Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Ecotourism and Kayaking in Belize

From Laura Farrell, Trip Coordinator and Expedition Leader of the NOC Adventure Travel College Program. For more than 30 years, NOC's Adventure Travel program has delivered unforgettable expeditions around the globe. Our trips blend exciting activities and beautiful settings with a respect for local culture to form one memorable package.

Last month NOC guided a group of Wofford College students to the tropical country of Belize, escaping the winter of the Southeast as part of a course the students were taking focusing on ecotourism. The students had the opportunity to immerse themselves in the local culture while also experiencing the many eco-friendly adventure opportunities in the country. This was the second year that NOC Adventure Travel College Programs guided Wofford College through Belize, and I’ve been fortunate to be the expedition leader for both trips.

Sea Kayaking

Due to a huge snowstorm in the Southeast, the students’ flight down to Belize was delayed by two days. Myself and other NOC guides were already in Belize preparing the final trip details, and were quick to react in changing the itinerary. Despite losing two days all of the key activities and highlights of the trip were still worked into the schedule.

The first phase of this year’s Belize adventure began on the mainland near the town of San Ignancio, an area well known for rich Mayan history. Staying in an eco-lodge, the students spent their first days gaining insight into the Mayan culture by way of eco-tour adventures. Students enjoyed Tikal National Park in Guatemala, one of the largest known Mayan archeological sites, as well as the ATM (Actun Tunichil Muknal) tour, involving an excursion deep into an old Mayan cave to experience untouched artifacts.

Mayan Temples

We then headed south toward the Toledo state region of Belize, where you find a high density of Belizean people still living by way of old Mayan traditions. Surrounded with thatched roofs and where farm animals abound, the students became intrigued with the lifestyle of the native people. It was especially interesting to visit this area after a few days of learning about ancient Mayan culture. It allowed the students the opportunity to compare and contrast the Mayan traditions from thousands of years past to the Mayan traditions of today.

In this area we visited the traditional Mayan village of San Felipe and were taken on a tour of one of the villager’s cocoa farms, where the fruit is harvested to make chocolate. After exploring the farm and learning about sustainable agricultural practices, we went back to the villager’s house and actually learned how to turn the fruit into chocolate! That evening the students split into groups and were given the opportunity to have dinner with various host families within the community, experiencing firsthand how they live. It was an amazing cultural experience not easily forgotten.

Grinding Cacao

The second phase of the trip is what we refer to as the “islands phase” because we take a boat out to remote islands in the world’s second largest barrier reef. We stayed in tents on the small and beautiful Pompion Caye. Our days were spent rotating through a variety of activities including sea kayaking, stand up paddle boarding, fishing and snorkeling. One day we took an excursion to Laughing Bird Caye, a National Marine Park, allowing us to see the benefit conservation can have on an area. Fishing is always one of the highlights of the trip. The students were excited about the chance to catch an infamous bonefish, which live in large numbers around the island of Pompion.

NOC Instructor Will Norris teaching the basics of Stand Up Paddlebaording (SUP)

After a few days on Pompion, we hopped on the boat and headed toward Tarpon Caye, the next stop on our island adventure. Tarpon Caye’s rustic cabanas hang out over the water with hammocks on each porch. After having spent many nights in tents and without showers on Pompion, staying in the cabanas was a great surprise to the students. Here we all continued to rotate through the various water-based activities including sea kayaking to a nearby island and attempting hand-line fishing (no poles, no reel, just some fishing line and a hook!).

Traditional Cabana

Needless to say the students were not happy when we told them it was time to get back on the boat to head to the mainland. We all would have loved another week on “island time” enjoying the sun, sand and sea. With one final night, we celebrated a successful expedition over a farewell dinner in the coast town of Placenia.

The next morning we hopped back in the vans and made our way to Belize City. After one last stop at the Belize Zoo to check out the illusive jaguar and harpy eagle, we made it to the airport and said our goodbyes. I am already looking forward to the opportunity of guiding the next group of Wofford College students on their Belize Adventure in 2012!

NOC River Leader of the Month - Chuck Spornick

Every month Olympian and NOC Ambassador Wayne Dickert (aka Wayner) will bring you an interview with extraordinary paddlers and enthusiasts that have given unselfishly to make this sport one that all can enjoy and participate in. We’ve dubbed these generous souls NOC River Leaders. Each River Leader is someone that has given back to the paddling world whether it be in the form of community involvement, educational outreach and/or support. Each month NOC will honor a different leader for their efforts to give the recognition they deserve.

