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NOC founder inducted into Hall of Fame

Payson Kennedy, co-founder of Nantahala Outdoor Center, was inducted into the inaugural class of the International Whitewater Hall of Fame last month.

Kennedy served as director and CEO of the Nantahala Outdoor Center from 1972 until 1998, transforming NOC from a rural gas station and motel into one of the largest outdoor recreation and education centers in the world.

The Whitewater Hall of Fame committee chose Kennedy as its first advocate of whitewater paddling for his significant contributions to the growth of the sport. From competition and education to popular film, Kennedy has been involved in every aspect of the growth of whitewater paddling.

Kennedy grew up in Atlanta and began canoeing lakes while at summer camp at age 10 in 1943. He furthered his paddling experience as a camp counselor and canoeing instructor for a YMCA camp in northern Georgia during summer breaks from Emory University. While stationed in Washington with the Army during 1954 and 1955, he bought a folding kayak and began to paddle the waterways of the Pacific Northwest. Kennedy worked as a librarian at Georgia Tech in Atlanta for eight years and began traveling north to the mountains nearly every weekend to paddle.

In 1972, Kennedy moved to Swain County with his wife, Aurelia, and four children to work as director of the Nantahala Outdoor Center, and the rest is history. NOC now comprises three restaurants, lodging, an outfitter’s store, a paddling school and rafting outposts on six rivers and employs more than 500 during the summer. While building NOC, Kennedy also won the national championship for solo open canoeing six times while competing between 1974-1984. He also was a stunt double for actor Ned Beatty in the 1972 film “Deliverance.” The success of that movie sparked a nationwide interest in whitewater paddling.

Kennedy still paddles and rides his bike often. This season, at age 72, he guided more than 50 rafting trips, including many on the demanding Chattooga, Ocoee and Nolichucky rivers.

“It’s exciting and flattering,” Kennedy said of his induction into IWHOF. “I have great admiration for the others being inducted, and that’s pretty flattering.”

The Whitewater Hall of Fame is currently under construction in McHenry, Md., as part of Adventure Sports Center International, a complex featuring the Hall of Fame and an outdoors sports center surrounded by 500 acres of trails and recreational venues.

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