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Adventurers Answer Call of White Water

Growing interest in kayaking creates new careers for enthusiasts

I ALWAYS felt the call of the mountains,'' says kayak instructor Billy Richards. In 1981, he answered it. Mr. Richards left an established law practice in Atlanta to teach others how to have fun on white water. Every day, more people are discovering white-water kayaking. They go on river rafting trips, hear about it from a friend, or maybe see it on television. Regardless of how it happens, people are finding this sport and getting hooked. So hooked, in fact, that from Massachusetts to Colorado to California, individuals are leaving established careers as lawyers, doctors, electricians, and teachers for a life centered around a rushing river current and a small plastic boat.

For Richards, kayaking provides ``a highway to the wilderness,'' and having that only on weekends wasn't enough. He is now in his 10th year as an instructor for the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) in North Carolina and leads their annual trip through the Grand Canyon.

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Not long ago, most people regarded a life devoted to adventure on the river as self-indulgent and irresponsible. Some still do.

``My grandmother thinks I work at a camp and my grandfather thinks I work at a commune,'' says Terry Nelson, the director of promotions for NOC. Worker-owned NOC has nearly 350 employees and is governed by a nine-member board of directors. It serves more than 100,000 customers annually. But Ms. Nelson says her grandmother has trouble getting over the fact that she and her husband, who also works for NOC, live in the mountains in an 80-year-old, rented farmhouse. It's quite a change from the city life and career with AT&T that she left in Atlanta.

WHILE the reaction of Nelson's family is not uncommon, recreational activities are increasingly important in today's society. According to the American Recreation Coalition, extracurricular pastimes are a $3 billion-plus industry in America each year.

``White-water paddling has become big business,'' says Brad Nicholes, national sales manager of Perception Kayaks, one of the major producers of kayaks. Because they are a publicly owned company, Mr. Nicholes declined to disclose recent changes in sales figures, but he emphasized that the industry is expanding.

On television and in magazines, the image of the white-water kayaker is being used to sell everything from soft drinks to trucks.

For example, Toyota chose the image of kayaking to promote their 4-by-4 truck in a national TV commercial.

Don Cecconi, the advertising manager for Toyota trucks, says kayaking represents ``the leading edge of recreation,'' and adds,``It's indicative of an adventurous lifestyle.''

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Popular interest in this adventurous lifestyle provides the opportunity for some individuals to make a living on the river, but a less tangible reward holds them there.

To say precisely how many have opted for the call of the wild is impossible, but if NOC is any indication, the converts are many. NOC has managed to accumulate a staff trained in every professional skill imaginable.

This hasn't occurred by chance. Upon completion of a white-water clinic, each participant is asked to fill out an evaluation. The last question asks your occupation, any particular skills you have, and if you would like to be considered for future employment. Staff talents have allowed NOC to expand its facilities with virtually no assistance from outside contractors, including construction of a number of four-story guest cabins, a hostel/boarding complex known as ``base camp,'' and a restaurant that sits high on a hill overlooking the river and valley.

Could these people just be in it for the money? Not likely. According to Richards, instructors are lucky to make $10,000 each year. Because it is a seasonal activity, most who rely on kayaking for their living must get winter jobs. Fill-in job locations range from the ski slopes in Colorado to Christmas tree lots in Atlanta.

IN addition to their seasonal mobility, those living this sport make additional lifestyle adjustments. For example, if people want their own home near NOC, they don't buy it, they build it. ``I can't think of anyone here with a house who didn't build it,'' says Richards who has completed a home three miles from the center.

Hoping to complete her home this month, Sue Magness, an NOC instructor, explains that the variety of previous professions people bring to NOC offers every expertise one could need to build a home. Not only are there workers to lay her concrete basement, run her electrical wiring, and install her plumbing, but friends also abound to help christen the new abode. There is no shortage of those able and willing to lend a hand.

Summing up the general attitude of all those who literally live by and for the river, Zsolt Esztergony, who came to the United States from Budapest in 1982 and is now working at RMOC, explains that people aren't just on the river to play, they ``go out of their way to help you.''

TOM KARNUTA, the head of kayak instruction at the Rocky Mountain Outdoor Center (RMOC) in Howard, Colo., left a job as an engineer working underwater on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico after seven years. ``I'll probably never make the money I was making there again,'' he says.

Driving beside Colorado's Arkansas River in RMOC's rehabilitated small school bus, complete with kayaks strapped to the roof, Mr. Karnuta tries to explain his passion for the sport. Facial expressions and hand gestures come easily; putting emotions into words is a bit more challenging. ``It is something you can totally focus your attention on ... nothing you will ever outgrow.''

Though words may escape him, Karnuta's actions speak clearly. The Royal Gorge is one of the most notorious sections of the Arkansas River, yet, in his kayak, he darts in and out of rapids and around boulders as if the currents are clearing a special path for him.

Sunshine Rapid, an especially rough section of the gorge that instills terror in others, gives Karnuta a chance to show off. A large drop at the end of this rapid traps many a boat in its turbulence. Easily passing over this ``hole,'' Karnuta turns his kayak and fights back upstream for a few tricks. As he eases the nose of his craft into the pour-over from the drop, the bow is sucked straight down, pulling the boat into a vertical position.

In seconds, the buoyancy of the boat reaches its limit, and the kayak shoots straight up and back out of the hole. (This maneuver is known as an ``ender,'' the No. 1 crowd pleaser in white-water kayaking.)

Once the river flattens out, Karnuta continues to display his passion for his occupation. He directs my attention to the towering cliffs now encasing the gorge on each side of the river. Other than the railroad tracks high on the left-hand side, there is no sign of any person having been here, ever.

A former geology major, Karnuta shares his wealth of information on the various layers of rock, pigmented in bands from pink to green. He excitedly tells tales, rich in folklore, of past feuding over railroad rights in frontier days.

Sitting in his kayak, arms crossed, relaxed, he takes in the whole scene. After a long silence he says, ``And I get paid for this.''

Last in a three-part series. Previous articles appeared on June 11 and 12.

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