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.

Nantahala Gorge ready for the world

“The Nantahala River has been many things to many people, but it’s never been a World Championship destination,” said Joe Jacobi, CEO of USA Canoe/Kayak, the governing body for whitewater sports in America.

In April, the International Canoe Federation named the Nantahala River Gorge as the site of the 2013 World Freestyle Kayaking Championships, and while it may seem like a long way away, the outfitters, event organizers and regional tourist planners are already working feverishly to prepare.

For Jacobi, who won an Olympic gold medal in whitewater slalom in 1992, bringing the freestyle championships to the gorge is a double opportunity. The event could revitalize the Nantahala Gorge, the country’s cradle of whitewater competition, as a paddling destination. At the same time, it could raise the profile of whitewater freestyle for American audiences.

Freestyle kayaking, similar to vert-ramp skateboarding, features an athlete performing technical moves and tricks on a single feature. Instead of using a half-pipe, kayakers use rivers features like waves and holes. Freestyle moves are usually highly stylized spins, turns, cartwheels and flips that often involve the boater going completely airborne.

It’s the fastest-growing segment of whitewater competition, and bringing the championship to the gorge is a chance to mix old school and new school.

“The lure and the feeling that makes the Nantahala gorge special has never gone away,” Jacobi said. “It’s still a place that all paddlers have to go at some point.”

Winning the bid

Sutton Bacon, CEO of the Nantahala Outdoor Center, knows all about the gorge as a destination. His company sees a huge chunk of the approximately 200,000 tourists who travel the eight-mile stretch of river each year.

It was NOC, under Bacon’s leadership, that jumped on the opportunity to win the bid for the freestyle championships, which were held for the first time with the sanctioning of the International Canoe Federation in Thune, Switzerland, in 2009.

“I think this is something that will be transformational, not only for the gorge community but for the region,” Bacon said. “It will put Western North Carolina on display to the entire world.”

Bacon is quick to credit the greater community in the gorge and region for putting the bid together. While NOC took the lead, outfitters like Juliet Kastorff at Endless River Adventures, along with stakeholders like Duke Energy, the U.S. Forest Service, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and myriad local legislators, pitched in with letters of support and offers to help make the event a success.

Bacon said the gorge’s high profile as a paddling destination, its strong existing infrastructure, and its proximity to the population bases in Atlanta, Charlotte and Asheville contributed to the success of the venture.

The ICF, it turns out, wanted an American venue. The U.S. whitewater freestyle team has dominated the last few international competitions and the International Olympic Committee seems keen to emphasize the growing sport, as evidenced by the presence of its president Jacques Rogge at the medal stand in Thune.

If that event is an accurate indicator of the magnitude of the World Freestyle Kayaking Championships, the gorge can expect to host 500 international athletes and between 6,000 and 10,000 spectators per day. Scheduled tentatively for the second weekend in September, a time after the main tourism season on the river and just before the fall color season, the event will bring needed tourism revenue during a slow period.

But Bacon believes the recognition and long-term impact that come with hosting the event will be even more positive.

“In terms of impact of paddle sports, I’m as excited about before and after the event than the event itself,” Bacon said. “Our ability to start leveraging the event and all the international events that will start coming will give us the chance to promote the gorge as a destination.”

The Ocoee River in East Tennessee was the site of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics whitewater events. The river gained an international reputation as a result, but it has not seen the transformational economic boost that Bacon hopes the 2013 championships will engender in the gorge.

Juliet Kastorff, who runs Endless River Adventures and has been paddling in the gorge since the late ‘80s, says the larger success of the event depends on the extent to which the greater community in the gorge and the rest of Swain County embrace it.

“I think the challenge is getting organized and getting everybody fired up that this thing is going to be great for the community,” Kastorff said. “It cannot be perceived as an NOC event, but to a certain extent, it will be.”

The event may be perceived as an NOC event because it will be held at a play feature on the Nantahala River, “The Wave,” that sits in the middle of the NOC campus.

Kastorff said NOC deserves the lion’s share of credit for getting the bid, and now the community needs to do its part.

“They took the bull by the horns and put the bid together and then they brought it to the community,” Kastorff said.

She explained that that while the outfitter community may not have much to gain during the event, the restaurants, hotels, and cabin rental businesses stand to benefit tremendously.

Making it work

Part of the question surrounding how big and successful the event can be centers on how much money, time and energy the community needs to expend to pull it off.

Estimates vary widely.

Bacon believes the gorge is well situated in terms of the infrastructure on the river, lodging accommodations, and transportation options. He believes the play feature needs to be upgraded by solidifying the riverbed around it to make it as consistent as possible.

But there are larger considerations. The ICF was looking for a high-profile destination for its world championship event to raise the standard for the whitewater freestyle to a level that would enhance its bid to become an Olympic sport.

There are currently nine disciplines in the competitive whitewater world, but only two are sanctioned Olympic events.

Whitewater slalom, the competitive sport that put the Nantahala Gorge on the map in the ‘70s and ‘80s, is declining in popularity and at the same time moving towards artificial water parks like the U.S. Whitewater Center in Charlotte.

The Nantahala Gorge, with its relatively modest natural features, has been outgrown.

Kastorff said most outfitters were surprised when the bid was announced.

“Everybody’s first reaction was, ‘Are you kidding?’” Kastorff said. “But thanks to the fact that we have history and really dependable releases, the ICF saw the value in it.”

Kastorff believes the event can bring the kind of old energy to the gorge that made it the center of the U.S. whitewater scene for many years.

“There aren’t many improvements you can add to the gorge. The support for this event is not going to come from $5 million, it’s going to come from everyone pitching in and making it happen,” she said.

