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?
Adam Clawson of Bryson City spent some of his best days on the water. At 8 years old, he tied a rope around the middle of an old inner tube to fashion a canoe, and with a borrowed paddle, learned to maneuver the rapids of the Nantahala River.
The Nantahala Racing Club is all about ensuring future generations have a love and appreciation for whitewater recreation, and a new grant will allow the nonprofit to fulfill that mission for youth living on the Qualla Boundary.
Ami Shinitzky, developer of Mystic River, understands why all eyes are on him as he works to develop lots for luxurious homes along the banks of the Nantahala River.
As someone who bought the property to enjoy the natural beauty of the Nantahala Gorge, he said, he has just as much vested interest in protecting the river.
When they bought up prime lots in the Mystic Lands development in Swain County, property owners envisioned living in a peaceful setting as close to nature as they could get.
Tom Anderson barely batted an eyelash when he plunked down $300,000 in cash for a tiny lot along the Nantahala eight years ago in the Mystic River development.
The 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.
As Tommy Yon carried his kayak up the side of a waterfall in Tennessee, he tried not to over-think the 100-foot drop that awaited him.
“I didn’t want to hesitate and psych myself out,” said Yon, who lives along the Nantahala River in Swain County.
Bald River Falls is not a commonplace run for kayakers. But, something in Yon told him that he could make it, that he needed to try it.
“I guess I was just feeling it that day,” Yon said.
To the non-paddling spectator, Yon’s daredevil stunts might seem like a leap of faith, more of a free fall with a kayak around his waist. But in an instant, he sized up which ledges to aim for, which rocks to avoid. He calculated the likely thrust of the boat and where it would hit as it pummeled down the falls into the roaring, churning froth below.
With three people running safety at the bottom of the falls in case something went awry, Yon climbed into his boat. Butterflies collected in his stomach, and he prayed to God that his intuition and calculations were correct. And, they were. Yon floated down the 100-foot waterfall as if it was a mere 20-footer. Everything was in slow motion, Yon said.
The day had started as a laid-back and relaxing kayaking trip with friends. But, when Yon drove along Tellico River Road, he stopped the car without warning halfway across a bridge overlooking Bald River Falls. Yon saw the line and knew what to do — how he could safely navigate the precipitous drop of a 100-foot waterfall. And, his intuition and knowledge served him well that day.
With about 20 years of experience under his belt, Yon, a professional freestyle kayaker, has cultivated a mixture of instinct, physics and practice that allows him to dare such feats.
The 27-year-old Nantahala native grew up along the river, helping his mom and dad at their boiled peanut stand that sat about mile away from the Nantahala Outdoor Center. Everyday, or nearly everyday, Yon would sneak away from the stand along U.S. 19 and watch groups of people take to the water.
Although kayaking does not define who Yon is, his love of all things water-related is undeniably a major part of his life. Yon has been on the water since he was 7 years old.
“That is all I wanted to do is be in the water,” said Yon, who works as a rafting guiding and soon as a kayaking instructor at Nantahala Outdoor Center.
“It makes me so excited to see someone almost touching base with something,” Yon said, adding that he loves giving people a few words of advice or little nudge that helps them conquer a move.
Yon is a first-rate paddler of all manners, from steep-ass creek paddling to swift down-river slalom. But his forte — one that happens to be in the limelight right now — is freestyle paddling. In freestyle paddling, kayakers perform tricks for a certain period of time and are scored based on difficulty and variety.
“Freestyle, to me, is like a different form of walking or dancing or skating or doing anything, but you’re on water,” Yon said. “I feel more balanced an controlled on water than I do on my own two feet. I’m a klutz when it comes to land.”
Yon is an ideal example of an outlier, as defined by author Malcolm Gladwell. He has put in his 10,000-plus hours and like any successful person, takes his passion for something to a whole new level.
About age 7 or 8, Yon’s dad bought him a ducky, an inflatable kayak of sorts, and then, he slowly accrued enough gear to get his first kayak.
Yon said he practiced everyday unless he had gotten himself good and worn out.
