Sitting 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.
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 recurring deluge of heavy rains has brought paddlers out of hibernation and onto Western North Carolina rivers over the past few weeks.
The Nantahala Outdoor Center rose rapidly from a scrappy operation spawned by idealistic river rats in the 1970s to one of the largest and most renowned outfitters in the country. Now in its 40th year, NOC has struggled during the past decade to reconcile its founding philosophy — that of like-minded outdoors lovers carving out a living doing what they loved — with changing economic realities.
Will it decimate mountain beauty or open the economic flood gates?
Either way, the costly missing link of a four-lane highway through the remote southern mountains has hit a startling and potentially insurmountable roadblock. State and federal agencies are reluctant by some accounts — downright unwilling by other accounts — to issue essential environmental permits. Without them, the missing link can't go forward.
So for now, an 18-mile, $800 million highway through Graham County known as Corridor K is at an impasse.
Graham County is the final piece of a four-lane highway stitching together the seven, peak-pocked western counties before surging onward to Tennessee, blazing a pseudo-interstate from Asheville to Chattanooga.
The highway was envisioned nearly 50 years ago. Its purpose: to transform the far corner of Western North Carolina from an Appalachian backwater to economic prosperity.
"It was the same everywhere in Appalachia. It was just twisty two-laners, and it was a long trip to get anywhere," said Bill Gibson, the director of the Southwestern Commission, a governmental planning unit located in Bryson City for the seven western counties.
A lot has changed in the intervening decades, however. For starters, the region isn't exactly a backwater anymore. Also, environmental laws are much stronger, and road building is a lot more expensive.
But, Graham County is still clamoring for its promised piece of four-lane. Indeed, four-lane highways have been delivered to all the western counties except for Graham thanks to a special pot of federal road building money funneled to the region through the Appalachian Regional Commission since it was set up in the 1960s.
"I think to shortchange a small part of Western North Carolina of their opportunities is wrong," said Joel Setzer, head of the N.C. Department of Transportation for the western counties. "We got ours. We should care whether they get theirs."
Graham County's 18-mile missing link of the highway, pegged to cost from $700 to $900 million, is the most rugged, remote and environmentally challenging. The highway would bury streams and wetlands, cut into mountains and require a half-mile long tunnel.
Meanwhile, Graham County leaders blame their 18 percent unemployment rate and high poverty on the lack of a four-lane highway.
Graham County has come to view Corridor K as a silver bullet, the one thing separating it from the advances realized elsewhere in the mountains. If built, the county's unemployment and poverty would darn near solve themselves, leaders claim.
This easy fix to Graham's economic woes has proved anything but however.
"It has been studied to death," said Mike Edwards, the chairman of the Graham County commissioners. "It has been going on for four decades, and it has reached a point now where it is getting more and more difficult to justify building 18 miles of road."
So hard to justify, in fact, that the project has reached a stalemate. There's 10 different agencies, from the Environmental Protection Agency to the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, that can make or break the project by refusing to issue essential permits.
A few of these agencies are questioning whether the road is worth it. Given the price tag and environmental damage, will it truly bring the hoped for economic benefits?
"The regulatory agencies seem to be stuck," Gibson said. "They are saying why should we go through all this permitting if we aren't sure that the purpose and need really exists as was forecast? Will this realize economic development and improve lives? Is it true that this road is needed in the way that DOT now has it laid out?"
Economic development was once a driving force behind new highways. But, it is mostly touted as a side benefit these days rather than heralded as the sole purpose.
D.J. Gerken with the Southern Environmental Law Center in Asheville said it is rare to see road construction justified with economic development.
But, Setzer pointed out that was the rationale behind the four-lane highways in the seven western counties. From the bypass in Waynesville to the four-lane in Franklin, all were pursued for economic development under the banner of the Appalachian Regional Commission highway program.
"The purpose of the program was to end isolationism in the Appalachian region," Setzer said.
The question now, however, is whether that rationale is still relevant and will it work for Graham.
"It is not going to be the silver bullet they think it is," said Brent Martin, the Sylva-based Southern Appalachian director for The Wilderness Society.
State and federal agencies holding up the new highway have questioned whether there are other solutions to economic challenges in Graham County. They have also questioned whether the goal of ending Appalachian isolation when the highway was envisioned is still relevant today.
"It is doubling down with a half billion investment on an economic development plan from the 1960s rather than asking the question," Gerken said. "If Congressman Heath Shuler said 'I have half a billion to invest in Graham County economic development and just started taking ideas, I suspect you would get a lot better suggestions."
Building an $800 million highway for a county of 9,000 people is particularly problematic when there's no evidence to show it will accomplish economic development.
In a way, the state and federal agencies holding up the permits didn't have a choice, Gerken said.
"It is rare for a project to be so lacking in a clear purpose that the agencies are forced into this position," Gerken said. "The law states clearly that projects like this one cannot be given the required permits if there are practical alternatives that will cause less damage."
Nonetheless, the resistance by agencies to sign off on permits for the highway is unprecedented.
"I was a little surprised, but given the environmental impacts, these agencies are doing their job," Martin said.
