On a summer day, whitewater rafters, long-distance hikers, mountain bikers and trout anglers converge by the thousands at this mountain playground.
They’re drawn to the Nantahala Outdoor Center, at the intersection of the Nantahala River and the Appalachian Trail in Western North Carolina.
NOC is an adventure-oriented company that, since its inception 43 years ago, has become the biggest rafting outfitter in the nation with 150,000 customers a year on eight Southeastern rivers.
But NOC is more than rafting. The outfitter rents mountain bikes, operates four restaurants, provides 250 lodging beds, offers courses in paddling and wilderness medicine, takes enthusiasts to winter destinations such as Costa Rica and hosts national and international competitive kayaking events.
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“NOC is a mecca for outdoor recreation in the Southeast,” said President and chief executive officer Sutton Bacon, 35, himself a whitewater kayaker. “We offer 120 different kinds of recreation activities.”
In June, Brent and Holly Niemann of Wake Forest and their children, Dylan, 11, and Isabella, 8, made their first trip to NOC. They rafted the Nantahala’s bouncy Class I-II rapids on a guided trip before riding the zip line across the Nantahala Gorge.
“It was cool,” Brent Niemann, 41, a civil engineer, said of the 8-mile river excursion. “It was a good introduction. (The kids) had a great time. They wanted to get more wet. Our guide said it was one of our more dry trips.”
At Nantahala Falls, the river’s biggest drop, rafts and inflatable kayaks plunged through the Class III rapid. “Oh my God, it’s cold!” yelled one woman as frothing water flushed over her.
Trout flourish in the 50-55-degree water. Tommy Archibald, 18 of Birmingham, Ala., spent a two hours catching and releasing fish beside the River’s End restaurant as an endless parade of rafts and kayaks floated by.
“Caught 15-20 rainbows,” Archibald said, using No. 14-16 nymph flies, similar to a blue-wing olive. “All of the fish were wild (except for) one stocked brook trout.”
Across the river, Mike Brown of Oak Ridge, near Greensboro, hand-paddled his snub-nosed kayak below the footbridge that conveys the Appalachian Trail.
“The water quality is tremendous,” said Brown, 57. Hand paddlers use curved scoops strapped to their hands. “This is the place to come for beginners, intermediate paddlers, families. There’s something to offer for all levels.”
The Nantahala Outdoor Center opened in 1972 when canoeist Horace Holden of Atlanta bought the Tote ‘n’ Tarry Motel next to the Nantahala. He asked friends and canoeists Payson Kennedy, a librarian at Georgia Tech, and wife, Aurelia, a teacher, to run rafts on the Nantahala and Chattooga rivers.
In a fortuitous timing for NOC, the movie “Deliverance,” with Burt Reynolds, came out in 1972. “Deliverance,” filmed mostly on the Chattooga, along the Georgia-South Carolina line, helped whitewater rafting take off. Also that year, whitewater slalom racing for canoes and kayaks became an Olympic sport. NOC rode the boom in whitewater sports, backpacking and mountain biking.
Today, Bacon said, 250 full time and 750 seasonal employees serve more than a million overall from all activities customers a year at the Nantahala campus, five retail stores and seven outposts. The outposts are on the Chattooga, Chattahoochee near Atlanta, Cheoah near Robbinsville, French Broad near Hot Springs, Nolichucky near Erwin, Tenn., Ocoee near Ocoee, Tenn., and Pigeon near Hartford, Tenn.
The NOC changed ownership in 2012. Bacon and five investors from Atlanta bought the majority stock in the previously employee-owned company. The founders, Holden and the Kennedys, retained minority ownership and sit on the board of directors. Bacon wouldn’t reveal annual revenues but said they’re more than $20 million.
The dam-controlled Nantahala guarantees daytime flows for NOC and 11 other commercial outfitters that raft the river. The releases enable NOC to bring in international and national paddling competition.
NOC will host the Whitewater Junior Olympics July 24-26 with competition in downriver, slalom and freestyle events for paddlers 18 and younger. On Aug. 2-7, the International Canoe Federation will hold the Junior and Under 23 Whitewater Canoeing World Championships, featuring individual and team racing.
Over the years, 22 Olympians and coaches, including two gold medalists, in canoe and kayak whitewater slalom racing have trained or worked at NOC. They include silver medalist Scott Shipley, who designed the course at the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte.
Bacon said NOC continues to grow, around 15 percent last year, driven in part by maturing Generation X’ers who want to introduce their children to the outdoor sports they enjoyed. “We are actively transforming NOC from a half day to a day (stay) to a vacation,” he said. “Ultimately, we want to continue to be synonymous with outdoors adventure.”
If you go
The Nantahala Outdoor Center is located on U.S. 19-74 in the Nantahala Gorge west of Bryson City. For more information, see www.noc.com.