffers at NOC, launching a tradition of greatness on the Nantahala that persists today.

Kennedy admits he can’t take credit for the strategy, however.

“It just kind of happened,” he said.

What began as an accident proved an invaluable business strategy.

“It established real street credibility,” said Mark Singleton, the head of NOC’s marketing department from 1990 to 2002.

Come to NOC, and you would be paddling among the greats. But by the 1990s, the company was getting further removed from that aura.

“You had to go back to the first 1972 Olympics to get that,” Singleton said.

Not wanting to rest on past laurels, NOC leaders realized they needed to proactively position themselves at the center of the elite paddling world.

Further, the paddling competition of the 1996 summer Olympics would be staged on the nearby Ocoee River. It was a time to shine, and an opportunity they didn’t want to squander.

“We wanted to have a big presence around that close-by Olympics,” said Wayne Dickert, a top national paddler and whitewater author who worked at NOC for two decades.

The challenge, however, was to consciously replicate the natural attraction and draw NOC had for pro paddlers in its early days. NOC no longer had a lock on the river outfitter market for paddlers wanting to make their living on the water while training. There were other places they could go and have access to whitewater as a job perk.

To lure them, NOC put up the money to hire and pay a director for the Nantahala Racing Club in the early 1990s and continuing through 1996. Anyone racing under the banner of the club would have access to a formal instructor, training regimen and organizer.

“Before, it was just a bunch of NOC staffers, a bunch of guys who said ‘Hey, we are the Nantahala Racing Club,’” Dickert said.

The plan worked. Ultimately, six out of the seven paddlers on the 1996 Olympic Team trained at NOC.

“It was a renewal of NOC’s commitment to the highest levels of the sport. It gave us something we could really hang out hat on in terms of our marketing,” Singleton said. “It didn’t only drive business, although it was certainly very successful in that, but it also helped to reinforce an athletic culture.”

The man tasked with making it happen was Joe Jacobi, who was hired as that first-ever director of the Nantahala Racing Team. Jacobi knew first hand what a great place NOC was to work while training. Jacobi came to NOC as a dishwasher in 1989 while training as an Olympic hopeful for the ’92 games.

“It was the perfect job to do while training,” Jacobi said, who washed dishes in the morning and evening and filled his days with river workouts.

Jacobi was 19 when he came to NOC, and he describes those early years as magical. He lived in company housing, had a company meal plan, used the company laundry. He didn’t have to worry about the hassles of normal life, like grocery shopping or commuting to work. His life was self-contained and revolved around the river.

“The support of the NOC community, I couldn’t put words on what that meant to me,” Jacobi said.

One of the biggest perks he remembers: the company meal plan.

“When you are training, you get hungry a lot, and the whole food thing was very appealing to us,” Jacobi said.

Aside from the food itself was the dinner table conversation.

“The quality of conversation we would get into about kayaking and paddling and how paddling was taught and sold and how you would accomplish results on the elite side of it was stimulating and engaging,” Jacobi said.

Meanwhile, the star paddlers were worth their weight in gold when it came to NOC’s appeal for guests. Sutton Bacon, who would later become NOC’s president and CEO, paddled on the Nantahala as a child during those years. Bacon ticked off the Olympic paddlers he rubbed elbows with as a boy while paddling on the same river as them — there’s been 22 Olympic paddlers on NOC’s staff in all its 40-year history.

“I remember NOC vividly in the ‘90s, which in many ways was the heyday of NOC,” Bacon said. “Part of it I would have to caveat as nostalgia, but there was an electricity. All the paddling experts who were writing the books and producing videos were NOC staff members. That level of energy was probably the biggest remembrance as an NOC guest years ago that I want to make sure we replicate today.”

Horace Holden’s ‘hunch’ pays off

Horace Holden remembers the deal like it was yesterday.

He set out from Atlanta with a few blank checks in his pocket and a portable typewriter on the back seat of his car. He checked in to his favorite room in the 14-unit Tote ‘n’ Tarry motel, a mom-and-pop on the banks of the Nantahala River that catered to paddlers, and waited for an innocuous moment to strike up a conversation with the owner, Vincent Gassaway.

“I didn’t want him to think I was very interested,” Holden recalled. “I said, ‘How did your summer go?’ and he said, ‘Not too well.’ I said, ‘Well, you’ve never thought of selling this place have you?’ And he said, ‘Well I’ve thought about it.’”

A few minutes later, Holden went back to his room, typed up a contract and wrote a $1,000 check as earnest money to buy Gassaway’s motel, gas station and 40 acres on the river.