Along with the run-of-the-mill road-building complaints that are par for the course in Appalachia — from despoiling historic farmsteads to fragmenting wildlife habitat — Corridor K in Graham County has some particularly sticky environmental challenges. It would mar views from the Appalachian Trail. It would cut through acidic rock with the potential to pollute streams. It would go through terrain that's steep even by mountain standards. And, it would require a half-mile tunnel.
Critics claim these would detract from the natural beauty Graham has to offer.
"I disagree with that, but I certainly understand the point of 'don't destroy what it is you are trying to enhance,'" Setzer said.
As for the tunnel, Setzer sees it as an environmentally sensitive solution. It goes under the Appalachian Trail, avoiding a major highway crossing for hikers. It could also be a possible tourism boon.
"There might be people who come to drive the road just to go through the tunnels," Setzer said.
Graham County leaders believe a four-lane highway is what separates them from their more prosperous neighbors — both literally and figuratively.
The county's unemployment rate of 18 percent is the highest in the state. It also has the highest rate of child hunger.
"That is my reasoning for trying to advance corridor K as soon as possible because of how destitute the area is," said Roger Shuler, a retired contractor in Robbinsville.
Graham is not only poor but small, with young people leaving to find work.
"The thing you always gave kids for a graduation gift was a suitcase," said Edwards, the chairman of the county board.
A four-lane highway could change that. It would not only bring business but quicker commutes to everything from shopping to jobs to Western Carolina University.
"When people think economic development, they think factories and four-lanes and tractor trailers. That is very narrow. It is also access to health care and access to education and access to tourism assets," said Ryan Sherby, planning liaison with the Southwestern Commission.
The biggie for many is access to medical care since Graham lacks a hospital.
"We have too many people being flown out of the community on an emergency helicopter at $15,000 a ride," said Edwards, a retired teacher and school administrator.
But with $800 million on the table, Graham County could build a hospital instead of a road. It could solve education woes by building a satellite university campus, Martin said.
"You could bring in an entire team of economists to come up with an economic development plan in Graham County for that much money," Martin said.
Some question whether the county has embraced the economic options at its fingertips now.
"What I would say to Graham County leaders is focus on what you have," said Julie Mayfield, director of WNC Alliance, a regional environmental group. She rattled off the diverse and unique outdoor tourism appeal of Graham County: the scenic Cherohala Skyway, Joyce Kilmer's giant trees, Lake Santeetlah, class V paddling on the Cheoah, Tsali mountain biking and the world-class motorcycle ride known as the Tail of the Dragon.
"We go to vacation in Graham County," said Mayfield, who lives in Asheville. "I am no PR expert, but I am confident I could design a tourism brochure for Graham County that would draw more outdoor recreation tourism."
While Graham County laments its plight as the only county in the state without a four-lane road, it's actually an asset, Mayfield said.
"I would celebrate that. I think there are a lot of people who would go to Graham County because it is a hidden gem," Mayfield said. "There is an audience there to be appealed to."
But, Edwards said the four-lane highway would actually help tourism if Graham County wasn't so hard to get to.
"The easier it is to get here the more likely they will come," Edwards said.
Graham County may be the last county without a four-lane — but it is also the last county that is completely dry. Even the grocery stores in Robbinsville don't sell beer or wine.
When asked whether the lack of alcohol could be a deterrent to young people staying in Graham County or hurting tourism, Edwards didn't deny it.
"It has been said by some, but that is a very volatile issue," Edwards said, adding there are no plans to change it.
Highway supporters in Graham blame outside environmentalists for holding up progress.
"They want to come and tell us, 'No you cannot build a road because it devastates our landscape,'" said Roger Shuler a Graham County resident.
These outsiders have packed the numerous public hearings on Corridor K over the years, painting a tainted picture of public opinion, said Edwards, chairman of the Graham County commissioners.
"The thing that gets me is there is always an outside influence that wants a say-so on what is going to impact us here locally," said Edwards. "We've been impacted from attorneys of every flavor of organization over the years.
I respect that, but the 9,000 people in my county have to be accounted for in the environmental argument. The people here have a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
That doesn't change the reality of environmental court challenges should the road proceed. In fact, the threat of lawsuits was among the concerns cited by resource agencies that are holding up the project as currently designed.
The road known as Corridor K has long been mired in a philosophical debate that on the surface pits outside environmentalists against more conservative locals.
But that would be over-simplifying things. Retirees lean both ways — some eager for quicker access to a hospital and others relishing the rural lifestyle.
Some multi-generation families in Graham are eager for progress the highway will surely bring, but others fear an erosion of their heritage and way of life.
Even the outdoor industry is torn. Getting tractor-trailers out of the paddling-crazed Nantahala Gorge would no doubt please some rafting companies and kayakers, who would no longer have to worry about the barreling freight traffic. But outdoor enthusiasts like the rugged nature of Graham County's prized recreation areas.
These debates are merely academic, however, as long as the state and federal agencies continue to dig in. Many local advocates for the project don't even realize it's in jeopardy, however.
