I have a house in Robbinsville that I go to on the weekends. Nantahala is 10 minutes away, Ocoee is an easy hour, Cheoah is less than an hour. If you need a bigger town Murphy is about half way between here and Ocoee. Brevard is also good but the stuff over there is more flow dependent. Asheville is good but the rivers are all a bit of a drive except for the part of the French Broad that goes through town.
I'm 6' 155lbs size 11.5 - 12 feet and I paddle it with hip pads and don't have the bulkhead all the way forward. I would think you could paddle it just fine. At your weight it should be pretty playful.
I need the foot room and the bow volume and rocker does help it get down features. If I could tweak my 8.5 I would make it a little shallower and a little narrower in the cockpit and knee areas. Leave the bow largely unchanged and make the stern a bit thinner as well. I really think an inch narrower across the middle and a good bit less cockpit depth would help.
I did the opposite of the poster above and sold my Braaap a couple of months ago to get an Axiom 8.5 For reference I am 6' tall and 160 lbs.
The braaap was roomier (not in a good way for me), a tiny bit faster, and seemed to bounce off of everything going down river. The axiom is more predictable, carves better, surfs better, is easier to stern squirt and do other tricks with.
The other big plus to the Axiom is that the outfitting is a much better fit for me. I sold the braaap partially because I could never really get happy with the backband and the thigh hooks. I enjoyed the way it paddled but I always felt like it was 10% bigger than I needed it to be. In my axiom I can adjust it to fit like a glove.
I think people look at the shape of the braaap and forget what it really is, what it is is a short race boat. I think its a great fit for bigger guys and gals with some slalom background who want to haul ass down river and over drops without a care in the world.
The axiom on the other hand is a donwriver playboat. A fast enough, great surfing, very predictable hull for having fun and taking your time to catch every eddy and surf every wave.
Both boats are great and in a perfect world I would have both. Turns out the axiom is better for me.
The issue isn't that there there's a lack of great gear out there. The issue is that it's different (improved) than what you were using 10 years ago. Some of the brands that you're looking for had quality control/production/business issues and went under. But the truth is that for the most part, kayaking gear now is of a higher quality than it's ever been in the history of kayaking. It may look different than you're used to, but it works great. NRS, IR, Kokatat, Astral, and Sweet are all making better stuff than they've ever made. AT and Werner have new paddle models and are building all of them stronger than ever.
I know the feeling when a beloved brand changes or goes under: I've been lamenting the loss of Mountain Surf for years. But, truth be told, this IR Royale is working just as well as any mountain surf I ever had...it just looks different. my 2 cents! Stephen Wright
I just did this job on my mazdaspeed 3. The rain gutter trim is easy to remove. Start at the back and pry it gently with something that wont scratch the paint. Wiggle the trim strip side to side as you work your way forward and it will come off. The attachment points are basically a single threaded hole near the middle of each door. Once you have them off you can mark the position on the roof with tape or something, reinstall the trim and note where you need to drill the holes. Take the trim strips off to drill them. Start with a tiny bit. Reinstall and check the position of your hole relative to the mounting hole. Adjust as needed and then drill the hole out bigger to install the landing pads. You will need like a 1/4" to 5/16" hole for the bolt to pass through.
I just bought an Axiom 8.5 I am 6' tall size 11.5 shoes and 160 lbs without gear. It fits me very well but there is not a lot of room to spare. The knee position in it is much lower than say my Braaap was but it's roomier than a loki for sure. You would definitely be on the top end of the weight range for the 8.5 but it would probably be fine. The 9 is 15 gallons bigger and I know guys your size who paddle it and love it for general river running, surfing etc. You might also consider an RPM Max which is kind of in between on the volume but still plenty playful.