Stepping In Old Footprints

My last post was about the Adirondacks, a place that I’ve visited over and over through the last several decades. There are only a few destinations like that for me, with Alaska leading the pack—but Alaska is such a huge geography that it doesn’t really count (are you really going to the same place when your trips are hundreds of miles apart?).

Another regular stop for me is the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC), a whitewater paddling school in Western North Carolina. NOC was founded in 1972, which happened to be the same year that the movie Deliverance hit the theaters–with its dueling banjos, twisted locals, and scenic paddling on the nearby Chatooga River. NOC’s timing was perfect, as the movie sparked a huge increase in whitewater recreation. And it did so in spite of its dark plot, like a bump in cruise traffic after seeing Titanic.

My first visit to NOC was way back in 1988 for a kayaking class, and I returned the next year for a four-day clinic in whitewater open canoe. I’ve been back maybe ten times since, mostly to brush up on various hardboating skills (learning to roll, river rescue, tandem paddling, playboating, etc.), and have introduced a few friends to the place along the way.

I was at NOC this past weekend for some more paddling instruction, this time in an ultralight Alpacka packraft. Alpackas weigh in at six pounds and stow easily, which makes them perfect for fly-in or carry-in trips. We were roadside for this trip, but there are trips further afield down the road.

My instructor for my clinic was Will Norris, and I shared with Will that I wanted to get more comfortable in this boat so that I can do more remote trips. On a more general level, I shared that my goals were to have fun and push myself. I didn’t mention to him that those two pursuits are often the same thing for me (although I think he figured it out).

NOC has changed a lot in 30 years, maybe even more than I have. This used to be a sleepy little place, and now there’s a big gear store, a full service restaurant, a tourist train stop, and permanent slalom racing gates across a lower section of the river. And the facilities are much improved, with the old hostel lodging mostly replaced with fancy cabins.

Most noticeable is that there are a lot more people around, and especially more rafters. The raft crowd doesn’t always get a lot of respect from hardboaters, but rafters create the market that makes for good gear and dam-release whitewater. I’m glad they’re here.

Over the course of the weekend, we paddled three different rivers, the Nantahala (an easy warm-up), the Chatooga (a nice class III), and the French Broad (some bigger water). I refined some strokes, tried some new moves in harder water, and had a chance to revisit some of my motivations for paddling.

Will asked me how I got into paddling, and I shared that I’ve always been drawn to things that I was told I couldn’t (or shouldn’t) do. I’m also drawn to places that are “off limits” because of skills barriers (harder whitewater, glacier travel,  requiring avalanche knowledge, etc.). I’ve been fortunate to do some of those things (and fall short at others), and to see at least a few off-limits places. I hope there are more to come.

As I look back on another trip to NOC, I find myself wondering why someone with an explorer’s mentality has “go-to” destinations in the first place. Psychologists talk about “place attachment,” but adventure travel seems like just the opposite. My favorite place is often the new destination that I’m planning to visit, and once it’s discovered I usually don’t have much interest in going back.

And yet there are a few places–like NOC–that keep me coming back. Maybe I come back because I get to experience myself more than experiencing a place. Maybe it’s harder to reflect if my mind is busy taking in a new view. Maybe the unknown of a familiar place is me?