In the story of Western North Carolina river running, former Merrie-Woode Director Hugh Caldwell is a legendary figure. He made the first descent of Sections 2 and 3 of the Chattooga River and was an active member of the whitewater racing community for many years. No one is better suited to tell Hugh’s story than his good friend and fellow paddler, Doug Cameron.
On the evening of November 9, 2019, members of the whitewater paddling community gathered at Black Dome Mountain Sports, an outdoor retailer in Asheville, North Carolina, to hear about the contributions of some of the local pioneers of river running in North Carolina. The event was sponsored by the newly-established Southern Appalachian Paddlesports Museum (SAPM). SAPM’s mission is to preserve, inspire, educate, and increase the awareness of the history of paddlesports in the Southern Appalachians, and it memorabilia are currently housed at Black Dome. While working to establish a permanent home, members of SAPM are gathering interviews and artifacts from the elder statesmen of the paddling community to preserve its important history.
I was thrilled to attend this event, not only to hear first-hand Doug’s many entertaining stories about Hugh, but to talk with some of the other legends of whitewater paddling, including Bunny Johns, former Merrie-Woode counselor and later head of the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC); Fritz Orr III, son and grandson of Merrie-Woode Directors, who grew up at Camp and became a downriver racing champion; Bob Lantz, founder of Blue Hole Canoe; Joyce Malone Lantz, former Executive Director of the American Canoeing Association; Payson Kennedy, co-founder of the NOC; Will Leverette, grandson of Frank Bell and author of A History of Whitewater Paddling in Western North Carolina; and Doug Woodward, author of several well-known books on paddling and outdoor adventure. It was exciting to be in the company of so many talented individuals who shaped the sport of whitewater paddling in America.
Hugh and Doug had known each other from their days as neighbors at The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. Doug shared that, as a young boy growing up in Atlanta, Hugh attended Fritz Orr’s Camp for boys, located on what is now the campus of the Westminster School. At the Fritz Orr Camp, Hugh learned to love all outdoor activities, especially canoeing. When Fritz and Augusta Orr acquired Camp Merrie-Woode, Hugh joined the staff during the summers to lead the tripcraft program. He soon became a beloved figure to many generations of campers. Both a highly skilled paddler and a person with an extensive knowledge of math and physics, Hugh made certain that the Merrie-Woode girls understood the mechanics of paddling as they learned their strokes.
In an accompanying slide presentation, Doug showed Hugh’s personality through many photos well known to the Merrie-Woode girls from the 1950s through the 1980s. From his rescue of a dog, whom he named “Hala,” to sliding down Toxaway Falls, to his cliffhangers on Chimney Top in the Smokies, Hugh’s adventures were legendary. The crowd loved seeing Hugh dump campers from the old dump truck at the end of trips and learning about how the Wampus Cat left red marks on campers’ noses during overnights on Toxaway Mountain.
Hugh left an impression of all those whose lives he touched, as a professor of Philosophy at Sewanee, founder of the Sewanee Outing Club, coach of the Sewanee Canoe Team, first Executive Director of the Merrie-Woode Foundation, Inc., and friend and fellow racer to many in the local paddling community. It was an honor to be present for this memorable evening, and I would encourage everyone to watch the video of Doug’s presentation below to learn more about one of whitewater paddling and Camp Merrie-Woode’s true legends.
Find more information about the Southern Appalachian Paddlesports Museum and watch videos of interviews with Fritz Orr III, Bunny Johns, and other greats at the museum’s new website below!Southern Appalachian Paddlesports Museum Webiste