A cacophony of voices and cheers echoed across Bryson City as a sea of humanity overtook the small town, a wall-to-wall crowd churning and pressing their way through downtown with excitement radiating from each face.
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.
Economic development and tourism leaders in Swain County are treating the Freestyle Kayaking World Cup two weeks away as a dry run for the far more highly anticipated World Freestyle Kayaking Championship coming in 2013.
“This will start the ball rolling with the exposure,” said Ken Mills, the economic development director for Swain County. “For us, this is kind of a dress rehearsal.”
“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.