Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Nantahala Outdoor Center: A Paradise in the Clouds

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This place just hangs onto you. It writhes its way under your skin, grows roots slowly into your heart and your mind, fills your eyes up with all that sky and rolling mist until one day you discover that you've become just as mossy green and craggy blue as the mountains themselves. And then that's it. The land has you and no matter how fast or far you try to run, you'll always be yanked back. Pulled suddenly and firmly back to dirt roads meandering through laurel and wildflowers up into cloud, to the shadow of a hawk flying endless circles against the sun, to the quiet steady ticking of water dripping onto moonlit boulders.

The Nantahala Gorge in the Smoky Mountains has had a irresistible hold on me for several years now. Blanketed in white fog and folklore the area has an effect that's both eery and thrilling. Originally the territory of the Cherokee Nation, it hosted the main trail between the Valley areas in Andrews and the busy Middle Towns on the Tuckaseegee and Little Tennessee River. Regarded with half-fear, half-wonder, the Gorge was rumored to contain a gigantic snake named Uktena and a community of wonder working little people called Yunwi Tsunsdi. The area was called Nantahala by the Cherokee, which translates into “land of the noonday sun” because the only time the sun could penetrate the high mountain peaks and reach the ground was precisely at noon. The scenery is breathtaking, the aura unmistakably occult, but my infatuation to Gorge delves deeper and finds its root in the community itself.

As the largest and one of the oldest outfitters on the Nantahala River, the Nantahala Outdoor Center serves as the main social outlet for guests, staff and locals in the Gorge. With three on-site restaurants, a late night bar offering live music, an outfitters store and a whole range of outdoor activities and lodging available; NOC has become somewhat of a self-contained mini-town filled with residents that are all passionate about the outdoors. When I first became an employee here, I had no idea just how tight knit and unique of a community I had stumbled into. Walking across Founder's Bridge you can unknowingly rub elbows with Olympic paddlers. Hanging out beside the NOC wave you can exchange banter with pro-kaykers. Raft guides from different companies salute each other on the river. Boaters of various skill levels, from all over the country come together to take on the “Mighty Nanty” and learn from each other every single day. Three summers later, and I'm still hooked.

The memories I've made during my summers here are moments I will carry with me my whole life. One of my favorite NOC memories is when my roommate and I were practicing rolling our kayaks at Fontana Lake. After watching me flail around for about ten minutes a very nice gentleman came over and worked with me for an hour until I improved. After he walked away my roommate informed me that I had just obliviously received an hour long kayaking lesson from NOC's first employee and one of the best kayakers in the area, Jimmy Holcomb, for free.

I wake up every morning not knowing where the day is going to take me or what type of adventure I'm going to have. One afternoon after work I was sitting at a picnic table by the river and I struck up a conversation with some paddlers that lived in the area. The next thing I know, I'm sitting in the back of a pick up truck, flying up a gravel road to a house on the very top of the mountain. On the screened-in-porch are three old men with long gray beards and toothless grins, holding a banjo, a stand up bass, and a washboard. Possibly the best bluegrass I have ever heard, and all from the comfort of a rocking chair.

And then there are all those nights spent up at Queens Lake. Sitting around a campfire and talking about nothing in particular as cicadas buzz all around us. Holding hands with a bunch of friends I've just met as we leap off the dock together, wild with youth and laughing in the moonlight. Moments and people I wish I could hold onto forever, but all of them as fleeting as the summer itself.

The days are hot, the water is cold, and time stands still. If you're in the Gorge a week, it feels like a month. An entire summer, feels like a year. With all of the whitewater rafting, mountain biking, hiking, and numerous other outdoor activities in the area you don't notice the time passing. In the Gorge cell phone service is limited and internet is even harder to come by. But I don't miss it. Surrounded by the people I care about and the things I love, I find that I don't actually need that Starbucks cappuccino in the morning.

The first time I rafted down the Nantahala River I was eight years old, on an end of summer vacation with my dad, my uncle, and my cousin. We ended up on a guide assisted rafting trip which meant that there was a guide in every other raft. Inevitably, my dad ended up self guiding our boat and although we had a few spills, it's an adventure that still comes up at family gatherings. The next time I braved the Nanty was on my sixteenth birthday with some friends from home. We had a lovely guide (and no swimmers this time) that led us in sing-alongs the whole way down. The summer I graduated high school I became NOC staff, and since then the area has become my anchor. The Nantahala Gorge is the place I feel most at home, and most content. It's the guiding light that gets me through each school year. My secret paradise hidden in the clouds.

Since my first rafting trip as an eight year old, I've been down the Nantahala River more times than I can count. But it never gets old. I have forayed out to other rivers with bigger rapids and greater thrills but its a love affair that never lasts. At the end of it all I always find myself leaning against Founder's Bridge, watching the sun set over a river blanketed in mist and purple in the dusk. Enjoying a glass of sweet tea with a childhood friend, having quiet conversation about the steady drip of water or the way a hawk flies. Watching an old love forge its way into my future, just as surely as it meandered through my past. And I know no matter where I go, or what I do in the coming years, the Nantahala Gorge will always be there, calling me back to this perfect place of mist and river and sky.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing this and the pics. I worked at NOC a number of years ago while taking a 4-year "career break". This brought back many good memories. And, yes, NOC is a special place.