Recently, I had the opportunity to interview a dear friend and fellow paddler Chuck Spornick, President of the Atlanta Whitewater Club, about being recognized as the first of NOC’s River Leader.

Wayner: What was the first thing you thought when I mentioned you were going to be our featured and first recognized River Leader?

Chuck: I was honored but really wondering what you were up to by bestowing the honor on me!

Wayner: How and when did you begin paddling?

Chuck: A friend of mine, Greg Fender, and I used to go whitewater rafting together and did several trips with NOC. We got hooked on the fun and thrill of it. Then another friend, Scott Hauser, who had been teaching Boy Scouts to paddle, talked me into trying a kayak on an easy section of the Broad River. I can tell you one thing, those rapids sure look a lot bigger in a kayak than they do in a raft, but I was hooked on kayaking! Scott took me to several other sections that were great for beginning paddlers and finally ended up taking a trip down the Nantahala by the end of the summer. It was great fun even though I didn’t paddle the Falls. After working on the kayak roll for about a year and a half, I took a class with Wayner and developed a bomber roll. Well, at least it was 98% bomber.

Wayner: Did you have any struggles early on? How did you overcome those?

Chuck: During my developing years I paddled with some trip leaders that weren’t very supportive and I almost left the sport rather than being criticized. After talking with some friends and deciding that the focus should be on having fun on rivers that I felt most comfortable on, I decided to stick with the sport and make it fun and tried to always paddle with a positive attitude. Probably the best thing that I did to help make paddling fun and build my confidence was to take padding instruction courses. Each significant step of progression in my paddling skills was because I had taken a paddling class.

Wayner: If you could offer any new boater a suggestion what would it be?

Chuck: Enjoy “paddling where you are” in your paddling skills and confidence. The key is that you don’t have to be “climbing the ladder” of tougher and tougher rivers to have a good time. But a friend once told me that if you have a scary situation on the river, that’s not a good time to stop paddling…because you now have the best campfire story!

Wayner: What is your favorite river and why?

Chuck: Now you’re asking the tough questions! There are so many good rivers it’s hard to choose. If I could only pick one it would have to be Chattooga Section III because it offers a nice balance of scenery and paddling challenge. But if I could pick another, it would be the Little River in the Smokies or Wilson Creek. That gives paddlers a chance to paddle a “California” river and still have grits for breakfast.

Wayner: What is your favorite thing about paddling now?

Chuck: I really enjoy being able to paddle several new rivers each year but my favorite thing is to be able to help beginners on their path to a successful paddling career. More than anything I want them to have a positive paddling experience.

Wayner: As the president of the Atlanta Whitewater Club, what would you like to see happen for the members?

Chuck: Make the club a good place for new paddlers to have a supportive network of paddling friends. One of our club goals is also to help our club members develop safe paddling practices in a fun atmosphere.

Wayner: What do you think the future holds for Chuck Spornick, River Leader?

Chuck: Big Boomin’ Fun! However, after recent surgery (not paddling related), I look forward to being able to get out on the lake and easy rivers and enjoy being on the river again. Then build my skills through a good progression that will help me enjoy paddling my favorite rivers again.

Join Wayner again next month to learn more about another honorable NOC River Leader. If you know of someone that is deserving of this recognition, please email Melissa Pennscott at with details and contact information.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Spring Rains + Rising Creeks = Paddler’s Paradise!

From Jon Clark, Director of NOC's Paddling School. "Creeking" or "creek boating" is a type of whitewater paddling for kayakers and canoeists that takes place on smaller (both in width and volume) streams. Creeking tends to be steeper, more technically demanding and, if you take the word of many advanced paddlers, even more fun than running full-size rivers.

Rain in the Southeast means one thing for whitewater paddlers: creekin’! As cold fronts roll in off the Gulf of Mexico they creep into the Appalachian Mountains dumping massive amounts of rain. The creeks begin to rise, and I become reminiscent of days past creek boating with friends on some of my favorite Southeastern creeks.