Forty year later, as Holden toured the grounds of the Nantahala Outdoor Center flashing his signature charismatic smile to the throngs of tourists and seasonal employees already swarming the place in these early days of summer, it’s easy to see how Holden transformed the isolated gorge into a bustling outfitter’s campus and one of the most successful river operations in the country.

He’ll claim the recipe for success lay with the Nantahala itself. But in fact, it was Holden’s own infectious idealism that carried the vision forward.

Holden had been staging paddling races on the Nantahala River since 1969. By 1971, the race was attracting hundreds of paddlers eager for competition venues in the growing sport of whitewater.

“The third year I said ‘Let’s call it the Southeastern championship,’” Holden recalled. “They said ‘You can’t do that.’ I said, ‘Why not? It’s the Southeast.’”

If Holden can think it up, he’s apt to try it.

Years later, Holden learned that Gassaway had bragged about the deal to the owner of a filling station up the road.

“Finally, I found somebody who was fool enough to buy the place,” Gassaway allegedly said of Holden.

Holden simply had a hunch — a hunch something here would work. What exactly, he wasn’t quite sure, but something.

At the time, Holden ran a summer camp in Georgia, and originally envisioned the Nantahala as a great outpost for his camp. Or maybe as a whitewater teaching center and paddling clinics for canoe clubs.

For good measure, Holden figured he could always serve up guided raft trips to help cover the annual mortgage.

But Holden, who was dedicated to running his summer camp, realized he needed a partner. He turned to his childhood friend, Payson Kennedy. The two had attended church together as boys.

“He was honest as the day was long,” Holden said, when asked why he picked Kennedy. Plus, Holden thought, Kennedy worked at Georgia Tech and had his summers off, giving Kennedy flexibility to oversee the yet-to-be-determined venture on the Nantahala.

“I asked him ‘Would you like to start a little canoeing operation?’” Holden recounted.

Kennedy was already looking for a lifestyle change and was about to go work for Outward Bound wilderness school when Holden approached him. Kennedy sold his house to raise money to become a co-founder of NOC along with Holden. The two would ultimately remain the majority stockholders for 40 years.

When asked about how he knew it would work, Holden says he didn’t.

“You can’t know. You can never know,” Holden said.

Somehow, though, it seems like he did.

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.

“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.

NOC forges ahead with new ownership team

A group of new owners has taken the reins of Nantahala Outdoor Center, a generational milestone for the outfitter that has grown from a small fleet of rafts in the early 1970s to a diversified multi-million operation under the leadership of its two founders.

The recent sale has transferred majority control to a new group of owners — six businessmen from the Atlanta area who are merging their love of outdoor recreation with their business and investment acumen. One of those investors is NOC’s own Sutton Bacon, who has been the CEO for five years.

“All the investors including myself have young children and want to expose their own families to the outdoor lifestyle,” Bacon said. “It is a terribly exciting time. We see NOC as being uniquely positioned to reconnect American families to the outdoors.”

Forty years ago, it would have been a long shot to predict the scrappy operation launched by a couple of river rats would spawn a booming whitewater industry in Western North Carolina and catapult the Nantahala into an international paddling destination.

The storied legacy of those founders, Horace Holden and Payson and Aurelia Kennedy, will continue at NOC. They will retain partial but now minority ownership of NOC and keep their seats on the company’s board of directors.

While they plan to stick around and see that their founding philosophy and vision for NOC lives on, they are now entering their 80s and were ready to take a step back.

As NOC celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, the new owners plan on being around for the next 40, Bacon said.

“There is no divestment prospect. We aren’t thinking ‘let’s shape the company up and sell it in seven years for more than we bought it for,’” Bacon said. “This is a long-term hold.”

Bacon deserves credit for brokering the deal. He tapped old friends from the Atlanta business circles he once traveled in as a management consultant. Those friends in turn brought a couple more to the table, ultimately amassing a group of six like-minded investors.

The identity of all the investors isn’t public for now, but Bacon ticked off a quick list of their business backgrounds and expertise. Their collective resumes include investment banking, law, private equity, marketing and real estate experts.

As a true test of their mettle, the investors spent a week at NOC last year going through raft guide training school, getting wet and learning first hand what the frontline of NOC is all about.

By all accounts, the investors weren’t the only ones doing their due diligence during the year-long courtship. Likewise, the Kennedys and Holdens, intent on finding suitors who shared their philosophy, were sizing up the investors.

“The company intentionally wanted to bring on values-aligned investors,” Bacon said. “We wanted people to invest in the company, not just buy the company. I think our founders wanted to preserve their legacy and their heritage.”

