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.


  1. Before we had children, my husband and I would occasionally spend a Saturday sitting on the rocks with our dog watching the kayaks and rafts run Bull Sluice. The natural beauty there is incredible. Your lovely article brought back fond memories.
    Thanks! Valerie

  2. What an awesome story. I love the Chattooga and this makes it all worth while and understandable. Great job!

  3. Morgan! That was beautiful! You made me cry!

  4. Lovely written and intensely poignant.

  5. There is a spring, just west of our home, that is the start of Big creek, one of the tributaries of the Chattooga. Our children played in that spring as infants and grew up hiking and paddling these waters, eventually to the Atlantic ocean and beyond. Life is more than a business & green paper !