Ode to the chiefs

“Love many, trust a few, and always paddle your own canoe,” read the bumper sticker attached to a ’60s-vintage station wagon headed west toward the Nantahala. The carload of gnarly boaters inside seemed to epitomize the outdoor adventurers who frolic in our region. According to U.S. Forest Service figures, nearly 20 million visitors come to play in North Carolina’s national forests each year. In 2000, whitewater recreation and tourism around local rivers generated $51.62 million for Swain County alone, the Outdoor Industry Foundation reports. The group’s Business for Wilderness program works to educate the public about the economic and recreational benefits of wild lands. Clearly, the news about outdoor-recreation opportunities in Western North Carolina is “running rapid.”

The Southern Appalachians’ scenic landscapes and abundant natural resources have been luring visitors for more than a century. The region achieved a national reputation in the late 19th and early 20th century as a haven for health-seekers.

But the current outdoor-adventuring craze has its roots in the mountain camps that sprang up here at the turn of the last century. WNC was one of the earliest regions in the U.S. to promote the educational and recreational benefits of summer camps for youth. With rustic facilities and a backwoods, “learning by doing” instructional style, these summer havens offered hiking, woodcrafting, nature studies, canoeing, orienteering and other noncompetitive activities. Campers learned how to safely scale mountains, paddle rivers, navigate in the woods, and not only coexist but even thrive in a natural environment.

Fast-forward to 2003, when a resurgence of interest in outdoor recreation has WNC cresting the short list of U.S. adventure capitals.

Catching that wave, an estimated 20,000+ locals and visitors alike are expected to turn out next week for the third annual Mountain Sports Festival. The event, say organizers, celebrates the area’s active sport culture, the adventurers who play here, and the natural treasures that make it all possible: dramatic escarpments, endless streams, and dense forests that promise a lifetime of adventuring.

To honor that rich history, Xpress turned its attention to some pioneering individuals who, in the course of their own voyages of self discovery, created a legacy that still lives today. One man’s name is now attached to a famous local rapid; other outdoor leaders have combined a love of the outdoors with a fervor for advocacy that has helped shape our region; still others have ingeniously found ways to blend their passions and their livelihoods, often while actively pointing the way to others.

The Bell curve of paddling

Today, hordes of paddle-sports enthusiasts float the waters, shuttle the highway, and fill the parking lots along the Nantahala River. But flash back nearly 60 years and try to envision a small party packing their gear, loading their unwieldy wood-and-canvas canoes, and preparing themselves for the first descent of the Nantahala.

That act of imagination isn’t too great a stretch for Will Leverette, who literally grew up with a paddle in his hand while living at his family’s camps. “It’s in my blood,” he says with a chuckle, adding, “Ray gave me my first paddle when I was 3 years old.” (That’s Ray Eaton, who — along with Frank Bell Sr. and Pat Bell Leverette (Will’s mother) — was part of that pioneer party.)

Frank Bell (1898-1993) was one of the most legendary boaters and instructors ever to dip a paddle in these waters. Some of the many paddlers who learned their craft from him remember Bell simply as Chief.

Chief was Will Leverette’s grandfather; he was also the founder of Mondamin Camp in Tuxedo, N.C., where Eaton taught canoeing. In a 1979 interview in Brown’s Guide to Georgia, Bell called his ace instructor “one of the best canoeists in the world in his day.”

In the interview, Bell candidly reflected on his 50 years of paddling in the region. “I went to Camp French Broad in 1914,” he recalled. “During that summer, I canoed down the French Broad from Brevard to Asheville.”

But it was another French Broad adventure nine years later that changed Bell’s life forever and was, in some sense, the genesis of today’s Southern Appalachian whitewater craze. In 1923, Bell and five others attempted the first descent of the treacherous gorge above Hot Springs — all in heavy, wood-and-canvas canoes. Locals warned Bell and his party about a section of the river where the water went over a ledge and dropped dangerously into a whirlpool where, according to local legend, “dogs used to chase deer and be swallowed up.” According to the 1979 interview, Bell told the others about the hole and only one other boy, James McClester, was “foolish enough” to take the challenge.

Reportedly, the two ran into trouble before they even reached the whirlpool, and as they dropped over the ledge, water filled their craft. Thrown to the pool’s edge, McClester was able to swim to the shore, but Bell was trapped. The young paddler was sucked into the churning waters for several minutes before finally being spit out 100 feet downstream.

And thanks to Chief’s now-legendary swim, boaters scouting this stretch of river today still call this series of three ledges Frank Bell’s Rapid.

Bell’s obligation to his camp — plus the fact that he’d been married only three weeks — prevented him from continuing the trip below Hot Springs, according to the 1979 article. One of those three canoes did, however, making it all the way to the Mississippi and on to New Orleans.

But Bell’s most rewarding legacy, says Leverette, “was the influence he had on the thousands of young people who came through his camps. From Olympians Jamie McEwan, C-2 world champions Lecky and Fritz Haller, to the enduring international competitor Bunny Johns, who is currently president of North Carolina’s Nantahala Outdoor Center.”

For his part, Leverette — who got his own first taste of the “Nanny” in 1964 — is maintaining the family tradition of high-quality, passionate whitewater instruction. An accomplished boater, climber, skier and outdoorsman, Leverette has been navigating Southern Appalachian waters for nearly 40 years, and his love of whitewater sports is positively contagious. As coach of the Warren Wilson College Collegiate Paddling Team (1996-2002), he helped develop a successful program that earned the school the nickname “White Water College.” In 1998, Paddler Magazine named Warren Wilson “one of the nation’s best paddling colleges.” Leverette recently handed off the coaching duties to another legendary paddler: 15-time national champion and two-time Olympian Lecky Haller.

