Meet Our Instructors

MORE PADDLERS LEARN FROM NOC’S PADDLING SCHOOL THAN ANY OTHER WHITEWATER KAYAKING SCHOOL IN THE COUNTRY. This means NOC instructors have extensive experience working with students and putting paddling theory and technique to work on the river. The exceptional teachers you’ll meet here are complimented by over a dozen affiliated instructors who teach on a seasonal basis. All are fully-trained and have been full-time Paddling School instructors at some point in their careers. Many of the core instructor group have achieved special designation as NOC Master Guides, meaning they were hand-selected by peers and management to complete NOC’s exclusive skills development and advanced search and rescue course.

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TOSH ARWOOD

Once a flatlander from Eastern North Carolina, Paddling School Manager Tosh Arwood is now a regular on some of the Southeast’s steepest creeks. Today, Tosh spends his winters paddling around the globe and his summers teaching kayaking and running NOC’s Paddling School. The 15-year paddling veteran loves teaching, and he especially enjoys taking beginner boaters to the intermediate stage. Thanks to his experience as a paddlesports buyer, Tosh has extensive knowledge of whitewater gear, boats, and trends. He also holds numerous certifications, including Wilderness First Responder, ACA Kayak Instructor Level 5, ACA Swiftwater Rescue, Rescue 3 Swiftwater Rescue Technician-A, Whitewater Rescue Technician-A, and Darkness to Light.

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CHRIS HIPGRAVE

With 38 years of experience, Chris is a whitewater legend. Originally from England, his homebase is now on the Nantahala River in Western North Carolina. Chris uses his expertise to oversee our Paddlesports and Outdoor Schools programs. He is an integral part of NOC’s kayak instruction, events, retail, adventure travel, the Nantahala Racing Club and NOC’s outdoor professional training departments including SOLO Wilderness Medicine, Wilderness Survival and Swiftwater Water Rescue. Chris is certified in CPR, AED, Darkness to Light, ACA Swiftwater Rescue Level 4, ACA Whitewater Kayak Level 5, SOLO Advanced Wilderness First Aid and Rescue 3 River Rescue Certification. Chris does it all.

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JONNY ORTIZ

Western New York native Jonny Ortiz is a NOC guest turned instructor that has made that now calls the Nantahala Gorge his home. Not keen on sitting still for too long and armed with undeniable and contagious energy, Jonny spent the last 9 years chasing whitewater. You’ll often find him attaining upstream, surfing the 2013 Freestyle Wave, or stern squirting his way down local runs. Jonny is a certified ACA Level 5 Advanced Whitewater Kayak Instructor, Wilderness First Responder and SOLO Wilderness Medicine Instructor.

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RACHEL DEAN

Originally from Western Maryland, Rachel got her start in whitewater kayaking on the Youghiogheny River in Southwestern Pennsylvania. She developed her skills as an instructor at Riversport School of Paddling, and is now in her fifth season at NOC’s Paddling School. She is certified as a level 4 ACA Kayak Instructor, Wilderness First Responder, River Rescue Certification Pro and has a Bachelor’s of Science in Environmental Analysis and Planning. When not on the water, you can find Rachel mountain biking and hiking on the local trails.

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ANDREW KOCH

One of NOC’s best competitive freestyle kayakers, and NOC’s leading SUP—or stand-up paddling—specialist, Andrew has been teaching paddling for seven years. Because he enjoys working with kids, Andrew often leads NOC’s Kids’ Week and is involved with the Nantahala Kids Club, commitments that go beyond his day-to-day job in the Paddling School. Besides teaching paddling, Andrew is an accomplished yoga instructor, raft guide and surfer. Andrew credits his happiness and fun spirit to his ability to share his love of kayaking during the summer and then travel the world during the off-season. Andrew is a Wilderness First Responder, CPR & AED and Darkness to Light certified.

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CASEY JONES

Casey Bryant-Jones grew up in Franklin, North Carolina and frequently visited Nantahala Outdoor Center throughout his childhood. Casey advanced his whitewater kayaking skills under the guidance for former NOC Paddling School Directors Wayne Dickert & Chris Hipgrave, eventually leading Casey to take on the role of NOC Paddlesports Instructor. Casey’s dream has been to find the eternal summer, which he has been able to piece together with help from NOC’s partnership with the Pucon Kayak Hostel in Chile. Casey’s social media pages are flooded with amazing photography (another of his hobbies) of his many adventures around the world.

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MARK TAYLOR

Mark Taylor began kayaking about 15 years ago in the mountains of North Carolina. Growing up in Asheville, NC, Mark was inspired to pursue kayaking after watching his first Green River Race. When he was 12, he joined the Nantahala Racing Club and has since traveled to Chile, Argentina, Ecuador, and Colombia to chase his kayaking passion. When Mark isn’t kayaking, you can find him fly fishing, camping – really anything outdoors!

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WILL NORRIS

Joining the NOC family in 2001, Will honed his leadership skills guiding rafts on our seven commercial rivers – all along building his kayaking skills to match. Will became part of our instruction team in 2004 and enthusiastically teaches kayaking, canoeing, SUP, rowing, and our annual spring raft guide school. A Rescue 3 International swiftwater instructor as well, many of his weeks are spent “in” the river teaching recreational paddlers, fire/rescue professionals, and elite military teams essential rescue skills. Will’s students appreciate his emphasis on the interpretive knowledge; he studies the river environment and sees it as an integral part of the river paddling experience. He is certified in WFR, CPR, AED, and ACA Swiftwater Rescue.

