The Nantahala Outdoor Center is a sweeping expanse of a place: The commercial outdoor guide service and retail store, opened in 1972 by Payson and Aurelia Kennedy and Horace Holden, is the perfect encapsulation of all the best nature has to offer in our region. It’s nestled in western North Carolina on the river near Bryson City and the Great Smoky Mountains, surrounded by Nantahala National Forest with the Appalachian Trail passing directly through the heart of the property. In other words, it’s something of an outdoor heaven.
The formal purpose of the NOC is to serve as an all-inclusive access point to all the best natural resources the Southeast has for both fun and sport: NOC operates whitewater rafting trips on eight Southeastern rivers, leads a canoe and kayak paddling school, and offers mountain bike rentals, ropes courses, fly fishing and hiking. This year, they’re rolling out a full day pass that will let you try whitewater rafting, the Zip Line Adventure Park, Fontana Lake rentals and mountain biking.
But really, NOC is much more. For nearly 50 years, it’s been a haven for community and adventurers, and serves as a true tribute to, and embrace of, the natural environment.
“Nature proves to be the best host for giving our spirit exactly what we need,” Joe Jacobi says plainly. Jacobi, a 1992 Olympic Gold Medalist in whitewater slalom, has worked and trained with the NOC for decades now and sees the center as his personal refuge and as an extension of the larger effort to protect the planet – something Jacobi sees as one of the most important missions we have.
“Participation is the best way to conserve, protect, and grow from our natural resources. If you get people out there, then it gets them excited about why it’s worth preserving. Nature has a way of figuring it out, and if you get people in the outdoors we are going to find ways to work together to spread the idea of [protection] further and deeper.”
Steven Foy, the General Manager of Outpost Operations and a Master Guide, confirms that this an essential part of the NOC’s mission. Really, as big of an operation as it is, the place is always about a love of the outdoors. Even as an administrator, Foy – like all of the management – prizes the time when he can get out of the office and onto the river, whether he’s guiding a rafting trip or instructing with the Paddle School. They all work extremely hard to make outdoor experiences accessible to everyone, regardless of age or skill-level.
It’s Jacobi’s experience that might sum it up best: He quite literally met the woman who would become his wife in the river: her kayak capsized and Jacobi was the one who pulled her out. Now, with years of marriage behind them and a shared love of the NOC, their 14-year-old daughter is a member of the Nantahala Racing Club.
The Nantahala Outdoor Center can be what you want it to be: a day-trip, a training ground, an escape from the city, a lifestyle. No matter what the NOC comes to mean to you, it’s a beautiful encapsulation of the Southeast and a reminder of how important our natural resources are.