Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited national park in the United States, lies within 500,000 acres of dense forest spread across the North Carolina and Tennessee border, among some of the oldest mountains on Earth. Its verdant landscape glitters with a crosshatch of winding lakes and rivers that cut through steep valleys.
It’s also here that Payson Kennedy, now 83, set up what was to become one of the largest outdoor recreation companies in the country, the Nantahala Outdoor Center. Kennedy grew up as a high achiever in the outdoors, earning every Boy Scout merit badge imaginable, including Scout Master. In his mid-30s, he and his wife Aurelia spent virtually every weekend climbing, caving and canoeing in the forests near the park. It was then that he noticed the effect that paddling on the water had on him. Every distraction, fear and thought other than powering forward simply disappeared.