In 1971, when most Americans thought of outdoor adventure, they thought of Yellowstone National Park or the Grand Canyon. Back then, the rivers and mountains of the southeast, just outside of Great Smoky National Park weren’t thought of as a top outdoor destination. There was wild country, but not much of it was accessible or conveniently located.
Jim Greiner thought there might be some missed opportunities in the region. He had rafted in West Virginia in the ’60s and thought that a rafting business might just take off in the South. While trying to decide what river would work for it, he came across the film crew for the movie “Deliverance” on the Chattooga River at the Georgia-South Carolina border. This had to be the place. Greiner and his wife Jeanette started [Wildwater Ltd](wildwaterrafting.com) Outdoor Adventure, the first commercial rafting outfitter in the Southeast. When the movie was released the following year, a friend told Greiner that his business was sunk: who would want to come up to this wild country surrounded by terrifying hillbillies? “You can be as far away as California and still run into people wearing ‘Paddle faster, I hear banjo music t-shirts,” jokes Jeff Greiner, Jim’s son and the company’s former Marketing Director, now President. But the film actually proved good for business and 42 years later Wildwater Ltd is still going strong with the third generation of the Greiner family.
When the elder Greiners started their business, their four children were all under the age of 11. The kids grew up working on the river and serving as guides when they were old enough. As the family grew, the business did too, with rafting operations expanding to the Big Pigeon and Ocoee rivers in Tennessee and the Nantahala in North Carolina. Through the years, they added one of the country’s first zipline canopy tours and a raft and rail option with the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad in North Carolina. Other services offered today include stand-up paddleboarding, canoe and kayak instructions and lodging at cabins and yurts including the “ [yurt village](wildwaterrafting.com/lodging) ” at Nantahala. “We like to do things that have never been done before,” says Jeff Greiner.
Jim retired in 1996, passing the torch to the next generation. Son-in-law Jack Wise, now serves as CEO of Wildwater and his wife, Jim’s daughter, Becky, plays several different roles in the company. Another daughter, Beverly McArthur and her husband Jamie are partners with Jeff in an offshoot business, [Asheville Adventure Park](ashevilletreetopsadventurepark.com) , which includes the Treetops Adventure Park, Zipline Canopy tours, Kolo Bike Park and Kid Zip, the first zipline course in the US designed for kids under the age of 10. Becky and Jack’s daughter, Cricket Bennett, is the Manager for the Nantahala location and her husband Trey is a river guide for the company.
Being an outdoor business family is not unlike being a farm family, says Jeff. “It’s fun and rewarding, but it’s a tough industry,” he says. You’re dependent on the weather and have a short window of time in which to make your income for the year. But the company’s family roots have provided it with the inspiration it needs to continue to grow and change with the times. It’s no accident that so many of Wildwater’s adventures are family friendly. “We try to think of fun things that our family would enjoy doing. We want to give people something to talk about and remember,” says Greiner.