Nantahala Out of doors Heart celebrates 50th anniversary

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This weekend is the 50th Anniversary of the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC).

Payson and Aurelia Kennedy founded the organization in 1972 with Horace Holden. Aurelia and Holden both died in 2019.

Payson spoke to BPR in 2019 about the formation of NOC.

“The first summer we were here, we lost money — we only raked in $45,000 and posted a loss,” says Payson. “But after that first summer, I was just so busy being in the flow and being out on the river.”

The launch of the Nantahala Outdoor Center came just as the whitewater industry was on the rise.

In 1972, canoeing with the slalom in Munich became an Olympic sport for the first time. Whitewater sports also boomed after the release of Deliverance. The film was primarily shot in Rabun County, Georgia and western North Carolina. Payson served as the film’s consultant and stuntman, along with other local kayakers such as Doug Woodward. Woodward’s son Canyon also worked as a river guide. Now a political strategist, he was most recently the cover story of the Smoky Mountain News, where he spoke about his co-authored book on rural politics, Dirt Road Revival: How to Rebuild Rural Politics and Why Our Future Depends On It. Many other local leaders also trace their roots to the center.

Likewise, Ken Howle came to the region to work at the NOC. Since 2018 he has been the Executive Director of the Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center. Olympian Wayne Dickert is now pastor of First United Methodist Bryson City. The Church operates the Restoration House, which provides food, shelter, medical care, and liaison with other ministries. The Smoky Mountains News interviewed Howle and Dickert for a special on NOC this week.

Store at the Nantahala Outdoor Center in 1980.

23 Olympians, including two Olympic gold medalists, have called the NOC home. Most recently, in 2021, at 17, Evy Leibfarth became the youngest woman to compete in the Olympics for slalom C1 races. She grew up in Bryson City and trained at the center.

Mark Singleton, director of American Whitewater, also credits NOC as his entry into the outdoor industry. Singleton is retiring at the end of June after 18 years from the Conservation Service.

Overall, the Nantahala Outdoors Center has become an important part of the local economy. Outdoor recreation has since grown into a multi-billion dollar industry, grossing over $28 billion in North Carolina alone. With over 700 employees, NOC is one of the largest outdoor recreation companies in the United States. NOC estimates 7 million guests floated down the Nantahala River.

The anniversary celebration is June 11 with a list of events ranging from vendors, art and live music.

The Nantahala Outdoors Center is a sponsor of Blue Ridge Public Radio.