"We think our chances are very good," said Antoinette Burchfield, with the local Corridor K Coalition. "We think it is going to be sooner than everybody realizes."
Birchfield knew nothing of the impasse with federal agencies about permits, asking whether that was the same as the lawsuits being threatened by outside environmental groups.
Birchfield has been going door-to-door to county commissioner and town board meetings in the seven western counties seeking an official endorsement for Corridor K. She has racked up an impressive number of formal resolutions from local government bodies, suggesting a majority of leaders in the region support their brethren in Graham County in its quest for a highway.
Ironically, the DOT's strategy to advance the highway has backfired. Instead of building the entire 18-mile missing link at one time, the DOT broke it into two roughly equal segments — one from Stecoah to Robbinsville and one leading on toward Andrews.
Only the first half is up for debate now. The other half — from Robbinsville to Andrews — would be years away.
"We didn't have the finances to go in and build the whole thing at one time because it is an expensive project," Setzer said.
Tackling one segment at a time was also seen as an easier route to dealing with environmental concerns. The drawn-out timeframe for the project meant the DOT had to keep revisiting its environmental assessments — first in the 1980s, again in the 1990s, and again a decade later. Redoing the environmental studies each time was a massive undertaking.
"We decided let's not do a plan that is going to have to be refreshed again. Let's separate it and do it in manageable chunks," Setzer said.
Agencies questioning the highway argue that the costs and environmental impacts should be analyzed in their entirety, not piecemeal.
Regardless, the DOT is now hamstrung by its piecemeal approach. If the DOT wants environmental impacts to be considered in standalone segments, the benefits must also be justified in standalone segments.
But, justifying the economic benefits of half a highway — the single 9-mile segment leading in to Robbinsville — hasn't worked.
"I think it is gong to be very difficult to quantify the economic impacts of building a four-lane road that will dead end in Robbinsville," Martin said.
Setzer agreed on that point. The economic benefits of the highway won't be fully realized unless both segments are built.
And, that begs the question: does building the first segment make the second segment a foregone conclusion?
The second segment is predicted to be even more expensive and environmentally challenging, but state and federal agencies fear they will be pigeonholed into approving it once the first one is already built, preventing a true analysis.
Setzer said tackling the entire missing link as a single project as some of the agencies want to do would essentially mean starting over — and would likely derail the process.
"It builds in certain delays and the longer you delay it the more apt funding will be seized for what somebody else thinks is more important," Setzer said. "We should allow the fragmentation to eventually get to the ultimate goal."
While opponents point to the sizeable price tag, money is not a hang up. The DOT has almost enough to build the first nines miles sitting in the bank, waiting on the green light. It has been saved up thanks to a special pot of federal highway dollars earmarked for the Appalachian region.
The money is burning a hole in the DOT's pocket and driving the project, according to critics.
"They either spend or they don't," Gerken said. "So they are trying to come up with a legitimate purpose for building this road."
The view is shared by at least some of the state and federal agencies.
"There are disagreements among the agencies about whether the project is really needed or is driven by the availability of Appalachian highway funding," states a report last year summarizing concerns of the agencies.
One of the agencies interviewed for the report said the special pot of money "creates a want without a substantiated need."
The DOT hit a stumbling block two years ago that in hindsight was a harbinger of more serious roadblocks to come. The Army Corps of Engineers, one of the many agencies that can make or break the project by denying permits, called for a partial do-over of the DOT's environmental analysis.
Several agencies were questioning why the DOT couldn't upgrade the existing two-lane highway through Graham County instead of building an entirely new one. The Army Corp sent DOT back to the drawing board to determine whether upgrades to the existing road would suffice.
They wouldn't, DOT determined.
The DOT countered that simply dressing up the winding two-lane road through Graham County with an extra climbing lane here and there, wider shoulders and gentler curves isn't really fixing the problem.
Cars just won't take a route around the Gorge if it is only marginally better.
"They say it has to be big enough and fast enough to lure traffic away from the Gorge," Gerken said.
Not surprisingly, Gerken doesn't think the DOT did an "adequate analysis" of upgrading existing roads.
"I would characterize it as a half-hearted attempt," Gerken said. "Because this is a project in search of a defensible purpose, DOT shouldn't have eliminated a lighter footprint from consideration. Targeted improvements to the existing roads could be built now without controversy and at a fraction of the cost."
Agencies holding up highway permits have been frustrated that DOT is unwilling to consider anything but a new four-lane highway. Critics say DOT has blinders on to anything except a four-lane highway and are refusing to think creatively about an appropriate road through the mountains.
"There seems to be all kind of options other than building your 'anywhere-in-America' four-lane," Martin agreed.
The existing road could be upgraded not just with climbing lanes, but all sorts of bells and whistles aimed at luring eco-tourists. Picnic areas, overlooks, wildlife viewing pull-offs, hiking trails, fishing access, cultural heritage sign boards could all be built in.
The premise is hard to argue with, no matter how many lanes a new road would have.
"If we do need a new road, let's design it so we can capitalize on the assets we do have," said Ryan Sherby, regional planner for the Southwestern Commissioner. "It would go through some fabulous public lands. Let's provide access to them."
