Archive for February 7th, 2011

February 7, 2011

river goddesses of wnc, bunny johns

  • Isn’t she gorgeous? Elizabeth “Bunny” Johns is one of the five women I profiled for WNC Magazine recently. Check out the article that this post came from in theSeptember issue of the excellent WNC Magazine,The River Maidens, Ride the waves with WNC’s leading female kayakers featuring just five of the many river goddesses of the region. Like the Naiades of ancient Greece, fresh water spirits who presided over the rivers and streams, western North Carolina has its own version of river goddesses. You might spy these fresh water mermaids by the plastic form attached to their torsos, helmets and padded armor worn across their chests, or see them floating and playing in the waves of some of the country’s best whitewater.

    Bunny Johns is something of the grande dame of paddling in WNC. Originally from Atlanta, GA, she was part of the early Bryson City paddling community, first coming to the area as a camp counselor at Camp Merrie-Woode in Sapphire, NC, a valid outdoor camp for girls, in the early 1960s. In fact, that was her introduction to paddling. She taught swimming at camp, and her students, in turn, taught her to paddle the lake in a canoe. She quickly turned her attention to canoeing, graduating from paddling lakes to whitewater, at that time section 3 of the Chattooga River. Eventually, as she became part of the early community of Nantahala Outdoor Center she took the plunge and moved full-time to Bryson City, working as a manager in the kayak school. “At that time, the philosophy was, everybody did everything; clean rooms, kayak and raft guide, cook. After I burned the trout the got me out of the kitchen.” As a group of serious paddlers, she began racing Open Boat Canoeing at the national level. In 1981, she and Mike Hipsher earned the Gold Medal in “a perfect run” at the 1981 Wildwater Championships at Bala, Wales. She became president (after serving as VP for years) of NOC from 1991-2000. She was on the Olympic Committee, working to bring the Summer Olymics to Atlanta in 1996, even serving as an Olympic official. Bunny has PhD in Plant Physiology from NC State University, and worked as a Research Associate at NCSU while obtaining the degree. Today she runs BunRab Enterprises, primarily working with Duke Energy to rebalance its use of resources. “I do what you need me to do, that I can do,” she says. She also serves on the boards of The Rotary Club of Bryson City (as president), WCQS, West Care Health System and Harris Regional Hospital, and MedWest Health System. She also works with the Little Tennessee Land Trust, helping to conserve the landscape of the upper Little Tennessee and Hiwassee River valleys by protecting private lands from inappropriate development.

    “Paddling takes me to wonderful places, beautiful places. It demands that I be totally there. It’s a most fascinating thing for an active mind. To allow me to just focus on the river, how can I play in this moment?”

    Favorite river and why?

    I don’t have a favorite river, but if I had to choose… I’d choose two. The Chattooga and the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. The Chattooga because it is protected, a beautiful place where you can see ospreys dive.

    Favorite moment on the river.

    So many! I think it was running Overflow Creek on the Chattooga with several buddies, who talked me into running the waterfall. I thought I could never do that, but found that, yes, I can.

    Favorite music

    Classical. Specifically the William Tell or the 1812 Overtures.


    Indian. I make it at least once a week


    Thirteen Moons Restaurant at Nantahala Village

    Any hobbies?

    Civic involvement, hiking with my dog, and, well, I still paddle.

    Insider’s tip to WNC

    It’s only for serious hikers, but Bypass Gorge on the Tuckasegee River


    Ramon Eaton, who was vice-president of the American Red Cross when I was in college. I met his daughter when I was a counselor at Camp Merrie-Woode. He taught me so much of lasting value. From the great experience he brought to everything he did with the American Red Cross. But mainly he was just my good friend.


    Service above self.

    Future Plans, Big Dreams

    I want to stay local. To do what I can within my community to be of service. Spend time with my dog. Take advantage of work opportunities that come up. Continue to be part of the Boards of the health organizations that to provide health services that are needed by the community.