Featured Book

Featured Articles

Travel Safety

Featured Advertisers

Hotel Savoy Prague

Sea Kayak Advenures

Search

go

Search By Country:


Search Now:

Experiences

go

Escaping to North Carolina's Wilderness Oasis


A week at the Nantahala Outdoor Center offered the perfect reward for enduring a chilly New England winter. Nestled in a remote corner of western North Carolina where the Appalachian Trail carves across the Nantahala River into the Great Smoky Mountains, NOC is dedicated to the outdoors: kayaking, whitewater rafting, hiking, mountain biking, and just communing with nature.

 

One of the many bike paths at NOC. © Jim Johnson Some folks come for week-long training programs. Others come for the day. My friend Renée and I decided to sample several activities and to spend a relaxing week in this wilderness oasis.

The day we arrived a dense mist hugged the river. The haze seemed almost mystical, wafting upward into the lush overgrowth of kudzu vines cascading from the trees. We walked around NOC's tiny riverside village: three restaurants, two outfitters stores, a small motel, a handful of vacation cottages, three hostel-type bunkhouses and offices. A short distance upstream we watched rafts, kayaks and two-person inflatable "ducks" maneuver over Nantahala Falls. Spectators perched on rocks cheered or good-naturedly jeered each performance.

At night, the village becomes a ghost town; most visitors head to off-site lodging or take an old steam train to Bryson City, some 20 miles away. Nature's noises filled the air as we walked to Relia's Garden, a superb hillside restaurant overlooking the terraced gardens that provide much of the fresh produce.

Relia’s Garden. © Jim Johnson Most nights, we sat there long after dinner, not talking, just listening and watching, fireflies casting sparks against the trees. Nantahala does that to you.

The next morning, we awakened to the sounds of songbirds and the light roar of the river. At the River's Edge Café, we loaded up on a breakfast of fresh granola topped with yogurt, honey and local berries. As we walked to the Rafting Center, we watched kayakers – many of them Olympic hopefuls – weave their way with grace and power through a labyrinth of slalom gates. When we checked in, we found a choice of a guided or self-guided raft trip, the former with a trained "skipper," the latter with a boatful of rookies who would choose their own captain. We opted for self-guided. I found myself elected.

The "Nonnie," the guides told us, is extremely forgiving. At worst, we'd hit a rock, bounce off and make our way down the river. After a brief orientation, we were on our way.

Nantahala means "river of the mid-day sun" thanks to the valley's steep slopes and a path so narrow that trees form a dense canopy over the river. We snaked our way downstream, passing successfully through Pinball Rapids and the 10 rocks of Jaws, past Leggo Rock and Launching Pad. Soon, however, screams pierced the river's roar.

Nantahala Falls.

There are two ways to hit the falls. The cautious way subjects rafters to a minor jolt but the unrelenting jeers of the spectators. The difficult way is highly technical: angle left, glide left, let the current kick the stern around, straighten out over the first fall, angle right over the second.

Braving it over Nantahala Falls. © Jim Johnson Do it right, and get the ride of your life. Do it wrong...and you get trashed. We got trashed, making our way over the falls like socks in the rinse cycle. My crew held on for dear life as we hit the last drop – to wild applause.

Moments later, we were at the take-out in the village. Although we'd been at NOC barely a day, we were already feeling the soothing effects of the Center's setting and staff. Over the coming days, many of them would come to know us by face, if not by name, greeting us as we passed on street, river or trail.

NOC is employee-owned, and its staff freely shows and shares its love for the river and surrounding mountains. Titles mean little.

Payson Kennedy, who started the Center in 1972, holds the official title of "CEO and NOC Philosopher." The cashier who takes money one day, hands out advice at a paddling clinic the next. There's a strong sense of community that embraces even the most transient guests. Many visitors come for one-day samplers in canoeing, kayaking, rock climbing and mountain biking; a way for novices to get a taste of the different sports. Visitors can also sign up for multi-day clinics, from "The Tentative Kayaker" for beginners, to five days of canoeing and camping on the Chattooga River – of "Deliverance" fame – for advanced students. Some folks just hike, taking advantage of hundreds of miles of trails, including the nearby Joyce Kilmer State Forest.

The next day, we took the kayak sampler. I'd always feared the thought of making my way merrily downstream trapped upside-down in a kayak. My confidence didn't improve when I couldn't even get in the darned thing as we practiced on a quiet lake. After two hours of instruction, we shuttled by van to a nearby river, driving by some rippling whitewater."There's three things to remember," said Whitney, our 25-year-old instructor. "Angle and momentum. If you learn to angle yourself right and take advantage of the river's flow and your boat's momentum, you'll be fine."