Here at Nantahala Outdoor Center’s main outpost in Wesser, NC we’ve been experiencing heavy rain making for plenty of on-the-water action. The rivers are rising and NOC Paddling School instructors are back for the season just in time to join in on the fun. With so many creek boating options near NOC, part of the fun is just deciding which river to paddle.

Spend a week (or a weekend) with the pros and experience creeking at its best on a different river every day. With an instructional focus, Advanced Creek Clinics are designed to take advanced paddlers to the next level giving them the right tools and skills to do so safely. At the same time, you will be introduced to rivers and creeks that you may never have the opportunity to experience again on your own, creating the adventure of a lifetime.

NOC’s most distinguished instructors are teaming up to lead this year’s Advanced Creek Clinics. Our team will be by your side the entire time on the water aiding in the development of new skills and techniques as well as refining those you already have. Participants receive hands-on instruction that hone in on each individual’s specific needs and goals. Our instructors’ profound knowledge base and extensive creek boating experience create the perfect team to lead you down some of the best runs in the South.

Our goal at the NOC Paddling School is to teach both the hard and soft skills necessary to develop the most solid and competent paddlers. Just making it to the take-out is not enough. We want to see our paddlers come away from every course capable of adding to the overall experience of everyone on the river. Good decision-making, planning, and self-awareness are skills just as important as the boof stroke, dual sided roll and rescue. Often forgotten, these soft skills commonly create adventures that reach the “epic” level. We strive to teach a balance of these skills, helping paddlers excel at being not only a great paddler, rather a great paddler that is also a competent leader.

So come get your boof on and join us in one of the most rewarding courses you’ll ever experience! Advanced Creek Clinics have just kicked off with our first weeklong session and will be followed by two weekend sessions March 26-27 and April 16-17. A final weeklong course is available April 25-29 just in time to wrap up the peak of creeking season. These courses are all-inclusive with meals, lodging and daily transportation to all rivers and creeks. Gear is also available upon request.

Safe Paddling!

Jon Clark

Spring Whitewater Rafting: Five Reasons to Paddle Before Summer

"Spring rafting!" Words that should energize whitewater lovers everywhere. Think farmer john-style wetsuits, pushy, strong whitewater, flowering trees, fresh air and—more than anything—getting outside and back in nature. Yet, there's a relatively low amount of interest in spring rafting.

Sure, summer is when people have time off, it’s warmer outside, the kids are out of school and there's more free time. Unfortunately though, rivers are usually at their most adventurous early in the season, and all of us at NOC would love to see more river lovers on the water in March, April and May. So, to inspire more spring adventures, here are five reasons why this is a great time to hit the water:

Seven Foot Falls, Chattooga IV

1) “When the Rain Comes…” Historically spring rains provide the best water levels of the year. We’ve had a pretty wet month so far here in Wesser, but we’re still just over half of our average six inches of rain. As I write this the French Broad, Chattooga and Nolichucky are running at beefy flows, and we’re getting a another good set of showers. Bottom line: This weekend, and other weekends throughout the spring, you can bet it will be splashy and exciting out there on the water.

It’s true that rivers tend to channelize water, and that summer flows are more than powerful enough to make plenty of splashes and waves, but big spring runs are the sometimes the best; they're often the stories we recall years later both as guides and paddlers.

2) Supply and Demand: You know the idea: we have less demand for spring rafting trips, which translates into savings for rafters. Interestingly, some of the best prices we offer all year are for trips when the excitement level is topping out.

Examples of savings? Well, you can save over over 10% at the Chattooga, Nolichucky and French Broad, and almost 10% on the Nantahala. The big discounts? The Ocoee and Pigeon are over 25% off full price in the spring.

3) No Need to Share: Another reason to enjoy spring rafting: you're probably going to have the river more to yourself in the spring. It's likely your rafting trip will be a bit smaller and more private, and it's almost certain there will be less river traffic outside of your trip. This means you're more likely to stumble upon wildlife or have more time to enjoy waterfalls or other riverside points of interest. See the photos below for some stops on the Chattooga and Nolichuky.

Long Creek Falls, Chattooga River

Secret Location, Nolichucky River

4) Availability: In the spring NOC rafts all seven of our rivers. Not only that, but we really offer 11 rafting trips (add Chattooga Section III, Lower Pigeon, Lower Nolichucky, and Full-Day French Broad to their better-known counterparts). This is when you have the most options to get on any NOC whitewater river. If it's late-August, we're often only running five rivers, and then only one trip on some of these. So, if there's a trip you've always aspired to do; this is the best time to book it.