“I maybe missed one day a week, two days a week. Maybe,” Yon said.
Yon soon began learning rolls, where you intentionally capsize the kayak and then return to the upright position, and then doing enders, where the front of the kayak is plunged into the water and the boat stands up vertically.
“From then forward, I went full forward into kayaking and never looked back,” Yon said.
Although practice makes perfect, Yon said he spends more time on land thinking about the physics of a trick — a McNasty or Donkey Flip or Phoenix Monkey — before he takes to the water to try it.
“I spend more time out of the boat than in the boat thinking about it,” Yon said.
For him, it’s about being able to visualize himself mastering a move, using his mind’s eye to watch how the position of his paddle affects his trajectory. Yon talks about kayaking the way a chess master might discuss his strategies. He puts a large amount of forethought into the combination of tricks he performs at competitions.
“I need to be thinking about when I do a move here where I am gonna land and what move is possible over there,” Yon said.
Although his plans may change once he gets on the water, Yon is never unprepared.
“I have done everything in kayaking as I possibly could because I have wanted it. I have wanted it for myself,” Yon said. “This is the lifestyle that I chose, and I love it.”
Of all the tricks he has performed and the places he has traveled, Yon said the crowning moment of his kayaking career was attaining pro-status several years ago.
“Being able to do all the trick of all the people that I followed who were my heroes,” Yon said. “I am paddling better than I have ever dreamed of paddling. I am happy.”
Yon is a member of Team Pyranha and competes in freestyle kayaking competitions around the U.S. And, unlike other sports, like hockey or football, the competition remains friendly.
“We are out there to encourage people,” Yon said.
If someone lands a complicated trick or combination, everyone is cheering him or her on, Yon said. In freestyle competitions, each kayaker racks up points based on a few set tricks that the judges expect to see, how they combine tricks into a continuous move and on other maneuvers that they toss into the mix.
About 60 kayakers are expected to compete in this year’s Nantahala Outdoor Center Freestyle Shootout from April 20-22 in the Nantahala Gorge near Bryson City.
The Shootout will be a trial run, although on a much smaller scale, of world freestyle paddling championships being held on the Nantahala in September of 2012 and again in 2013.
“The Freestyle Shootout is always a highly competitive event, and we look forward to athletes turning up the heat this year as they ramp up their training for the Worlds,” said Zuzana Vanha, event coordinator with the Nantahala Outdoors Center.
The NOC Freestyle Shootout will be the first official freestyle event to be held at the newly enhanced Nantahala Wave, designed for the upcoming World Cup in 2012 and World Championship in 2013.
The Wave is manmade contraption below the surface that changes the contour of the river bottom and kicks up waves and holes for kayakers to do tricks on.
Paddlers have been toying with the contraption to get the best wave results. A final model isn’t yet settled on.
“This event will give athletes an opportunity to give feedback about the (Wave) and express their opinions about what they would like to see as the Nantahala Gorge Organizing Committee prepares for the final round of fine-tuning,” Vanha said.
The NOC is expecting several hundred spectators during the course of the weekend, Vanha said.
Athletes get two 45-second runs to do their tricks, but the number of rounds will depend on athlete participation. The top winners from Saturday’s round will go on to the finals Sunday.
Freestyle paddling competition begins at 11 a.m. both Saturday and Sunday. Other event highlights include:
• Paddler Feedback Session at 6 p.m., April 20, at Slow Joe’s Café. An opportunity for athletes to make their opinion heard as the Nantahala Gorge Organizing Committee prepares for the final round of fine-tuning on the Nantahala 2013 Wave.
• Chris Gratmans, of TerraVida Threads, will discuss the psychology of paddling at 7 p.m., April 20, at Slow Joe’s Café.
• The Science of Hydraulic Engineering beside The Wave at 2 p.m. April 21.
• Stand up Paddleboard Head-to-Head Race at 6 p.m., April 21, at the near Slow Joe’s Café. Competitors will negotiate a slalom course on their way down stream.
