Bunny Johns became a paddler mostly by accident.

As a college freshman in the early 1960s, she’d lined up a summer job in her hometown outside of Atlanta but returned to discover the position had fallen through. Then a friend of hers called to say she’d been offered a job teaching swimming at Camp Merrie-Woode in Sapphire but didn’t want to go — maybe Johns, who had been a competitive swimmer in high school, would want to take her place?

Construction on an outdoor adventure park offering everything from rafting to ropes courses could begin in Dillsboro as early as April if the Jackson County Commissioners give final approval to the project following a public hearing at 5:30 p.m. Monday, March 20, at the Jackson County Justice and Administration Building.

Since the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Michal Smolen has been hopping continents to finish out the post-Rio racing season, but The Smoky Mountain News caught up with him for an email conversation about paddling, Olympic dreams and the value of American citizenship. 

Much of America spent Aug. 5-21 with eyes glued to a television, cheering on athletes from all corners of the country as they represented the red, white and blue in the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. 

SEE ALSO: A conversation with Michal

For the community of paddlers whose nucleus is the Nantahala Outdoor Center, one Olympic dream demanded especially rapt attention — that of 23-year-old kayaker Michal Smolen, a whitewater slalom favorite who cut his teeth on the waters of the Nantahala River. William Irving, president of NOC, well remembers his first experiences watching Michal paddle. At the time, Irving was the high performance director for USA Canoe/Kayak and Smolen’s father Rafal was the newly hired national team coach.

out frIf the stack of boxes piling up on the counter of the outfitter store at Nantahala Outdoor Center is any indication, thru-hiker season is coming fast. The parcels of food, reminders of home and creature comforts are welcome diversions from the travel-light lifestyle on the Appalachian Trail, where miles are many and luxuries are few. 

“A lot of people ask about what you’re thinking about [on the trail],” said Youngblood, an 18-year-old hiker whose off-trail name is P.J. Coleman, as he sorted through his just-opened box of mail drop goodies. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, you’re thinking about food.”

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. 

fr riverfloodThe recurring deluge of heavy rains has brought paddlers out of hibernation and onto Western North Carolina rivers over the past few weeks.

coverThe steep-walled gorge of Nantahala River may be one of the best spots to host a world class, extreme kayak competition — at least that’s what the organizers of the upcoming 2012 International Canoe Federation Freestyle World Cup final are hoping.

The competition, slated for Sep. 7-9 in front of the Nantahala Outdoor Center, will feature over more than freestyle kayaking, squirt-boating and canoeing athletes from more than a dozen countries, including Australia, Costa Rica, Slovakia, Japan and Russia. But the secret to making the river a churning pool of boat acrobatics and assorted water moves is hidden beneath the surface.

Summer camp. It’s how generations of NOC paddlers got their first taste of whitewater, a fateful moment that ultimately grew into a lifelong love affair with the Nantahala.

“So many people learned to paddle at summer camp,” said Wayne Dickert, a championship paddler and a national guru of paddling instruction.

“Summer camp,” he proclaimed, jabbing a thumb toward his chest, then ticked through a long list of NOC leaders during the years who likewise can credit summer camp with their attraction to paddling — from NOC’s three founders 40 years ago to its new CEO and president.

Of the many challenges faced by the Nantahala Outdoor Center during the past decade, one of the most troubling — and the most difficult to fix — has been a national decline in paddling.

NOC’s steady and robust growth since its founding in 1972 through the late 1990s followed a similar trajectory to the sport in general. But after nearly three decades of growth, paddling leveled out around 2000 and even declined as a pastime.

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