People - December 2005

Opening up rivers really floats his boat
By Kathy Brown

Mark Singleton is the first to admit that he’s become “an office stiff.” Shuffling papers and sitting at a desk might draw no such self-deprecation from many other 49-year-olds. But then Singleton probably has spent more of his life outdoors than they have, so maybe he misses it more. During his boyhood in Pittsburgh, his mom pushed him to play outside, and he kept it up even after college. He grew especially fond of whitewater rafting.

Now Singleton does the pushing from his 10-by-20 “closet suite” packed with boxes of documents. As executive director of nonprofit American Whitewater since 2004, he lobbies to protect public river access and improve education for paddlers. He also urges the government to let cooped-up water come out and play more often. In February 2005, for example, American Whitewater helped persuade the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to temporarily open part of the Cheoah River in Graham County for recreational use. It was dammed 70 years ago to power an Alcoa aluminum-smelting plant. On 19 days for each of the next five years, water will spill from the dam into the riverbed.

The first release came in September. About 600 people paddled the temporary torrent, and a few hundred more came to watch. “That’s a new tourism product that’s being put on the ground in economically depressed counties like Graham,” Singleton says. “And that’s part of our mission — to make sure these resources are available for the public to enjoy.”

Singleton took his boyhood love of the outdoors to Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., and got a bachelor’s in outdoor education, a hybrid of natural history and education theory, in 1982. He then spent summers as a raft guide and winters as a skiing coach in Wyoming, Oregon and other places. He directed the ski school at Wintergreen Resort in Virginia from 1984 to 1987, then became marketing manager at the Sunday River Resort in Maine in 1988. In 1990, he answered an ad in Outside magazine for a marketing vice president at Nantahala Outdoor Center in Bryson City and got the job.

He left Nantahala for consulting in 2003, but American Whitewater board members, who knew his work at Nantahala and on government and industry boards, persuaded him to take the helm there instead. He moved American Whitewater from Washington, D.C., to Cullowhee earlier this year to cut costs, get closer to some of its projects and hook up with Western Carolina University. Together, they’re researching how recreational tourism can boost rural economies. American Whitewater has six employees and an annual operating budget of $864,000. It raises money through membership fees, private donations and grants. Over the last year, membership has increased by 5% to about 6,800.

Singleton lives in Sylva with his wife, Debby, and two daughters. When he can spring himself from the office, he still likes to go paddling. His favorite watering holes? The Cheoah River and anyplace he can take the kids.