What about the third thing? "Oh, yeah. Remember to tuck your head if you flip. You don't want to hit any rocks."

Great.

We put on our gear, got in our kayaks and pushed off. The current caught the bow of my boat immediately, throwing it downstream. Our objective, unfortunately, was to head upstream. After a few tries, I found the right angle.

A kayaker fights his way up the Nantahala River. © Jim Johnson The feeling of paddling upstream through the current was surprising and exquisite. At one point, we learned how to surf, finding just the right position in a curling wave, so that the boat stays stationary and the river rushes past. Another amazing feeling.

"Looking gnarly, dude!" Whitney shouted in her best Southern drawl surfer-girl accent.

The end of our run took us over a series of ledges, so steep we lost the river under the horizon. One after another, we took off downstream, reading the river to get the best angles and best water. I angled right and paddled, aiming for the "V" between two sets of rocks. I hadn't seen the two-foot drop, which turned out to be, well, sort of fun. Far too soon, the ride and rush were over and I pulled into a calm eddy where others were already loading their boats onto the trailer.

Nantahala offers more than water sports. NOC also has some of the best, most beautiful and most challenging mountain bike terrain in America. We'd already explored many of the area's scenic back roads, climbing through dense forest. We'd never tried rough terrain, however, and we decided to take two hours of private instruction at NOC's skills course. Our instructor, Ken, taught us the basic positions for climbing, descending and avoiding obstacles as we made our way around the practice circuit.

At nearby Tsali Recreation Area, we found our training put to good use. We'd chosen the popular Right Loop, 13.6 miles long and mostly narrow packed-dirt trails. The route was as mentally strenuous as it was physically demanding. The uphills were challenging, the downhills steep and rocky and often ending in serpentine switchbacks that led up another hill. At times, the path drew so narrow that visibility extended barely to the front of the bike, lush overgrowth hitting from both sides. I actually preferred that to the frequent alternative of rock ledge on one side, 100-foot drop on the other.

Taking a well-deserved break among breathtaking scenery. © Jim JohnsonOver the next several hours, we saw only 10 other people in the ancient forest; we had Tsali to ourselves.

We paused frequently, for snacks, for rest, to brush off caked mud and blood, and to take in the views of azure Fontana Lake – where I took a quick swim – and the cloud-rimmed peaks of the Smokies. We returned to NOC exhausted and exhilarated. That evening, we dined at Relia's and watched the sun set over the mountains. In the darkness, the fireflies started their magic dance.


When you go:

For information: Call (704) 488-2175 or write to Nantahala Outdoor Center, 13077 Highway 19 West, Bryson City, NC 28713-9114. Web: www.noc.com. Nantahala Outdoor Center's season runs from March through mid-November.

Activities: NOC offers a wide range of instructional activities including one-day kayak samplers and mountain bike samplers with lunch and equipment; two- to seven-day canoeing and kayaking courses for all experience levels; private instruction; and self-guided tours and rentals. NOC also offers rafting on five different rivers. On the Nantahala, NOC rents rafts and inflatable "duckies" and offers guided-assisted tours. The most difficult is the Chattooga at NOC's Georgia outpost. The Ocoee in Tennessee was the site of the 1996 Olympic whitewater racing competition.

Lodging: Comfortable cabins, motel units and spartan dorm-style rooms are available on-site. Nearby Nantahala Village also offers motel rooms and cabins. Call (704) 488-2826.

Dining: NOC has three restaurants: Slow Joe's Outdoor Café, the pub-like River's End, and Relia's Garden, with gourmet dining and fresh-from-the-garden produce.

Getting there: The nearest airport is in Asheville, N.C., about 75 minutes from NOC. The Outdoor Center can arrange a shuttle, but a car rental gives you more flexibility to explore the region.

Payson Kennedy, who started the Center in 1972, holds the official title of "CEO and NOC Philosopher." The cashier who takes money one day, hands out advice at a paddling clinic the next. There's a strong sense of community that embraces even the most transient guests. Many visitors come for one-day samplers in canoeing, kayaking, rock climbing and mountain biking; a way for novices to get a taste of the different sports. Visitors can also sign up for multi-day clinics, from "The Tentative Kayaker" for beginners, to five days of canoeing and camping on the Chattooga River – of "Deliverance" fame – for advanced students. Some folks just hike, taking advantage of hundreds of miles of trails, including the nearby Joyce Kilmer State Forest.