Setzer said the goal is to get traffic now using the Nantahala Gorge to use the new highway instead, and if it isn't any faster, they won't take it. That means the road through the Gorge itself would have to be upgraded.
Even the reluctant state and federal agencies agree that the Nantahala Gorge is congested and unsafe, clogged for six months of the year with rafting buses and an onslaught of cars sporting kayaks on roof racks.
Gibson, director of the Southwestern Commission regional planning agency, has had a front row seat to the Corridor K debate over the decades. Brand new on the job in 1975, he traveled to Raleigh to see design options being considered by the DOT for a four-lane highway through Graham County.
One option was a double-decker highway through the Nantahala Gorge, achieving four lanes by stacking them on top of each other. Another was to divide the highway, with two lanes in one direction on one side of the river and two lanes in the other direction on the other side.
Those obviously fell by the wayside in favor of a new highway through Robbinsville. Yet three decades later, it is still floundering.
"The folks in Graham County are still waiting," Gibson said. "A lot of the people who hoped to see it in their lifetimes are gone now. Others who hoped to see it in their lifetimes are afraid they will be gone."
Will a four-lane highway bring economic development to Graham County?
While local leaders and the N.C. DOT have a hunch that it will, state and federal environmental agencies aren't convinced and so far have refused to sign off on permits for the environmental damage the highway would cause.
But, there may be a way out of the impasse. A regional economic development plan for the seven western counties will be launched in coming months. It may prove the highway is needed, but likewise, it may not.
"Everything is on the table," said Ryan Sherby, a regional planner with the Southwestern Commission agency based in Sylva. "People need to quit thinking about fighting for a four-lane road. People need to think about what is our economic development vision for our region."
The study may indeed quantify the economic benefits of a four-lane road, and if so, highway supporters will have the justification that state and federal agencies say is lacking.
But, it may also show that there are other economic ideas. The Southwestern Commission will act as project manager, but an outside consultant will be brought in to lead the study. It will take 12 to 24 months and involve dozens of players.
The study will be funded with a piece of Appalachian highway money, but that doesn't mean road-building interests will have an inside track to influence the study's outcome, according to Joel Setzer, head of the N.C. DOT for a 10-county mountain area.
"We aren't trying to stack the cards," Setzer said, pledging that his agency is willing to let the "chips fall where they may."
The impasse over a $800 million four-lane highway in Graham County is a rarity in road building.
It is not uncommon for state and federal agencies to express concerns about a project's environmental impacts but rarely do they rise to the level of refusing to sign off on permits.
In hopes of breaking the logjam, a firm that specializes as mediators in environmental disputes was brought in to assess the prospects of a resolution and recommend a course forward.
The U.S. Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution interviewed 58 stakeholders in early 2011 in hopes of ferreting out the hot button issues that must be solved.
"There are disagreements among the agencies about whether the project is really needed," the mediators concluded in their assessment. "Several agencies expressed the view that the environmental impacts are severe and that the expectations of economic benefits are not sufficiently supported to justify the environmental impacts."
Those interviewed include the Environmental Protection Agency, Army Corps of Engineers, N.C. Division of Water Quality, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, Appalachian Trail Conservancy, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, as well as local leaders, DOT and federal highways.
Here's a sample of concerns expressed by some of the agencies as listed in the mediators' report. The firm points out that not all agencies share the same level of concerns.
• There are many questions about whether the expectations of economic benefits from the road are realistic.
• There are disagreements among the agencies about whether the project is really needed or is driven by the availability of Appalachian highway funding.
• There are different perspectives among the agencies as to whether the recognized environmental impacts are worth the environmental costs, especially given uncertainty about the expectations of economic benefit from the road.
• There is disagreement about the feasibility of and plans for mitigating the environmental impacts, especially related to acidic rock.
• The feasibility, cost and desirability of the tunnel is a concern.
• The project is driven by a 'Build it and they will come' approach.
• Many are not clear about why the option of improving existing routes is not a viable alternative.
• The fact that the "Purpose and Need" was developed in the 1980s raises questions for some about whether it is still applicable and relevant.
The Nantahala River will soon boast one of the preeminent freestyle paddling features in the country — a patented apparatus that will create waves and holes used by trick kayakers.
The Wave Shaper will arrive just in time for a major world freestyle championship being held on the river in 2013, bringing 500 paddlers from 45 different countries and thousands of spectators to the Gorge. A $195,000 grant from the Golden Leaf Foundation was awarded to the Swain County Tourism Development Authority to fund construction of the wave.
“It will make us one of the premium whitewater kayaking places in the world,” said Brad Walker, chairman of the Swain tourism agency.
The wave is designed for freestyle kayaking — a paddling sport filled with technical tricks and highly-stylized moves, including spins, turns, cartwheels and flips that often involve the boater going completely airborne. The paddler surfs in place while performing the maneuvers on top of the wave.
The Nantahala will be one of only three rivers in the country using the cutting edge technology of the Wave Shaper, the creation of McLaughlin Whitewater Design Group based in Denver.
