Rapid Transit The Nantahala Outdoor Center teaches novice kayakers at the facility where whitewater Olympians train.
(FORTUNE Small Business) – I'm at the edge of an artificial lake near the Nantahala Outdoor Center, waiting for an instructor to tip my kayak over. We're learning "wet exits," which is what beginners are supposed to do when they flip. The key, our instructors tell us, is not to panic once you're underwater. Tuck forward. Pull a strap to release the neoprene skirt that seals you into the kayak. Reach around to the sides of the boat and push yourself out.
Steve, an instructor who has surfer-style bleached hair and a low-key demeanor, tells me it's time. He pulls my boat into the water and says we'll take it slow. He tips me over, then tips me back. The water is black and cold (in the 50s when I was there), and at first my nose plugs slip off, letting lake water pour into my nasal passages. We do this a few more times, with me staying under a little longer each time.
"Are you ready now?" he says.
Steve flips me into the cold blackness. I tuck, pull the strap, reach back, and push on the sides of the boat. I'm out. I'm breathing air again. I'm alive. It's day one of kayak school, and we haven't gotten anywhere near a river yet.
The Nantahala Outdoor Center in Bryson City, N.C., is considered the "Oxford of paddling." Spread over 500 acres near the juncture of North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee, the NOC offers kayak, canoe, and rafting trips on six rivers to some 200,000 guests a year.
Founded in 1972, the NOC is also part of a facility where the U.S. Olympic athletes in kayak and canoe events train. John Burton, who started working at the NOC when it opened and eventually rose to become president, competed in the 1972 Games in Munich (the year whitewater slalom became an Olympic sport). Wayne Dickert, head of instruction, competed in the 1996 Games in Atlanta. Some Olympic-level paddlers who will be heading to the Athens games from Aug. 13 to 29 work as NOC guides when they're not training.
I'm here for the two-day beginner class, called Rapid Progressions (pun intended). For $380, you get two days of instruction, two nights of lodging, equipment, and meals, which are edible if not gourmet. Several people in the class aren't really beginners, though. When I arrived, they scared me by asking the instructors which roll technique we would learn. A few own their kayaks, and one said he was interested in racing. It's a little unsettling to know that I'm the least experienced person in the group.
After our lesson in wet exits, my class spends the rest of the morning on the frigid lake. We start without paddles, learning to steer with our legs and hips. If you tense your right thigh and slightly lift your left buttock, the kayak will tip slightly to the right and turn in that direction. Once the boat starts to turn, whether you planned it or not, you have to lean into it or your boat will flip.
Eventually we get paddles and try some basic maneuvers. A wide arc with the paddle makes you turn sharply. Short strokes on alternating sides propel you straight ahead--at least theoretically. (I find it almost impossible to advance in a straight line.)
In the afternoon we head to an actual river, the Tuckaseigee, where we practice turns in a quiet spot before pointing downstream. I'm still having a hard time advancing in a straight line, but the sound of rushing water means we're approaching our first rapids. Steve, the instructor, shouts, "Lean forward! Paddle hard!"
I pull my paddle through the choppy water, tense my leg muscles, and pray the boat doesn't flip. The rapids are Class II (I is considered easy, V is dangerous, and VI is "unrunnable"), but everyone in my group manages to make it through upright.
On day two we ride 45 minutes in a van that smells like old wetsuits, until we get to the Roll Pool (which is mercifully heated). Here, we learn the basics of rolling, or flipping your boat back up once you tip over. It's harder than wet-exiting because you have to do a few things at once: snap your hips, sweep your paddle around the boat, and keep your head down until the rest of your body is up (which goes against all instinct). After two hours, only one person in the class successfully completes a roll.
That afternoon we're back on the river. Less than 15 minutes out, I feel my boat tilt to the side. Forgetting everything I learned, I lean the opposite way and tip underwater. I panic, lean back, and flail at the neoprene skirt--and of course stay wedged in the boat.
Then my senses come back, and I remember the wet exit. I tuck and reach for the release strap. One push on each side of the seat and I'm above the water, gasping. Steve and another instructor, DJ, are there with encouragement: You're fine, they tell me. You did great.
There is one last set of rapids to run, including a "hole," which is something like a whirlpool and difficult to get out of. When it's my turn. I paddle forward, then spot the swirling hole. My boat is headed straight for it. I paddle furiously on my left side, trying to turn my boat. But it turns too much and I'm suddenly pointed backwards and facing upriver. The hole is spitting water just feet from me. My boat lodges between two rocks. I push off and paddle for my life, somehow escaping to calm water. Everyone in the class cheers. When we reach the end I paddle into the mud, exhausted, cold, and happy to see the stinky van again.
I'll go back to NOC to enjoy the rivers, the mountains, and the incredible staff, but my kayaking days are probably over. NOC also offers rafting trips in which, I'm told, your task is basically to hold on. No nose plugs. No wet exits. Sign me up.