Monday, June 27, 2011

Chattooga Section IV: the "Ultimate Whitewater Experience?"

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Before I had a driver's license I paddled whitewater rivers two ways: 1) finding rides with driving-age friends or 2) "paddling vicariously" through guidebooks. Being from Georgia I had William Neely's illustrated Whitewater Home Companion: Southeastern Rivers Volume One, Monte Smith's new-at-the-time Southeastern Whitewater and the classic Appalachian Whitewater: The Southern Mountains. Thanks to the accounts in the books I understood the conversations of "real" paddlers, and I knew routes through rapids I'd never even seen. I read each page of the books until I knew every detail about the Ocoee, Nolichucky, Gauley and, of course, Chattooga Section IV.

Even before I ran my first Class IV rapid I knew that running Section IV was my paddling goal even though there were bigger, more difficult rivers in the books. Why? Partially because Section IV was so famous for its contributions to the movie Deliverance, but also because the authors of the books didn't write the same way about Section IV as they did about other rivers.

When authors discussed Section IV I could detect the unique respect. My copy of Appalachian Whitewater reads: "The scenery is nothing short of spectacular for almost the entire length of the river. Its excellence rivals any river in this country." The writers continue, "...the reputation of Section IV as an ultimate whitewater experience is probably what brings throngs to the Chattooga."

Southeastern Whitewater reads: "For a few years after the release of [Deliverance], this stream was the sine qua non of whitewater paddling... Section IV remains a formidable stretch of whitewater. The run is unique in many ways, and it's always a treat. Few rivers live up to their reputation. Section IV does." The latter book even tried to quantify the Chattooga's reputation, assigning it a "reputation value" of 139 on a scale where 100 was the midpoint. This was one of the highest in the book.

Part of what makes the Chattooga special is Section IV's famous Five Falls. The Five Falls are five Class IV-V rapids in quick succession near the end of the run. Monte Smith described these as, "...something else. Few other one-third mile stretches exceed it for sheer excitement... the Five Falls have to be seen to be appreciated. As the water rises about 2.0 feet, the falls progressively lose their individuality as they blend into an uninterrupted maelstrom of frothing, crashing, churning, exhilarating whiteness" (Southeastern Whitewater). I would stare at the book's photos and anticipate my own future approach to the "launching pad" ledge at Soc-em-Dog, the river's Class V finale, hoping to get my line just right.

As I grew up I progressed and made it down Section IV finally. I even started running rivers supposedly more difficult than the Chattooga like the Tallulah and the Cheoah, but I noticed that, even after a few runs on each river, I didn't get nearly as anxious or as excited about those rivers as I did about Section IV. At the other rivers' big rapids I was much more relaxed and conversational than I ever would be above, say, Jawbone on the Chattooga. Why? Probably because I didn't know as much about these other rivers, and I hadn't built the rapids up for years in my mind. But maybe this is also what it's like playing baseball at Wrigley Field or racing at the Brickyard: you just enjoy being a part of it.

That said, there are some objective reasons why you'd be a bit more focused at the Five Falls: first the river's been pretty friendly until you get here. Yes, Woodall Shoals, Seven Foot Fals and Raven's Chute are big, fun, challenging rapids, and then there are all the bouncy smaller rapids too, but the Falls are totally different. The atmosphere changes; the wide open, sunny river closes into a constricted gorge. Direct sunlight fades behind the raised treeline. The river gets loud toofive big rapids that close together make an impressive white noise backdrop. Plus, everyone in your group who was splashing around and jovially goofing off at the lunch spot is suddenly more focused.

Looking downstream from the top rapids you can see water splashing up from the far side of horizon line ledges, and you know there's another pretty steep rapid right after the one you're about to run. This makes you a bit more focused on getting things just right.

Despite the action at the Five Falls, I think that the river's wide range of experiences and moods is why it's the "ultimate river experience". When it's relaxed, it's as casual and benign as a river can be: you're swimming in lazy warm pools, jumping off rocks into the gentle current, walking under beautiful waterfalls and eating lunch on sandy beaches. But when things start to pick up the action gets going. The rapids on Section IV tend to drop over ledges and broken ledges, making them fast and technically challenging to the guides and paddlers, and when the rapids come in quick succession, things get intense.

At the end of the trip you float into the flatwater Lake Tugaloo, and you've got time to reflect on the experiences of Section IV. This is one more feature I love about the river; it's got a good narrative form, with solid rising action, a clear climax at the Five Falls and a pleasant denouement crossing the lake. The Chattooga doesn't easily allow you to "squeeze it into your schedule" or "just do the biggest part." You've pretty much got to experience the whole thing.

