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More Than Just Rafting: Nolichucky River Business Entrepreneur Expands Operation

By Johnny Molloy • Jun 3, 2018 at 5:00 AM

Rafting companies have operated on the Nolichucky River for decades, taking guests down the rollicking rapids of the Nolichucky River Gorge, one of the most scenic and wild valleys in the Southeast, right in our own backyard.

However, Matt Moses has taken the river rafting business to a completely new level. His operation, Mountain River Guides, and its companion business USA Rafting have expanded beyond simply escorting guests through the incredible gorge that is the Nolichucky. That is why Matt’s business is named Mountain River Guides -- it encompasses river and non-river outdoor recreation, from leading cave tours, to lodging folks hiking from the nearby Appalachian Trail, to teaching stand up paddleboard lessons to showing people how to ride the fascinating motorized contraption known as a “One Wheel.”

Before coming Tennessee way Matt Moses had been in the rafting business for over two decades. He rose through the ranks at USA Rafting, starting at the bottom. His friendly, outgoing personality, business sense and reliability took him to the top of the USA Rafting operation. He learned the rafting business from the inside out, such as hiring rafting guides, figuring out the insurance quandaries to running transportation to and from the rivers, as well as branding and marketing.

Matt thought he knew enough to make a stab at owning the operation, and in 2011 he found himself the proprietor of a business with outposts on several rivers. His insistence on quality over quantity led to his concentrating the rafting operations to the Nolichucky and also the nearby French Broad River, over Asheville way, and forcing other parts of the operation to drop the USA Rafting brand.

Matt’s home base became the Nolichucky operation, just outside of Erwin. Matt understood the vagaries of the rafting business -- namely the weather. For good weather may bring customers but a lack of rain can make the river too low to float. Heavy rains can bring the river up but can prevent customers from rafting. In short, external forces made relying solely on rafting uncertain. Remember the drought a couple of years ago? Business owners such as Matt suffered mightily.

Therefore, Matt decided not to have all his eggs in one basket. At that time, a 4-acre property on the Nolichucky next to his USA Rafting opened up. Matt purchased the land and the buildings contained within. It wasn’t long before Matt enhanced the structures and offered several types of lodging for rent, not only to rafters, but fishermen, hikers and just people who want to get away from it all and spend a few days – or a week – along the picturesque ribbon of mountain water that is the Nolichucky.

Visitors could stay in a cabin, or a hostel, or a large group could stay in a big but rustic log cabin. Matt realized an additional break when the TV show “Tiny House Nation” featured him and his operation, putting a tiny house on site. This tiny house has become a popular rental and overlooks the gorge.

Matt also came to know that offering additional outdoor recreation would enable his customers to engage in multiple activities from one base of operation. Caving is a popular past time and Mountain River Guides leads tours of Worley’s Cave, over near Bluff City, Tennessee. This is ideal for people who want to explore a cave but do not want to risk a trip alone. They also teach stand up paddleboard lessons, and take people adventure fishing, which is a combination of whitewater rafting and angling for small groups, where the fishermen vie for smallmouth bass and trout between exciting rapids. In the late summer, when the water is too low for rafting (and calmer), Matt breaks out the tubes and sends casual floaters down the Nolichucky to cool off during those dog days.

And today, going to the Nolichucky Gorge is a fantastic getaway whether we visit from Florida or Michigan or Kingsport or Johnson City. Recently my wife Keri Anne and I decided to head over to the Nolichucky. The skies were overcast and rain was falling but excitement buzzed through the air as visitors gathered for the rafting trip from Poplar, North Carolina to end near Erwin. This has been the classic run ever since the first adventurous group took a raft through this deepest gorge in the eastern United States.

The Nolichucky Gorge is beautiful beyond compare, one of the true highlights of our region and something about which I am very proud. Rising 2,000 feet from the river, precipitous wooded walls escalate like a fortress, closing out the world beyond. Rock outcrops stand as sentinels over the charging whitewater, crashing among the boulders of the Nolichucky.

The adventure starts with the bus trip from Erwin to Poplar during which entertaining river guides tell you all you need to know about executing a river trip – with plenty of humor thrown in. This is good, for first timers are feeling as much trepidation as excitement about the wild rapids of the river. After unloading the rafts, the guides then placed us in the boats and away we went. Keri Anne and I were with a local family from Erwin, who despite being in close proximity to the gorge all their lives, this was their first time to travel through it by water. The rains -- as we all know -- have been heavy lately and the river was up.

Our guide, by the name of Will, had us covered. Will looked like he came out of central casting for a river guide. His long red hair draped down to his shoulders while his accompanying red beard and rafting helmet recalled the Vikings of yore. Young, well built and with quiet confidence, the Chattanooga native led our group through a series of Class III and Class IV rapids. He entertained us with stories about the Nolichucky as well as his own life as a river guide.

The group of four rafts stopped for lunch (it was part of our particular package), and we ate as the sun started breaking through. The early morning rains had raised the river as well as tributary streams, therefore waterfalls were charging down throughout the stony walls of the gorge. Misty clouds and fog alternately dissipated and reformed, lending a mystique to the highlands above.

After lunch, our raft of five laughed and splashed our way down the river. We were the lead raft and Will set us up so we could view the three other rafts running the froths of white. Time and again I saw smiles on the faces of our fellow river runners as they successfully ran another rapid.

After our trip we disembarked and changed into dry clothes. Keri Anne is fond of souvenirs and we went inside and got her a T-shirt (I blame her mother and father for making her a souvenir junkie). The two of us hung out with our fellow rafters, trading stories of our fresh adventure. The smells of a local, on-site food truck wafted through the air.

Since both of us are in the outdoor industry, Matt and I conversed about his operation. Matt has plans for expansion, and is a true servant of the customer. You feel welcome because you are welcome. Isn’t that the East Tennessee way? Matt and his employees live it out.

And about those One Wheels? You might say a One Wheel is a cross between a Segway and a skateboard. It looked pretty cool to me, but if you want to see one in action check out the website of that growing operation on the banks of the Nolichucky River, www.mountainriverguides.com (Phone # is (800) USA-RAFT). This local business is growing and they have plenty to offer, including the time honored rafting trip through the Nolichucky Gorge.

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