The Nantahala isn’t without a wave now — it couldn’t have landed the ICF Freestyle World Championships in 2013 without one. It was built by zealous paddlers on the Nanty who manhandled rocks around the riverbed to craft a high-caliber feature. And that in itself is impressive.
“A wave is very finicky. It is really hard to produce a good wave,” said Rick McLaughlin, owner of the McLaughlin Whitewater Design Group.
But it is susceptible to shifting currents and wash outs —far too tenuous to hang a world championship of this caliber on.
“Whenever there is a big rain you lose the feature you have to start all over again,” said Karen Proctor Wilmot, the executive director of the Swain County Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Development Authority. “They knew we could have one big rain during the event and be out there moving rocks and looking a little foolish.”
Such a faux pas could also cause quite a stir.
“Having a feature change during the course of a competition wouldn’t be fair to all the other athletes,” said Lee Leibfarth, an NOC paddling instructor and a lead organizer of the event.
Organizers said success of the event hinged on a proper wave. Otherwise, it would be like playing Wimbledon on a court with a sagging net, or the Super Bowl on patchy turf.
Walker said they couldn’t let that happen.
“It is very important to make it a superior event,” Walker said.
Not just for the paddlers, and not even the 7,000 to 10,000 people descending on the Gorge daily during the weeklong event, but for the tens of thousands who will be watching on TV. Freestyle kayaking is a popular sport in Europe and its followers will be tuned in by the masses.
But when the World Championship has come and gone, the wave will still be here.
“One of the goals is to have a legacy behind all the money we are spending here, not just this one event,” Leibfarth said. “Now we have a feature to attract expert level paddlers.”
Freestyle paddlers will come here to try the wave not just for vacation, but pros will likely move here to train.
Nearly every whitewater river has a natural wave or two by default, but not all waves are created equal.
“There are very few good waves that are dependable,” said McLaughlin.
Engineered waves on rivers out West have wild fluctuations in flow, with great conditions during the spring snowmelt but not come summer.
Thanks to the Nantahala Dam upriver of the Gorge, a reliable flow of water is released by Duke Energy to keep flows on the paddling section of the Nanty consistent.
“The appeal here is we have pretty consistent conditions all the time. Unlike other places where it depends on a particular water level,” Leibfarth said.
Other freestyle waves are just a pain to get to — in the middle of nowhere or with no parking.
Another plus for this wave: freestyle trick paddlers won’t have to continuously move aside to make way for other river users. The wave is downstream of the main takeout for rafters and general paddlers.
Another kicker that will make this wave great: there’s somewhere for paddlers to hang in the water while waiting to run the wave. A few dozen paddlers can be stacked up around a good wave, taking turns round-robin style.
“You want the want eddies to the side of the wave to be calm so you aren’t struggling to stay there as you wait to queue in to the wave,” said McLaughlin.
What the wave will do for the Nantahala Gorge and surrounding area — creating jobs, raising the region’s profile, nurturing a niche industry — seems right up the alley of the Golden Leaf Foundation, which awards grants to rural communities for economic development projects. River recreation in the Nantahala Gorge is already an $85.9 million a year industry, according to a study by Western Carolina University.
It’s one reason the Swain County Tourism Development Authority has thrown its full support behind the 2013 Worlds, and to that end applied for the Golden Leaf grant to build the wave on behalf of the paddling community.
“Obviously we see the Nantahala River as being a huge contributor to the economy both in terms of jobs created and tourism and tax dollars brought in,” said Karen Wilmot, executive director of the Swain County Tourism Authority.
Wilmot said the wave will help draw elite paddlers to the region and bolster river-based tourism, which, in turn, is important to the county’s economy.
The wave will be just downstream of the footbridge at the Nantahala Outdoor Center. Construction will start in the fall and be finished by spring 2012.
The total cost of the project is $300,000, with $105,000 coming from private fundraising. The cost includes design and construction of the wave itself, plus a spectator platform and improved shoreline access.
Accommodating spectators is certainly one of the biggest challenges facing the World Championship. The Great Smoky Mountain Railroad will provide train shuttles from Bryson City to help transport people into the Gorge, where parking is limited to say the least and the single two-lane road in and out gets easily jammed.
But jockeying for a view of the competition from the river shore will be epic. A large viewing platform holding several hundred people will be built jutting out over the river using money from the Golden Leaf grant.
There will be separate platforms for judges and media covering the event. All of them will come in pieces that can be put up and taken down for events.
Paddling pros can spend hours debating and analyzing the subtle nuances of a wave or hole. Just like the Eskimos with over a hundred words to describe what the rest of us would just call “snow,” paddlers have derived their own endless vocabulary to size up and dissect a wave’s performance — how it pushes, pulls, its depth, its loft, its slope and, above all, its “sticky-ness.”
And if there was ever such a group, you’ll find them on the Nantahala. The Nantahala River boasts more Olympic paddlers per capita than anywhere else in the world. It’s a magnet for super geeky paddling types — the ones kayak manufacturers turn to for feedback when testing new designs.
“I don’t think there is a more sophisticated paddling community than the Nantahala Gorge,” said Risa Shimoda with the McLaughlin Whitewater Group.
