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Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Rollin' on the rivers

Being the fabulous ladies we are, Allison Brown and I decided to take our kids to Gatlinburg, Tenn., over the July 4 weekend. Her cousin owns a vacation place there, and she kindly let us borrow the place for the weekend.

So I booked us some rafting and tubing, and we set out for the mountains… along with about half the population of the surrounding four states. I don’t know why we didn’t anticipate that everyone else might also like to be in the gorgeous Great Smoky Mountain National Park over the holiday celebrating the birth of our country, but we were just totally clueless that way.

Who wouldn't want to see this? BEAUTIFUL!
We got out of Atlanta (where we picked up my 13-year-old nephew) with ease. But we hit a traffic jam in Rabun, near Brasstown Bald (my zombie apocalypse retreat) and then periodically ran into stop-and-go conditions: Turnerville near Tallulah Gorge; Mountain City/Clayton near Black Rock Mountain State Park; Cherokee, N.C.; downtown Gatlinburg... the moral of this story is leave early.

Side note: between Cherokee and Gatlinburg is a crazy-long stretch US-441 that is nothing but winding mountain roads. Go to the bathroom before you leave the outskirts of Cherokee. No, really. Even if you think you don't have to pee, some of those sheer cliffs will scare it out of you.
Stop and check out the bears painted by native artists in 
Cherokee, N.C. This one is my favorite.
Also, Allison drives like the bad guy in “Roadhouse.” She likes to test the imaginary force field between lanes. At one point, we veered into the parking area of a mountaintop observation point. Without slowing, she merged back into the lane, glancing over slightly to see if I noticed her mistake. I TOTALLY DID.

Because of traffic, we missed our scheduled rafting time. I called the outfitters, slightly panicked that we’d bottled up the kids for several hours only to loose our rafting trip.

“Oh, how late do you think you’ll be?” asked Customer Service Rep Ashley.

“Uhh…. a lot,” I answered.

And we were. The road to get there wound down into a part of the valley that scrunched the road into just one lane at times.

“I’m not convinced we’re going rafting,” Allison said. “I think we’re going somewhere to die.”

But we made it... an hour and a half after our scheduled time. When we arrived, a cheer broke out in the back of the minivan, from two teen boys and two elementary-school girls who had been cooped up in a metal coffin for I-don’t-even-want-to-tell-you-how-long-it-took-us.

“Hi, are you scheduled for rafting? What’s your party’s name?” the young clerk asked at the check-in counter of USA Raft.

“Yeah, we’re the Sucky McSuckersons who couldn’t get here on time,” I said.

“I don’t think we have a party by that name,” he deadpanned. But he had our paperwork all prepped so I’m pretty sure he knew who we were.

They were so chill about us being late. They kept bumping us to different departure times whenever I called. When we got there so late that no other party was running the mild lower end of the Pigeon River (class I-III rapids appropriate for children as young as my 6-year-old), they assigned us our own one-boat tour. Thanks, USA Raft!

Our guide, L.J., was an experienced rafter who grew up on the river, canoeing it with his brother from the time he was about 10 years old. He had a long ponytail and beard, and spoke with a mountain accent that one doesn’t often hear in our flat-earth media culture that tends to whitewash Southern styles. He offered tips on reading the river, engaged the kids, told personal stories and was as laid-back and friendly a guide as you could want on a beginner’s trip.

The boys picked up paddling naturally, and seemed very comfortable in the front of the raft. Anna Grace was her usual composed self, paddling like a pro in no time. Emmie and her little paddle were so short that she flipped up more freezing mountain water into my lap than she did actually help to propel the boat, and she whacked me in the face a couple of times before I took it away from her. Thank goodness for helmets.

The moms hung out in the back, the better to keep a watchful eye on our brood – but also to let them have as much fun as possible. The trip was mostly Class I and II rapids, with a short Class III run near the end. It was mild, but very enjoyable. The Pigeon is a dam-controlled river, so I suggest going on days when the dam releases water. The rafting companies know the schedule and will help you coordinate the trip.

