Hundreds of Facebook messages poured in from New Zealand to Mexico and Chile to Kathmandu over the weekend expressing sadness and shock at the loss of the energetic, generous, infectiously happy and highly respected whitewater paddler.
Noakes, 50, was paddling the Cheoah River with her 12-year-old son Matteo and two of his friends, all considered expert paddlers, according to family and friends, when something went wrong.
“The water level was normal. It happened below Python (rapids). Her boat was found pinned against river right. She was found downstream. We will never know exactly what happened. She is in our hearts and minds in this extremely challenging time,” the family posted on Noakes’ Facebook Saturday afternoon.
Juliet Kastorff, a friend of Noakes’ for 25 years, and owner of Endless River Adventures in Bryson City, said Noakes was a veteran paddler of the Cheoah, which only flows at runnable conditions during a handful of dam releases during the year. It runs through the Nantahala National Forest near Robbinsville.
Permits are required for both private boaters and commercial outfitters to run trips on the river, which at peak flow produces Class IV rapids, considered very difficult and high-volume whitewater.
“She was probably one of the best boaters in the world,” Kastorff said of Noakes. “Whatever happened was a fluke. For her it was an easy river. The Cheoah for her was like her backyard, She had been paddling it for 10 years. She was paddling with people who she was responsible for and she didn’t take that lightly.”
The accident occurred about 3 p.m. on Saturday. The Graham County Sheriff’s Department, U.S. Forest Service and North Carolina Fish and Wildlife Commission responded to the incident. Wildlife Commission office Zach Allman said the cause of the accident is under investigation.
A native of New Zealand, Noakes was a member of her home country’s national freestyle kayak team for many years. She moved to Bryson City in 1996 where she and her husband, Nick Williams, operated Smoky Mountain Jet Boats on Fontana Lake, and Noakes threw herself into the American whitewater racing scene and into motherhood.
The couple have two sons, Dominque, 15, who attends Odyssey Community School in Asheville, and Matteo, who attends the French Broad River Academy.
Noakes competed in just about every whitewater discipline including slalom, downriver, wildwater and freestyle. She competed in the notorious Green River Narrows Race in Polk County, shooting over Class V waterfalls, and represented New Zealand in the 2013 Freestyle Kayak World Championships on the Nantahala River.
She was also a professional guide, leading trips down the world’s iconic rivers, from the Salmon in Idaho to the Zambezi in Africa. “She is being mourned on every continent today,” Kastorff said.
More than her paddling prowess, however, friends say Noakes will be remembered for her beautiful, kind spirit and humanity, and her love of being a mom and teaching children to love the river.
Marc Hunt, former Asheville City Councilman and longtime kayaker, said Noakes went above and beyond as a friend and fellow parent when Hunt and his wife Cat, lost their son, Taylor, in a December 2015 kayaking accident in Ecuador.
“It was classic Maria. As soon as we got back from Ecuador, Maria graciously offered to pick people up at airport, organize the memorial. She reached out to us as a fellow parent in a very gracious way that was very remarkable,” Hunt said.
“Maria was very strong woman. She was one of the most respected, loved women adventure paddlers in the world. There are probably fewer than five who are as respected for her skills, her love and care.”
Will Yeiser, executive director of the French Broad River Academy, said Noakes was not an official staffer, but might as well have been since she was so hands-on with students, taking them out on paddling trips and being involved in the school’s life, that is centered on hands-on, outdoor learning.
She was also involved as a hands-on mom at Odyssey. “She organized a lot of summer kayak programs and paddled on the weekend with a lot of the kids. She was deeply ingrained in the whitewater program,” Yeiser said. “She was always positive, always excited about every moment of every time. People fed off that energy and spirit.”
She worked for many years with the Nantahala Racing Club teaching generations of youth paddlers.
So many of the Facebook messages to Noakes were from women commenting on her as a role model, and thanking her for lessons – paddling, life and otherwise – she had taught them. “Maria embodied everything good about kayaking. She was generous, joyful and she was a friend to anybody who needed a friend. Anybody would tell you at some point who had paddled with her, she would turn to them with that beautiful smile and say, ‘I love kayaking.’”
“If you were to ask Maria how she would want to be remembered, she would say as a successful, competitive athlete, as a friend and most importantly as a mother.”
From Jack Orr:
Myself and 6 others others past a pinned 9r about half way in between bear creek and tapoco lodge sometime before 3:10pm. Right above tapoco we encountered three younger boaters on river left asking if they saw the other party in their group that they were waiting for who was last seen below bear creek. We informed them the boat was pinned with no one in the boat. We boated to the takeout to our vehicles and rode up to the bridge where we still had no sighting of Maria.Another party informed us of her name and description stating she was still missing.
All boaters in our group got in 3 or 4 different vehicles, drove down and spread out between bear creek falls and tapoco looking for her. I drove two young boaters and a member of our group in the bed of my truck surveying the river in search of Maria near where her boat was sighted. Jamie shouted she saw something in the class II boogie rapids above tapoco on river right. There appeared to be a submerged body around a rock. I
sprinted down the bank and waded into the river and pulled her up by her pfd and found her unresponsive. Keeping her head up I started swimming her to shore. Jamie O'donnall and John Manley arrived moments later and helped me pull her to the shore where we cut her pfd off and took her helmet off. I ran to my truck to drive to call 911 while John and Jamie started cpr (~3:40pm). First responders arrived at 3:50pm and Marie was loaded into the ambulance by 4:00pm. Ruben and others not involved in cpr and evacuation went and unpinned her boat upstream and brought it down to the site of the incident, and then helped get all other boats from boaters in her group down below Tapoco.