I had been dreaming about canoeing Cataloochee Creek as an exploration trip for many years. However, in David Benner’s update of his father’s Carolina White Water Cataloochee was one of many great additions. Dave’s article on Cataloochee Creek I find accurate and to the point; it is a stream of outstanding beauty, excellent water quality, and lively gradient, with many fun rapids.
Cataloochee Creek is in North Carolina on the eastern edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It drains the western slopes of the Cataloochee Divide, which contains numerous peaks which approach or exceed 6000 feet and on this weekend were blanketed with about eight inches of new snow. It empties into the fabled Cataloochee Valley, which once held a small, self-sufficient pioneer settlement and later was the site of the famed Cataloochee Ranch. This heritage is remembered in exhibits at several of the preserved historic structures which we visited. It tumbles into the Pigeon River’s Waterville Lake just upstream of the dam.
Similar to Abrams Creek on the opposite end of the Park, Cataloochee is runnable during most of the wet months but is remote and has been seldom visited by paddlers. The trip from the take-out just off I-40 to the put-in takes about an hour and is often steep and winding. It can reasonably be negotiated by 2-wheel drive vehicles, if the roads are free of snow and ice, and contains some outstanding scenery and mountain vistas.
We canoed and kayaked from the park at the confluence with Caldwell Fork. This gave us about 5.8 miles of flow and about a mile’s paddle across Waterville Lake. The average gradient I calculated to be 64 feet per mile from the Cove Creek Gap topographical map, which is helpful in trip planning. Benner’s directions are good, however, and his map with his Jonathan’s Creek article is useful.
Paddling were Jim and son Michael Ledvinka and Michael Violet in kayaks and Charles Clark and I in solo open canoes. We enjoyed a mild, cloudless day and the special allure of running a jewel for the first time. The shoals in the first three miles to the gauge never exceeded class II but were frequent and great fun. The gauge read 2.87, which was a little low in a few places in the first few miles but very ample thereafter. After the gauge the gradient increases as the river enters a deep, remote gorge, and the action picks up. After another mile we encountered a large logjam at the head of an island. In the next hundred yards we had to portage a couple of times due to downed trees, under one of which Jim was almost washed.
This section of the river deserved Dave’s “AA” scenery rating and we enjoyed it at length during a leisurely lunch and scouting stops at the couple of class III and class IV drops near the end. The ten foot class IV drop mentioned by Benner contains a grabby hole in the middle at the bottom. Mike Violet got knocked off his line and hit it almost sideways. He surfed valiantly for a couple of minutes, but there was no way to pull out. He finally came out and left his boat behind. It tossed and turned for about 15 minutes until we were finally able to snag and pull it free.
This display discouraged our rear guard, who decided to portage the next two drops, the last of which Dave Benner describes as “unrunnable.” We looked at it for some time and then took Dave’s advice to portage. It is a dramatic drop of at least 15 feet but appears to have a difficult but runnable steep, twisting chute on the right. The problem is that it is almost impossible adequately to scout due to a house-sized boulder mid-river and sheer cliffs on the right shore. Unseen protrusions or undercuts on the right side of this narrow chute could lead to a severe pin where rescue would be nearly impossible. On the other hand, if one had the option of inspecting the right chute at very low water and the benefit of observing multiple runs by Wayne Gentry’s crew and their ilk, its risks might seem acceptable.
The black water and shameful flotsam in Waterville Lake were quite a shock from the pristine wilderness of Cataloochee. Nevertheless, the lake is quite beautiful if one trains one’s eyes above the water and away from the dam and intakes for Walters Power Plant. If the Pigeon is ever cleaned up and the lake cleaned, it would have great recreational potential, as would scheduled releases into the magnificent presently dry gorge below the dam.
We had gotten permission to carry up the Carolina Power & Light road to their gate near I-40, a strenuous but character building experience not quite as bad as carrying out at Woodall Shoals. All in all, it was a great trip with good comrades and well worth the difficulties of access.
After we had said good-bye to Mike Violet, who had to return to Clinton, Tennessee, run the two hour shuttle, and returned to Cherokee, it was well past dark and we were very ready for our feast at the sumptuous buffet at the Holiday Inn. Afterwards, we all piled into a room at the Drama Motel in Cherokee, where we met several GCA folks who had run the Oconaluftee with John McCorvey that day. (See the June 1996 Eddy Line.)
Raven Fork of the Oconaluftee River – On Sunday, Charles, Michael, Jim and I were joined by kayakers Barclay Fouts, Derek Hunter, Jim Moore, and Knox Worde and by open boaters Ben Fouts, Jeff Garrow, Jack Powell, and Bob Stapleton and this fast flowing favorite.
Jack and Bob are longtime members of the Carolina Canoe Club, whose founder Bob Benner for many years led annual trips on the Oconaluftee and Raven Fork at the end of March, after which these rivers are closed by the Cherokees until the following February (except for Tuesdays for the Oconaluftee and Soco Creek and Wednesdays for Raven Fork). The GCA also has had trips in March on these streams every year since 1980 except 1993. This year there was no CCC trip, and we were pleased to have with us Jack and Bob, who know these rivers blindfolded.
Again we had a sunny day, which began icily but turned balmy by lunch time. We ran from Bunches Creek confluence, as the water level was a little low. As it warmed, the snow melt seemed to bring the river up and many of us became more daring in our play. Nevertheless, we had no swims and only one roll which I saw, at Crack-in-the-Rock.
Raven Fork is a natural slalom course, and we enjoyed the finest of trips and trippers. It was over too soon, but it provides one of those precious memories which are “the bliss of solitude.”
by Roger Nott
March 23 & 24, 1996.