Nearly 100 miles west of Asheville, on the side of a narrow, two-lane road in Wesser, North Carolina, is one of the largest outdoor adventure outfitters in the country, Nantahala Outdoor Center. 

Fifty years ago, it was a lone building on the banks of the Nantahala River, known as the Tote & Tarry. What was once a single-story motel and gas station hanging over the edge of the river is now a two-story outdoor mecca, housing all manner of whitewater kayaks and paddles along with hiking and mountain biking gear. 

It’s a beacon to anyone wanting to experience an authentic adventure—and the anchor of the region’s outdoor recreation and tourism industry. Statewide, outdoor recreation generates $28 billion a year in consumer spending – or about 2 percent of North Carolina’s GDP. One estimate put the income for just the southwest region of the state at $1.6 billion

Horace Holden of Atlanta purchased the Tote & Tarry in 1972 and asked his friend Payson Kennedy to run what would become the Nantahala Outdoor Center for him. Kennedy left his job as a librarian at the Georgia Institute of Technology and brought his wife, Aurelia, and their children to Wesser. (Kennedy played another big role in the humble beginnings of eastern whitewater recreation, working as a paddling stunt double in Deliverance, which was filmed on the nearby Chattooga River.)

An early photo of Nantahala Outdoor Center. (Courtesy of Nantahala Outdoor Center)
Left to right: Payson Kennedy, Aurelia Kennedy, and Horace Holden. (Courtesy of Nantahala Outdoor Center)

A few years later, a couple of local boys from Swain County, Vernon “Rock” Ledford and Keith “Ox” Maddox, also saw the potential for guided whitewater trips. Maddox inherited a prime location along the river, with enough space for parking and an easy exit at the water’s edge. He and his wife had a ruby mine and small campground, and Maddox worked as a state road surveyor to fill in financial gaps. Ledford was between jobs digging roadway and railway tunnels. 

The two friends watched as more and more people floated past while they fished for brook and rainbow trout in the frigid water, and an idea took root: six or eight people in a rubber boat at $10 per head could add up in a summer. 

Ledford and Maddox saved up their cash to build a raft shack and a bathhouse, and purchased some Avon rafts, paddles, and cheap life jackets with the money left after construction. But they needed just a few more rafts to be competitive with that outfit down river, and area banks weren’t keen on loaning money to the local upstarts. 

“We went over to the bank in Clyde, N.C., and asked them if they’d loan us the money and they told us it was too risky,”  Ledford, now 76, recalled in an interview with The Assembly. But they had a buddy at a bank in town. “We wanted to borrow $10,000, which was a good bit of money then. He said, ‘What are y’all using it for?’ We’re going to buy some rubber boats and life jackets.” 

Local boys with a vision was enough for the second banker, and with the money in hand, Ledford and Maddox set out to grow Nantahala Rafts into the next best thing. 

A group rafts down the Nantahala River. (Shutterstock)
Stacked rafts and paddles in a wire crate await being rented on the riverbank of the Nantahala River. (Shutterstock)

Building a seasonal business in the remote mountains in the 1970s took some creativity and original thinking—the “pre-internet” times when word of mouth and a Yellow Pages ad had to suffice. But they had one big advantage: location. U.S. Highways 74 and 19 were just 30 feet from their front door. 

They also relied on referrals. One reliable source was a buddy that owned a bait shop, where he sold worms and rented fishing poles to tourists. “I ran into him one day in town and asked him to send some of those folks out my way,” Ledford said. “He agreed, and I paid him with a high quality dime bag, no seeds, no stems.

“That was probably some of the best money I spent back then, ‘cause he’d send 10 to 20 people every weekend in the summer,” said Ledford. “It beat the hell out of spending a day nailing ‘Whitewater Rafting 100 yards’ on the tree at the side of the road.”

They certainly had a good location. Nantahala is the Cherokee term for “land of the noon day sun,” named for the high ridges on either side of the gorge that block out the direct sun except for a few hours at midday. 

In the 1800s, for months the people indigenous to this area avoided forced removal that displaced millions across the U.S., known as the Trail of Tears, by fleeing into the dense rhododendron thickets that flanked the gorge. More recently, the rugged, unforgiving terrain kept federal officials from finding Atlanta Olympic Park bomber, Eric Rudolph for five years. (He was eventually caught pilfering food from a dumpster in the middle of the night in Murphy, North Carolina.)

Controlled releases of water from Lake Nantahala supplement the river and its rapids during the whitewater season. The water travels through penstocks and drops 1,000 feet in elevation before discharging into the river at the Duke Energy power station at the foot of Wayah Road. 

The largest cascades on the Nantahala, near the top of the mountain. (Courtesy of Swain County NC Chamber of Commerce)

The lower Nantahala consists of Class II and III rapids at spots like Patton’s Run and Little Wesser Falls. Class IV and V rapids, the Nantahala Cascades, can be found in a small section of the river during Duke Energy’s special releases that cater to advanced kayakers and canoers. These special releases occur two to three times each month in the warmer months for a few hours at a time. 

The people started to come to Ledford and Maddox’s shack, first on Saturdays and Sundays, then all week in the summer months. In the early days, no potential customer was turned away. Their wives, Karen Ledford and Peggy Maddox, helped when they could, while still working their 9-to-5 jobs: Karen would sit at the put-in to keep an eye on the rafts, while Peggy fielded phone calls at the shack. 

But quality rafting equipment was expensive. The wooden paddles would leave blisters on customers’ hands, and the bulky orange life jackets were functional but not great for paddling.  

Ledford had an idea. Other outfitters along the river were testing some new Campway raft designs made for narrower rivers with higher bow and stern designs, or “kicks,” as well as self-bailing raft models. Ledford called the Campway sales representative and convinced him that if they gave him three or four boats to test for the season on credit, he’d pay it back by Labor Day. It worked.