• Dagger Dash Attainment Race at 2:30 p.m., April 22.
Slow Joe’s Café will offer live music each night starting at 8 p.m.
The weekend will also feature Demo Days, the NOC’s annual spring vendor fair and gear demo event. Guests can choose from more than 60 boats and test-paddle them for free on the Nantahala throughout the weekend. Manufacturer representatives will be on hand to answer questions about the gear, and the Outfitter’s Store will be offering deals on kayaks and accessories.
A group of new owners has taken the reins of Nantahala Outdoor Center, a generational milestone for the outfitter that has grown from a small fleet of rafts in the early 1970s to a diversified multi-million operation under the leadership of its two founders.
The recent sale has transferred majority control to a new group of owners — six businessmen from the Atlanta area who are merging their love of outdoor recreation with their business and investment acumen. One of those investors is NOC’s own Sutton Bacon, who has been the CEO for five years.
“All the investors including myself have young children and want to expose their own families to the outdoor lifestyle,” Bacon said. “It is a terribly exciting time. We see NOC as being uniquely positioned to reconnect American families to the outdoors.”
Forty years ago, it would have been a long shot to predict the scrappy operation launched by a couple of river rats would spawn a booming whitewater industry in Western North Carolina and catapult the Nantahala into an international paddling destination.
The storied legacy of those founders, Horace Holden and Payson and Aurelia Kennedy, will continue at NOC. They will retain partial but now minority ownership of NOC and keep their seats on the company’s board of directors.
While they plan to stick around and see that their founding philosophy and vision for NOC lives on, they are now entering their 80s and were ready to take a step back.
As NOC celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, the new owners plan on being around for the next 40, Bacon said.
“There is no divestment prospect. We aren’t thinking ‘let’s shape the company up and sell it in seven years for more than we bought it for,’” Bacon said. “This is a long-term hold.”
Bacon deserves credit for brokering the deal. He tapped old friends from the Atlanta business circles he once traveled in as a management consultant. Those friends in turn brought a couple more to the table, ultimately amassing a group of six like-minded investors.
The identity of all the investors isn’t public for now, but Bacon ticked off a quick list of their business backgrounds and expertise. Their collective resumes include investment banking, law, private equity, marketing and real estate experts.
As a true test of their mettle, the investors spent a week at NOC last year going through raft guide training school, getting wet and learning first hand what the frontline of NOC is all about.
By all accounts, the investors weren’t the only ones doing their due diligence during the year-long courtship. Likewise, the Kennedys and Holdens, intent on finding suitors who shared their philosophy, were sizing up the investors.
“The company intentionally wanted to bring on values-aligned investors,” Bacon said. “We wanted people to invest in the company, not just buy the company. I think our founders wanted to preserve their legacy and their heritage.”
The match is probably as good as it gets: businessmen willing and able to personally invest millions of dollars in a river outfitter don’t come along every day, especially ones who are philosophically vested in what NOC is all about.
NOC promotes individualism and the lifestyle of “work hard, play hard,” Bacon said.
For Bacon, his increased ownership share along with his continued role as CEO brings a lifelong passion full-circle. Before he was even big enough to lift his own kayak on top of the car, Bacon made regular weekend pilgrimages from Atlanta to kayak on the Nantahala thanks to an indulgent mother.
“NOC was my absolute favorite place on the entire earth,” Bacon said.
That drove him to cash in the big-city life and fast-paced business climate of Atlanta for life in Western North Carolina and a chance to steer the place he idolized as a child.
“It is an emotional connection I have had since a child,” Bacon said. “It was a very deliberate decision. It is a lifestyle.”
The new investors mark another type of transition for NOC: it will no longer be largely employee-owned.
Money put up by the investors allowed NOC to buy out the remnants of an employee stock plan the company had operated under for three decades.
The ESOP (employee stock ownership plan) had once been a hallmark of NOC.
“The company founders had a vision of employee participation in the company’s success from the very beginning,” Bacon said.
It was economically advantageous, but it had a larger social purpose.
