For generations, the mountains reigned as the hotbed of summer camps the South. And a pilgrimage to the Nantahala was a ubiquitous part of camp, introducing thousands of youngsters to paddling in general and the Nantahala in particular.
The cut rates offered to camps meant NOC barely broke even on the trips. Given the strapped finances of the past decade, NOC stopped courting and catering to camps to the extent it used to.
“You look at it and, well, it didn’t make any money for us. But, it was shortsighted. These camps are the best place to develop paddlers,” Dickert said.
NOC two years ago began actively reaching out to camps, hoping to rekindle the relationship.
“There is a economic model there that will ripen and mature in 10 to 15 years,” NOC president Sutton Bacon said.
NOC has even helped camps build up their inventory of canoes and kayaks by pulling strings with gear manufacturers to give the camps cut rate deals. NOC landed discount prices better than they got for their own company.
Like NOC, the canoe and kayak makers saw the value in introducing kids to paddling.
“We wanted to give them the best resources possible to get kids outside,” Dickert said.
It’s not merely a long-range strategy to propagate future paddlers.
“It also is the right thing to do to get kids outside,” Bacon said.
Besides, Bacon remembers being that 11-year-old kid, walking into the outfitter’s store without a penny in his pocket, riffling through all the kayaking gear and asking staff a billion questions without buying anything.
“What I tell our guides often is to treat the summer campers and counselors with utmost respect. You never know if you are going to be taking your future boss down the river, as was the case with me,” Sutton said.
Connecting with summer camps is only part of a greater push at NOC to engage youth across all spectrums in the outdoors.
“It’s all about kids. It is all about inspiring the next generation of outdoor enthusiasts through our programs,” Bacon said.
Bacon is personally troubled by the growing phenomenon of nature deficit disorder among kids — a phrase that’s been coined to express the growing disconnect between kids and the outdoors.
NOC last year won the National Outdoor Industry Leadership Award for its initiatives to engage kids with the outdoors. The list of accolades in this department was more than two-pages long.
“NOC has grandiose plans. We want to change the world,” said John Burton, a long-time NOC employee.
His comment wasn’t tongue in cheek. Really — NOC does want to change the world.
“Of all the things we’re doing, that is the one that is nearest and dearest to my heart,” Sutton said.
A pro-active strategy to get kids involved with the outdoors is part and parcel with the re-invention of NOC.
Part of the effort is the Nantahala Kid’s Club, getting kids together to paddle on Saturdays and after school. They also have a kid’s paddling team and a surf school for kids learning freestyle paddling. Future Olympians could be born here.
“If it sticks for just five of them and they keep paddling, the benefits are huge across the board,” Burton said.