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.

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