5) "Because it's there." Attribute this sentiment to legendary mountaineer George Mallory or river-running Lewis Medlock from the film Deliverance, either way, it's the same idea behind all adventures and adventurers: experience the outdoors because you can. These trips are different and exciting. If you've never run whitewater at high water then you've missed one of the most exciting things you can do outdoors in the Southeast.

The rivers/trips to catch this spring:

1) Chattooga Section III: The upper section on the Chattooga is usually runnable through the season, but with spring rain we may be able to start at one of the alternate put-ins upstream like Earl's Ford, Sandy Ford or Fall Creek. This means a bit bigger whitewater and more river to see.

Bull Sluice, Chattooga III/IV

2) Nolichucky: The Nolichucky has the shortest season of all NOC rivers and because of this it sometimes gets forgotten by late summer, but this is one our staff's favorite trips. In the spring the upper part of this run can get pretty big, and Quartermile rapid becomes one of the longest and most difficult rapids we run. Even if you miss a high-water event, there should be healthy flows through the spring and the scenery here is without match in the East.

Spring on the Nolichucky
(Most major rapids are upstream of this photo.)

3) French Broad Full Day: Imagine a big Ocoee with plenty of giant splashy waves, that's the FB at high water. You can also catch the rare "Seldom Seen" wave/hole that forms at Frank Bell's rapid. This enormous river feature will certainly drench everyone in a raft. Again, even if you miss a high water event, the FB at spring flows is typically faster and a bit more action-packed.

Paddling the Ledges on the French Broad.

4) Section IV Chattooga: Running Section IV at high water provides serious Class V action, and it may be the most white-knuckle recreation you can have with NOC. At some levels we still run through the five falls (scary, but reasonable), and at the highest levels we run monster versions of Bull Sluice, Seven Foot Falls and Raven's Chute.

Corkscrew, Chattooga IV

5) Cheoah: The main reason to raft the dam-fed Cheoah in the spring is because that's just Cheoah season—over half the river's few releases take place before June. Extra rain flowing in from the Cheoah's feeder creeks will certainly make an intense trip even more intense though.

Photo Wave, Cheoah River

By the way, our dam-controlled rivers like the Nantahala, Ocoee and Pigeon can have high flows too, though these tend to be mitigated by the dam. To book an exciting spring rafting trip call 888.905.7238 or visit

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

NOC Announces Sponsorship of 2011 Smoky Mountain Relay

We are excited to announce our title sponsorship of the 2011 Smoky Mountain Relay – a running event beginning in North Mills River, NC and ending at NOC’s campus in Wesser, NC.

The Smoky Mountain Relay offers breathtaking views, challenging terrain and a memorable adventure for intermediate and advanced runners. Covering 205 miles of trails, forest service and rural county roads, runners will experience beautiful Southern Appalachia from its best viewpoint - on foot. Teams consisting of 12 runners will cover the course in 36 legs, or sections, with each runner completing three legs each. Teams are responsible for supplying two vans in order to shuttle their runners to various exchange points along the course. Each leg ranges from 2.5 miles to 10 miles, varying in difficulty from easy to very hard terrain.

Teams, generally completing the course between 24 and 34 hours, will descend into the Nantahala Gorge to finish at NOC. Food, drinks and live music at NOC’s Pourover Pub will greet racers at the finish to celebrate the completion of an epic adventure. Racers can enjoy NOC amenities such as hot showers, on-site restaurants and lodging, and an athlete’s ice bath in the Nantahala River

NOC teams up with SMR in its second year, coming on board to show its support of the trail and long distance running community. As the community of local trail runners continues to grow by leaps and bounds, we want to provide the opportunity for these folks to participate in the sport they love. Not only does NOC have many dedicated trail runners on staff, our Outfitter’s Store carries a wide selection of trail running gear, apparel and power foods to service the trail running community.

The race will take place Fri., May 13 through Sat., May 14, ending at NOC’s Outfitter’s Store. Individuals looking for a team to join can visit the Smoky Mountain Relay Online Forum to find teammates and stay up to date on SMR news. For registration information, volunteer guidelines, course and leg descriptions and more visit or NOC's events page.