“To foster a sense of esprit de corps, so staff would go the extra mile,” Bacon said.
For years, NOC wore its employee-owned status as a badge of honor.
“‘Employee-owned company’ was on all its letterhead and stationary,” Bacon said. “It was a significant cultural piece of NOC. It was something NOC was known for.”
But, NOC began phasing out the ESOP around 2002 when new legal and reporting requirements were imposed in the wake of Enron and Worldcom scandals.
“Regulations became extremely onerous,” Bacon said, and costly to administer.
While no new employees could buy in, those who already owned company shares through the ESOP remained on the books. At the height of participation, several hundred employees were enrolled in the ESOP and accounted for two-thirds of the company’s ownership. But recently the numbers had dwindled to just 60, most whom didn’t even work at NOC anymore.
“It no longer served its intended social or economic purpose,” Bacon said. “It was literally just costing the company money to keep the plan going. It was significant.”
At the time of the recent buyout, employee-owned stock accounted for about one-third of the company’s total ownership. Of those who still owned NOC stock, some receive a “significant” pay out, Bacon said.
“It has been a fantastic investment,” Bacon said of the ESOP. “It has outpaced in many years the stock market.”
NOC has 200 year-round full-time employees, but that swells to as many as 900 during peak season.
Of its huge seasonal workforce, about half are purely transient, mostly college students looking for summer jobs.
But, NOC also enjoys a core base of regular seasonal workers who return year after year, with just a three- to four-month hiatus in the winter.
“They are reliable and consistent and awesome and what makes NOC NOC,” Bacon said of their returning seasonal workers. “Even without the ESOP, NOC’s unique guest-centric culture will continue.”
Nantahala Outdoor Center plans to build new on-site lodging on their campus in the Nantahala Gorge, thanks to working capital put up by a new team of investors.
Plans are still in the very early stages and will be developed during the coming year as part of a forward-looking strategic development process. The move will help NOC position itself as a full-service tourism destination and diversify its market.
NOC owns 450 acres on the river, but the footprint of its campus is only about 60 acres currently.
“We have a significant development opportunity. We are not landlocked in any way,” CEO Sutton Bacon said, despite otherwise being surrounded by national forest service land in Swain County.
NOC currently has lodging for about 200 people in bunkhouse style accommodations and mid-scale hotel rooms. The additional lodging will help NOC cater to a new demographic of tourist.
NOC also plans to invigorate its outdoor adventure line, not only in its traditional paddling arena but also in mountain biking, fly-fishing, outdoor photography, wilderness skills and other areas. NOC has already made forays into these new offerings over the past decade and plans to further ramp up its offerings as an outfitter of all things outdoors.
In the same vein, NOC will re-launch a line of guided international adventure travel excursions.
NOC has also seen success in two new outdoor retail storefronts, one in Gatlinburg and one in Asheville inside the Grove Park Inn, where guests can shop for outdoor gear and apparel as well as book outdoor adventure trips. NOC plans to capitalize on its well-known brand to augment the retail sector.
The company plans to bring in a consultant to help lead brainstorming sessions as it develops plans to carry NOC into the future.
“These are the things we know are going to be on the list, but there will probably be others,” Bacon said.
The common phrase heard among kayakers daring the Nantahala’s new wave: “It’s getting there.”
The Wave in the Nantahala Gorge received an overall lukewarm response from paddlers during a formal unveiling Friday. Most kayakers said they liked the apparatus, which creates waves and holes for doing tricks and stunts, but definitely think it could improve.
“Every time they tweak it, it keeps getting continually better,” said Jared Smith, a 29-year-old who has been kayaking for three years. “They still got a little bit of work to do before it’s world class, but it’s definitely getting there.”
The Wave needs to be “fluffier and smoother,” he said, adding that the experts need to adjust dams on either side of the wave or adjust how the water flows from upstream.
“When they get it done, it’s going to be a lot more user friendly to intermediate paddlers,” Smith said, adding that once they perfect The Wave he will be on the Nantahala all the time. Though, he said, it is hard to imagine kayaking more than he already does.