Rick McLaughlin, the owner of the McLaughlin Whitewater Design Group based in Denver, has been experimenting with river shaping for more than 25 years, refining the mechanics to meet paddlers’ increasingly sophisticated desire.
“In a river with hydraulics, sometimes what you get is the opposite of what you think you might get,” McLaughlin said. “It is a bit of science and a bit of art.”
McLaughlin learned through trial and error with giant scale models. His team builds massive fiberglass tanks up to 100 feet long to study the cross-section of moving water and what it does when contraptions beneath the surface are manipulated this way or that.
“We have a bunch of theories, but our computer models are still limited. The best way to analyze and predict is by building an actual model,” McLaughlin said.
McLaughlin has been chasing one sought-after quality in particular: “sticky-ness.” The stickier the wave, the easier it is to ride, allowing paddlers to perform trick after trick before being ejected. And even stickier than a wave is a “hole,” where the river swoops in like a big scoop has been taken out, setting the stage for a different arsenal of tricks.
McLaughlin has perfected the design with his latest apparatus — the Wave Shaper — which makes both holes and waves that can be adjusted at will to change the characteristics of the river.
Each river is different — its width, depth and flow — requiring slightly different design, but the premise of the Wave Shaper is the same.
“It looks like a louvered door laid on its side that goes up and down and out and in,” said Shimoda.
“There are infinite configurations that allows the operator to change the shape of the water,” Shimoda said.
The Nantahala will be the third river in the county to have a Wave Shaper. A scale model for the Nantahala feature is under construction already with installation scheduled for this fall and winter.
It will create endless opportunities for freestyle paddling.
“We can have this great surfing wave for beginners and then crank it up for the pros in a competition,” said Lee Leibfarth, a paddling expert with Nantahala Outdoor Center and organizer of the 2013 World Kayaking Championship.
A perfect wave for rafters is different from a perfect wave for kayakers. And the optimum wave for someone playing around on a surf board is different from the preferred wave of a person laying on a bogie board.
The Wave Shaper can be adjusted to cater to every type of paddling audience, something the Nantahala community particularly wanted.
“They would like to be able to fulfill as many needs of as many types of users in as many different types of situations as possible,” Shimoda said.
Who exactly decides how the Wave Shaper should be set each day?
Technically, the Wave Shaper will belong to the Swain County Tourism Development Authority, the entity that got the grant to build it. But the local tourism agency will lease it to the Nantahala Racing Club, which will in turn create a committee to map out a schedule for how the Wave Shaper will function each day.
The Nantahala Racing Club is not a commercial interest, and thus removes any concern among outfitters that one rafting company would use the Wave to its benefit over the other outfitters, Lariat said.
The Wave Shaper isn’t hard to operate, but someone will have to be taught how. At both the other sites sporting Wave Shapers, that person has been dubbed the “Wave Master.”
The Wave Shaper on the Green River in Idaho is remotely controlled through a web site. On the Nantahala, the parts will be adjusted manually, most likely first thing in the morning before the daily water release from the Nantahala Dam when water levels are significantly lower.
The Wave Shaper is made of indestructible metal and what Shimoda calls “super duper vulcanized rubber” to withstand the constant beating and water pressure of a moving river. It comes in a precast concrete box that’s lowered into the river.
The apparatus mostly sits below the river’s surface, and is barely detectable.
“Even though it is manmade, it is not going to feel like a concrete jungle. It is very much organic and part of the river,” Lariat said.
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.
“The Nantahala River has been many things to many people, but it’s never been a World Championship destination,” said Joe Jacobi, CEO of USA Canoe/Kayak, the governing body for whitewater sports in America.
In April, the International Canoe Federation named the Nantahala River Gorge as the site of the 2013 World Freestyle Kayaking Championships, and while it may seem like a long way away, the outfitters, event organizers and regional tourist planners are already working feverishly to prepare.
For Jacobi, who won an Olympic gold medal in whitewater slalom in 1992, bringing the freestyle championships to the gorge is a double opportunity. The event could revitalize the Nantahala Gorge, the country’s cradle of whitewater competition, as a paddling destination. At the same time, it could raise the profile of whitewater freestyle for American audiences.
Freestyle kayaking, similar to vert-ramp skateboarding, features an athlete performing technical moves and tricks on a single feature. Instead of using a half-pipe, kayakers use rivers features like waves and holes. Freestyle moves are usually highly stylized spins, turns, cartwheels and flips that often involve the boater going completely airborne.
It’s the fastest-growing segment of whitewater competition, and bringing the championship to the gorge is a chance to mix old school and new school.
“The lure and the feeling that makes the Nantahala gorge special has never gone away,” Jacobi said. “It’s still a place that all paddlers have to go at some point.”
Winning the bid
Sutton Bacon, CEO of the Nantahala Outdoor Center, knows all about the gorge as a destination. His company sees a huge chunk of the approximately 200,000 tourists who travel the eight-mile stretch of river each year.