The match is probably as good as it gets: businessmen willing and able to personally invest millions of dollars in a river outfitter don’t come along every day, especially ones who are philosophically vested in what NOC is all about.

NOC promotes individualism and the lifestyle of “work hard, play hard,” Bacon said.

For Bacon, his increased ownership share along with his continued role as CEO brings a lifelong passion full-circle. Before he was even big enough to lift his own kayak on top of the car, Bacon made regular weekend pilgrimages from Atlanta to kayak on the Nantahala thanks to an indulgent mother.

“NOC was my absolute favorite place on the entire earth,” Bacon said.

That drove him to cash in the big-city life and fast-paced business climate of Atlanta for life in Western North Carolina and a chance to steer the place he idolized as a child.

“It is an emotional connection I have had since a child,” Bacon said. “It was a very deliberate decision. It is a lifestyle.”

 

ESOP now NOC history

The new investors mark another type of transition for NOC: it will no longer be largely employee-owned.

Money put up by the investors allowed NOC to buy out the remnants of an employee stock plan the company had operated under for three decades.

The ESOP (employee stock ownership plan) had once been a hallmark of NOC.

“The company founders had a vision of employee participation in the company’s success from the very beginning,” Bacon said.

It was economically advantageous, but it had a larger social purpose.

“To foster a sense of esprit de corps, so staff would go the extra mile,” Bacon said.

For years, NOC wore its employee-owned status as a badge of honor.

“‘Employee-owned company’ was on all its letterhead and stationary,” Bacon said. “It was a significant cultural piece of NOC. It was something NOC was known for.”

But, NOC began phasing out the ESOP around 2002 when new legal and reporting requirements were imposed in the wake of Enron and Worldcom scandals.

“Regulations became extremely onerous,” Bacon said, and costly to administer.

While no new employees could buy in, those who already owned company shares through the ESOP remained on the books. At the height of participation, several hundred employees were enrolled in the ESOP and accounted for two-thirds of the company’s ownership. But recently the numbers had dwindled to just 60, most whom didn’t even work at NOC anymore.

“It no longer served its intended social or economic purpose,” Bacon said. “It was literally just costing the company money to keep the plan going. It was significant.”

At the time of the recent buyout, employee-owned stock accounted for about one-third of the company’s total ownership. Of those who still owned NOC stock, some receive a “significant” pay out, Bacon said.

“It has been a fantastic investment,” Bacon said of the ESOP. “It has outpaced in many years the stock market.”

NOC has 200 year-round full-time employees, but that swells to as many as 900 during peak season.

Of its huge seasonal workforce, about half are purely transient, mostly college students looking for summer jobs.

But, NOC also enjoys a core base of regular seasonal workers who return year after year, with just a three- to four-month hiatus in the winter.

“They are reliable and consistent and awesome and what makes NOC NOC,” Bacon said of their returning seasonal workers. “Even without the ESOP, NOC’s unique guest-centric culture will continue.”

 

NOC looks ahead to another 40 years

Nantahala Outdoor Center plans to build new on-site lodging on their campus in the Nantahala Gorge, thanks to working capital put up by a new team of investors.

Plans are still in the very early stages and will be developed during the coming year as part of a forward-looking strategic development process. The move will help NOC position itself as a full-service tourism destination and diversify its market.

NOC owns 450 acres on the river, but the footprint of its campus is only about 60 acres currently.

“We have a significant development opportunity. We are not landlocked in any way,” CEO Sutton Bacon said, despite otherwise being surrounded by national forest service land in Swain County.

NOC currently has lodging for about 200 people in bunkhouse style accommodations and mid-scale hotel rooms. The additional lodging will help NOC cater to a new demographic of tourist.

NOC also plans to invigorate its outdoor adventure line, not only in its traditional paddling arena but also in mountain biking, fly-fishing, outdoor photography, wilderness skills and other areas. NOC has already made forays into these new offerings over the past decade and plans to further ramp up its offerings as an outfitter of all things outdoors.

In the same vein, NOC will re-launch a line of guided international adventure travel excursions.

NOC has also seen success in two new outdoor retail storefronts, one in Gatlinburg and one in Asheville inside the Grove Park Inn, where guests can shop for outdoor gear and apparel as well as book outdoor adventure trips. NOC plans to capitalize on its well-known brand to augment the retail sector.

The company plans to bring in a consultant to help lead brainstorming sessions as it develops plans to carry NOC into the future.

“These are the things we know are going to be on the list, but there will probably be others,” Bacon 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 www.noc.com/live.

 

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.

www.freestylekayaking2013.com

A busy summer on the Nantahala River

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.

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