Like his grandfather, Leverette is passionately in love with his subject. That infectious attitude is reflected in Leverette’s personal philosophy: “Whether it’s paddling or chess, the better you are at it, the more fun you’ll have with it!”

Chewing on outdoor fodder

Between 1975 and 1990, recreational visits to the region’s national forests increased 72 percent, according to figures from the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition. Smack in the middle of this surge, Trent Thomas started growing his outdoor specialty shop, Black Dome Mountain Sports. Thomas had cut his teeth in outdoor retail in the late ’70s at Asheville’s original outfitters, Mountaineering South.

In 1984, Thomas and two friends opened Black Dome in Biltmore Village. “Our goal,” he explains, “was to provide a unique blend of technical outdoor gear and equipment with experienced staff that offered local flavor and expertise.” Nearly 20 years later, Thomas and his dedicated staff have stayed true to that vision, developing a hard-earned reputation as the best rock-climbing source east of the Mississippi.

“Asheville’s definitely our turf,” says Thomas, adding, “It’s always been important to us to know the area.” When they’re not working, Black Dome staffers are hard at play — mountaineering, trail running, extreme skiing, snowboarding, backpacking and climbing.

Those employees, notes Thomas, have been there through the “good and not-so-good times.” Black Dome’s full-time personnel, he reveals, average nine years of service. “Our family of staff has had a whole lot of marriages over the years,” continues Thomas with a chuckle.

That loyalty becomes all the more impressive considering the history of local outdoor-recreation stores. “We have weathered the storm over the years,” he admits, giving the nod to the competition. Since the Dome opened its doors, at least 12 other outfitters have come and gone in the area, he figures. Black Dome will be opening a second store on Hendersonville Road in mid-June.

And while Thomas agrees that early camps in the area introduced the concept of adventuring to generations of youth, he’s quick to add that “the outdoor-recreation industry has also had an impact on summer camps.” Most camps, notes Thomas, now offer such high-tech amenities as indoor climbing gyms, skate parks and mountain-bike programs. “It’s kind of been a full-circle situation,” he muses.

Asked about Asheville’s current popularity as an outdoor-recreation destination, Thomas responds, “We definitely stack up well with the rest of these areas, especially when you consider our four-season potential.” And yes, that definitely includes the cold-weather months. “During this past winter, one could have cross-country skied every day [near Mount Mitchell], from the first of November through mid-April,” he observes.

From grunge to glory

Cyclists Mike and Claudia Nix are quick to echo Thomas’ assessment of WNC’s national appeal. “Our region is perennially listed as one of the top 10 mountain-bike destinations in the country,” they point out. “The variety of trails and surfaces the area offers is also attractive to riders,” Mike explains.

The couple, who started operating a part-time bike business out of their home back in the early ’70s, now run Liberty Bicycles — a full-service bike shop on Hendersonville Road. For the past 10 years, Liberty has made VeloBusiness Magazine’s Top 100 Dealers list.

Besides running a business that employs more than 20 people, the Nixes are legendary as tireless cycling crusaders at the local, regional and national level. Their photo album, titled “Bicycling in Asheville,” is stuffed with news clippings and photos recording local bicycling history since 1975. The vintage photos of races, community-service projects, group rides and international competitions also document the couple’s tireless devotion to cycling over the past several decades.

From bike-safety programs to early advocacy for greenways and bike lanes, the Nixes have been spirited community leaders, religiously attending City Council meetings and DOT public hearings, sitting on bike-and-pedestrian task forces, and organizing bike-to-work campaigns. In 1992, the American Lung Association honored Claudia with the western region’s Volunteer of the Year award for her work with WesTrek — a benefit ride whose proceeds help fund the nonprofit’s programs, such as asthma camps, health education, medical research and clean-air campaigns.

The Nixes have also built a reputation for organizing some of the premier bike events in the region, both competitive and recreational. In 1982, Mike served as course director for the Biltmore Estate/McDonald’s Bicycle Race — a three-day stage race that drew a field of 120 top riders from across the country. “It was the biggest race of the Southeast and the second-largest race in the country,” he recalls. The following year, the U.S. Cycling Federation designated the event a National Prestige Classic. The 1983 race attracted 20 teams of top amateur and professional bike racers from the U.S. and Canada.

In the mid-’90s, the Tour DuPont came through town, catapulting Asheville into international cycling prominence. In both 1994 and 1995, nearly 2 million viewers in more than 100 countries worldwide tuned in to watch the 11-stage international cycling event, according to race organizers. Mike served as volunteer coordinator for the Asheville race, organizing hundreds of volunteers to help create a flawless sporting event.

Claudia, meanwhile, has had her own organizational involvements. More than 30 years ago, she founded the Blue Ridge Bicycle Club. The group’s roughly 200 members keep busy working to promote safe cycling, cleaning trails, and advocating on bike issues. Members help maintain local mountain-bike trails, teach safe bike-handling skills, sit on community task forces, and organize special events. The Hilly Hellacious Hundred — a popular fall ride available in 100-mile, “metric century” (62-mile) and 15-mile versions — drew more than 600 participants last year.

Today, many people travel similar enchanted paths — often following in the footsteps of one or another of our local legends. So the next time you catch an eddy, mantle a ledge, buy some gear, “share the road” or run the trails, take a minute to say thanks to the folks who, in their own unselfish way, have helped make our region not only a better place to play, but a better place to live.

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