NOC celebrates three decades of guiding, training paddlers

Karen Chavez:

WESSER - Thirty years ago, Payson Kennedy made a splash in the classic river adventure movie "Deliverance."

Working with Burt Reynolds and running whitewater in a wood canoe as Ned Beatty's stunt double was fun, but when the filming ended, Kennedy turned his back on Hollywood.

"They were good athletes, especially Burt Reynolds," said Kennedy, 69, from his home in Bryson City. "They did an amazing job of learning to paddle and became proficient at it. I was fascinated to see how they did it, but one movie was enough."

Instead, Kennedy founded the Nantahala Outdoor Center in 1972 - the same year "Deliverance" was released - putting river running on the map. It turned out to be an auspicious year for whitewater paddling - the sport also made its Olympics debut in Germany and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Bill made waves in Congress. But nothing did more for the sport, and the outdoor recreation scene in Swain County and Western North Carolina, than NOC.

"Tourism is our No. 1 industry, and outdoor recreation is probably the No. 1 part of tourism," said Dick Schaddelee, executive director of the Swain County Chamber of Commerce and the Tourism Development Authority. "NOC is a huge part of that. The federal government has given us a service mark, `The outdoor adventure capital of the Great Smoky Mountains.' This is what we are."

"Deliverance" starred Reynolds, Beatty, Jon Voight and Ronny Cox as friends canoeing down a Southern Appalachian river who meet up with some no-good backwater locals. It is dark and disturbing, but it did for whitewater paddling what "A River Runs Through It" did for fly-fishing.

"That movie created a great deal of interest in river running," said Aurelia Kennedy, 68, Payson's wife. "Even though it portrayed the river as being dangerous and country people as being deviant, which is too bad, it didn't matter."

The movie was filmed on the Chattooga River, which starts in Jackson County near Cashiers and runs through remote, scenic country into Georgia. Kennedy, a professor at Georgia Tech, was well-known in the region for his paddling and was brought in to work on the movie. He was tall, dark, bushy- bearded and thin, in contrast to the short, stocky Beatty he doubled for. Kennedy shaved his beard, dyed his hair and wrapped girth-enhancing towels around his middle to run the Chattooga in an open wood canoe, over and over.

"Overall it looked realistic, but for an experienced paddler watching it, there were some unrealistic parts," Payson Kennedy said. "They ran rapids that looked continuous but never stopped to scout the river or bail water out of the boat."

Kennedy's big-screen appearance was no more than 20 seconds, he said. But his mark on whitewater outfitting has lasted 30 years.

Kennedy's friend Horace Holden bought property around the Nantahala River, which included the Tote & Tarry motel and restaurant. Holden asked the Kennedys to run the place during the summer of 1972. The couple and their four children moved to the Nantahala Gorge, returning each summer and moving to the area permanently in 1974.

Fed by a steady stream of "Deliverance" fans looking to paddle the Chattooga, as well as a rapidly growing interest in the sport, it didn't take long for NOC to start turning a profit. Family fuels NOC's beginnings

River running flowed through the Kennedy blood. Aurelia is by her own estimation the second woman to run Nantahala Falls, a Class III (think small waterfall), 5-foot drop on the Nantahala River. She did it at age 19 in 1953, in a wood and canvas open canoe. When she and Payson started the family rafting business, she was working as a first-grade teacher in Atlanta.

"I ran the restaurant. I never worked in one before, so I ran it like a big family and multiplied everything by eight," Kennedy said. "After three years and some tears, I found I was well-suited for it."

The River's End Restaurant still sits dangling partly over the Nantahala River near the NOC Depot. The Kennedys later added Slow Joe's Cafe across the river and the more upscale Relia's Garden.

From the beginning, all the Kennedy children guided raft trips on the Nantahala and Chattooga rivers. Oldest daughter Cathy Holcombe, now 46, still guides and still lives in staff housing on the Nantahala. She remembers the laid-back, outdoor-centered lifestyle her family led.

"The first winter up here was a high-water year," she said. "Every time my brother and I got up for school, the creeks were flooded. We woke up dad and told him we weren't going to school, we were going creek running. He went with us."

At age 18, Holcombe married NOC's first professional rafting guide, Jimmy Holcombe, and the two parented a new generation of paddlers. Their children, Andrew, now 21, and Jennifer, now 19, came into the world in NOC staff housing.

"I don't know if you get much more in the river than that," Andrew Holcombe said. "My mom took me out on the river for the first time when I was 6 months old and put me in the bottom of her raft."

Andrew Holcombe sat in a canoe at age 1, started kayaking at 8 and began to compete in freestyle kayaking when he was about 13. From ages 14 to 18 he guided rafting trips for NOC.

