Noakes dies on Cheoah
Expert kayaker Maria Noakes, 50, of Bryson City, died unexpectedly while paddling the Cheoah River on Saturday afternoon, March 3, in a section of rapids below Bear Creek Falls known as the Python.
She was paddling with her 12-year-old son Matteo and two of his friends, all of whom were expert paddlers.
Also surviving are her husband Nick Williams and their older son Dominique, 15.
Originally from New Zealand, Maria moved to Bryson City in 1996 and the couple owned and operated Smoky Mountain Jet Boats on Fontana Lake. The boys both attend school in Buncombe County.
A world-renowned boater, Noakes competed in wildwater and freestyle, downriver and whitewater slalom.
She represented her home country in the 2013 Freestyle Kayak World Championships held on the Nantahala River in Swain County.
Over the years, she also traveled and was a river guide in other parts of the world.
The Cheoah is a Class IV. SMT sister paper The Graham Star reported that the Python section of the river has proven deadly in the past.
“That’s the one that’s killing everybody,” said Outland Expeditions owner Dylan Davis, who kayaks the Cheoah several times a year. “The rapids at the Python hurts everyone.”
Michael Lee Huggins, 64, died near the Python on April 26, 2014. A boater named Dave drowned there on May 5, 2010. Dozens of kayakers and rafters have been injured near the Python since the river was reopened in 2007 after being dammed/closed for 78 years.
“It’s one of those things we can’t know. There are 100 scenarios,” said Mark Poll, who was working at Outland Expeditions when a group of kayakers arrived to call 911. “I knew it was bad when I saw their faces ...”
“This was her hometown run. If anyone was capable of navigating that run, it was her,” Davis said. “Seems like we have about one accident a year, right around this time of year.”
He told The Graham Star dangerous holes lie beneath the water that people can get caught in.
Responding agencies on Saturday included Graham County Sheriff’s Department, US Forest Service NC Fish and Wildlife.
Zach Allman with the Wildlife Commission told the media the cause of Noakes’ death is still under investigation.
Local kayakers and boaters from around the world who knew her are feeling a huge loss. Maria Noakes been described as a beautiful soul, an inspiring kayaker, a beloved leader and a great friend.
Wayne Dickert, pastor at River of Life Church in the Nantahala, posted the following on the church’s Facebook page on Sunday:
“Today, many of us are waking up to the news of the terrible loss of our friend Maria Noakes… She was a beloved leader, encourager and awesome presence in our paddling family. Please pray for her husband Nick, and children Teo and Dom.”
The International Canoe Federation wrote on Facebook: “The ICF Freestyle committee would like to reach out our sympathy and celebrate the life of Maria Noakes, one of the most inspirational freestyle kayakers around…
“She represented New Zealand for numerous years at freestyle world championships. Everyone who knew her will talk about her passion and warm heart and how she constantly was helping the next generation in our sport.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with her family in this time. Maria represented the sport and her country like no other and will be truly missed by all who knew her, all around the world.”
Mark Zwick, who has known Nick since 1985, and traveled to the Grand Canyon with the couple in 1998 shared this memory with Smoky Mountain Times: “She was rolling and tumbling everywhere on the river, and she looked like a playful river otter,” he said. “She was born for it. Going down the Grand Canyon together was amazing.”
Shane Benedict had been friends with Maria for about 25 years, having met her while working together for a rafting and kayaking adventure company in Nepal. He described how Maria was a part of a community of boaters who traveled together, working in different countries, “following the water.”
Benedict described Maria as, “the life of the party but also the one making it happen, cooking the food and taking care of people and she’s also got the biggest smile on her face.”
Her loss is a sizeable one, he said.
“It’s a huge hole in the community to fill,” he said. “She was the glue for a whole lot of us and kept us all together, and now we have to find a way to fill than and try to be a little tiny part of what she meant to those boys and to Nick.”
A memorial service, open to the public, will take place at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Nantahala Outdoor Center.
A “Live Like Maria Memorial Fund” has also been established for those who want to honor her memory, according to the event page for the memorial service. The fund is through the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina. Donations will go toward paddling instruction and outdoor programs for youth, river conservation and access and empowering women in outdoor adventure.
Contributions of any amount may be made by check and should be sent to “CFWNC” with “Live Like Maria” in the memo line and mailed to The Community Foundation of Western North Carolina, 4 Vanderbilt Park Drive, Ste. 300, Asheville, NC 28803. Gifts may also be made online at www.cfwnc.org. Click “Give Now” in the upper right corner of the home page, then choose the “Live Like Maria Memorial Fund” from the drop-down menu.
Also on Saturday, an optional memorial outing on the Nantahala River will be available to all who wish to join following the service. See the event page on Facebook for more details.
Gary Corsair, publisher at The Graham Star, contributed to this story