This is a big reason why the Chattooga is a true wilderness experience. Not only is it protected as a Wild and Scenic River (which means you won't see many rafts while you're out there), but it's also deliberate. The river demands that you invest some real attention in your surroundings and your companions, not just the rush and thrill of the rapids.

At NOC, where we work and play on rivers all across the Southeast and the world, Section IV is still one of our staff's most beloved whitewater rivers. It's probably the trip I'd select if I was trying to demonstrate to someone why I love rivers and rafting as much as I do. On most other rivers I'd talk about the rapids and the scenery to describe why it's so great, and I'd do that for the Chattooga too, but the reason it's so great to me is its "aura." The Chattooga just has something other rivers don't.

*See pages 32-39 in Appalachian Whitewater and pages 107-121 in Southeastern Whitewater for the sources of the excerpts above.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Going to Water: Chattooga Section III

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I have been in love with rivers for as long as I can remember. The rush and crash of rapids, hidden waterfalls pouring into shaded mountain streams, the warm lazy flow of a river too old to hurry. All provoke images of summertime vacations in the mountains, fingers sticky with strawberries from riverside picnics, my father's rough steady hands as he guided our canoe through a maze of rocks and tree limbs on to safer waters. Throughout my adolescent years I was fortunate enough to see a lot of whitewater. The mountain rivers and the adventures we had on them became a knot that tied my father and I together even when I forsook bedtime stories and stuffed animals for boys and makeup. But when I was in high school my father suddenly passed away. The family trips to the river stopped and it felt like my canoe was adrift without a guide.

The next time I braved whitewater would be years later on summer vacation with some friends from college. They managed to talk me into a full day excursion with the Nantahala Outdoor Center on Section III of the Chattooga River in Mountain Rest, South Carolina. A few weeks later I found myself seated in the front seat of a 95 Taurus watching the suburbs give way to pine trees and misty hills. Valleys and green slopes hung wet and shining with the rain from the night before as the pink light of sunrise seemed to spill over the peaks of each hill like water
breaking free of a dam.

The Chattooga River is a river that seems to be caught between two worlds. Designated a wild and scenic destination by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1974, only 15 miles of it is available for recreational use. The rest of its 57 miles are completely wild and protected by the Sumter National Forest on the South Carolina side and the Chattahoochee National Forest on the Georgia side. Originally belonging to the Cherokee Nation, the Chattooga River was a point of constant contention between the Cherokee who viewed the river as sacred and the Scotch-Irish settlers that wanted to exploit the area for logging and mining in the 1800's. Today the Chattooga runs the border between South Carolina and Georgia, as if it can't quite decide where it belongs. Its a river torn between two times, harkening back to the old world yet constantly threatened by the progress of today.

We arrived at the NOC Chattooga Outpost around 8 am and the staff were very courteous and time efficient. We watched a safety video and our trip leader gave us a trip talk before we put on our helmets and PFDs and boarded the bus for a quick bus ride to the top of the river. Everyone helped carry gear and rafts about ¼ of a mile down to the put in because of Forest Service regulations that prohibit automobile traffic too close to the river. The air was thick with the smell of damp Earth and honeysuckle. The dense pines crowded over us and the rush of the river grew louder with each step. The sound was an aching reminder that this was the first time I would face the river without my father by my side.

When we reached the bottom the trip leader assigned us our guide, a tan shaggy-haired guy in his twenties. In our boat it was the four of us and a couple in their thirties. We all piled in and then headed out. The dark cool water snaked out before us and the sun blazed just over the tree line like a beacon. I hadn't quite anticipated how isolated the Chattooga River was from the outside world. Apart from our trip, there wasn't another raft or boat in sight. A hawk sailed in low circles above us and our guide pointed out a river otter just as it disappeared beneath the surface. There was no sound of traffic, just the river pounding louder with each paddle stroke. River water filling up my veins, sunlight in my eyes. All of it reminding me of times past.

Our guide explained that the Chattooga was a “drop-pool river” consisting of ledges and drops that make up the swift rapids and brief calm pools afterward. As we went over each rapid he ordered us all to lean in and paddle. My friend Jackie and I were seated in the front and constantly found ourselves drenched by waves of water (which the rest of our boat found very entertaining). We plummeted through rapids with names like Warwoman, Dicks Creek, and Sandy Ford that ranged from Class II to Class IV.

We pulled over for lunch on a sandy beach around 11:30 and the raft guides arranged a a great sandwich spread on the bottom of an overturned raft covered in a picnic blanket. We could choose from ham, turkey, PB& J or a delicious hummus spread for our sandwiches. They also included chips, some veggies and dip, and cookies for dessert with lemonade and sweet tea to drink. Several of the kids on the trip took the opportunity to go swimming in a little class I rapid that ended in a calm pool. My friends seized their "inner kid" too and leapt into the rapids, shouting for me to follow. Instead I just lay back on a large rock jutting out into the water and marveled at the way the river still managed to make me feel peaceful and free after all that time.