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CURTIS ENGLAND

Curtis loves everything involving whitewater and the outdoors. With degrees in Sports & Leisure Management and Parks & Recreation Management from East Tennessee State University, his life is the outdoors. His biggest achievements include competing in the 2012 Green River Narrows Race and kayaking Class V Linville Gorge, NC. In his off-time he enjoys mountain biking, canoeing, kayaking, rock climbing, telemark skiing, playing the guitar and banjo.

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JIMMY HOLCOMBE

The legendary Jimmy Holcombe was the very first employee hired by NOC. Jimmy has been an NOC instructor for three decades and pioneered many of the classic southeastern runs. He has numerous first descents to his name, and is an expert in C-1, open boats, and kayaks. In 2017, Jimmy was awarded the “Legends of Paddling Award” by the American Canoe Association.

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ANNE SONTHEIMER

Anne started her career at NOC two decades ago guiding rafts on the difficult Chattooga River. After moving over to the Paddling School, Anne has become one of NOC’s most experienced instructors, teaching constantly. Anne challenges her students directly, giving them an extra push to improve. She is certified in Wilderness EMT, CPR, AED, and ACA Whitewater Kayak Instructor Trainor Educator.

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ANDREW WILMOT

Andrew has been paddling since age 13 when he started canoeing with his father. He loved the sport so much, he purchased a kayak so he could paddle without a partner. Andrew loves the adventure of traveling to new destinations in search of warm weather, epic whitewater and great company. With 20 years of teaching experience, Andrew has a style that makes learning fun and easy. He has certifications in Wilderness First Aid, CPR, AED, and Darkness to Light.

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JESSE WILSON

Ohio Native Jesse Wilson found his love of whitewater kayaking while studying Eco-Tourism at Hocking College. Quickly claiming Southwestern Pennsylvania’s Youghiogheny River as home, Jesse developed a unique instructor skill set while working for Riversport School of Paddling which eventually brought him to NOC’s Paddling School. Now in his third year with NOC’s Paddling School, Jesse has 14 years of combined experience as a whitewater kayak instructor. Jesse heads for cooler climates in the off season to nurture his passion for skiing where his EMT certification keeps him busy working ski patrol. You can find Jesse studying native plants or off on the local mountain bike trails in his free time.

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FRANK LAWSON

Frank started paddling in the 1980s when boats were glass and paddles were wood. He says he “originally learned by trial and error – lots of error,” but living in Atlanta he was able to practice throughout the Southeast. After having children he introduced them to outdoor adventures of all kinds: climbing, biking, and even whitewater. His family bought a home in the Nantahala Gorge, and Frank earned his ACA certification and started guiding and instructing at NOC. He also backbacks, rides mountain bikes, sea kayaks, and enjoys stand-up paddleboarding. He says, “as a 50 year old, it’s been really cool to introduce to my peer the world of whitewater. Kayaking challenges them, gets the adrenaline flowing, and puts them in places they haven’t been before.””

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BLUE SMITH

Jared Smith, AKA “Blue” was raised in central Kentucky in a little town called Versailles. Moving to Asheville NC in 2006 to pursue a career in Bluegrass Music he took a detour to the Nantahala Gorge and while living out of a tent at Pizza by the River, he secured a job as a raft guide to pay the bills. He spent 3 years in Asheville, playing 3 or 4 nights a week in a band called The Bluegrass Lumber Company. He snuck away several times over those 3 years to come rafting, but when he got in a Kayak for the first time around 2008, the game changed completely. The Bluegrass Lumber Company disbanded in 2009 and Blue wasted no time moving back to Nantahala, buying a kayak at G.A.F. and spending endless hours on the river over the next decade. Today he splits his time between sharing his passions of his musical heritage and his love for paddling rivers the world over.

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DAN DIXON

One of our more adventurous staff members and a modern-day explorer, Dan is a veteran paddler who has avoided ‘downtime’ by wintering in Ecuador for nearly two decades. Dan’s dexterity on the river, coupled with his relentless enthusiasm, gives him the special quality of putting fellow paddlers at ease, especially when they find themselves slightly out of their comfort zone. Decades of teaching, international paddling, and fatherhood perpetually hone Dan’s instructional repertoire.

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Melissa Hickson

Melissa Hickson is originally from Cleveland, Tennessee and grew up hiking and swimming around the Cherokee National Forest and Ocoee River – but only when the river wasn’t releasing! In 2015 she was introduced to whitewater kayaking and discovered a world of adventure in her backyard, beginning with the Ocoee River, which remains one of her favorite rivers on earth. Melissa got to know the NOC Paddlesports team while working at a kayaking hostel in Chile during the winter of 2016/17 and began her career with the NOC in 2017 as the Assistant Manager of the Ocoee rafting outpost. For the next two years, she successfully avoided winter by alternating between Ocoee rafting during the boreal summer and kayak instruction in Chile during the austral summer. In 2019, she made the move to join the NOC Paddlesports Instruction team full-time. She hopes to continue to develop herself personally and professionally as a paddler so that she can use whitewater paddling to explore and share the most special places on earth.

Copyright 2018 | Nantahala Outdoor Center