Thursday, July 7, 2011

America's Most Popular River: Tennessee's Middle Ocoee

The "Middle" section of the Ocoee river flows through the far Southeastern corner of Tennessee, just over the state line from Georgia and North Carolina. It's in a wonderfully beautiful area, surrounded by lakes like Blue Ridge, Nottely, Parksville and Ocoee. The locale is part of the Cherokee National Forest, and there are some great ways to spend a weekend outdoors there.

Nonetheless it seems like an unlikely place to boast the country's most popular whitewater river, considering it's not in the Rockies, Sierra Nevada Mountains or near the highest peaks of the Appalachians. So what's the deal? Here are the two simple reasons why the Ocoee is the capital of whitewater rafting in the USA:

1) The Ocoee should be the most popular river in the country because its fun rapids, moderate difficulty, continuous action, favorable water temperatures and dependable releases constitute the ideal mix of a mass-appeal whitewater trip. The only thing missing is a true "wilderness" section, but it probably couldn't be the most popular river in the country and maintain a wilderness atmosphere anyway. Despite its popularity though, it's a very beautiful river, and morning and late-afternoon trips do control the impact of heavy summer crowds.

2) It's an easy day-trip from Atlanta, Chattanooga and Knoxville, and it's reasonably close to Nashville and Birmingham too. There are some other Ocoee-like runs out there that just aren't all that close to big cities, and therefore they're not as accessible. It's not just the fact that there are nearby metro areas though; these are scorching-hot metro areas in a part of the country that wants to cool down on the water. (See today's article in the Huntsville Times if you don't believe me.)

Ocoee Rapids
In whitewater rafting popularity, it's all about the rapids. How many are there, and how fun are they?

Well, sometimes paddlers go on a trip and they ask the names of every rapid. Don't even bother on the Ocoee. There are a few big ones you'll certainly want to know, but 75% of this river is going to be splashing your boat. There's only one five minute pause in the action, and most folks are actually ready for a bit of a break by then. As for the big rapids, the short list of "the biggest ones," if you ask an enthusiast like me (I'm not really an Ocoee guide) is:

The launch site for this trip is right below the dam separating the Upper and Lower sections, and it's a bit intimidating, especially considering that a pretty powerful rapid called Grumpy's is less than 100 yards into the run. The actual Grumpy hydraulic is tops on my list of "places where I'd like to remain in the boat on the Ocoee." You can see some footage of Grumpy's on this video from :28 to :46. Note the "hydraulic" is the big splash the raft kicks up at :36.

Broken Nose
Basically a curvy S-turn above two ledges, Broken Nose isn't as threatening to rafters as it's name suggests, though upside-down kayakers can attest to the reasoning behind its title. Footage of this rapid runs from :47 to 1:22, but the farthest-back boat in the shot beginning at 1:11 is probably the best illustration of the full length of the action.

Double Suck
Like most Ocoee rapids the route here is over a ledge and through the biggest obstructions--in this case two large hydraulics. Note the big spray coming off the first hole at 1:25. This is a fun rapid, though it's super fast. When you're at the top, the ledge is surprisingly large.

Double Trouble
Not to be confused with Double Suck, Double Trouble could be the most beloved rapid on the river. It unselfishly gives the people what they want: gigantic splashes, a fast bouncy ride and a relatively paddler-friendly environment. (If I had to swim the length of a rapid I suppose I'd choose this one.) See 1:37 till the end of the video.

We don't have great video of Tablesaw because the river runs away from the roadside at this point, but this is the biggie. Here the river channels all its 1250 cfs of water through a tight rocky slot. This means you've got a fast, bouncy, powerful straight shot through some turbulent (pleasingly turbulent) whitewater.

Tablesaw rapid with a boat full of rafters midway through.

Diamond Splitter
This gets the "editor's choice" award from me. Easily the most photogenic rapid, Diamond Splitter gives paddlers multiple route options and a splashy ride over the sticky, but not-to-worrisome Witch's Hole.

Diamond Splitter rock proudly bisects its eponymous rapid.

Hell Hole
Site of the last ICF Freestyle World Championships held in the US (1993), Hell Hole, for rafters, is just one quick splash. But when you're on the bus ride back to the outpost it's the wave you'll be remembering as 15-foot wall of water to your nodding companions. See the photo, and you can understand.

A raft stalls out briefly on its way through Hell Hole on the Middle Ocoee.

When to go:
The Ocoee runs Thursday through Monday in the three main summer months, and on the weekends from March to October. It's controlled by the TVA so releases are fairly standardized, but if you pay attention to weather and other factors it is possible to get a beefed-up Ocoee trip with some extra water in the river.

Otherwise go when it works for you. Most trips are the same, but early-morning and late-afternoon trips are a good avoid-the-rush option.

Ocoee Discount Special Trips
Also note that you can save almost 50% by booking an off-peak time on select days. Book one of these trips and you'll get the same Ocoee rafting experience for only $25 per person.

Also, consider participating in the American Cancer Society's "Fight the Rapids for Cancer" event on July 17. NOC will donate $1 for every rafter we take down the river this Saturday, and guests will also have the option of purchasing an event T-shirt that day as well. Book now to participate in this great event.

To book, use NOC's secure online reservations system or call 888.905.7238. More information is available at NOC's Ocoee rafting page.

The Ocoee's Popularity
Up until 2008 there was some confusion on what the nation's most popular river actually was. The Arkansas River in Colorado used to have more total rafters than the Ocoee, but it also has numerous popular sections: Bighorn Sheep Canyon, Brown's Canyon and the Royal Gorge are all very popular. Without a doubt the Middle Ocoee is the most popular of all these stretches of river, and though the Ocoee has a second section, the Upper Ocoee, its tight release schedule limits its runs. (The vast majority of Upper guests do the combo trip anyway, meaning they run the Middle section as well.)

Now this section-by-section analysis is unnecessary anyway. The Ocoee has continued to grow and maintain its popularity and now has more rafters than the sum of all the Arkansas's sections. So, the Ocoee can brag about being "America's Favorite" whitewater without having to use an asterisk.

There's no reason not to be gracious though; the Arkansas and the Ocoee are actually pretty similar (splashy, continuous and comfortable during peak season) even though the Arkansas's desert environs and big runoff flows are nothing like the Ocoee's. (It's a river worth experiencing if you head off to Colorado sometime.)

When You Go to the Ocoee:
If you'd like to make an overnight trip our of your experience, here are some places to stay. The Cherokee National Forest offers excellent opportunities to adventure-lovers looking for more than whitewater:

Mountain bike at the Tanasi Trail System, Old Copper Road Historic Trail or at the Jackrabbit Mountain Bike and Hiking Trail system in Hayesville, NC.

Dayhike to Benton Falls or enjoy the scenic spur hike.

Drive the beautiful Cherohala Skyway.

And, if you really like rafting the Middle, you'll probably want to consider coming back for the Upper/Middle combo trip sometime.

1 comment:

  1. How does ocoee rafting compare to many of the western rivers? I;m a big fan f the green river in utah, is it like that at all. Any info would be great thanks!