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Friday, September 09, 2011

Whitewater rafting the Ocoee River

I put aside some things I love for quite some time. For a while, I was focused on going back to and finishing school. Then I was married, and suddenly pregnant. Then Emmie was small - so small! - and I didn't want to leave her. But I have freedom I haven't enjoyed for some time. And I intend to make the most of it by getting back into the things I love and set aside.

One of those things is whitewater rafting and kayaking. I took a refresher run down the lower Pigeon River earlier this summer. Labor Day weekend, I jumped back in full force with a run down the middle Ocoee River.

The Ocoee River was the site of the 1996 Olympic kayaking competition. The upper portion is world-class, technical and dangerous. People have died.

(Here is a clip of a video I took of a kayaker going through 
just one hole on the rapids. See how he gets fully submerged?! Yikes!)

This is not the section I did - LOL! At least, not yet. I have a five-year-plan.*

My sister and I took our 13-year-old nephew on a three-hour trip down the middle Ocoee, a section of Class III and Class IV rapids (on the traditional six-class scale) that harbors dangers like Hellhole and Tablesaw. The river is controlled by the Tennessee Valley Authority, which coordinates water releases from their dam system. The outfitting companies know the schedule and coordinate trips accordingly.

We chose a rafting outfitter that we had both used before, Nantahala Outdoor Center. I didn't know that National Geographic Traveler recommends them - but they do. The NOC has seven different centers on a number of rivers in the Southeast.

The only things you really need to go rafting are: strong swimming skills, full use of your arms and legs and the ability to work as a member of a team. The teamwork aspect of the trip is as important as the physical abilities, because seven paddles in the water can either propel the raft where it needs to go, or drive seven people into a hole that might drag them all into the water and drown them. The seventh person makes the most difference in the quality of your trip. That person is the guide.

A good guide isn't just skilled at reading and running the river. The best guides can also read the quality and experience of the boat's occupants, adjust their seating positions for maximum efficiency and motivate them to work together. It's not enough for someone to work their oar as a rudder like an expert. That person also needs to get their paddlers going fast enough to make it through rapids like Double Suck without getting pulled back and swamped under the current. They also have training in swiftwater rescue - although it's rarely needed.

 Tip your guide. If things go wrong,
he'll be flying in after you like Superman.
Swiftwater rescue is no joke.

Our guide was Ray, originally from New Orleans, La. Having gained his experience by running and guiding on the French Broad River for a few years, he was all of the things you want in a guide.

"Safety is important to me," he told us. "But I like to have fun. So we're going for a big splashy ride without sacrificing safety."

I used to look for a guide that was all "whoooo!" but I find that, while their enthusiasm certainly is infectious, people tend to fall out of their boats. Ray was chill. So what we got was a big ride, some splashy surfing and no one fell out.

Not to say there weren't moments where that could have happened. When you put into the river for the middle run, you put in right into Grumpy's, a stretch of Class III rapids. No time to get acclimated - just start paddling. Because I was so excited, I made a rookie mistake and didn't hook my feet. I almost went out in the first 60 seconds like an idiot.

Oh, yes. This is just the beginning. The TVA dam at
Ocoee Reservoir No. 2  (I think) is visible in the background.
It looks like a giant water slide, but don't get any ideas. 
Running that will get you jail time and a $5,000 fine.

Going into the rapids isn't the end of the world. Most of the time, you'll get pulled back into the boat quickly - or you can surf the whitewater and make your way over to the side. You wouldn't be the first person to fall in - and, in fact, sometimes that water looks really tempting. It has crossed my mind that throwing myself into the water could be as much - or more - fun as rafting or kayaking. In fact, the new trend is body surfing or paddle boarding through the rapids. I do not recommend this. But I'd be lying if I said I would not like to try it.

Can you surf like a pro? No?
Then don't attempt to paddle board whitewater.