After lunch we took on a few more Class III rapids before pulling over and preparing for the big Class IV rapid on the trip, Bull Sluice. Everyone got out of the rafts to walk up a rock outcrop to take a look at the broken ledge and white frothing whitewater below before deciding whether or not we wanted to go down or take the foot path to the other side. As soon as we got to the top of the outcrop the sky turned ominously dark and rain began falling in great sheets. Two of my friends took one look at the rapid and then instantly took the trail to walk around. Me and Jackie stood looking at the roaring rapid and rushing water churning over the drop. She glanced at me and grinned. I knew at that point that we were going over,whether I liked it or not.

We walked back to the boats and took our seats up front and our guide ferried back out into the swift current. My heart pounded in my chest as we were borne swiftly toward the drop. Glancing to my left I noticed that Jackie's face didn't look quite so confident anymore. Thunder cracked overhead and the guide shouted over the storm to get down. Jackie and I scrambled to sit in the bottom of the boat as we plummeted over the drop and into a wall of water that briefly submerged the whole raft. In seconds it was all over and we were back on the surface of the water, safely in the boat, and paddling our way into the calm eddy waiting for us on the other side. As terrifying as the rapid had been in the moment, I was immensely glad that I had tried it. Looking over my shoulder at Bull Sluice, I realized how much braver I had gotten over the past few years. As a kid I never would've been fearless enough to tackle a drop like that, even with my father at the rudder.

Shortly before we reached our take out point at the end of Chattooga Section III our guide told us a story about the Cherokee people that used to live in the area. A long time ago they believed that the Chattooga was sacred because if you followed the river back to its origin it would lead you into the spirit world. Therefore, they would “go to water” and immerse themselves in the river to cleanse and heal their souls. The sound of the rapids roaring and crashing was really the voice of the father of the river, a god called “Long Man” who was using the water to converse with spirits in the other world.

As we boarded the bus at the end of the river and headed back to the center I thought about how my trip on the Chattooga had been, in a way, my “going to water”. It helped along on the
road to healing and it gave me the bravery to embrace a passion that I had, long ago, let slip away. And as the bus engine roared and the sound of the river faded behind me, I couldn't help but think that I heard a familiar voice in the rapids, whispering words of encouragement and love from a distant world.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

A Parting Salute to NOC Legend Wayne Dickert

This June is the last month our beloved Wayne Dickert (“Wayner”) will be working a NOC. The good news: Wayne’s leaving us to become the Pastor at Bryson City United Methodist Church in town, so he’ll be realizing an important personal goal, and will still be nearby. The bad news: much less Wayner on the water and around the NOC campus.

For those only a little acquainted with Wayne’s tremendous contributions to NOC and Southeastern paddling in general, here’s an abridged version of his vast accomplishments.


Wayne began his professional whitewater career thirty years ago on the Ocoee River near his East Tennessee home. In 1981 he started guiding rafts with Sunburst Adventures on the Ocoee River, where he remained for six years until NOC purchased the Ocoee-only outfitter in early 1987. After two additional summers working on the Ocoee Wayne moved to the Nantahala in 1988 to guide NOC paddling and rafting trips.

From the beginning Wayner gravitated to canoe and kayak instruction at NOC. Due to his impressive career as a competitive paddler and his adept teaching methods, Wayner quickly became one of the core instructors in the Paddling School. Originally Wayne spent his non-instruction time from November to February creating custom wooden paddles with Homer King, builder of the legendary Silver Creek paddles. While at Silver Creek, Wayner and Homer designed some of the first curved wooden canoe blades. Less well known was Wayne’s short and fat shallow-river blade Homer nicknamed “the shovel.”

However, in 1993 NOC became one of the primary sponsors of the The Nantahala Racing Club and Wayner found himself immediately involved. Wayne's off season time was consumed by administrative and leadership work for the club. From ’93 to ’96 Wayner maintained his NOC/NRC/competitive paddling lifestyle until he left NOC in ’96 to accept a position at USA Canoe/Kayak as the Development Director—helping the US team field world-class whitewater athletes in international competition.

Wayner returned to NOC full-time in ’99 as the head of the NOC Paddling School, where he remained until 2009. His ten years in this position were immensely effective: his extensive experience in paddling instruction and his notable competitive accomplishments made him a visible and effective leader. Wayner began his slow transition to the church in 2006 when he enrolled at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary to earn a Masters in Divinity. In 2007 he started the River of Life Ministry at NOC, giving paddlers a casual, early-Sunday summer service followed by an optional group river trip. He accepted the role of “NOC Ambassador” in 2009 as he began the transition to church life and finished up school. In this role Wayner helped start the Canoe Club Challenge, worked with the Southeast’s summer camps to get young paddlers on the water and helped the Nantahala area win the 2013 ICF World Freestyle Championships.