One of Bacon’s pressing concerns is the gorge’s lack of broadband access. The IOC expects Olympic-caliber events to be broadcast live via the Internet so fans all over the world can have access to it. With the current levels of broadband access in the gorge, that’s impossible.

David Huskins, director of Smoky Mountain Host — a nonprofit that serves as the destination marketing organization for the seven western counties — believes the gorge needs a significant makeover if the region is to profit form the 2013 World Freestyle Kayaking Championships.

For him, that starts with the river itself.

“Lets go from the put in to the take out and figure out how to make it a more exciting venue,” Huskins said.

In 2008, Huskins’ organization took the lead on a $60,000 study of how to revitalize the Nantahala Gorge, which has seen a 17 percent decrease in the number of paddlers and rafters over the last decade. Huskins thinks the river needs to be improved if it’s going to become an international draw, and that means, among other things, creating a Class V rapid.

“I’ve said it is a tired product, and it is a tired product. You have got to get people to want to return,” Huskins said.

The improvements Huskins is talking about will require raising a huge amount of money and would involve all of the federal stakeholders that have an interest in protecting the Nantahala River. A number of outfitters have been critical of the Smoky Mountain Host study, but Huskins thinks they’re missing the big picture. In short, the championships can be a game-changer for the region.

“We think it’s going to have a tremendous economic impact that will last for years,” Huskins said. “Not just in terms of revenues during the event but in terms of exposure and branding down the road.”

While Huskins is thinking of the event as a regional marketing push, long-time paddler and Swain County resident Bunny Johns is thinking back to the last time the gorge hosted an international event on the water.

It was 1990 and the participants in Project RAFT, Russians and Americans for Teamwork, were using paddling as a common ground to break through decades of Cold War tension. Johns helped organize concerts, dinners and school events that made the raft rally a community-centered gathering that energized the whole region.

For Johns, the recipe for success is simple.

“You need to decide what you’re going to do, establish a timeline for getting it done, and figure out how to get the right people involved,” Johns said. “It sounds like a long time away but it comes up fast.”

Indeed, as a result of winning the bid to host the 2013 World Freestyle Kayaking Championships, the Nantahala River will also host a 2012 qualifier event that will offer the chance at a test run.

For Jacobi, whose love for paddling gave him a love for the Southern Appalachians, the chance to invigorate the freestyle scene in the gorge makes him giddy.

“I’m not a serious competitive kayaker anymore,” said Jacobi. “Even though I like every discipline, I spend more time in a freestyle kayak that any other kind of boat.”

Bacon believes Jacobi’s story is a window into how important hosting the championships will be over the long run.

“We’ll hopefully have more of these kinds of athletes on the water who come here to train and stay and become leaders in our community,” Bacon said.

NOC to launch major new presence in Gatlinburg

Nantahala Outdoor Center is planning a major new outfitters store in Gatlinburg, tapping into the hub of one of the Smokies’ most bustling tourism markets.

NOC will call the 18,000-square-foot flagship retail store the Great Outpost. The new store will occupy an anchor position in Gatlinburg’s downtown shopping and entertainment district, which draws more than 14 million visitors annually. It will feature a wide selection of top outdoor apparel, camping, climbing, cycling, paddling, hiking and travel brands. It will become the largest retail store in Gatlinburg and add 55 new jobs.

The push not only marks a foray into a new geographic market, but also NOC’s continued diversification beyond rafting into all forms of outdoor adventure.

The Great Outpost will serve as a launching pad for whitewater rafting, whitewater and flatwater kayaking, fly-fishing, guided hiking, mountain biking, outdoor education classes and nature tours in the Smokies. It will also feature educational exhibits on outdoor education, the environment, and connect guests with outdoor clubs and conservation groups that help protect the Smokies.

The new store will follow green principles, including the prestigious LEED certification from the U.S. Green Building Council that certifies buildings for green design, construction, and energy efficiency.

NOC is the largest outfitter in the nation with half a million visitors every year.

NOC lauded as business hero during recession

The major venture into a new market during a recession landed NOC’s President and CEO Sutton Bacon a spot in the “Heroes of Small Business” Congressional hearing in Washington, D.C., last week.

“A downturn is a terrible thing to waste,” Bacon told the Congressional Committee on Small Business.

Throughout Bacon’s testimony he emphasized “innovating through the recession” by creating new product offerings and refining operational infrastructure to gain strategic advantage in the marketplace. The committee’s objective in the hearing was to examine the important role small businesses play in creating jobs and growing the economy.

According to a recent Western Carolina University study, NOC contributes $48 million to the economy of WNC and supports over 579 full-time jobs in a region that still reeling from a loss of traditional manufacturing jobs.

Bacon’s testimony emphasized the importance of outdoor recreation as a regional economic driver. According to the Outdoor Industry Association — of which Bacon is a board member — the outdoor industry sustains 6.5 million jobs and contributes $730 billion to the nation’s economy.

In his talk, Bacon also emphasized NOC’s commitment as a “green” business, and it’s dedication in connecting youth with nature and the outdoors.

Bacon’s testimony and more information on NOC’s Great Outpost are available at www.noc.com/greatoutpost.html.

Nantahala developer, paddlers at odds – again

Updated 1/22/20: The lawsuits between Mystic Lands landowners and developer Ami Shinitzky have since been resolved. Progess had been made on amenties and lots are still for sale. 

A conflict between river outfittters and a developer in the Nantahala Gorge has resurfaced, this time over a footbridge the developer hopes to build over part of the river to a private island.

Carrying on a tradition: New NOC president Sutton Bacon brings paddling, business savvy

By Michael Beadle

Sutton Bacon once had dreams of becoming a surgeon.

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