He tried the same technique with Mohawk paddles and a higher-quality life vest vendor. They managed to upgrade their equipment and pay all three back at the end of the season, with a little money to spare.  

Left: A 1970s rafting adventure. Right: Ledford giving safety instruction before a guided trip.

Guided raft trips with boatloads of tourists was still mostly a break-even business at that point, though. In those early years, Ledford and Maddox would store their equipment in the raft shack and take off for their winter work, blasting highway tunnels and surveying roads. 

But each year, more and more people came for the experience of paddling 8 miles in the cold water, a solid drenching at the last waterfall, soaked to the bone, shivering uncontrollably until they could take a lukewarm shower at the bathhouse and change into some dry clothes.

As Ledford and Maddox’s Nantahala Rafts began to take shape, Nantahala Outdoor Center had loftier aspirations. What started with basic rafts and paddles on the Nantahala branched out into other area whitewater rivers, as well as hosting competitive canoe and kayak events. 

Ledford with his summer river guides.

In 1972, The Southeastern Canoe and Kayak races would bring over 300 competitive paddlers to the river. As a bonus, the U.S. Olympic Slalom Committee agreed to make the races a qualifying event for the U.S. Olympic Team Trials that year. 

Most of the NOC staff, including Kennedy, participated. Two Nantahala paddlers qualified for the Summer Games in Munich, Germany in the newly debuted slalom canoeing, John Burton and Angus Morrison. Olympic hopefuls who practice on the Nantahala have appeared in every Olympic whitewater paddling event since. 

Before Munich, the only Olympic canoe and kayak competitions were straight-line “sprint” races in canoes or kayaks with either one person (C1 or K1), two people (C2/K2), or four people (C4/K4). For canoes, the boat is powered single-blade per paddler. For kayaks, the boat is powered by one to four paddlers, each with a two-bladed paddle. In the slalom, competitors do a timed navigation through as many as 25 upstream and downstream gates.

The river became a bigger and bigger draw for competitive racers, and in 1989, Nantahala Racing Club was formed to provide support for racers in whitewater events. Club members Joe Jacobi and Scott Strasburg went on to win the gold in the slalom C2 canoe at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona. 

Joe Jacobi and Scott Strausbaugh won the first-ever Olympic Gold Medal in C2 Slalom. (Team USA, U.S. Olympic Committee)
Joe Jacobi at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona. (Wikipedia)

Grants and donations from numerous outdoor centric organizations have helped Nantahala Racing build a year-round training facility—and a reputation for fielding Olympic whitewater competitors. That’s continued to the most recent games in Tokyo, where 17-year-old Bryson City native Evy Leibfarth made history as the youngest whitewater paddler.

It’s not just the Nantahala’s racers that are notable. The businesses they spawned are too—and now make up the largest concentration of outdoor recreation industries in the eastern United States, with over 75 outfitters, retailers, manufacturers, and partners. The state also became one of the first on the Eastern Seaboard to create a public-private partnership in 2017, the North Carolina Outdoor Recreation Industry Office, to create a network of stakeholders and boost the industry. 

Evy Leibfarth of the United States competes in the Women’s C1 heats of the Canoe Slalom at the Tokyo Summer Olympics. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

These stakeholders continue to bring outdoor-centric businesses to the mountains of North Carolina. That includes Asheville-based Made by Mountains, an outdoor brand ambassador that tells the stories of people and businesses that have made Western North Carolina home. Outdoor Gear Builders serves as a networking group of outdoor centric businesses to collaborate on issues specific to the industry in the region. 

But none of this is possible without the money. As Ledford and Maddox encountered when they started their small, seasonal rafting company in the ‘70s, bankers weren’t lining up to hand out cash to buy some paddles and rubber boats.  

Fifty years later, that has changed with Mountain BizWorks, the go-to for small business start-ups in the region. This nonprofit community development financial institution provides access to credit and business coaching, and helps startups find the capital needed and resources to help businesses grow and thrive. 

Rafters along the riverbank of the Nantahala River at the Nantahala Outdoor Center. (Shutterstock)

Mountain BizWorks lends to entrepreneurs looking to get the extra cash to expand their operation, purchase or upgrade equipment, or broaden their inventory. Mountain BizWorks helped western North Carolina businesses secure $11 million in loans in 2022, ranging from apparel manufacturers to kombucha makers to farm-to-table restaurants.

It’s a far cry from begging for rafts and paddles on a line of credit with a promise to pay by September.  

From the porch of his home, far up in a holler on the west side of Bryson City and on the same patch of land where he was raised, Ledford reflects on how much has changed. 

There are so many visitors today—the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests recorded 5.1 million visitors in 2021, while the Great Smoky Mountains National Park drew an estimated 14 million. 

“I’d just as soon take off out of here in July. Everything is packed with out of towners, the grocery store, the restaurants. Even the gas station has a line,” he said. “If you’d told me 50 years ago it’d be like this today, I wouldn’t have believed you.” 

Ledford now spends his time volunteering with the area Shriners chapter and Big Brothers Big Sisters. Kennedy, who turned 90 this year, still stays busy as an NOC Ambassador, as his health permits. His wife, Aurelia, who was instrumental in the success of Nantahala Outdoor Center, passed away in 2019, as did Horace Holden. 

Ledford marvels at what’s become of their wild idea. 

“We were just floating people down the river in a rubber boat,” he said. “It’s good that the people can come experience what we’ve known all along.”

Jennifer Hawkins is a freelance writer living in North Florida. Jennifer spent her summers in the mountains of North Carolina with her grandparents and cousins, paddling and fishing the wild mountain rivers and creeks. She visits frequently, but prefers a craft beer and charcuterie board to rafts and whitewater.