Saturday, July 26, 2008

Mountainfreak Borders-The Ocoee in Tennessee

Tennessee Whitewater
A Pair of Reports From the Ocoee River

Middle Ocoee Trip

Contributed by Heath Hair

Last weekend four friends and I went to raft the Upper, and Middle Ocoee River in Benton TN, about 15 miles north of Chatsworth Ga. The weather forecast didn't look favorable with a storm front hovering around Tennessee for the better part of the morning, so we decided to commit only to the Middle Ocoee instead. Normally, we would camp at the Ocoee Outdoors outpost... it's fun and convenient. But since we opted for the shorter trip, we decided to make it a one day affair and leave early for around 7:30 for the 10:00 o'clock put-in (which we barely made by the way), with Sunburst Adventures. They are good people and we have known them a long time. But if you want to do an Upper-Middle trip Ocoee Outdoors is the way to go. Beside being able to camp at the outpost, the people there take really good care of you, and excellent/fun guides. It isn't uncommon for them to cookout with you in the evening, and hang out with you at Grumpy's later that night. It's a seasonal bar, within walking distance, with decent bands. And of course, if you decide to raft with them all day, they will provide a lunch riverside. Of course most of the companies do that as well.

Anyway, back to the rafting experience itself. That day it rained. I haven't rafted in the rain since I was about 14 years old. Let me tell you, the rain shouldn't detour you in anyway whatsoever, at least in the summer months. It was the first time in years that I didn't get a sunburn on my shoulders. Of course the part of the Middle Ocoee where the river calms down and you can get out of the river and float down was relaxing as always, ESPECIALLY in the rain. Ironically, it is seems more serene than on a sunny day. There is a pretty nice place to stop and have a snack around the underpass just before the rapids start back up, with a nice view of a waterfall.

The Middle Ocoee is the most popular white water rafting river in country, and likely the world. It is comprised of 5 miles of constant class 3-4 rapids that just never seem to quit. Boredom will not be an issue. The Middle Ocoee offers more than enough for any hardcore outdoor thrill seeker, at the same time isn't intimidating enough to ruin the good time of a first timer. The Middle Ocoee is enough of a white water crash course to take on the Upper Ocoee's class 4-5 rapids almost immediately. Basically, the Middle Ocoee is the perfect rafting experience. If you are into kayaking, this is the place to be also. the Ocoee River was a 1996 Olympic venue for a reason.

Ocoee Rafting 101

Dr. Chris Haddock
Ringgold, Georgia

Not far across the state line in North Georgia lie several rivers that are extremely popular to whitewater enthusiasts. These include East Tennessee’s Hiawassee and Western North Carolina’s Nantahala. Both are easily accessible and do not require any guide to raft them. Outfitters are plentiful and rent a variety of inflatable contraptions to float the river or small kayaks and other boats if that’s more your style. Children under 12 can safely take these trips.

The centerpiece of this whitewater scene in this area is the Ocoee River in East Tennessee, site of the 1996 Olympic Games Whitewater events. Dammed up in the mid 20th century by TVA, the Ocoee is a river that has it’s origins in the North Carolina mountains but comes into its own once it drops into the foothills of East TN. It’s comprised of three distinct sections; upper, middle, and lower as divided by the three dams. The upper section contains the Olympic Course and has some very challenging water class IV and V rapids.. Water is not released into this section all the time and you should call ahead to an outfitter to determine the release schedule should you wish to give it a go. . The middle section of the Ocoee is the traditional run that has been used since the 70’s by local outfitters and has plenty of big water as well. Water is released into this section daily in the summer peak times and on weekends early or late in season. Both the upper and middle sections can be floated on your own but unless you’re an experienced whitewater enthusiast with a lot of training it should only be undertaken through an outfitter. The lower section is a placid, flat water section leading down into Parksville Lake providing a very nice serene float and simple tubes and sea kayaks are not an uncommon site.

Outfitters are numerous in the area with over twenty in business at any one time. I myself have always used Ocoee Outdoors as they are one of the oldest and most respected groups on the river. Their experience and emphasis on safety was readily apparent on my most recent trip. Another nice feature that they and some other outfitters provide is a camping area that can be used before/after your trip down the river for a nominal fee.. Ocoee Outdoors has several nice camping sites as well as indoor bathhouse and restrooms.

I’ve gone down the middle section numerous times but this year we decided to do an upper/middle combo trip. Both sections take about two to two and half hours and they are traditionally split up by an outfitter supplied lunch between the sections. The upper had some very challenging rapids and once in the Olympic section it was about a half mile of uninterrupted whitewater which was definitely the highlight of the run.. During our recent trip a boater fell out on a rather innocuous appearing rapid called Edge of the World below the Olympic section.. Although minor in appearance it contains a “terminal hydraulic” on its bottom end and this boater was trapped and was continually churned in the hydraulic staying under for 20 seconds at a time and was growing weaker with each subsequent submersion. The guides for Ocoee Outdoors remained calm and continued to throw safety ropes at the boater until she was able to grab hold and be pulled out of the rapid. In fact one of the guides on our trip had been trapped in the same spot the previous year and had lost numerous teeth due to the repeated pounding against the rocks in this rapid. His story and incident that day were excellent examples of why an outfitter should be used to make your trip and why only those over 12 years of age are allowed on these sections.

Sadly, two great Ocoee Institutions that provided excellen pre and post trip entertainment have closed down. Both Duff’s Bar and Grumpy’s Rockhouse featured cheap beer, live music, and a mixed crowd of locals, river guides, and rafters. Both have closed down within the past 12 months but rumors persist that Grumpy’s will reopen soon. There are several small delis and gas stations in the area should you decide not to bring your own food and the nearby town of Cleveland Tn. provides a wide variety of dining options.

A trip down any of these rivers provides some great fun and entertainment and the variety of the water along with their proximity to each other allows for something to please the whole family. Located less than 2 hours from Atlanta up 411 an easy day trip could be planned or a weekend in the mountains camping or in a cabin rental would provide easy access to the river.

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