Payson Kennedy portrait by Patrick Cavan Brown.

Payson Kennedy portrait by Patrick Cavan Brown.

By Mark Anders

Back in 1992 when I first started guiding rafts in the Southeast, I often saw this lanky old graybeard leading folks down the Nantahala and Ocoee Rivers. I remember thinking he looked more like a professor or librarian than a river guide, and was surprised to learn he was in fact Payson Kennedy, head of the venerable Nantahala Outdoor Center, headquartered in North Carolina's Nantahala Gorge. At the time, most of my fellow guides considered NOC the Evil Empire—not because they did anything evil but because they were just so damn good. They had all the best equipment, the best meal plan, and the most professional guides, many of whom actually worked year-round — guiding was their "real job."

The very next season I became a NOC guide myself. That's when I first met Payson and began learning about his legacy. Before co-founding NOC he was indeed a librarian at Georgia Tech with a master's degree in anthropology. But when his friend Horace Holden asked him to manage NOC in 1972, he dropped everything. The river was Payson's first love. He excelled at paddling and eventually became a six-time national champion in tandem open canoe, though he gets more cool points for being Ned Beatty's stunt double in Deliverance. Still, Payson's crowning achievement is growing NOC while unwittingly bolstering and legitimizing the entire whitewater industry along the way.

Now, at an exceptionally spry 72, Payson is retired but acts as the Center's "chief philosopher" and still guides rafts the occasional raft. I didn't realize it at the time, but the fact that there's a legitimate career track for river folks who want to be guides and kayak instructors is due in no small part to the work Payson has done over the past 37 years. Next time I see him on the river, I'm gonna have to thank him for that.

This story first appeared in the March 2009 issue of Canoe & Kayak magazine. Read more about Payson Kennedy, the 2016 Canoe & Kayak Lifetime Achievement Award recipient, at


Richard Bangs // Greg Barton // Tao Berman // Paul Caffyn // Graham Charles // Serge Corbin // Nigel Dennis // Dubside // Steve Fisher // Bob Foote // Dan Gavere // Alan Hamilton // Freya Hoffmeister // Mick Hopkinson // Nikki Kelly // Payson Kennedy // Rob Lesser // Anna Levesque // Martin Litton // Brad Ludden // The LVM/T-Dub Connection // Sean Morely // Nappy Napoleon // Michael Peake // Scott Shipley // Jim Snyder // Rush Sturges //