Scott Fisher, owner of the Nolichucky Outdoor Learning Institute in Erwin, is pictured after wrapping up another successful whitewater kayaking class. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

The new Nolichucky Outdoor Learning Institute (NOLI) in Erwin continues to gain momentum and propel forward a mission to celebrate the outdoors and help others do the same. The all-encompassing outdoor school – which is the only one of its kind in the area – is now moving into its second month of classes.

For the last month, Scott Fisher, owner of NOLI, and his team of talented instructors have held classes on riverside self-defense, CPR, wilderness first aid, whitewater canoeing, whitewater kayaking and flatwater kayaking. NOLI’s first goal is safety, followed by facilitating a fun atmosphere and allowing participants to learn something new. The learning center is located on the site of USA Raft, with the stunning Nolichucky River serving as a backdrop.

“We try to be as experiential as possible,” Fisher said “We want them to go away feeling good about what they did, feeling good about being outside, feeling good about being surrounded by everything Unicoi County is known for, and feeling like they learned something and that they were safe. … If we’ve done those things then we feel like it’s a good day and we’ve accomplished our goals.” 

Fisher, who has a military background and more than 15 years of experience teaching kayaking and swift water rescue, said NOLI is offering instructional classes on areas that have not yet been tapped into, such as flatwater kayaking.

“That’s something no one has really tapped into in this region; from an instructional standpoint, no one has done that,” he said. “We get people out there, we outfit them, we give them safety instructions and we paddle out to the island on Watauga Lake … it’s nice and mellow.”

Although the class sizes have been small, Fisher said as they continue to get established class demand continues to increase. They have been averaging about three classes per week; however, sometimes up to three classes per day are taught based on demand.

An upcoming class this weekend, named “Survival Island,” is one class Fisher is particularly excited for. From the river’s edge, a line will be tied over to an island right off of the USA Raft campsite. Class participants will then cross to the other side where they will get to learn about the wilderness survival practices of fire starting, shelter building, water procurement and navigation using a map and compass.

“It’s kind of like a jungle over there,” Fisher said. “That may end up being our most popular class.”

Fisher is eager to be able to incorporate the arts and conservation into the classes as well. On down the road, he plans to have a conservation discussion and class with naturalist David Ramsey that will provide participants with the basics on how to get started with conservation and connect them with causes. An East Tennessee State University professor of literature in women’s studies will be giving a talk on successful outdoor-oriented women.

“When I pitched this idea, it always included conservation and the arts … I think there’s overlap there and those things can be fused,” Fisher said. “Because our mission is to celebrate the outdoors and help others do the same, there are a lot of ways to do that.”

This past weekend a “NOLI Flow” class was held with artist and Erwin native Viki Austin, who held an outdoor painting class that allowed participants to bring their drink of choice and leave with a beautiful painting of a happy trout. On Aug. 11 and 12, Erwin potter Kerry Porche will be hosting two riverside pottery classes, “Trying Something New” and “What Do I Do Now.” The first class is geared towards beginners and will teach centering, opening, and pulling techniques to make a cup or bowl. The second class is of a more intermediate level and will teach more difficult techniques such as throwing off the hump and making closed forms. On Aug. 25 and 26, Jonesborough landscape artist Peggy Root will be teaching classes for more experienced artists.

Although most of the class participants have been from around Unicoi County or Western North Carolina, Fisher said there has already been interest from people all over. He mentioned a Florida resident that will be visiting Boone North Carolina for a week who inquired about one of the survival classes.

“That’s a guy from Florida that’s in Boone for one week and rather than spending all the time in Boone, he wants to bring his kids here to Unicoi County for a survival class,” said Fisher. “That means we’re doing something right.”

Because of the unique class offerings by NOLI, people are able to learn valuable new skills and connect with the outdoor world on a whole new level.

“It’s important stuff because collectively we’ve kind of largely lost touch with our more basic selves,” Fisher said.

Based on his past experience as an instructor, Fisher said the most important thing is for participants to leave feeling good about what they did and about the time they spent outside. He explained that everything they do at NOLI has a progression, which allows them to ease people into new, lively experiences while still keeping safety as the main focus.

“It’s fun and good in the sense that it takes people outside their comfort zone a bit … it exposes people to neat things that we have lost touch with today,” said Fisher.

To learn more about NOLI and their upcoming events or classes, check them out on Facebook, visit https://www.nolilearn.org or call 641-0100.