Members of the SE paddling community gathered to remember Maria Noakes. Photo courtesy Marc Hunt
Members of the SE paddling community gathered to remember Maria Noakes. Photo courtesy Marc Hunt

How to ‘Live Like Maria’ Noakes

The Southeast paddling community gathers to ‘Live Like Maria,' celebrating memorable moments in the life of the inspiring longtime NOC kayak instructor

Compiled by Laura Farrell

Just over a month ago, nearly 200 paddlers paid tribute with a memorial paddle together on the Nantahala River. That afternoon, over 700 members of the paddling community, families and friends gathered at the Nantahala Outdoor Center for a formal memorial with additional hundreds streaming the broadcast (below) from around the world. And then the mid-March ceremony concluded back on the North Carolina banks of the Nantahala, with flowers flowing away downriver.

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The turnout and the power of the event was a testimony to the outsize impact that Maria Noakes had on the lives of countless paddlers like myself. It's hard to overstate or to quantify her influence on the paddling world. But in an attempt to capture some of what made Maria so special, I reached out to the community to ask for favorite memories and moments. The following is a small snapshot sample of the outpouring in response, starting with a brief biography by Noakes's 12-year-old son, Matteo, and then followed by my own favorite memory, plus some can't-forget moments that first jumped to the minds of just a few of all those she adventured alongside and mattered to most.


MATTEO WILLIAMS:
Maria Noakes was an internationally known paddler and guide and the river community of friends and clients inspired by her endless energy and enthusiasm extended across five continents. Maria's passion for kayaking had not diminished over her 25 years in the sport and her motivation inspired paddlers around her whether they were young and old. Maria wasn’t only an amazing paddler, however, she was a mom whose favorite thing to do was paddle on the river with her two boys.

Maria was from New Zealand and she grew up next to the ocean, which was the place where she first found her love of water. After boarding school, Maria trained in occupational therapy and left NZ for a job in London. In between jobs and whenever she could she would go on worldwide adventures including hitchhiking through southern Africa, traveling through South America, and working in a ski chalet in France. On one of her adventures she ended up in Nepal to go rafting; on that trip she fell in love with whitewater and the river changed her life.

During that season in Nepal she met Nick Williams, her future husband. She eventually moved to North Carolina with Nick and had her two boys Dominique and Matteo. As dedicated a mom as she was a paddler and traveler, Maria figured out how to bring together all her passions, taking her family along on adventures in Bhutan, France, Mexico and New Zealand and eventually teaching Dom and Teo to paddle.

We lost Maria to the river on March 3, 2018, but we will carry her spirit and energy with us for the rest of our lives. Maria will be forever remembered as dedicated mom, passionate kayaker and friend to just anyone who was fortunate enough to cross her path.


LAURA FARRELL:
My first real memory of Maria was back in 2005, while I was just 20 years old and working as a raft guide here at the NOC. I had recently started paddling the Ocoee, and a friend invited me to join her on a run down the Upper Ocoee with Maria and Whitney. At that point, I knew of both Maria and Whitney, and looked up to them as the type of paddlers and women that I hoped to be one day. I remember being so intimidated by their sheer presence, but it didn't take long to be put at ease by Maria's bright smile and words of encouragement.

From that day forward, Maria would become one of my biggest role models in life, both on and off the river. And being 16 years her junior, I had a lot to learn. She taught me that while there are times to work, sometimes you need to blow things off and just go kayaking with your best friends. She taught me that being a mother and being a kayaker do not have to be mutually exclusive. She taught me that you're never too old to fire up Gorilla on your birthday. In a lot of ways, she taught me how to live. I will remember those lessons for the rest of my life and in her honor will do my best to live like Maria.


RICHARD ‘STORK’ ADDISON:
Maria would start planning the next adventure during the current one. It was an amazingly flavorful fusion menu; this season's specials were choices of Patagonia, Georgia, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, back to Peru or possibly the old favorite Zambia.

Maria was more complex than first impressions might let on. She loved her home life and also the different perspectives from far away countries. That meant she wanted to do it all when in a new country. ‘You never know we might not be coming back.’ Our last trip was to Peru and the rest day involved hiking all around Machu Picchu and then walking six miles back down the valley. Then she thought an evening paddle might be nice. We barely talked her out of it. There was no shirking and I had to devise cunning excuses just to have a siesta.

Over the years I spent well over six months on the road with Maria, and inevitably Whitney. They were inseparable. We visited 11 countries (12 if you count an illegal landing in Burma) in five continents and paddled more rivers than I can recall. The memories are burnt deep. But everything was about the next adventure. And exchanging excited emails planning exotic trips in the middle of a rainy, gray London work day. Maria brightened up the dullest day and showed me everything you need to know about living a full life.