Last weekend, Andrew Holcombe took second place at the 2002 Teva Whitewater National Championship on the Ocoee River, the country's top freestyle kayaking competition. This earned him a spot on the national team that will compete at the World Championships in Austria next spring. When he's not kayaking, he attends Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va.

Though the senior Holcombes are now divorced, Jimmy Holcombe, 54, still teaches for NOC.

"We're still thought of as granola heads down here, but river running has become much more mainlined," Holcombe said. "When we started, you had to build your own boats and equipment. Now it's all readily available, the put-ins are accessible, the roads are better and lessons are available. It's still not as mainlined as skiing, but it won't ever be. It's a very exciting way to spend your time."

World-class reputation, laid-back lifestyle

NOC has grown from a mom-and-pop operation to the largest instruction company in the country, running guided raft trips on six Western North Carolina rivers - the French Broad, Nolichucky, Ocoee and Pigeon, in addition to the Nantahala and Chattooga. Dozens of other outfitters operate in WNC, but NOC is considered the region's leader, and is the largest employer in Swain County.

"We bring about 140,000 people a year down the rivers and employ about 500 staff members in the high season," said Craig Plocica, NOC's public relations director. "We estimate in the last 30 years we have taken about 2 million people out on the rivers."

In WNC, outdoor recreation is a $45 million a year business, Plocica said. Over the last five years NOC, an employee-owned company, earned between $12 million and $13 million a year.

NOC offers some of the country's most innovative paddling instruction in everything from flatwater and open canoeing to whitewater kayaking. Instruction manager Wayne Dickert, 43, competed in whitewater slalom in the 1996 Olympics and has worked for the company since 1986. He's retired from competition but still teaches kayaking in what he calls a cutting-edge company.

One of the ways NOC stays sharp is by developing new boats with manufacturers, such as the new Dagger GT, designed for beginning kayakers. "It has significantly increased the learning curve," Dickert said.

Another innovation is NOC's new Rapid Progressions kayak instruction program, which provides basic paddling and whitewater skills for novice kayakers in two- to 14-day courses, with a guarantee. If you don't learn the progression of skills, Dickert said, you have the choice of a full refund or getting more lessons until you do.

The center has outdoor gear retail stores in Wesser and Bryson City and a mail-order catalog, and branched out to form the Nantahala Racing Club, which competes worldwide. NOC also offers adventure travel trips across the country and to South and Central America, and sponsors competitions like the Knob Scorcher mountain bike race and the Tsali Challenge adventure races.

This month alone, NOC is featured in three national magazines - Paddler, National Geographic Adventure and Canoe & Kayak.

"NOC has a world-class reputation with their innovative instructional program," said Glen Bernard, publisher of Canoe & Kayak, the oldest and largest paddling magazine, which also turns 30 this year. "Their long-term commitment to youth and community programs have all contributed to their great success, and they've been instrumental in responsibly promoting the sport of paddling."

Since the beginning, NOC has attracted and produced national and Olympic paddling champions. The outdoor lifestyle NOC promotes creates an atmosphere where serious paddlers can work in their field while training for competitions or the Olympics.

Lecky Haller, 45, of Bryson City, is a former Olympic canoeist who has worked off and on for NOC since 1979, when he started guiding with his younger brother, Fritz Haller. Lecky Haller competed in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, and now coaches and works as NOC's race coordinator. He has never made much money at NOC but said that's not why he works.

"I like the atmosphere at NOC. There's a good kind of energy. When you see a company that's lasted 30 years, that's pretty good, especially with all the competing companies," Haller said. "Our lifestyle is simple. Where I'm getting rich is in seeing people enjoying the outdoors."

Looking toward the future

Larry Pitt, formerly the executive director of N.C. Outward Bound School, took over as NOC's CEO in September, charged with leading NOC into the 21st century.

"Where we're headed is to continue our leadership role in the industry. That requires continuous enhancement of our core businesses - rafting and paddle sports - and making sure we offer the best value to our customers. We're going to continue to attract and have at our company the top professionals in all areas of the company."

Many NOC employees have stayed through the years, but some have gone on to start their own businesses. Dana Bobilya, 25, worked at NOC's Asheville retail store, which closed earlier this year, where he helped establish the store's whitewater and sea kayak instructional programs.

Last year he and fellow Montreat College graduate, Jeremy Straley, 26, started Asheville Outdoors, leading outdoor adventures like rock climbing and whitewater and sea kayaking.

"I thought NOC was a great learning experience for me," Bobilya said. "I had this goal and dream of being involved in an outdoor retail setting as well as an outdoor instructional program, so working with them was really great to see how one of the nation's leaders (in the business) worked."

Bobilya and Straley want to branch out to the corporate world, bringing businesspeople to the outdoors.

"More corporations are realizing that the happiness and personal welfare of their employees extends into the work environment and causes them to be more productive and make their clients happier," Bobilya said. "It's a revolving door."