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Kayaking Makes Rapid Progress

Since the introduction of plastic boats in the '70s, the sport has exploded, observers say. WHITE WATER

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UPSIDE down, underwater, half-encased in plastic, caught in currents traveling thousands of cubic feet per second ... could this be Houdini's last great escape? No, it's white-water kayaking. Once shunned as a ``fringe sport'' for ``extremists,'' kayaking now pulls new recruits into its wake each day. Enjoying consistent growth since the early '70s, the sport attracts everyone from doctors to homemakers. And, in 1992, Olympians.

``This is what life's all about!'' says Mary Hipsher, a registered nurse in her 10th season as a paddler. In fact, Ms. Hipsher put her nursing license in the drawer when she discovered the sport. One year after taking up kayaking, she left her obstetrics clinic in Birmingham, Ala., and went to work for the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) in Bryson City, N.C., which offers instruction in kayaking and other paddle sports. She now practices nursing only in the off season. She speaks passionately about the sport, saying that kayaking gives her ``a way to be in the environment without being dependent.''

NOC, nestled in the lush greenery of the Nantahala Gorge in the Great Smoky Mountains, is one of the largest and most respected white-water centers in the country. The center is an example of how the sport has grown internationally and professionally (a recent ``peace paddling'' rally here attracted kayakers worldwide, including the East bloc) as well as recreationally. Measured in ``guest days'' (total guests times total days spent), its kayak instruction program has grown 51 percent since 1985.

Brad Nicholes, national sales manager for Perception Kayaks, says estimates of a 20 to 25 percent yearly increase in kayaking are ``conservative.'' White-water kayaking began to catch on in the early '70s with the introduction of lighter, more durable plastic boats, Mr. Nicholes says, and the sport ``has exploded since then.''

Interest in the sport does not seem confined to any particular geographic area. Kayakers brag of runs made on rivers from Chile to Nepal, and paddlers appear to be at no loss for enthusiasm or venues here in the United States.

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