Beat the Summer Heat Rafting on Tennessee’s Whitewater
For serious adrenaline surges and nearly non-stop thrills, nothing beats paddling water that’s white and fast. Outfitters on the Nolichucky, Pigeon and Ocoee Rivers offer guided raft trips that supply the equipment and skill needed to get you to the take out in one piece while having boatloads of fun along the way. Many of Tennessee’s whitewater outfitters are found in the eastern part of our state.
Rivers are categorized Class I-V (VI is not considered navigable). Class I is flat water and Class II is for beginners wanting to feel some current. But with professional guides and suitable watercraft, paddlers with little or no experience can safely experience some of the excitement big time Class III whitewater has to offer in Tennessee.
The Nolichucky River roars its way through a 900-foot deep, nine-mile long gorge in the rugged Bald and Unaka Mountains. The scenery is beautiful and wild and so is the river. After tossing everything it has at you in the gorge, the Nolichucky broadens and shows the gentler side of its nature outside Erwin.
My most vivid whitewater memory is a rafting trip down the Big Pigeon River in mid-March with Daniel Jenette of Smoky Mountain Outdoors.
In addition to the usual life vest, helmet and safety instructions, Daniel insisted I squirm my way into a wet suit. I realized what an excellent idea that was when six-foot-long icicles dangling from the high rock walls lining the river’s edge came into view.
Thanks to Daniel’s expertise and my dogged determination to keep my size 13 tennis shoes firmly wedged into the raft, I avoided a swim in the 50 degree water as we rocked and rolled down the upper Pigeon. Scheduled releases from the power plant and dam in Waterville maintain flow from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
The Ocoee River is nothing short of spectacular. One of the top whitewater rivers in the United States, three dams harness the power of the Ocoee and scheduled water releases transform the dry, boulder-strewn river bed into 11 miles of whitewater heaven. More than 300,000 paddlers visit the Ocoee every year. Some are experts. Some have never seen whitewater before, much less paddled it. The Ocoee is awesome good fun but you’ll need to do more than yelling your head off when you hit the big rapids. That’s when your guide comes in handy.
The Ocoee was the site of the 1996 Olympic whitewater canoe and kayak competition and the upper section includes the 1800-foot long Olympic course that challenged the world’s best paddlers. Both the upper and middle sections are open for guided raft trips. Paddlers must be a minimum of 12 years of age.
The lovely Hiwassee River is a State Scenic River and much more forgiving than the Ocoee. Outfitters offer self-guided river rafting and guided fly and spinfishing in McKenzie drift boats for rainbow and brown trout along with camping facilities and cabins. The Hiwassee is also the site of the Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association’s summer solo and tandem canoe and kayak school.
She’d paddled flat water with me for many years, but my wife, Cathy, attended TSRA’s tandem canoe school several years ago. She learned some whitewater maneuvers and had a blast, even though she managed to shoot a set of rapids backwards – but stayed in the canoe.
For more information about the Hiwassee and the Ocoee visit our Hiwassee/Ocoee Scenic River State Park page or call 423-263-0050.