It was NOC, under Bacon’s leadership, that jumped on the opportunity to win the bid for the freestyle championships, which were held for the first time with the sanctioning of the International Canoe Federation in Thune, Switzerland, in 2009.
“I think this is something that will be transformational, not only for the gorge community but for the region,” Bacon said. “It will put Western North Carolina on display to the entire world.”
Bacon is quick to credit the greater community in the gorge and region for putting the bid together. While NOC took the lead, outfitters like Juliet Kastorff at Endless River Adventures, along with stakeholders like Duke Energy, the U.S. Forest Service, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and myriad local legislators, pitched in with letters of support and offers to help make the event a success.
Bacon said the gorge’s high profile as a paddling destination, its strong existing infrastructure, and its proximity to the population bases in Atlanta, Charlotte and Asheville contributed to the success of the venture.
The ICF, it turns out, wanted an American venue. The U.S. whitewater freestyle team has dominated the last few international competitions and the International Olympic Committee seems keen to emphasize the growing sport, as evidenced by the presence of its president Jacques Rogge at the medal stand in Thune.
If that event is an accurate indicator of the magnitude of the World Freestyle Kayaking Championships, the gorge can expect to host 500 international athletes and between 6,000 and 10,000 spectators per day. Scheduled tentatively for the second weekend in September, a time after the main tourism season on the river and just before the fall color season, the event will bring needed tourism revenue during a slow period.
But Bacon believes the recognition and long-term impact that come with hosting the event will be even more positive.
“In terms of impact of paddle sports, I’m as excited about before and after the event than the event itself,” Bacon said. “Our ability to start leveraging the event and all the international events that will start coming will give us the chance to promote the gorge as a destination.”
The Ocoee River in East Tennessee was the site of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics whitewater events. The river gained an international reputation as a result, but it has not seen the transformational economic boost that Bacon hopes the 2013 championships will engender in the gorge.
Juliet Kastorff, who runs Endless River Adventures and has been paddling in the gorge since the late ‘80s, says the larger success of the event depends on the extent to which the greater community in the gorge and the rest of Swain County embrace it.
“I think the challenge is getting organized and getting everybody fired up that this thing is going to be great for the community,” Kastorff said. “It cannot be perceived as an NOC event, but to a certain extent, it will be.”
The event may be perceived as an NOC event because it will be held at a play feature on the Nantahala River, “The Wave,” that sits in the middle of the NOC campus.
Kastorff said NOC deserves the lion’s share of credit for getting the bid, and now the community needs to do its part.
“They took the bull by the horns and put the bid together and then they brought it to the community,” Kastorff said.
She explained that that while the outfitter community may not have much to gain during the event, the restaurants, hotels, and cabin rental businesses stand to benefit tremendously.
Making it work
Part of the question surrounding how big and successful the event can be centers on how much money, time and energy the community needs to expend to pull it off.
Estimates vary widely.
Bacon believes the gorge is well situated in terms of the infrastructure on the river, lodging accommodations, and transportation options. He believes the play feature needs to be upgraded by solidifying the riverbed around it to make it as consistent as possible.
But there are larger considerations. The ICF was looking for a high-profile destination for its world championship event to raise the standard for the whitewater freestyle to a level that would enhance its bid to become an Olympic sport.
There are currently nine disciplines in the competitive whitewater world, but only two are sanctioned Olympic events.
Whitewater slalom, the competitive sport that put the Nantahala Gorge on the map in the ‘70s and ‘80s, is declining in popularity and at the same time moving towards artificial water parks like the U.S. Whitewater Center in Charlotte.
The Nantahala Gorge, with its relatively modest natural features, has been outgrown.
Kastorff said most outfitters were surprised when the bid was announced.
“Everybody’s first reaction was, ‘Are you kidding?’” Kastorff said. “But thanks to the fact that we have history and really dependable releases, the ICF saw the value in it.”
Kastorff believes the event can bring the kind of old energy to the gorge that made it the center of the U.S. whitewater scene for many years.
“There aren’t many improvements you can add to the gorge. The support for this event is not going to come from $5 million, it’s going to come from everyone pitching in and making it happen,” she said.
One of Bacon’s pressing concerns is the gorge’s lack of broadband access. The IOC expects Olympic-caliber events to be broadcast live via the Internet so fans all over the world can have access to it. With the current levels of broadband access in the gorge, that’s impossible.
David Huskins, director of Smoky Mountain Host — a nonprofit that serves as the destination marketing organization for the seven western counties — believes the gorge needs a significant makeover if the region is to profit form the 2013 World Freestyle Kayaking Championships.
For him, that starts with the river itself.
“Lets go from the put in to the take out and figure out how to make it a more exciting venue,” Huskins said.
In 2008, Huskins’ organization took the lead on a $60,000 study of how to revitalize the Nantahala Gorge, which has seen a 17 percent decrease in the number of paddlers and rafters over the last decade. Huskins thinks the river needs to be improved if it’s going to become an international draw, and that means, among other things, creating a Class V rapid.
“I’ve said it is a tired product, and it is a tired product. You have got to get people to want to return,” Huskins said.
