By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer
Whitewater releases from the Nantahala Lake dam will be suspended in October, forcing rafting outfitters downstream in the Nantahala Gorge to miss out on critical fall tourist season.
Rafting outfitters rely on a predictable flow of water released upstream by Duke Energy, which has a hydropower operation below the Nantahala dam. But starting Oct. 5, Duke will shut down its 67-year-old generator for maintenance and cease water releases.
“There’s going to be two to four weeks lost revenue for sure, and a lack of things for tourists to do,” said Steve Matz, owner of Adventurous Fast Rivers Rafting and president of the Nantahala Gorge Association.
Matz said he wishes Duke had held out on the repairs for a few more weeks.
“The community is a little unclear as to why this could not have been delayed until after the tourist season,” Matz said. “Especially in a recession year like this. It’s a tough year for everybody.”
Other rafting outfitters say that while they’re taking a hit, they understand the repairs must be done to avoid a more detrimental scenario.
Mark Thomas, owner of Paddle Inn, estimates he could lose as much as $15,000 by shuttering his business early. But he’d rather see Duke perform maintenance in fall than risk an unplanned shutdown in summer.
“If this thing broke during this time of the year, that $15,000 would turn into something much larger than that,” Thomas said.
Ken Kastorff, owner of Endless River Adventures, agrees.
“None of us were enthused, but when you take a look at the alternative and the chance of having a problem, it was for sure the lesser of two evils,” Kastorff said. “I wish it could have been done at a different time of year, but you have to consider, this isn’t taking your car to the mechanic. It’s a bit of a bigger job.”
In a press release, officials at Duke Energy expressed their reasoning that a three-month, planned outage is better than a six- to nine-month unplanned one. They also said they will limit the repairs to the tail end of the rafting season, and gave Gorge businesses plenty of advance notice.
“One of the things that we do proactively is let people know our intentions as early as we can,” said Fred Alexander, Duke’s district manager for community relations.
Piece of the tourism puzzle
Outfitters concede that October isn’t their cash cow, compared to, say, July.
“If you take a look at the whole scope of things, October really isn’t that busy a period of time,” said Kastorff.
But the month, which marks the end of the whitewater rafting season, is important for other reasons. Keeping people employed is a major one.
“It’s not peak season by any means, but it still helps feed those who are here,” Matz said.
Matz said the repairs will mean people who need to work “are cut short by a month, so there’s going to be more unemployment.”
While rafting itself may not be a big draw in the fall, the industry plays an important role as an entertainment option for the many tourists who flock to the mountains during leaf season. Fall color, the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad, and rafting together work to entice visitors to the far western region.
“In many cases, all three of those things go hand in hand with tourism,” said Kastorff. “Losing one of them I think is going to have a negative impact on the overall tourism of the area, and on hotels and restaurants.”
Rafting outfitters are figuring out how to compensate for the loss of business.
Thomas said his company is booking as many trips as possible prior to October while making sure to communicate the shutoff with customers.
“We’re just doing the best we can to get everybody on the river, and telling as many as we can that the river’s shutting off early,” Thomas said.
Kastorff said he’s concentrating on diversifying the activities his company offers.
“We’re going to go ahead and have a lot of other activities we’ll offer folks on the weekend,” like lake tours, kayak instruction, or day trips to other nearby rivers, said Kastorff.
Others are throwing up their hands in acceptance of the situation.
“There’s not a whole lot you can do,” acknowledged Matz.
However, the blow may be softened a bit by the fact that outfitters have already done surprisingly well this season, despite the shaky economy. Thomas, for instance, reports that June business was on par with 2008 numbers, and that July, “has just blown the lid off,” far exceeding numbers from the past few years.
“It’s been fantastic,” Thomas said.
Thomas’ case may be an exception, but other outfitters seem to be holding their own.
“I don’t think we’re setting any records, but I think we’re on track,” Matz said. “People are still spending money, and people are still here.”
Matz theorized that his guests are cutting out more lavish trips to the Bahamas or Europe in favor of low-cost getaways within driving distance, like Western North Carolina.
Nod to Duke
Repairs to the generator should be completed by December, Alexander said. Duke Power has already started lowering Nantahala Lake levels in anticipation of the repairs, though at a slower rate than was initially planned. By Aug. 15, the lake will be at 10 feet below normal levels. By Labor Day, it will sink to 35 feet below. By Oct. 5, the date repairs start, it will be 60 feet below normal.
While outfitters may grumble about the repairs, they do acknowledge that overall, Duke has been a good partner when it comes to managing the flows out of Nantahala Lake.
“It’s as good a flow as we’ve ever had,” Matz said. “We get really great, consistent flows, and they manage the lake levels really well.”
Thomas said that when the lake was under the control of Nantahala Power and Light, the former hydropower owner, the river could stop running without an explanation, leaving outfitters in a lurch. Thomas called Duke “a tremendous asset.”
“Nantahala Power did an okay job, but Duke is right on the money,” Thomas said.