The 500-acre campus of the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) near Bryson City, North Carolina, is quiet in mid-February except for the rushing waters of the Nantahala River flowing through it. There are a couple of thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail that bisects the property, some staff members attending to off-season duties in the parking lot next to a fleet of empty blue buses and one dedicated, wetsuit-wearing kayaker practicing his moves on the slalom course in the chilly waters of the river.
Come summertime, it will be a much different picture with throngs of outdoor adventure seekers in the frame, most coming for whitewater rafting excursions through the Nantahala Gorge, some for a mountaintop zip line tour and the aerial adventure park, or just to shop at the Outfitters Store, eat at one of the two restaurants on-site and admire the scenery. The blue buses will be filled with passengers on their way to the put-in point upstream, the river active with paddlers in kayaks and the easily recognizable NOC yellow rafts and “duckies” (inflatable kayaks), while river guides, bus drivers and other staffers pilot the operation with clockwork-like precision.
Credit: Blake Guthrie
Credit: Blake Guthrie
“The ballet that takes place with getting people on the river is amazing to watch,” said NOC president Colin McBeath about the daily spectacle that unfolds on the NOC campus during peak season. “It’s not just about getting people wet, it’s giving them an experience, it’s educating them about the local environment. We like to think we’re the five-star experience for rafting.”
McBeath became the NOC’s president in May 2021 ahead of the company’s milestone 50th anniversary this year. The center started as a seasonal rafting operation in 1972, taking 1,200 people down the Nantahala and Chattooga rivers that first summer. Today, the NOC has hosted 7 million guests to date on rafting excursions along six rivers from seven outposts in four Southern states, and it gets up to a million visitors a year at its outposts and retail locations. It’s one of the largest outdoor adventure operators in the nation, now offering more than 120 land and river-based itineraries.
The scope of the operation belies its modest beginnings.
In June 1972, Payson Kennedy, an associate professor and data processing librarian at Georgia Tech, and his wife Aurelia Kennedy, a public school teacher, left their home in Atlanta for the summer with four children in tow to spend the season as whitewater rafting guides on the Nantahala River near Bryson City, North Carolina.
Their friend Horace Holden, who ran a kids’ day camp called Camp Chattahoochee where the Chattahoochee Nature Center is now located in Roswell, had purchased a property in the Nantahala River Gorge to turn it into a mountain-based adjunct for the camp. Holden brought the Kennedys on board to help run the place and guide trips on the Nantahala and Chattooga rivers since they were expert paddlers. The new operation was called the Nantahala Outdoor Center.
The riverside property that Holden purchased was a small complex on winding, two-lane U.S. 19 catering to mountain motorists, not paddlers. Called the Tote & Tarry, it included a gas station, cafe, gift shop and a 14-room hotel across the road. The Appalachian Trail crossed through the property and had its own footbridge over the river, so it seemed like the right spot to bring river rats, trail hounds and other outdoor enthusiasts together.
One day last month, co-founder Payson Kennedy, 89, and his daughter, Cathy Kennedy, sat at a table overlooking the swift-flowing dark-green waters of the Nantahala at River’s End Restaurant on the NOC campus and recalled the early days of the operation.
“It was pretty much a last-minute decision to go,” said Payson of that first summer on the river.
It was only for one season and the whole family pitched in to get everything done. “There was no bus,” said Cathy, “we used clients’ cars and a family van as a shuttle.”
“We didn’t make much money,” Payson recalled. “My wife and I didn’t take a salary, and we paid the kids $20 a week.”
“It was $25 dollars a week,” responded Cathy.
When the season ended, the Kennedys went back to their lives in Atlanta. Before the summer of ‘73 rolled around, a decision had to be made whether or not to go all-in and make it a full-time venture. After much discussion and a family vote with only one of the four children dissenting, they made the leap and left Atlanta for river life in the mountains of western North Carolina.
That second summer, the NOC expanded from four rafts to eight. Times were lean but rewarding. “It grew rapidly; business doubled from month to month,” Payson recalled. “The first year we showed a profit on the books was 1975.”
Credit: Blake Guthrie
Credit: Blake Guthrie
Cathy credits her father for being the first to hire female river guides in the region, three of whom were members of the 1972 Olympic team and helped shape the paddling curriculum at NOC. Twenty-three Olympic team members have since worked and trained at NOC, including two gold medalists from the 1992 whitewater team.
Though times were lean in those early days, both father and daughter expressed how much they loved what they were doing, working together as a family unit on the river, introducing people to the thrill of whitewater. When Payson’s grandkids came along, they worked at NOC, too. “I love that everyday interaction with family,” said Cathy. “The grandkids grew up thinking a job was having fun with their grandparents every day.”
In retrospect, said Payson, it was a fortuitous time to start a whitewater paddling operation. Four years earlier, the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act had been enacted, ensuring that designated rivers remained free-flowing and protected from development. In 1972, whitewater paddling was included in the Olympics and the movie “Deliverance” came out.
Some of the more intense paddling scenes of “Deliverance” were filmed on the federally protected Chattooga River, considered the premier whitewater paddling experience in the Southeast. Payson helped the producers scout the movie locations and paddled some of the tougher stretches for the film as a stunt double.
Payson served as founding president and CEO of NOC until 1997. Aurelia Kennedy and Horace Holden died in 2019, and in the early 2000s, Payson came out of retirement for two years to serve as CEO again. In 2005 he was inducted into the International Whitewater Hall of Fame. Although he no longer guides rafting trips, the paddling legend still can be seen out on the river from time to time.
Today NOC is owned by a group of 30 individual members, most of whom are current or former NOC employees, in partnership with Atlanta-based Five Stand Capital, a firm founded and led by outdoor enthusiasts. One of those 30 members is Cathy Kennedy, who still guides trips on the river, among other duties. Working at the NOC is the only full-time job she’s ever had.
This year NOC begins offering international tours combining a variety of adventure sports with cultural experiences. Itineraries include climbing in Chile, hiking in Peru and surfing in Costa Rica, to name a few.
“Fifty years of rafting remains the priority, but I was brought in to enhance other aspects of the company,” said McBeath. Expanding lodging and mountain biking options are two priorities.
The NOC opened its newest river outpost at Roswell’s Azalea Park on the banks of the Chattahoochee River in 2020 to complement its operations in the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area. Tubing, or shooting the ‘Hooch, is the most popular activity, with kayaking, canoeing and stand-up paddleboarding also available.
“We’re going to do more day camps on the Chattahoochee,” McBeath said. “The purpose is to get people in nature and expose them to the river.” Two- and four-day camps for kids and teens will offer paddling and mountain biking adventures in a learning environment.
The return of day camps seems most appropriate given the company’s Atlanta roots: The Roswell outpost in Azalea Park sits only a mile upstream from the former location of Horace Holden’s Camp Chattahoochee that sparked the NOC’s humble beginnings a half-century ago.
IF YOU GO
Nantahala Outdoor Center. 13077 U.S. 19 W., Bryson City, North Carolina. Activities include whitewater rafting, mountain biking and zip lining. $32 and up. Lodging options include cabins, an eight-room motel and hostel-style bunkhouses. $40 and up. Dining options include River’s End Restaurant, entrees $12 and up. 828-785-4846, www.noc.com
Additional locations include French Broad River Outpost, Marshall, North Carolina; Pigeon Forge Outpost, Hartford, Tennessee; Ocoee River Outpost, Benton, Tennessee; Chattooga River Outpost, Mountain Rest, South Carolina; Chattahoochee River Metro Outpost in Sandy Springs; and Chattahoochee River Roswell Outpost.