The improvements Huskins is talking about will require raising a huge amount of money and would involve all of the federal stakeholders that have an interest in protecting the Nantahala River. A number of outfitters have been critical of the Smoky Mountain Host study, but Huskins thinks they’re missing the big picture. In short, the championships can be a game-changer for the region.
“We think it’s going to have a tremendous economic impact that will last for years,” Huskins said. “Not just in terms of revenues during the event but in terms of exposure and branding down the road.”
While Huskins is thinking of the event as a regional marketing push, long-time paddler and Swain County resident Bunny Johns is thinking back to the last time the gorge hosted an international event on the water.
It was 1990 and the participants in Project RAFT, Russians and Americans for Teamwork, were using paddling as a common ground to break through decades of Cold War tension. Johns helped organize concerts, dinners and school events that made the raft rally a community-centered gathering that energized the whole region.
For Johns, the recipe for success is simple.
“You need to decide what you’re going to do, establish a timeline for getting it done, and figure out how to get the right people involved,” Johns said. “It sounds like a long time away but it comes up fast.”
Indeed, as a result of winning the bid to host the 2013 World Freestyle Kayaking Championships, the Nantahala River will also host a 2012 qualifier event that will offer the chance at a test run.
For Jacobi, whose love for paddling gave him a love for the Southern Appalachians, the chance to invigorate the freestyle scene in the gorge makes him giddy.
“I’m not a serious competitive kayaker anymore,” said Jacobi. “Even though I like every discipline, I spend more time in a freestyle kayak that any other kind of boat.”
Bacon believes Jacobi’s story is a window into how important hosting the championships will be over the long run.
“We’ll hopefully have more of these kinds of athletes on the water who come here to train and stay and become leaders in our community,” Bacon said.
The best of USA Canoe/Kayak’s whitewater team will descend on the Nantahala River this weekend intent on making a clear impression about their Olympic aspirations.
The Bank of America Whitewater U.S. Open (March 27-28) is the first measuring stick in the paddling season that will intensify at the U.S. National Trials in Wausau, Wisc., and culminate in a trip to September’s World Championships in Tace, Slovenia.
Twenty-year-old Asheville native Austin Kieffer, who’s spent his whole paddling career with the Nantahala Racing Club Rhinos, relishes the chance to make that impression in the slalom competion in his own backyard.
“It’s always exciting when the season starts up. It’s exciting to be racing again and it being on home turf is just really fun. I hope it gives me an edge,” Kieffer said.
Kieffer races K1 or single kayak, and as he’s moved from Asheville’s Carolina Day School to Davidson College, he’s kept his eye on one prize –– a shot at the 2012 Olympics in London.
“I want to be on the team this year,” Kieffer said. “I hope it’s kind of a transition year for me.”
Kieffer, currently on the national developmental team, is one of the only local racers challenging for a K1 spot with Team USA this year. Western Carolina University grad and two-time national champion, Scott Mann, should also feel right at home on the Nantahala Outdoor Center course, and Vermont native Brett Heyl will be eager to re-establish his place as the country’s best slalom racer.
Kieffer thinks this year is his chance to step up his career by beating the big boys, and he believes the U.S. Open and the Charlotte Open at the National Whitewater Center the following weekend (April 2-3) will help him gauge how much ground he’s made on the rest of the field in the off season.
The back-to-back races pose different challenges to what will in all likelihood be a near identical group of competitors.
“Nantahala is a sprint, and there’s not much variability,” Kieffer said. “Charlotte is big and powerful, and it’s more explosive. There are more areas where people can really make time or lose time.”
The U.S. Open is a classic whitewater slalom race and Nantahala Racing Club coach Rafal Smolen, who raced for Poland before coming to the U.S. to coach, has a reputation for setting courses that test the competitors. But Smolen said the Nantahala’s natural features won’t create a lot of separation between the top contenders this weekend.
“Usually it’s a really close race even if the course is set up right,” Smolen said.
In contrast, Smolen said the man-made course in Charlotte is one of the world’s most demanding, capable of punishing technical mistakes heavily and testing the conditioning of the athletes.
Austin Kieffer hopes a good result on familiar water at the U.S. Open will set the stage for him to showcase his power on the concrete river in Charlotte.
“I’m a little bit bigger athlete compared to some of the other paddlers, so I think that can make it a bit more forgiving on the bigger course,” Kieffer said. “But it all depends on that day of racing. Who’s on their game and who’s off.”
No matter how you look at it, the U.S. Open is one of the classic showcases in the sport of whitewater racing, and the event will bring some of the world’s best racers in both slalom and wildwater classifications to Western North Carolina to show off their skills.
In whitewater slalom, the paddlers will negotiate 14 downstream gates and six upstream gates — in under two minutes. If they touch a gate, they incur a two-second penalty.
In wildwater racing, the competitors paddle down river as fast as possible.
After a winter in the gym, all of the paddlers will be happy to be back on the water, and for spectators, a day at the races is the perfect way to ring in spring.
“There’s no slalom race in the region as big as this race,” Smolen said. “If you want to see the best competitors in the sport, this is the place to come.”
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.
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.
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.