Daniel Dutton, 34, said his first experience on the new wave was “OK” compared to what he expected. The debut of the new wave on the Nantahala has been highly anticipated for months.
In the past, the water sport enthusiasts created waves and holes by stacking up rocks underwater by hand. These different features set the stage for freestyle kayaking — a paddling sport characterized by technical tricks and highly stylized moves such as spins, turns, cartwheels and flips.
Dutton is one of the many kayakers who used to help move rocks in the riverbed to create the wave near the Nantahala Outdoors Center before the new mechanical element was installed at a cost of $300,000, mostly paid for with a Golden Leaf Foundation Grant.
“It’s progress,” said Dutton, who has kayaked for nearly 20 years. “It needs to be tuned a little bit more. Right at this time, it’s a really short and fast in the middle.”
Pro paddlers descended on the river last week to test it out and offer their feedback. That feedback is exactly what organizers were looking for.
The Wave will serve as the site of two world championships in the next two years — the 2012 World Cup of Freestyle Kayaking and the 2013 World Freestyle Kayaking Championship. Honing The Wave is a top priority before the events.
“This thing is going to be fantastic, but it’s going to take some time,” said Lee Leibfarth, head of the world’s organizing committee and NOC’s chief operating officer.
They will not tune The Wave again for another couple of weeks as they process the paddlers’ input and wait for lower water levels. The tuning will involve, among other things, changing the configuration of concrete blocks — a sort of cross between giant stairsteps and piano keys bolted to the main foundation of The Wave, Leibfarth said.
Although it’s still a work in progress, The Wave is getting closer and closer to professional quality.
“From all the steps we’ve gone through in the last month, this is the best we’ve had so far,” Dutton said.
The team of experts from McLaughlin Whitewater Design Group, who masterminded the contraption’s creation, and area water sport enthusiasts will keep working on The Wave this week, he said, guaranteeing that they will get it to produce the effects that kayakers want.
“These guys don’t quit. They’ve all been very dedicated to it. So yeah, they won’t stop until we’re real happy,” Dutton said.
Several kayakers complained that they hit The Wave’s concrete ledge when attempting to perform tricks, making it more difficult for freestyle kayakers to use it for its intended purpose.
“It seems like if you plug to do a loop … I tend to hit the bottom level of concrete blocks,” said Rowan Staurt.
At 15, Staurt was by far the youngest kayaker testing The Wave Friday but not the least experienced. Stuart, whose parents kayaked, began liking the sport about five years ago.
“It’s hard not to, growing up around here,” Stuart said.
She was one of the few who said she currently preferred the old man-made wave.
“I don’t love it,” Stuart said. “I think it’s kind of hard to stay in it, and it’s not retentive.”
Stuart said the old wave allowed kayakers to stay in it longer and was easier to learn tricks on. She also suggested that the makers add some wing dams to the eddies, where people wait for their turn to show their chops, so that the kayakers are not hitting each other.
A positive of the new wave, however, is that high water will not affect it. With the old hand-built wave, the force of the water during high flows would shift the rocks, forcing them to start the process of making a wave again. Once The Wave is adjusted, it will stay in place.
Ryan Baudrand, 37, said Friday’s version of The Wave is a “big improvement from what it was on day one.”
The first day kayakers were allowed to test the waters, the river was sticky, meaning it was easy to ride for a longer period of time, but it was also aggressive. By Friday, The Wave was “more friendly” but had a smaller pocket for performing tricks, said Baudrand, who works for Endless River Adventures and has ridden on the Nantahala for 14 years.
Baudrand said he would like to see a bigger eddy, or waiting wing for riders, and more wave.
“I think probably they will have to get a little bit more water into it, to widen it — maybe widen the actual pocket of the hole,” Baudrand said.
Friday’s wave took on more of a smiley face shape and forced kayakers into one spot rather than giving them several places to perform their tricks.
“This is the only way it’s going to get better is people coming out here, practicing, trying, giving their input,” Baudrand said.