The next day, we took the kayak sampler. I'd always feared the thought of making my way merrily downstream trapped upside-down in a kayak. My confidence didn't improve when I couldn't even get in the darned thing as we practiced on a quiet lake. After two hours of instruction, we shuttled by van to a nearby river, driving by some rippling whitewater."There's three things to remember," said Whitney, our 25-year-old instructor. "Angle and momentum. If you learn to angle yourself right and take advantage of the river's flow and your boat's momentum, you'll be fine."

What about the third thing? "Oh, yeah. Remember to tuck your head if you flip. You don't want to hit any rocks."

Great.

We put on our gear, got in our kayaks and pushed off. The current caught the bow of my boat immediately, throwing it downstream. Our objective, unfortunately, was to head upstream. After a few tries, I found the right angle.

A kayaker fights his way up the Nantahala River. © Jim Johnson The feeling of paddling upstream through the current was surprising and exquisite. At one point, we learned how to surf, finding just the right position in a curling wave, so that the boat stays stationary and the river rushes past. Another amazing feeling.

"Looking gnarly, dude!" Whitney shouted in her best Southern drawl surfer-girl accent.

The end of our run took us over a series of ledges, so steep we lost the river under the horizon. One after another, we took off downstream, reading the river to get the best angles and best water. I angled right and paddled, aiming for the "V" between two sets of rocks. I hadn't seen the two-foot drop, which turned out to be, well, sort of fun. Far too soon, the ride and rush were over and I pulled into a calm eddy where others were already loading their boats onto the trailer.

Nantahala offers more than water sports. NOC also has some of the best, most beautiful and most challenging mountain bike terrain in America. We'd already explored many of the area's scenic back roads, climbing through dense forest. We'd never tried rough terrain, however, and we decided to take two hours of private instruction at NOC's skills course. Our instructor, Ken, taught us the basic positions for climbing, descending and avoiding obstacles as we made our way around the practice circuit.

At nearby Tsali Recreation Area, we found our training put to good use. We'd chosen the popular Right Loop, 13.6 miles long and mostly narrow packed-dirt trails. The route was as mentally strenuous as it was physically demanding. The uphills were challenging, the downhills steep and rocky and often ending in serpentine switchbacks that led up another hill. At times, the path drew so narrow that visibility extended barely to the front of the bike, lush overgrowth hitting from both sides. I actually preferred that to the frequent alternative of rock ledge on one side, 100-foot drop on the other.

Taking a well-deserved break among breathtaking scenery. © Jim JohnsonOver the next several hours, we saw only 10 other people in the ancient forest; we had Tsali to ourselves.

We paused frequently, for snacks, for rest, to brush off caked mud and blood, and to take in the views of azure Fontana Lake – where I took a quick swim – and the cloud-rimmed peaks of the Smokies. We returned to NOC exhausted and exhilarated. That evening, we dined at Relia's and watched the sun set over the mountains. In the darkness, the fireflies started their magic dance.


When you go:

For information: Call (704) 488-2175 or write to Nantahala Outdoor Center, 13077 Highway 19 West, Bryson City, NC 28713-9114. Web: www.noc.com. Nantahala Outdoor Center's season runs from March through mid-November.

Activities: NOC offers a wide range of instructional activities including one-day kayak samplers and mountain bike samplers with lunch and equipment; two- to seven-day canoeing and kayaking courses for all experience levels; private instruction; and self-guided tours and rentals. NOC also offers rafting on five different rivers. On the Nantahala, NOC rents rafts and inflatable "duckies" and offers guided-assisted tours. The most difficult is the Chattooga at NOC's Georgia outpost. The Ocoee in Tennessee was the site of the 1996 Olympic whitewater racing competition.

Lodging: Comfortable cabins, motel units and spartan dorm-style rooms are available on-site. Nearby Nantahala Village also offers motel rooms and cabins. Call (704) 488-2826.

Dining: NOC has three restaurants: Slow Joe's Outdoor Café, the pub-like River's End, and Relia's Garden, with gourmet dining and fresh-from-the-garden produce.

Getting there: The nearest airport is in Asheville, N.C., about 75 minutes from NOC. The Outdoor Center can arrange a shuttle, but a car rental gives you more flexibility to explore the region.