By Richard Rourk
Summer activities in the year 2020 can be tricky to figure out, but in Unicoi County the perfect getaway could be in your backyard.
Nolichucky Gorge Campground, Nolichucky Outdoor Learning Institute (NOLI,) Uncle Johnny’s Hostel and Outfitters and USA Raft Adventure Resort are providing guests with a fun and safe way to celebrate the summer with many social distancing activities.
At Uncle Johnny’s Hostel, business has picked up since they opened on May 15.
“We have had a manageable amount of hikers,” Uncle Johnny’s Hostel Owner and President Charlotte Shores said. “We are having around 6-10 visitors a day.”
Shores also said that many of the hikers visiting her business are from the region.
“We are seeing more section hikers now; a lot of those are fairly local,” Shores said. “It’s been great for me.”
Uncle Johnny’s Hostel offers many other options than just lodging.
“We are seeing an uptick in sales in our store with people coming to get outfitted for the outdoors,” Shores said. “People seem to shop more small businesses these days and I see more and more people enjoying local outdoor activities. We are so thankful for all the support and look forward to meeting more local people that are looking to enjoy an adventure here in their own backyard.”
NOLI has a full slate of activities that range from beginners to experts this summer, despite an uncertain start of the outdoor season.
“We just completed an ACA Level 4 Whitewater Instructor course where instructors from all over became certified to teach swift water rescue courses to their counties,” NOLI CEO Scott Fisher told The Erwin Record. “It’s great because we have the ability to teach anyone, we’ve had kayak classes that have had people range from 7 to 70.”
According to Fisher, classes have seen a spike since COVID restrictions have been eased.
“We have had classes fill up quicker this year than any before. I really feel that people are tired of being isolated at home and are ready to get outdoors,” Fisher said. “We have prepared well for COVID so our clients will know that they are safe out here; after all safety is our number one priority. We have a list of requirements on our website, but in short we will be wearing face masks or buffs when we are in close quarters. When we are able to space out, we will not require them. We will also be sanitizing everything between uses.”
Fisher acknowledged that NOLI has classes for anyone seeking an outdoor escape.
“We offer kayaking classes, both on the river and flat water kayaking, campfire dutch oven classes, wilderness first aid and CPR classes, backpacking and map and compass classes,” Fisher said. “We also have some survival skills classes that are really cool. We have an island here in the Nolichucky that Mr. (Rick) Murray, that owns Nolichucky Gorge Campground, lets us use so that we can teach primitive survival skills in a real-world setting. I think that is what makes us so unique is that we can teach all of these skills hands on in a wild but very safe environment.”
According to Fisher, the classes are reasonably priced and feature a variety of options for payment.
“I never want to turn anyone away because of finances. We offer several options including a scholarship for most classes,” Fisher said. “We look at these activities two ways; for example, if you were looking to get into kayaking, you are looking at $1,500 to $2,000 to get started, so we offer classes to make sure you are going to be all in before making that kind of investment. We also view this as a way to help others realize once you get the skills and invest in activities such as kayaking – you are only out gas money after the initial investment.”
For more full descriptions of upcoming classes and to book a class, please visit nolilearn.org or follow NOLI on Facebook.
Fisher operates many of his classes out of USA Raft Adventure Resort, which held the First Annual National Paddling Film Festival on Friday, June 26, and Saturday, June 27.
“We are so glad to be here with all the weirdness of COVID,” USA Raft Adventure Resort CEO Matt Moses said.
According to Moses, COVID-19 has put a hit on the start of the summer season at USA Raft Adventure Resort.
“We were very nervous there for a little while,” Moses said. “In April and May, we normally have several schools and scout groups that come and stay for weeks at a time and we had to refund or reschedule those groups. To be honest, everyone has treated us well, most said, ‘Just hold our payment as a deposit for a future visit’.”
Moses was overwhelmed with the response from the public and sees the response as a sign of his staff and his vision being on the right path.
“We recently added floating, yoga, and a weekly Thursday night speaking program to our normal events,” Moses said. “Our staff has been so great throughout this and has really embraced this resort and that is what it is now. We are not just a rafting company, we are an adventure resort. Families can come out here and stay and make lasting memories.”
Along with the whitewater rafting and the one-of-kind lodging experience, USA Raft Adventure Resort has added many other activities, according to Moses.
“We’ve had this stage for about three years now and we are always having live music and recently we added several yoga classes right there with the Nolichucky River as the backdrop,” Moses said. “We will be having several guest speakers on Thursday nights. We have author Christy A. Smith speaking on July 9, about the Lost Cove Settlement. We really want our neighbors to know that we are here to give things to do for everyone, right here in paradise.”
Moses, who has always welcomed adventure families, now offers activities for those that may not be looking for traditional outdoor adventures.
“We will always have guests who love hiking, the one wheeling, the stand up paddle boarding and of course the river activities, but we have expanded that,” Moses said. “We are opening a restaurant and hopefully will be able to serve craft beer there. We will also be partnering with local businesses such as the Union Street Taproom to have them come out and serve during our larger events. We are also booking for one-of-a-kind weddings with wedding receptions added on site. Our wedding guests can book the entire resort to have a one of a kind outdoor wedding set alongside the Nolichucky River.’
For more information or to book any of USA Raft Adventure Resort’s activities, please visit usaraft.com or follow them on Facebook.
According to the Facebook pages for Nolichucky Gorge Campground and Uncle Johnny’s Hostel and Outfitters Facebook, there are numerous accommodations and supplies that provide guests with safe and fun opportunities to enjoy the beauty of the Nolichucky River.
“We will be practicing the CDC recommended guidelines of promoting safe distancing, cleaning, disinfecting the bathrooms twice daily, and providing hand sanitizer at multiple locations,” a recent Facebook page by Uncle Johnny’s Hostel and Outfitters stated. “We request that our guests respect us by showing the same courtesy to us. We look forward to a great year and can’t wait to see you.”