Fall foliage with a blue overlay

Aurelia Kennedy: Mother of Nantahala Outdoor Center

May 8, 2021
Aurelia and Catherine Kennedy

They say that I look like you
I hope they are right
May I honor your adventurous, loving, caring spirit with my face.

Yesterday I dug in your garden with Jennifer
You are there with us
We watched Daddy and Naren digging in the pond
You are there with us
We cried together, we laughed together, we shared meals together, we told stories together
You are with us.

Today is your birthday
I blew bubbles on the porch for you
They floated sparkling in the light over your garden
You are there with me

You made us a family
you are with us all always
I love you MY MAMA

Poem written by Cathy Kennedy upon her mother, Aurelia Kennedy, passing away at her home in 2019.

Aurelia and Catherine Kennedy

Aurelia Kennedy, known as Relia, founded Nantahala Outdoor Center in 1972 with her husband Payson Kennedy, and her late friend Horace Holden. Relia passed away at her home in 2019.

Many know Relia for pioneering the way for female paddlers in the outdoor industry, having been one of the first women to paddle Nantahala Falls in 1954. She traveled the world leading international adventures in South America, Europe, China, Nepal, and Fiji.

Relia may be most well-known for her contributions to the paddlesports and outdoor industries, but her legacy reaches far deeper here in our NOC family. She quite literally planted roots here in the Nantahala Gorge – and the beautiful blooms of her garden are appreciated yearly on NOC’s campus.

For many years, Relia worked hard in both River’s End Restaurant and Relia’s Garden Restaurant to create an atmosphere that was comfortable and welcoming to anyone who might step through the doors. Her famed recipes are prized by many – you are lucky to have ever tasted something created by Relia herself. Relia’s daughter, Cathy, kindly shared her most-requested recipe with us – Relia’s Herb and Onion Bread.

Relia’s Herb and Onion bread
Herb and Onion Bread

Seeing the success of Nantahala Outdoor Center may have been a main focus for Relia for many years, but Relia’s true mission was to see the success of the staff and guests who flocked to the Nantahala Gorge year after year. Relia loved spending long hours with the community – where time spent working and time spent enjoying company were one in the same. Lines between Relia’s work life and home life were blurred – or even non-existent, as she welcomed everyone who entered her world with loving arms and an open heart. Special memories of Aurelia poured in from the NOC family ahead of this Mother’s Day.

Stories from the NOC Community

“I was a new bookie/raft guide in 2012. I love gardens and noticed that Relia’s Gardens were overgrown. I went up on my lunch breaks every day and started pulling weeds and thinned out the iris. At first Relia would drop by and she would be a bit concerned. She wanted to make sure I wasn’t pulling up the herb garden. As the summer went by she trusted my gardening skills and we would weed together. I really treasure the time we spent together.”
– Laura S.

“I was working at Relias for the summer. Aurelia pulled me aside – even though I was a newcomer to the Gorge, and said ‘There is room for all of us here as long as we all believe in our community.’ I have honored her commitment to community from that day forward.”
– Juliet K.

“I wasn’t at NOC very long but Relia and I were friends. I was the gardener for a while. My memories of hiking with her are precious. She was so generous with her knowledge and encouraged me in many ways. Villa, Relia and I were hiking (maybe looking for morels) and singing old camp songs and laughing like young girls. I’ll never forget her.”
– Sukey P.

“Aurelia started the NOC Learning Center. We were a camp/daycare on the property. We took kids hiking, down to play in the river, raft jumping, Arts N crafts and lots of love. It was an important part of the NOC family!”
– Kim H.

“In 1995 I came to NOC not knowing anyone and with no job… just a hope to spend the summer in the Gorge to become a better canoeist. I met Aurelia when I went into Relia’s Garden inquiring about work. She told me there were no openings but then spent 45 minutes talking with me about lots of things other than work. She then offered a minimum wage dishwashing job that would allow me to pursue my boating dreams. So thankful she did. And one summer turned into almost 20. She had a big impact on my life.”
– JMark G.

“Many, many years ago when I was around 10 years old I had fallen in love with Aurelia’s horse Rabbit. I visited and rode Rabbit every chance I could get to the stables below the brick house. One windy day before Christmas she told us to meet her there at the stables, that she had a surprise for me and Michael. She was giggling and smiling and I couldn’t figure out why. We walked toward the barn and I saw a yellow piece of paper blowing along the ground – it had blown away from where it had been pinned to the outside of Rabbit’s stall. That piece of paper illustrates what a big heart Aurelia had – I’ll be forever grateful to her for that.”
– Heather W.

Letter from Aurelia

As we celebrate Mother’s Day, we thank Aurelia for all that she taught and shared with us; learnings that still flow through the veins of our large family today. When you visit NOC this year, remember her stories of kindness, and take a moment to do something special for a stranger. Aurelia would have loved that.

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