During his career in professional paddling Wayner racked up some pretty amazing accomplishments:

  • Two “Best Instructional Video Awards” from the National Paddling Film Festival, one for 2005’s River Runner’s Edge—a project Wayne worked on with Kent Ford, John C. Davis and Phil & Mary DeRiemer –and the other for 2006’s The Kayaker’s Toolbox with Joe Holt.

  • Two National Outdoor Book Awards for the Instructional category for Basic Canoeing (2003) and Basic Kayaking (2005).

  • He was one of the boat designers for the 1992 gold-medal winning C-2 boat nicknamed “Patriot” along with Horace Holden Jr. and the boats’ paddlers Scott Strausbaugh and Joe Jacobi. This boat remains the only US Olympic championship boat.

  • Wayne collaborated (to varying degrees) on the designs of many production boats including the Dagger GT, Dagger Approach, Dagger Mamber, Dagger Juice, Dagger Rx, LiquidLogic Remix, LiquidLogic Hoss and more.

Once a group of Wayne's students were reviewing his bio, and after they read about his accomplishments their main comment was “Whoa, you had a moustache?!”

Some people are just hard to impress.

Competitive Paddling:

Wayne started paddling slalom in the spring of 1981 on the Ocoee River in a Perception Mirage at the old Ocoee Double Header race. He enjoyed it so much that he immediately purchased a slalom kayak. In May of the same year, Wayne borrowed a slalom canoe and, as Wayner says, “it just felt more natural to me.” So, the kayak was gone almost as quickly as it arrived, and Wayne became a C1 (decked canoe) racer. “I was young and stupid; it didn’t matter that [canoeing] was harder.” Wayner preferred the leverage and sightlines of the canoe, and all of a sudden he was training and competing for whitewater slalom and downriver (or Wildwater) events.

Though he made the US C-2 Mix team in ’82 and raced in the West German Nationals in ’83, Wayne didn’t began winning consistently until 1984. In ’84 Wayne was the top ranked downriver canoe racer in the US (after winning the Pan-American Cup), and he remained one of the top downriver competitors through ’89 when he “retired” for the first time.

However, retirement didn't last long and it was less than a year before Wayne and Horace began toying with the idea of a forming a slalom C-2 team, a development that resulted from an informal, why-not-try-it whim paddling session. Horace and Wayne’s casual paddling session was surprisingly competitive and ’92 Olympic coach Fritz Haller started encouraging and coaching the new C-2 team.

At the 1996 Olympic Team Trials Wayne and Horace actually defeated their coach Fritz Haller and his brother Lecky, with four solid runs on the Olympic Course at the Upper Ocoee. At the Olympics Wayne’s team placed 11th after a misjudged maneuver on the first run resulted in a technical penalty and after Wayne dislocated his thumb before the second run. Despite this, Wayne maintains that his biggest disappointment from the Olympics was that the US didn’t get two C-2 boats qualified so he could have competed again with his friends Fritz and Lecky.


Despite having spent a good part of the past 30 years on the water, Wayne is still one of the NOC employees you’re most likely to see on the river. Many employees split time between the river and nearby hiking or biking trails, and some see the river “plenty” during the work day, and head for the house or to town after hours.

Not so for Wayner. He’s probably the colleague most likely to lobby you into spending a lunch break on the water, or to work through lunch and leave for a 4pm “on the river meeting”. You’re likely to see him working with aspiring athletes at the gates, surfing on the Surf School wave, or scouting the falls with a young paddler.

We asked him two questions to wrap things up:

Q: What’s your favorite part of paddling?

A: Teaching Beginners. I enjoy seeing beginners fall in love with the sport. I even like it better than working with advanced paddlers who know what they’re doing. I’ve always liked the beginners the best.

Q: What’s your favorite river?(It’s got to be the Ocoee right?)

A: Well, yeah the Ocoee would be there because it’s been such a big part of my life: I got married there, started working and paddling there and competed in the Olympics there, but my favorite river is the Tallulah actually. It’s just so beautiful and the rapids are so fun.

So, that about sums this recap up. Note that this story doesn’t really have an ending; Wayne still loves boating, and you’re likely to see him out and about whenever he gets a chance. We expect they’ll be keeping him pretty busy over there at Bryson City United Methodist, but hopefully after things settle in a bit we’ll start seeing Wayne back on the river—though we're not expecting him at any future Sunday releases on the Tallulah.

Thanks Wayner.

Editor's Note: Join us at the first 2011 Canoe Club Challenge (on the Nantahala Saturday June 18th) and thank Wayner for his contributions to paddling. We'll be throwing him a big going away party after the event!