A River Runs
Nantahala Outdoor Center co-founder Payson Kennedy '54C-'59G traded the tranquility of a librarian's existence for the rigors of whitewater
By Allison O. Adams
In the autumn of 1971, Horace Holden '55C bought the Tote 'n' Tarry Motel, a tiny roadside inn, cafe, and gas station on U.S. 19/74, which winds along the Nantahala River in North Carolina's Great Smoky Mountains. He asked his friends Aurelia and Payson Kennedy '54C-'59G, avid canoeists, to run the place as a small whitewater canoeing center. Payson soon quit his job as a librarian at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Aurelia left hers as a schoolteacher, and they moved with their four children to Wesser, North Carolina.
The following spring, the Kennedys launched the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) out of the Tote 'n' Tarry with a few canoes and rafts and a hastily assembled staff of twenty-five friends and fellow whitewater enthusiasts. They offered canoeing instruction and led one raft trip down the river per day. At that time, along this deeply forested stretch of river, Wesser seemed like the most remote place on earth. There was no other commercial whitewater activity and little real estate development in the area.
"We were pretty nervous," says Kennedy, who studied philosophy and sociology at Emory before earning a master of library science degree at the University of Illinois in 1961. "We were trying something totally new, and we had four teenage children we wanted to send to college."
Serendipity intervened twice to give the center a boost that first year. Whitewater canoeing and kayaking became an Olympic sport in 1972, and Deliverance, a movie about four Atlanta friends who take a weekend canoeing trip down a wild North Georgia river, was nominated for three Academy Awards. Whitewater became white hot.
"The people who were attracted to the river then were looking for real adventure," says Kennedy, who served as a stunt double for actor Ned Beatty in Deliverance.
Twenty-five years later, the center has grown into a $15-million-a-year enterprise and is the largest canoeing and kayaking center in the world. Backpacker magazine recently called it "the nation's leader in the whitewater recreation industry." Unlike other whitewater outfitters, which virtually close during the off-season, the NOC employs some one hundred people year-round and more than five hundred during the summer. Last year, on the Nantahala alone, the center hosted thirty-two thousand guests for guide-assisted rafting trips and rented equipment to an additional fifty thousand people who ran the river themselves. Instructors taught more than two hundred canoe and kayak clinics for some three thousand guests.
The Tote 'n' Tarry has evolved into a village of three restaurants, rental and instruction centers, a retail store, offices, cabins, and a small conference center--all nestled against the steep, green walls of the river gorge. The center has satellite locations on four other rivers: the Chattooga in Georgia, the Nolichucky and the Ocoee in Tennessee, and the French Broad in North Carolina.
For the co-founders of the NOC, their success has as much to do with their passion for the sport as it does with luck. Friends since they met in their youth at Atlanta First Presbyterian Church, the Kennedys, Holden, and their families had spent countless nights at the Tote 'n' Tarry long before Holden, then proprietor of Camp Chattahoochee, a popular day camp for Atlanta children, purchased the property. They devoted most weekends to long road trips, traveling from Atlanta to whitewater races around the eastern United States, and the Nantahala was a frequent destination.
"I enjoyed my work in the library," recalls Kennedy, a lean, muscular sixty-five-year-old with a permanent tan and grizzled whiskers. Leaning back in a squeaky old desk chair in his book-laden office, a room at the erstwhile Tote 'n' Tarry, he adds, "but I would get completely caught up in these recreational activities. I was conscious of the amount of energy and excitement it generated, and our best friends were the people involved in those activities. I thought it would be really neat to be in work that generated the same degree of enthusiasm."
Shortly after moving to North Carolina, Kennedy was on his way to becoming a pioneer of whitewater as a mainstream recreational activity and a serious competitive field. He and Aurelia had begun competing together in 1967, and seven years later, he and his son John won the national open canoe championship in the junior-senior class. Kennedy raced at the national level for eleven years, winning five more championships against much younger competitors. He still competes in triathlons, mountain bike races, and the master class of the open canoe nationals.
The center has become a mecca for champion canoeists and kayakers. Top racers have trained or worked at the center, which sponsors the Nantahala Racing Club. Four of the nine paddlers on the U.S. slalom team for the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games were club members. Other former national and international champions and Olympic competitors are now instructors and guides at the center, which also served as a training site for the 1997 U.S. Junior Olympic team.
Holden, who was inducted into the Emory Sports Hall of Fame in 1992, credits the Kennedys for the center's reputation. "The key has been Payson and Relia and their dedication. You wouldn't have thought a librarian who studies Greek and Russian would be a good businessman, but he could see the potential here, and he had the vision. No one could do what Payson has done."
"We wanted a community of people who shared these interests and enjoyed teaching other people about them, who wanted to live in an environ-ment with forests and rivers close at hand," says Kennedy, who gave up the title of company president in 1990. At that time, he became chief executive officer and company philosopher to give more time to "setting the [center's] values and trying to maintain a culture."
From the start, Kennedy was convinced the success of the NOC would hinge on his philosophy of blending work and play. "A big part of it for me has been trying to make a place where people enjoyed what they were doing so much that they didn't think about how many hours they were working or which days were their days off," he says. For many employees, who range in age from teenagers to retirees, the collaboration and camaraderie he inspires have become a way of
life and are amply evident to visitors. "My instructor seems more excited to be here than I am," wrote a Backpacker magazine reviewer. "She apparently lives for splashing around on the water and teaches patiently, with a sincere smile-a description that fits almost everyone at NOC."
"If we keep our staff feeling that way, then the guests are aware of it, and it catches everyone up and they feel exhilarated," Kennedy says.
That focus on the quality of life for the staff extends deeply into the center's organization. Staff housing, day care, and meal plans are available and affordable. The highest-paid worker earns no more than four times the lowest-paid workers. Since its early days, the NOC has been employee-owned. Employees now collectively own more than sixty percent of the center's twenty thousand shares.
Kennedy was inducted into the Emory Sports Hall of Fame last fall. He plans to retire in January, a decision he believes will allow him to focus exclusively on his role as company philosopher. Of the variety of social philosophical works he espouses, the theories of University of Chicago psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who popularized the "flow state" concept, hold particular importance.
"If you're completely focused on a challenge and you care about what you're doing and put everything else out of your mind," Kennedy explains, "then you end up with this sense of exhilaration. This is the 'flow state.' High-risk activities like paddling do that a lot for people. And it seems to me that's what we're trying to do here."
Rafting photography © Nantahala Outdoor Center
Payson Kennedy photo by Ann Borden
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