There are some challenging and frightening sections of this run, and it's not for those under 12. While there's no swim test prior to participating, and everyone is outfitted to the gills with safety equipment, I don't think weak swimmers should try it, just in case. We were actually a little concerned about Jacob. He's not a weak swimmer; he's just young. But Kelli and I were both afraid that he might get dumped into the drink. On one rapid it seemed he might bounce out. She grabbed his arm, and I grabbed his lifejacket.

"If someone ends up in the water," guides tell you, "don't go in after them."

We might have ignored that advice. So I'm glad Jacob didn't fall out. Me? I was whooping it up and cackling like a Disney sorceress the entire trip.

Midway through the run, there's a lovely stretch where you can hop out and swim. Do it. The water is phenomenal. And it's a nice bit of relaxation before the insanity picks back up.

At the end of the run, near the TVA power station, there's a series of holes that propel your boat almost straight up into the air. This.... is the s#!t.

 Yes, your raft will get vertical. That's the best part!

Not to say that everything was perfect. The river was very crowded, which kind of killed the scenic vibe. So crowded, in fact, that at one point, our raft drove a kayaker up onto a rock. Oops. Sorry, dude. But it was Labor Day weekend. It was bound to be crowded.

At the end of the run, you pull your raft up onto the riverbank, and the outfitters load it onto a trailer. Then they drive you in a big bus back to the outpost and try to sell you photos. Since you probably didn't get any photos of yourselves as you paddled furiously through the rapids, and since there are professional photographers (sans Photoshop, boo!) snapping the shots alongside the river, it's actually a great idea to pick up a few - and it's way cheaper than a family sitting at a pro boutique.

If it's early in the day, and you're feeling it, grab another run - or try a run of the upper Ocoee... you know... if you don't mind the possibility of falling out and getting thrashed around like you're in a washing machine. Oh, don't be such a baby. Rangers trained in swiftwater rescue patrol that stretch constantly, with throw-ropes at the ready. Other boaters can be counted upon to assist, as well.

We also recommend dinner at the Ocoee Dam Deli & Diner when it's over. We ordered the triumvirate of meats: buffalo chicken wrap, pulled pork barbecue wrap and handmade burger. Everything was excellent, reasonably priced and very fresh. On Saturdays, they have a live bluegrass band. I can't think of one bad thing to say about the restaurant.

Would I recommend rafting the Ocoee River as a family activity? Yes. In fact, this may be one of the few activities your maudlin teens might actually enjoy! Take them. Take them often.

Disclaimer: We did acquire some injuries. I have tiny spot of "raft burn" on my inner calf, and Jacob managed to get stung by a bee and twist his knee.

Where: Ocoee, Tenn.
When: Before Memorial Day or after Labor Day, if possible. Otherwise, the river is crowded and lodging rates are almost double. But it's some comfort to have a crowded river: More boats to rescue anyone who gets dumped out.
Who: 12-years-old and older. Recommend strong swimmers.
Where to stay: There are a number of lodges in Ocoee. We grabbed a room at the Ramada Ltd. in Cleveland, Tenn., which was fine, but nothing special. Consider camping at one of the numerous area campgrounds. It's cheaper, and the weather is gorgeous!
What to bring: Swimsuit or shorts and a tank top; water shoes or something like Tevas; sunglasses; athletic strap for prescription glasses or sunglasses; sunscreen; towel; change of clothes; confidence and sense of adventure; tip money for the guide.

* The plan goes like this: "Within five years, I will do that Olympic run in a kayak without falling out or dying." I will work out the details later. Maybe. More likely, I'll just rent a kayak and throw myself into the water. ... And then die.


  1. WOW. This is most definitely NOT a plan for me. I'd be the one yelling, screaming, falling and ruining it for everyone... but I can see why this would be an amazing trip for some people. I would hate to take Honey, though: he'd be the one leaving the raft to get on the surf board...

  2. I'm not going to lie: The surfboard does look fun. But the boogie board is more my style.

  3. Nice Photos ,Thanks for sharing useful post with us.I also Was planning to Do Rafting in Georgia with my Friends, I think it was great idea to weekends.