Tuesday, May 1, 2007

35 Years of Instruction Excellence: A brief interview with Jimmy Holcombe

New 2007 Instruction T shirt

2007 marks NOC’s 35th anniversary. We’ve seen a lot of boaters pass through our doors in that time, many of which we still call friends. Of course, if you’ve ever spent any time here at NOC, whether that be sleeping in the parking lot at GAF, browsing around the store, swapping stories over a Sherpa Rice at River’s End, swimming Nanty Falls, or warming up with a hot chocolate from Slow Joe’s, then you know you’re more than just a friend – you’re part of the family.

As part of our 35th anniversary festivities we thought we’d interview one of the patriarchs of our family, and the first employee hired by NOC, – the legendary Jimmy Holcombe. Jimmy has been an instructor here for three decades and pioneered many of the classic southeastern runs. He has numerous first descents to his name, and is an expert in C-1, open boats, and kayaks. Being the encyclopedia of knowledge that he is, we thought it would be interesting to find out from his insider perspective how kayak/canoe instruction has changed since 1972.

First though, I had to satisfy my curiosity on a few points. I asked Jimmy what his favorite all time boat was. He responded that he liked the Hahn C-1, a 13’2” fiberglass boat which he used to bag first descents on Stekoa Creek and Slick Rock Creek, plus early descents on the Green Narrows and the Cullasaja. With all the rivers Jimmy’s paddled though his favorite river is still “the river I’m on”. After pressing him a little bit though he said that if he only had one more day to paddle he would choose the Santeelah, hike to its very headwaters, and paddle down with his son Andrew. Jimmy laughs and says that Andrew is “good at getting me out of stuff”.

Jimmy said instruction at NOC started in the summer of 1973. “We were teaching three day courses for Outward Bound in 17 foot Grumman canoes. The first two days were spent on the Little Tennessee and the last day on the Nantahala. We taught our first kayak course in the summer of 1975.”

I interrupted Jimmy here to ask a question in regards to a rumor I’d long heard surrounding Nantahala Falls. I had heard that this benchmark class 3 rapid used to be rated class 4/5. Jimmy remarked that the original whitewater guidebook written in 1955 by Randy Carter had indeed listed Nantahala Falls as a class 4 rapid, not so much because it truly was class 4, but because the author had purposely rated rapids one scale higher than what they were to dissuade the inexperienced from getting into trouble.

I then asked Jimmy what he thought the biggest change has been between our early whitewater clinics and our current ones, besides the gear/equipment. The biggest change according to Jimmy is “the clinic guests” themselves. Kayaking today has entered the mainstream but in its infancy, whitewater boating was a sport viewed as something “on the edge” and a “little wilder”. People that signed up for whitewater instruction reflected this sentiment. “Skirts leaked, boats leaked, and you were always a little cold, but that’s what was expected.” Back then, our whitewater instruction clinics were catering to the adventurous souls that were attracted to a new sport surrounded by a sense of the unknown. While undoubtedly we still draw some of those same types of people, kayaking itself has become “a little more comfortable” and a little more well known, and hence we also draw families, camps, and retirees looking for a new medium to experience the outdoors or stay in shape.

I was curious as to the reasons for the shift from teaching mostly canoe courses in the 1970’s to teaching mostly kayak courses in this decade. The obvious answer relates to the gear. During the early NOC years, kayaks just weren’t as readily available, and the plastic boats were still a few years away from rolling off the assembly lines in Easley, SC. Canoes had been something that was recognizable for the layman wanting to get into the sport – they’d probably been in one at some point in their life, either at summer camp, or fishing on a lake, or perhaps even had an old one sitting in their back yard. The same could not be said for kayaks.

A kayaker in the 1970’s probably didn’t start their whitewater career in a kayak – they started in a canoe. Jimmy interestingly remarked that he thought that rafting was an equally important factor in the switch of popularity from canoeing to kayaking. People began to have their first river experience in rafts, and not canoes. It seems that rafting now is the gateway to getting in a kayak, and not canoeing as it used to be. Furthermore, Jimmy believes, the change in canoe design (making them shorter/smaller) alienated a large portion of the canoeing population that wanted to paddle the larger, faster, more stable canoes.

Lastly, Jimmy remarked that are simply more good kayakers today than ever, and the progression from beginner to expert is much quicker. In short, more people are becoming better paddlers in a shorter amount of time. He credits this phenomenon to the change in boat design and the introduction of the playboats. The skills learned in playboats are transferring over to the river-running/creeking realm. As an example, Jimmy stated that back then, people tended to avoid playing in holes, not because they didn’t have the competence, but because it was boring side surfing a 13 foot boat. Nowadays, side surfing is a stepping-stone to a variety of other tricks, and more paddlers are spending more time in holes. This has led to an increase in comfort level and confidence which has transfered to the downriver realm of boating.

Obviously, the pure number of boaters has increased exponentially as well. Through a smile Jimmy remarks, “I used to know every paddler on the East Coast, now I don’t even know every paddler in the county”. Nonetheless, he repeatedly refers to paddlers as a family, an idea which has been a foundation of the NOC vision for 35 years.

While I get the sense that part of Jimmy misses certain aspects of the early years of whitewater boating, he undoubtedly still loves boating just as much as he did in 1972 when he cashed his first NOC paycheck. When asked how long he plans on teaching, Jimmy responds, “Till my body breaks down”. Looking at Jimmy sitting on the couch next to me, I can honestly say that thankfully that won’t be for a very long time.