Can you hear me now? Broadband “critical” for Nantahala Gorge before kayaking championships

Organizers said this week that getting the Nantahala Gorge into this century when it comes to telecommunication capabilities is absolutely critical to successfully hosting the kayaking world championship in 2013.

The problem? There’s seems no easy answer to what’s for computer users a Bermuda Triangle of silence: seven or so miles of no broadband capability. Cell phones are equally useless in the steep-walled gorge where reception is unavailable.

Ten thousand visitors a day are predicted to descend into the gorge from Sept. 2-8, 2013, including reporters from around the world, to see the ICF Freestyle World Championships. And before that, the kayaking Junior World Cup will take place in September 2012  — with 5,000 to 6,000 people a day expected. Without broadband, reporters will be unable to cover the competition, which has a major following in Europe.

“We’re waiting on a miracle,” said Juliet Kastorff, owner of Endless Rivers Adventures, a whitewater rafting company in the Nantahala Gorge, of the possibilities of broadband capabilities throughout the area.

Short of that miracle, there also have been discussions with U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, to see if he can help apply, well, pressure on the powers-that-be to bring in broadband.

“Getting broadband access throughout the gorge is a huge priority,” said Sutton Bacon president and CEO of the Nantahala Outdoor Center, the region’s largest whitewater and outdoor outfitter.

Another priority is work on a water feature in the Nantahala. These championships are freestyle, which Bacon explained is similar to kayakers doing tricks and stunts akin to a snowboarders’ showoff on a halfpipe. There is a play feature currently on the Nantahala River, “The Wave,” that is situated near NOC. That has been simply the work of river guides and others hand-stacking rocks, which tend to be washed out in storms, Bacon said.

Firms have been hired to stabilize “The Wave” and “make it a world-championship feature,” he said, adding that the new trick area would not look much different from what’s available now, and would continue to be at the level of “Nantahala-style paddlers.”

McLaughlin Whitewater Design Group of Denver, with the help of local company Heron Associates, will develop the river feature. McLaughlin re-engineered the Ocoee River for the 1996 Olympics, and has extensive experience working with the U.S. Forest Service, Bacon said.

The committee overseeing the world championships has submitted a $200,000 request to Golden Leaf Foundation for money; Nantahala Outdoor Center has contributed $100,000; the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad has chipped in $25,000; the Swain County Tourism Development Authority $70,000; and Duke Energy, $5,000. Smoky Mountain Host will contribute cash, plus in-kind work, according to organizers.

Business, tourism and economic development leaders hoping to capitalize on these events met Thursday (March 24) in Stecoah to continue planning for them and to discuss marketing plans.

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