The scale of the operation belies its humble 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 Atlanta home for the summer with four children in tow to get through the season. as white water rafting guides. on the Nantahala River near Bryson City, North Carolina.
Their friend Horace Holden, who ran a children’s day camp called Camp Chattahoochee where the Chattahoochee Nature Center is now located in Roswell, had purchased property in the Nantahala River Gorge as a mountain addition for the camp. Holden brought the Kennedys on board to help run the place and guide trips on the Nantahala and Chattooga rivers as they were expert paddlers. The new operation was called the Nantahala Outdoor Center.
The riverfront property Holden purchased was a small resort on the twisty two-lane US 19 intended for mountain motorists, not paddlers. Called the Tote & Tarry, it included a petrol station, cafe, gift shop and a 14-room hotel across the road. The Appalachian Trail ran through the property and had its own footbridge over the river. So it seemed like the right place to congregate river rats, trail dogs and other outdoor enthusiasts.
One day last month, co-founder Payson Kennedy, 89, and his daughter, Cathy Kennedy, sat at a table overlooking the fast-moving dark green waters of the Nantahala at the River’s End restaurant on the NOC campus and recalled the first days of the operation.
“It was pretty much a last minute decision,” Payson said of that first summer on the river.
It was only for one season and the whole family got involved to get everything done. “There were no buses,” Cathy said, “we used client cars and a family van as a shuttle.”
“We didn’t make a lot of money,” Payson recalled. “My wife and I didn’t take a salary and we paid the kids $20 a week.”
“It was $25 a week,” Cathy replied.
At the end of the season, the Kennedys resumed their life in Atlanta. By the summer of 1973, a decision had to be made whether or not to go all-in and make it a full-time business. After much discussion and a family vote with only one of four dissenting children, they made the leap and left Atlanta for river life in the mountains of western North Carolina.
This second summer, the NOC went from four rafts to eight. The times were lean but rewarding. “He grew quickly; business was doubling month by month,” Payson recalls. “The first year we showed a profit on the books was 1975.”
Cathy credits her father with being the first to hire female river guides in the area, three of whom were members of the 1972 Olympic team and helped shape the paddling program at the NOC. Twenty-three Olympic team members have since worked and trained at the NOC, including two gold medalists from the 1992 whitewater team.
Although times were tough in those early days, father and daughter expressed how much they loved what they did, working together as a family unit on the river, introducing people to the thrill of the water live. When Payson’s grandchildren arrived, they were also working at NOC. “I love this daily interaction with family,” Cathy said. “Grandkids grew up thinking a job was having fun with their grandparents every day.”
In retrospect, Payson said, 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 designated rivers remained free and protected from development. In 1972, whitewater paddling was included in the Olympics and the movie “Deliverance” was released.
Some of the most intense paddling scenes in “Deliverance” were filmed on the federally protected Chattooga River, considered the premier whitewater paddling experience in the Southeast. Payson helped producers scout filming locations and walked through some of the film’s toughest parts as a stuntman.
Payson served as founding chairman 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 become CEO again. In 2005 he was inducted into the International Whitewater Hall of Fame. Although he no longer guides rafting trips, the paddling legend can still be seen 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 company founded and run by outdoor enthusiasts. One of those 30 members is Cathy Kennedy, who still guides river trips, among other duties. Working at the NOC is the only full-time job she has ever had.
This year, NOC is beginning to offer international tours combining a variety of adventure sports with cultural experiences. Routes include rock climbing in Chile, hiking in Peru, and surfing in Costa Rica, to name a few.
“Fifty years of rafting remains the priority, but I have been driven to improve other aspects of the business,” McBeath said. Expanding accommodation and mountain biking options are two priorities.
The NOC opened its brand new 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 ‘hooch shooting’, 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 goal is to get people into nature and expose them to the river.” Two- and four-day camps for children and teens will offer canoeing and mountain biking adventures in a learning environment.
The return of day camps seems most fitting given the company’s Atlanta roots: the Roswell outpost at Azalea Park is just a mile upriver from Horace’s former Camp Chattahoochee location. Holden that sparked the NOC’s humble beginnings half a century ago.
IF YOU ARE GOING TO
Nantahala Outdoor Center. 13077 US 19 W., Bryson City, North Carolina. Activities include rafting, mountain biking and ziplining. $32 and up. Accommodation options include cabins, an eight-room motel, and hostel-style dorms. $40 and up. Dining options include River’s End Restaurant, entrees $12+. 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, SC; Chattahoochee River Subway Outpost in Sandy Springs; and Chattahoochee River Roswell Outpost.