Gauging a season

Gauging a season

Rafting outfitters see this weekend as a key indicator

May 21st, 2009 by Dan Cook in Sports - Outdoors

Photo by Dan Cook Rafters arrive on Saturday and Sunday before Memorial Day Weekend, but weekdays after that bring many more.

Photo by Dan Cook Rafters arrive on Saturday and...

Riding the splashing Ocoee and Nantahala rivers in inflatable rubber rafts has been popular for nearly a half-century, despite ups and downs in the economy.

Even with rises in gasoline prices and shaky job situations, people have continued to flock to the rivers. But could this year be different?

Operators of the Nantahala Outdoor Center and Ocoee Outdoors are hopeful but admit some anxiety going into Memorial Day weekend, which they see as an indicator for the season.

The NOC, which has hosted clients from 175 countries, is in its 38th year; Ocoee Outdoors is in its 33rd. About 80,000 people annually visit the NOC for Nantahala float trips, while the Ocoee's many outfitters serve close to 200,000.

The NOC, which offers trips on several streams and also supports hiking, biking and other mountain-related endeavors, plans to open a much larger store in Gatlinburg this year, showing hope that the cash flow will rebound.

The optimism is tempered, however.

"I wish we knew. It's really just too early in the year to tell," said Cathy Kennedy, NOC director of rafting operations and daughter of co-founders Payson and Aurelia Kennedy. "Historically we haven't suffered too much in a recession because we're close enough to big population centers.

"Rather than (taking off for) whole weeks now, we're seeing a trend in people going to short-time (trips)."

The Nantahala is listed by at least one source as the most popular rafting river in the country, having replaced Pennsylvania's Youghiogheny, said Kennedy, noting that the Ocoee is high in that ranking as well.

There have been some hindrances, however. Last year's drought led to "significantly less (NOC) numbers on the Pigeon River and shorter hours on the Nantahala," acknowledged Kennedy, whose firm normally uses about 600 employees in the summer compared to about 100 in the winter months.

Plenty of rain in recent months has helped the water levels, but forecasts for afternoon thundershowers throughout this weekend could dampen business.

"We're just kind of waiting to see," said James Torrence, co-owner of Ocoee Outdoors with J.T. Lemons. "Right now, the weather is hurting as much as the economy."

Improved safety features have helped the rafting industry stay afloat through adversity.

"I would say self-bailing rafts represent the single biggest change in the time we've been involved," Kennedy said. "Of course, paddles and PFDs (personal flotation devices) have improved. When we look back and see what we used in 1972, we hardly think much of it now."

Many rafters now use Type 5 life jackets, which include a pillow around the top to help keep a person's head above water in case of a spill.

"We do a very extensive training program with our guides," Torrence said, "and all of our customers are required to wear a Type 5 jacket."