CHRIS HIPGRAVE:
I read recently about how everything around us is made of energy and that to attract positive things in your life, you should start by giving off positive energy. Well those words seem so poignant now as nothing could be truer of Maria. This was a women that exuded positivity even with the simplest of smiles. So no surprises then that so many of us here at this gathering were touched by that gregarious, bright and larger than life persona.

She led her life at a million miles an hour regardless of what she was doing. A day with Maria was like a Bryson City version of a Fast and the Furious movie along with burning houses, vehicle crashes, drama and kids jumping off the roof.

Her drive to explore never seemed to tire and those of you that have adventured with Maria know that she would use every waking hour to cram as much into one day as humanly possible, only to wake up and do the same again. After a adventure travel with Maria I often felt like I needed another vacation just to relax.


BETSY TOWNS:
Again and again and all the time, Maria brought people together, building powerful bridges that will continue to connect and sustain us. Whether planning a special celebration, like the one she partnered with me to make such a meaningful surprise for Shaner's 50th, or just a random Wednesday afternoon when she decided to bring people together to paddle, to listen to music on her beautiful family's beautiful mountaintop deck in the laurels, to eat scrumptious food lovingly and apparently effortlessly cooked by her and Nick in huge, shareable, warm volumes, Maria called and reached out and made and kept connections in glorious attentive ways.

Maria built friendships and then stacked friendships into family and community. She always seemed to have time to sit down in the sand or on the grass or in a kayak in quiet water and find out how people really were.

With her leaving us last Saturday to take her place among the brightest stars, I pledge: I will find more opportunities to build bridges. I will make food in larger volumes, and have folks over. I will think of beautiful, skillful Maria every day, as I try to engineer more and more ways for us to come together.”


TY CALDWELL:
Maria’s optimism was incredible. She always wanted to surf one more wave, hike a bit faster and explore every inch of the massive Zambezi Gorge during that trip. Not only did she want to experience the world for herself, she wanted to share it with others.


BRIAN SNYDER:
What I remember the most, ironically, is riding together in vehicles. You were always so present. Maybe it was because cell phones weren't such a thing in those days, but I don't think so. That's just who you were. Everyone knows that shuttles are the bane of whitewater kayaking. But I always looked forward to it with you. Whether it was just the two of us, or a truck crammed dangerously full of people, the shuttle became our 'visiting time'. It was a time to catch up with each other, to hear the latest news, and just check in. You would ask 'how you doing?' And genuinely mean it. We would talk about our families and friends, and all the little gossip that intertwined our lives. I miss all those little moments so much.



KIM MATTHEWS:
Something I was reminded of recently was that she never wore shoes and she never seemed to feel the cold even in the middle of winter and she used to run everywhere. Even down her gravel driveway she would just run like the wind in bare feet like it was nothing. When I caught up with her recently at Langs Beach she was in a hurry to get home and off she ran 50 years old, bare foot down the gravel driveway, no problem for Maria.


MADISON MERRIFIELD:
"Kiwi" (aka Maria) was one of our guides for the week of our kayaking week through First Descents last year. “Are our minows minnowing?”, she’d always ask us as we flailed around in our newly acquired kayaks, wondering how in the world we would ever get down a river. Yet day after day, Kiwi’s patience, kindness, and joy for the river flowed into us and we became strong, lovers of the river just as she was.

By the end of our week, Kiwi sang a blessing over us through a beautiful Maori song and, even though we couldn’t understand the words, we felt her soul in each word. Learning to be bigger, more badass, than our cancer journeys was something we learned that week. We weren’t just kayaking, we were soul-mending. And Kiwi was one of the reasons for that week’s magic.


BRIAN MILLER:
Maria was still obsessed about her kayaking. She was one of the best I have know. We had so much fun on the water together. She ran Gorilla on her 50th birthday! She took care of me when Gorilla leveled me this summer. We sat at the wave last Saturday talking about her play boating and working on her freestyle game. She was pumped to keep improving. She had some amazing rides last Saturday and I was so pumped for her….. Maria was the best, we love her and will miss her. Her boys and Nick will forever carry her loving light and WE will support them through this.



To honor Noakes's legacy, her family has established the Live Like Maria Memorial Fund at the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina. Donations into the fund will be directed into causes that were close to Maria's heart, including paddling instruction and outdoor experiences for youth, river conservation and access, and empowering women in outdoor adventure pursuits. Contributions of any amount may be made by check and should be sent to "CFWNC" with "Live Like Maria" in the memo line and mailed to The Community Foundation of Western North Carolina; 4 Vanderbilt Park Drive, Ste. 300; Asheville, NC 28803. Gifts may also be made online at cfwnc.org; click "GIVE NOW" in the upper right corner of the home page, then choose the "Live Like Maria Memorial Fund " from the drop-down menu.

Maria Noakes Life Celebration from Amongst It on Vimeo.