Made By Mountains Story
“When you add water and gradient, you get whitewater. And you have to have mountains to make that happen. Western North Carolina is the second most rainy place in United States, so you have water, and the mountains provide the gradient. What could be cooler?”
Mark Singleton has been the executive director for American Whitewater for 18 years, guiding the non-profit as it works with hydroelectric power companies and the federal government to secure water flows that support recreation, aquatic habitats and the communities that surround our rivers. On the verge of retirement, Singleton looks back on a career spent in the mountains of Western North Carolina.
Thanks to Mark Singleton for his time in creating this story. Witten words composed by Graham Averill. Interviewer is Amy Allison. Video by Robb Leahy Creative. Thanks to Nantahala Outdoor Center for hosting us.
For the Past 18 Years, Mark Singleton has been the Executive Director of
American Whitewater is the voice of whitewater paddlers and river stewards throughout the United States, negotiating water releases with power companies to ensure our rivers have enough water for paddlers and aquatic species alike. The organization pushes for the removal of unnecessary dams so rivers can flow freely and works to ensure access points for paddlers, anglers and hikers. Singleton’s work has helped connect communities to the rivers in their backyards.
On Growing a Passion for Paddling and Moving to WNC
I grew up paddling. My family would take canoe trips as a kid. I was living in Pittsburg as a teenager, which isn’t exactly the garden spot of America, so I spent my weekends outside of Pittsburg, in the Laurel Highlands. There’s good paddling there in Ohiopyle. I worked as a river guide on the lower Youghiogheny, and on other rivers as well. That’s where I developed my passion for paddling.
I came here in the early ‘90s to work in the marketing department of the Nantahala Outdoor Center, trying to connect the NOC with the outer world by establishing a toll-free reservation line and building a website.
Paddling sports were ramping up then thanks to the ’92 Olympics, where two athletes who trained on the Nantahala River won a gold medal in tandem canoe. After that, we created the Nantahala Racing Club, a nonprofit that trained athletes for the ’96 Olympics on the Ocoee River. The rivers here are some of the finest anywhere, and are a breeding ground for world class paddlers.
When I began working at American Whitewater, the headquarters was in Washington DC, but it made sense to move the organization closer to the projects we were working on. We looked at locations around the country, but settled on Western North Carolina. It’s honestly one of the best moves the organization has ever made.
On Protecting Our Rivers
So many rivers have hydropower operations on them, so the energy company controls the flow of the river.
When the water is released, it flows from the dam downstream providing enough water to support aquatic habitats and recreational boating. Those releases used to be a handshake deal in the ‘80s, where the power company would work with the local outfitters to supply recreational releases, but they weren’t guaranteed.
American Whitewater works to guarantee those releases through federal licensing. We also work with the power companies to gain access points to the river for hikers, paddlers and anglers, which sometimes leads to access for greenways. It’s pretty cool, all this great work that supports fish, the local habitat, whitewater paddling and the community. These releases and access points become an economic driver for all of the communities downriver.
On The Most Meaningful WNC Projects
There are spots in WNC that mean a lot to me personally and professionally because the projects have had large impacts. Like the High Falls on the West Fork of the Tuckaseegee, which is drop dead gorgeous whether you’re a paddle or a hiker. We worked to guarantee releases for that two-tiered 120-foot waterfall. It’s a phenomenal thing to go and watch the water turn on. The flow goes from 20 CFS to 250 CFS. It’s like the tide comes in all at once. We supported the removal of the Dillsboro Dam on the Tuckaseegee, which was significant. It had no economic viability and was just a plug in the water. We were able to advocate for the removal of the dam, which opened up recreational opportunities. (Now home to Dillsboro River Company, Smoky Mountain River Adventures, Tuckaseegee Outfitters and is part of the WNC Fly Fishing Trail)
Then there’s the Cheoah River, one drainage over from Nantahala River. When I first moved here it ran dry because the water was diverted for hydroelectric production. American Whitewater worked to get a flow schedule of recreational releases and base flows to support the natural habitat. Now, recreational users get scheduled days to paddle on the Cheoah. It’s a fantastic resource for the region.
What gives me the most hope is seeing young people engaged in the outdoors and protecting these places, getting involved in that stewardship.Mark singleton
On Future Generations of Conservationists
What gives me the most hope is seeing young people engaged in the outdoors and protecting these places, getting involved in that stewardship.
There are so many cool things going on in WNC right now. People have started to take notice of what outdoors has to offer.
The organization Need More Outdoors is really impressive. They connect underserved youth with paddling on Nantahala and are trying to launch a robust program to take kids into these wild places they wouldn’t otherwise experience.
On Being Made By Mountains
Personally, I’m attracted to these mountains. When you add water and gradient, you get whitewater. What could be cooler?
And you have to have mountains to make that happen. WNC is second most rainy place in US, so you have water, and the mountains provide the gradient. I’m set.
On Next Chapter
I have had this incredible opportunity to work with the Nantahala Outdoor Center, and American Whitewater. It’s been a tremendous run, and I’ve been able to work at AW for 18 years. I might be retiring, but for me, nothing changes.
I paddle, I bike, I ski…WNC is a great place for that. I’m not moving. I’ll just have more time to do it all. I have been doing this for my whole life. I spend time in the outdoors. These jobs were just a vehicle for me to continue to be a dirtbag.
Thanks to Mark Singleton for his time in creating this story. Thanks to writer Graham Averill, to interviewer Amy Allison and Videographer Robb Leahy. Thanks to Nantahala Outdoor Center for their hospitality..