Unfiltered: Payson Kennedy – Paddler, Mentor

Photograph by PATRICK CAVAN BROWN



Almost four decades ago, Payson Kennedy, his wife Aurelia, and Horace Holden founded a whitewater rafting business in a small gas station-grocery on the banks of the Nantahala River in Western North Carolina. Since 1972, the Nantahala Outdoor Center has grown into one of the nation’s leading companies for outdoor instruction, adventure travel and recreation. At the time, Kennedy was fresh off a stunt-paddling gig for the film Deliverance, having walked away from a career in academia to settle in the Nantahala Gorge. He has served two stints as president of NOC, shaping the institution that helped birth America’s modern outdoor industry while simultaneously training thousands of river guides-many of whom have had immeasurable influence across the world of paddlesports. The center has also incubated more than a dozen Olympians, though Kennedy habitually deflects questions about himself to the exploits of friends and family. The International Whitewater Hall of Famer is the undisputed godfather of Southeastern paddling, but Kennedy, now 77 and retired, can still be found guiding rafts down the Nantahala’s playful rapids for boatloads of folks who haven’t a clue they’re sharing strokes with an icon. – Harrison Metzger


When I first started it was the wood and canvas Old Towns. I remember one trip when somebody did hit a rock we had to stop for a day to patch it. After the war when the Grumman canoes came out that gave a big impetus to the sport. You didn’t have to be as cautious; you could run harder stuff.


We had been doing Section III of the Chattooga, portaging Bull Sluice. Seven Foot, and Soc ‘em Dog we portaged for several years and gradually, around 1965 or 1966, we started paddling them. Bull Sluice was pretty intimidating.


We were running the Chattooga real regularly, so by the time Deliverance was filmed it was our favorite river. We took John Boorman, the director, to see it and encouraged him to do the filming there.


The movie did generate a good bit of bad feeling and hostility. When it was being made I don’t think the local people realized how they would be depicted, and when it came out they were pretty incensed about it.


It did a lot to popularize whitewater sport. Even now, almost everyone who comes to the Chattooga has seen it.


When the Chattooga became Wild and Scenic, I heard people say the Forest Service is preserving the river for paddlers from Atlanta, and the local people and fishermen who have used the river for years are being cut off.


We have four children, all of whom have been guides here. Our son, John, was one of the first people to paddle the Green River [Narrows], and our oldest daughter, Cathy, is in charge of rafting operations. [Kayaking star] Andrew Holcombe is her son.


When we started running the guided trips on the Chattooga, we had to figure out how to make it safe. We never had a fatal accident on our guided river trips of one of our guests.


We did have a kayak guide whose boat folded under a rock. That was the incident that inspired Slim [Ray] and Les [Bechdel] to develop the techniques and write River Rescue.


I grew up paddling the open boats and did for years until Doug Woodward introduced us to kayaking. We built boats in his basement and got into kayaking, that would have been about ’69. I did the Grand Canyon and Upper Yough.


We used to go over and run the Cheoah in flood. That is the only time I ever left a boat on a river. Wrapped my boat around a rock and had to leave it there.


As I have gotten older I have gotten back into canoeing more. I would love to see the open boat get more popular again, but certainly every year we have seen more and more kayaks on the river.


I guide some on the Nantahala whenever they are busy and need me. I also still do a little bit of racing. We started the Nantahala Outdoorsman Triathlon, I think it was in 1976. I still participate in that as part of a team. Russ Callen has done the swimming and never missed a year. I do the paddling and Jim Holcombe, Andrew’s father, does the running.


I love being here-it has been 38 years now-and just all the young people I have met. Over the years something over 5,000 people have worked here. I try to inspire them with some love of the outdoors.


My impact on the sport? I don’t know what to say to that. Better ask someone else.


This article first appeared in the July 2010 issue of Canoe & Kayak magazine.

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