A world-class kayaker and Kiwi expat has died in an accident on a North Carolina river.

Maria Noakes, 50, was paddling the Cheoah River with her 12-year-old son Matteo and two of his friends when tragedy struck on Saturday.

Noakes is a mother-of-two and was originally from Waipu.

Friend Juliet Kastorff told the Asheville Citizen-Times Noakes was probably one of the best boaters in the world.

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"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."

Kastorff said Noakes was being "mourned on every continent today".

Maria Noakes in 2015.
Maria Noakes in 2015.

Noakes was a member of the national freestyle kayak team for many years before moving to Bryson City in the United States in 1996 with her husband.

She represented New Zealand in the 2013 Freestyle Kayak World Championships.

A message on Noakes' Facebook page said:

"Our dear and loved friend Maria died today kayaking the Cheoah. She was with three super star paddlers. The water level was normal. It happened below Python. 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. We mourn for this loss and our hearts reach out for her two boys Dominique and Matteo, and her husband Nick.

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"Today a very special person was taken from our community."

Hundreds more messages could be seen online commenting on success as a professional athlete but also on her role as an inspirational role model to others.

Former Asheville City Councilman Marc Hunt told the Citizen-Times 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, organise the memorial. She reached out to us as a fellow parent in a very gracious way that was very remarkable," Hunt told the Citizen-Times.

"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."

New Zealand kayaker Courtney Kerin posted an emotional tribute to Noakes on Instagram calling her the "best friend anyone could dream of".

"I will never forget the first time I met you Maria, when you ran down the banks of the Nantahala, NC while I was competing as just a teenager," the post read.

"You were yelling "KIWI, KIWI!!!" And by the end of my ride we were best friends!

"We met by chance and you proved to be the raddest kiwi ever! You took me in, showed me nothing but love even as a stranger!

"I'm so proud of you in everything you have done and certainly look up to you as a female outdoors role model! You will always be my hero and in my heart!

"And I will miss you always!!"

French Broad River Academy executive director Will Yeiser told the Citizen-Times Noakes was not an official staffer, but might as well have been since she was so hands-on with students.

She took them out on paddling trips for their outdoor education, he said.

"She organised 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.

"She was always positive, always excited about every moment of every time. People fed off that energy and spirit."