"Go for it," Dan Langston yelled over the river's growl, pointing to a quiet pool behind a rock on the far left bank of the Nantahala.
John and Judy Schaub drove their canoe across the swift current toward the eddy. Judy leaned out from the bow seat and jammed her paddle into the quiet water.
The boat pivoted around the paddle into the eddy, safe from the foaming maelstrom just downstream. If they'd missed they would have been swept broadside onto Delabar Rock, named for a man who crushed three canoes on it in one day.
The "incident at Delabar" crystalized Judy's feelings about the Nantahala Outdoor Center and the whitewater canoe clinic she attended with her husband, John, and 17 others from Washington and Baltimore. All were competent paddlers but felt the need of expert help to take the next step in river running.
"John and I had gone down there knowing we couldn't count on our left eddy turns 50 percent of the time," Judy said. "I don't know why we even tried that eddy except that Dan seemed to think we could do it."
Dan was one of three instructors working with the group; the others were world-champion canoe racers Mike Hipsher and Bunny Johns. Bunny is also director of the clinics.
"When we made that eddy above Delabar, and then two more in that rapid, I knew I really had learned something," Judy said. "All at once my confidence went sky-high."
"When people who are that good say 'Why don't you try this or try that?' you don't mind giving it a try," John added. "You figure they wouldn't ask you if they thought it was impossible and, if you made a mistake, they'd find a way to get you out of trouble. We saw that when the Cobbs got their boat pinned above the falls."
The scary-looking falls of the Nantahala lie at the end of a strenuous eight-mile paddle through water tumbling over rocks and around sharp bends. Len and Lana Cobb got too far left on the approach and were swept into the bank, where the current pinned their boat on the rocks.
"It was a classic case of thinking too much about what was ahead and not enough about what you had to do to get there," Len said.
"I thought we'd have to leave the boat there until the TVA shut the dam off that night," Lana said later. The river runs only when the sluices are open.
"Then Mike dived into the river and swam across the fast current, jumped on the rock and freed the boat. Bunny was right behind him." With minutes, the Cobbs were back in their boat and through the falls.
Since it opened in 1972, the center has achieved a reputation for excellence in training whitewater paddlers. In a few days of work, and fun, its staff can make beginners into adequate paddlers and paddlers into river runners.
Its reputation comes from the "down-home" atmosphere and the patience and skill of the instructors. Graduates generally give the place raves.
"I can't believe how patient they are," Washingtonian Elaine Vamos said. "They don't criticize you; it's more like suggesting that you try a different way than what you were doing. It's very reassuring."
"Everybody remarks on our patience," Bunny said, obviously pleased. She has been director of the clinics since 1976.
Asked if instructors are chosen for their patience, she said, "We don't look for a patient personality, but it always seems to be there. We look first for the physical skills. If you like what you're doing and you want to teach, I think you're just naturally patient." Payson Kennedy thinks it is fun to teach at the center in part because "95 percent of the people who come here really want to learn."
Kennedy, his wife, Aurelia, and a friend specializing in white water and Jim Holcomb, of Washington, who had experience with commercial raft services. Now there is a summer staff of 140 and a permanent staff of about 65, most of whom are stockholders. Kennedy credits that with helping to maintain the sense of community.
Though it now offers a wide variety of outdoor skills instruction, the center's core strength still lies in its whitewater activities, especially raft trips and canoe clinics.
It rafts four regional rivers almost daily -- the Ocoee, Nantahala, Chattooga and Tuckaseigee -- and offers adventure trips to Chile and Nepal, as well as to other American rivers like the Colorado.
There are two- and three-day weekend clinics and four- and five-day clinics during the week for canoes and kayaks, for all levels of skill. Classes are limited to 10 people. The center provides all equipment, lodging and meals at a bargain price.
The Schaubs felt they got their money's worth the morning of the very first day, which was spent on Queen Lake. When Bunny started talking about the basic canoe strokes, it sent shock waves through the group: The center had a better, more efficient way to do every stroke they knew.
"You know," John Schaub commented, "you do something for a long time and you think you've got the hang of it. Then you go someplace like that and find you're only at a stage, that there's a lot more you can learn."
Some of the variations were for efficiency -- to get more power with less effort; a shorter forward stroke with more body twist. Some were nuances: "Put the paddle in the water a little more in front of you," Dan offered. "Twist the paddle so the power face of the blade is flat against the current," Bunny advised.
One stroke, though, was completely new, the compound backstroke. "It's like putting on brakes," Judy said, delighted. It was twice as long, twice as powerful and twice as beautiful as the regular backstroke -- of which the center also had a better version.
Mike videotaped each boat as it was put through its new tricks. Later the tapes would evoke groans, moans, guffaws and occasional catcalls among the group.
On the Nantahala, after lunch, the paddlers practiced a series of eddy turns, peel- outs and ferries, all techniques for safely getting into, across or out of fast currents. By and large the execution was miserable, maybe from concentrating so much on the new strokes.
Sometimes tempers flared or frustration led to discouragement. Bunny, who believes the clinics should be fun as well as useful, would smile and say, "Remember, upright's all right."
By the next session Bunny knew the group could backpaddle. "I've never seen a group come through the falls with such consistent control," she said. "Now we're going to work on being aggressive."
"We teach an aggressive style of paddling," Bunny told one of the group later. "We find it's easier for beginners to pick up immediately and feel confident with. But," she added, "if you're going to paddle really difficult water, you need all the tricks -- both aggressiveness and control. In our advanced classes we work on both."
One of the kayakers broke her paddle. Mike gave her his and used the broken one the rest of the day. Later, on his own time, he helped her choose a new one.
Everyone liked the fast, agressive eddy turns -- the speed, sliding into the eddy, whipping around on the paddle driven by the current driving them. "It could give you whiplash," one exulted.
The third and last day was spent on the Chattooga River, of "Deliverance" fame. It did nothing to diminish the aura that had grown around the staffers: Mike taught the decked boaters--kayaks and C-1s--to twirl their paddles while surfing a wave, and Dan made another faster-than-a-speeding-bullet rescue.
Though the clinic ended, the group stayed on for several days, unwilling to bring themselves to leave "the river that runs from a spigot" and the people they had come to know. WHERE IT'S AT
The Nantahala Outdoor Center is in Wesser, North Carolina, 25 miles south of Bryson City on Route 19. It has cabins, a motel and store and a fresh-food-only restaurant that alone is worth the visit.
The whitewater clinics include lodging; costs run from $140 for a two-day weekend clinic to $210 for three days, $265 for four days and $325 for a five-day clinic. There is a credit for providing your own boat.
There are special clinics for women, for children under 14 and for adults over 40.
You do not need a partner to take a canoe clinic. In fact, the staff normally puts husbands and wives or boyfriends and girlfriends in separate boats "because it makes it easier to learn." (Our group had asked specifically to stay with their partners.)
For information on the whitewater programs and other outdoor activities, write NOC, Star Route, Box 68, Bryson City, North Carolina 28713, or call 704/488-2175.