It looked mostly like this. But that meant swimming! Yay!
It had been almost a decade since I went whitewater rafting. While the class of the run didn’t really excite me, it was great family-and-friends time. It was also a nice reintroduction to a pastime I hope to enjoy more frequently in the future, now that Emerson is old enough to do it, too. And I think she’ll be wonderful. She was the first in the water to swim, and was the one who ventured the farthest away from the boat.

This is more like it. Next time...
If you buy a rafting trip from USA Raft/River Rat, you get all-day tubing the next day. No, I am not being paid to say that. River Rat offers unlimited tubing on the Little River, with unlimited shuttle service. The staff is very friendly and helpful. While the line to get a tube and follow the ramp down into the river seems long, you can pass the time chatting with other folks in line. We sent the kids on a bathroom break and to explore the outpost's store.
Our wait was about 30 minutes, but it was a heavy-traffic holiday weekend. Most other weekends aren't so crowded.

Depending on water levels, the run is about 2 hours long. Midway through, you can test your bravery – and upper body strength – with a rope swing over the water. If you’re really, really stupid, you can climb the three-story tree next to it, and leap off into the water like two idiots we saw. I do not recommend that. It was incredibly dangerous (I was reviewing my CPR skills in my head), but it was fun to watch.

Emmie climbed up onto the boulders and tried to chicken out – but there’s no way back down those rocks once you get up there. In the end, she jumped off the rocks into the water instead of swinging on the rope. She felt safer, but it was actually the same height as the swing. She wants to try again next trip.

I want to try, too!
The Little River runs through a residential area. Essentially, you’re floating through residents’ back yards. Be respectful of them. They were very friendly for people who see a parade of yellow-tubed goobers every day, and waved and smiled at the kids.

There was a brief townie-vs-tourist situation, apparently, that I did not witness. But my nephew said:

“So this kid was fishing, right, and he cast his line out into the water, like, right past this girl’s face. She was about six. And her dad said something to the kid, like, ‘Hey, right into the middle of tubers? Really?’ and the kid said something smart back to him, and the guy was like, ‘I’ll throw that pole in the water.’ Then, the kid left and like 20 rednecks came out yelling, ‘Oh, you gon’ threaten to drown my son with his own fishin’ pole?’ and then a hush fell over the tubers. And the guy tried to pretend like he didn’t hear them, but then some idiot pointed him out. So they started yelling back and forth and finally the fishing kid’s dad was like, ‘well, maybe it was an accident.’ But it totally wasn’t. They should make a movie out of it called ‘The F-Bomb.’ Or ‘Stupid Rednecks on a Riverbank.’”

Sounds like a man-sized grade school slap fight to me, but my nephew infused it with big drama. Do you see how awesome he is? “And then a hush fell over the tubers” – LOL! Adore him.

At the end of this run is a pretty wooden suspension bridge for pedestrian traffic. You can watch other tubers come in. And you can watch them fall down a lot on the slippery rocks. Then buses come by to pick up the tubers and tubes, and everyone acts all stupid like they’re going to elbow their way onto the bus first. Seriously, just hang back. Another bus will be there in three minutes. It’s not worth the stress, and, anyway, your kids want to spend that time trying to bounce each other off the bridge.

Only four at a time are allowed on the bridge. 
Guess who listens to that sign? NOBODY.
And then, despite the fact that you just spent two hours on the river, and might have broken your tailbone on a rock, the ride back to the starting point takes only about 10 minutes. Apparently U.S. Raft/River Rat has a Stargate. Awesome.

Would we recommend this as a family outing? Definitely. The total cost of the rafting and tubing, not counting gas, etc., was about $165 for 6 people. It’s not the kind of thing you can do every weekend, but it’s worth it when you can.

Things to remember when rafting or tubing:

1.     If your company doesn’t hold their customers keys for you at the counter, bring a small mesh backpack with a Ziploc bag for your keys.
2.     Sunscreen is essential. Not only do the sun’s rays rain down upon you, but they also bounce back up from the water. Remember your hairline and the edges of your swimsuit.
3.      Bring water shoes that fully enclose your foot. You will want a shoe that will not come off in the water, that drains easily, and that has a protective, gripping tread on the bottom.

If you go rafting/tubing:

Bring: Water shoes, sunscreen, change of clothes, towel, love of adventure.

Leave: Non-waterproof items, irreplaceable items, grumpiness, fear, children who cannot swim.


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