Wednesday, April 17, 2013


Cheoah River Whitewater Rafting

Blue skies, green mountains, and whitewater!

The first weekend of April gave us the chance to shed the rain soaked flatlands of Memphis for the twisting roads and raging rivers of the Great Smoky Mountains.  After six hours of driving, we found ourselves on Old Copper Road eastbound out of Cleveland, Tennessee, traversing the Ocoee River Gorge.  This road sits on a narrow shelf, hugging the mountain on one shoulder and the river on the other, as it winds east.  By midafternoon we could see numerous bright colored kayaks porpoising about the swirling waters of the Middle Ocoee, famous for its whitewater.  Around the next bend in the road the six and eight man rafts came into view, as guides assisted their fares in navigating the Class III and IV rapids of the Ocoee.  I looked out the car window on their activity with fond memories of my own numerous trips on the Middle Ocoee, and looked forward to what lay ahead on the more treacherous waters of the Cheoah.

Crossing into North Carolina we entered the Nantahala River Gorge as we sped further east.   Passing Ranger, Murphy, and Andrews, the road parallels the Valley River before picking up the Nantahala River near the US19- Hwy129 split.  A half-hour later we were at our destination, The Cabins at Nantahala near Wesser.  It was a comfortable afternoon when we arrived to find we were the only occupants at The Cabins.  After several cell phone calls we finally made contact with the manager who was out riding motorcycles and had forgotten we were coming this weekend.

Oconaluftee Cabin, a one room structure furnished with two sets of bunk beds, a studio refrigerator and a microwave, was our no-frills, but functional accommodations for the night.  Four cabins share a bathhouse.

By 0800 Sunday we were headed for Endless River Adventures, the outfitters that were to take us down the Cheoah.  In addition to being a center for commercial rafting expeditions on the Nantahala, Ocoee, and Cheoah Rivers, ERA caters to rafting and kayaking enthusiast with a broad selection of boats, paddling gear and clothing to purchase in its shop.

We were greeted by Juliet, one of the owners, and introduced to our rafting guide, Linc.  With over 20-yrs guide experience on US and South American rivers we felt confident in his care.  He issued us wet suits and we were off to Santeetlah Lake Dam, the put-in for our Cheoah rafting experience.

The Cheoah is a dam regulated river that was practically dry for seventy-years.  In 2005 the 9-plus mile section of the river between Santeetlah Dam and Lake Calderwood was opened for a limited number of controlled flooding’s a year.  The river parallels Route-129, a portion of the Tail of the Dragon, a scenic touring road favored my motorcyclist. 

Upon arrival at the put-in the water had just been released from the spillway and we waited around a good half hour to let the river flow.  This day’s release was 850+ cfs.  Linc issued lifejackets, helmets, and paddles, and spent the time going over emergency procedures.  We lifted the raft into the water, let the rescue kayaks get into position, and the adventure began.

Whitewater enthusiast have named features of the Cheoah colorful names like ‘Southern Revival, Holy Rollers, Land of Holes, White Highway, and Yard Sale’, giving these classic drops and  offset holes a personality of their own.  Our first real challenge came about three-miles into the trip at an obstacle named Wilma’s Ledge, the second of many Class IV+ rapids we would encounter.  Linc gave us specific instructions before tackling ‘Wilma’s Ledge’, a six-foot drop into a recirculating hole.  Obviously I wasn’t paying attention for as soon as we tipped to take the drop I fell out taking my port-side paddler with me.  Instantly the remaining rafters sprang into action and pulled us back into the boat as we slide backwards into the next Class IV+ rapid – ‘Takeout’.  We were back paddling in cadence before we hit the rapid -‘Holy Rollers’.

The raft splashed along leading up to the final two-miles of the river described by the ERA brochure as “Two of the steepest commercially rafted miles of whitewater in the U.S. With non-stop rapids made up of rocks, holes, and waves, the river chases a constantly disappearing horizon.”  These last two miles have an average drop of 200 feet per mile and once you cross under the Forest Service Bridge hang on!  In rapid sequence you hit’ Rod’s Hole’, followed by numerous rapids leading up to the longest and most demanding run on the river, ‘Bear Creek Rapid’.  Starting at the twelve-foot ‘Bear Creek Falls’, a long rocky slide is followed by a series of recirculating holes, ending in a wave train; then it is straight into four additional Class IV+ rapids before you bottom out into Calderwood Lake.

Here we got a chance to catch our breath and give a rafter’s high-five, as we leisurely paddled across the lake to the take-out.

As the old adage says, a picture is worth a thousand words, view the photos to get a feel for the river.


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