Every
year, an average of six feet of rain and snow fall upon north
Georgia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. This precipitation runs off steep
mountain slopes and percolates through soil and rock, creating
countless creeks and streams which unite to form rivers like the
Chattahoochee, the Chattooga, and the Coosawattee.

The
Coosawattee River is formed by the combination of the Ellijay and
Cartecay rivers in downtown Ellijay. It tumbles westward through
rolling mountain terrain and, until it was dammed in the 1970s,
cascaded over a series of ledges and shoals in the Coosawattee River
Gorge. Through this narrow, scenic cleft, the Coosawattee once
carried runoff from its 376 square-mile watershed into the vast,
nearly level, region northeast of Calhoun known as the Great Valley.

DAM
CONSTRUCTION


Prone to
flooding during the winter, the Coosawattee posed a constant threat
to adjacent farms and, further downstream, to the cities of Calhoun
and Rome. Periodically, these cities experienced devastating
inundations. To eliminate this problem, Congress enacted legislation
in 1945 which eventually resulted in the construction of a dam at the
mouth of the gorge (near the site of the pioneer community of
Carters).

To
build the dam, it was necessary to divert the river through a tunnel
blasted through the mountain. During this project, which began in
1962, all trees within a 100-foot-wide swath of the lake’s high-water
mark were removed (clearing the lake of navigation obstacles).
Completed in the early 1970s, the dam consists of compacted rock over
an earth core. It is 2,053 feet long, 452 feet high and, at its base,
1,650 feet wide.

ORIGIN
OF A BEST SELLER

During
this construction period, the Coosawattee River Gorge’s impending
demise did not go unnoticed. Awareness of the rapids there and the
breath-taking gorge burst upon the American scene in 1970 with the
publication of James Dickey’s best-selling novel, Deliverance.

The
setting for this still-popular book — which is a riveting,
disturbing tale of survival against the forces of man and nature —
is the fictitious Cahulawassee River in north Georgia. Four Atlanta
businessmen, while making a final canoe trip down the Cahulawassee
before it is dammed, are assaulted by a pair of ruthless, depraved
hillbillies. Though the city slickers succeeded in fighting off the
villains, they were not as fortunate with the raging rapids they
faced down-river.

The
novel was soon rewritten into a screenplay for a successful movie
starring Burt Reynolds, Jon Voight, Ned Beatty, and Ronny Cox. It
features banjo picking, abundant profanity, and stunning mountain
scenery and white water footage. Unfortunately, the movie also
portrayed the long-dwelling mountain families as dirty, backward,
violent, and unfriendly. Deliverance did for them what Jaws, another
well-known movie, would later do for sharks.

Although
Deliverance was filmed on the Chattooga and Tallulah rivers in nearby
Rabun County, it is widely believed that Dickey drew his inspiration
for the story from a personal experience on the Coosawattee. In a
recent interview with the author, Dickey responded to the rumor.

“Deliverance
was inspired,” he said, “by my experiences on four or five
different rivers, including the Coosawattee, Chattooga, and
Chattahoochee.” Asked whether he had endured any experiences
like those immortalized by Deliverance, Dickey coyly replied, “I
can’t say. The statute of limitations hasn’t expired yet.”

Claude
Terry, an acquaintance of Dickey’s who was a stunt man and technical
adviser for the movie’s canoeing scenes, is familiar with the story’s
origins. “It was rough in the mountains,” he says, “twenty
or thirty years ago. You could get killed at the drop of a hat. But
today, people have forgotten that.”

According
to Terry, Dickey and two friends (Lewis King and Al Braselton)
organized a canoe trip down the Coosawattee. While Dickey and
Braselton canoed the river, King was to drive to a point downstream
and pick them up. “King,” Terry says, “found a
rugged, remote logging road that seemed to head toward the river.
When he stopped to check a map, he was suddenly confronted by a man
and his son, both armed, who demanded to know what he was doing
there.”

King
reportedly explained his presence to the men, but they apparently
suspected he might be a revenue officer (“revenoor”). The
father told his son to take his shotgun and accompany King to the
river. He was told to return “alone” if no one came down
the river to confirm King’s story and prove that his presence was
innocent.

“Afraid
that Dickey and Braselton might already have passed downstream,”
Terry says, “King sweated bullets until, an hour or two later,
they rounded a bend in the river.”

Satisfied
now that they posed no threat, the boy helped King, Dickey and
Braselton carry their canoe and gear to the pickup truck. The older
man told them to go on their way, wishing them well.

This
sobering encounter proved to be the seed which, implanted in Dickey’s
fertile mind, yielded Deliverance. Terry, a noted canoeist and
outdoorsman, was asked to scout for possible locations to film the
movie. After rejecting the Little River Canyon in Alabama (it was
too dry) and the Coosawattee (its slopes had already been denuded of
trees in preparation for the lake), he recommended northeast
Georgia’s Chattooga and Tallulah rivers.

Today,
the Chattooga is renowned as one of America’s premier white water
rivers. (Dickey describes the Coosawattee as “a lively river”
and the Chattooga as “a man-killer”.) Ironically, however,
none of the Chattooga’s most famous rapids — Bull Sluice and Five
Falls — are featured in the movie. Terry says that most of
Deliverance was filmed at Screaming Left Turn, Raven Rock and an area
now known as Deliverance Rock.

The
movie’s climax, in which Voight’s character scales a cliff and
ambushes the surviving hillbilly, then successfully leads his friends
down a final series of rapids, was filmed in the Tallulah River
Gorge. Its conclusion occurs at the construction site of the
fictional Cahulawassee dam and includes footage of the removal of an
old church and the coffins from its cemetery. These scenes were
filmed in North Carolina’s Horsepasture River valley.

FINAL
TRIPS

A
growing awareness that the Coosawattee was the inspiration for
Deliverance, and of its impending disappearance, led to a flurry of
eleventh hour trips by many outdoorsmen (and women) who wanted to
experience the great river before it was damned.

Jerry
Bearden, a wildlife biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural
Resources, rafted the river with his wife, Pam, in July, 1974 (just
four months prior to the impoundment of the gorge). “It was a
fast ride with a lot of white water,” Bearden recalled.

“About
half-way through, there was one particularly tough set of rapids,”
he continued. “The river was divided there by an island. On the
right side, much of the water was forced through a narrow gap between
the island and a sheer rock wall. We had been warned to avoid this
spot, so we carried our raft across some rocks to the opposite side
of the river.”

Earlier
that year, Bearden had been given the responsibility of coordinating
a trip for a group of state dignitaries who also wanted to experience
the river prior to its demise. “This,” Bearden recalled,
“nearly resulted in a disaster.

“Several
inches of rain had fallen the previous evening and the river was
rising,” he added. “I dropped my group off and was to pick
them up down-river that afternoon, but none of them ever made it down
the river. We found them alongside the road and staggering out of
the woods until nearly midnight.”

The
novices had simply been overwhelmed by the strength of the river and
a lack of the expertise necessary to manage the rapids. Three of the
five canoes they brought were never recovered.

Jack
Weems, a former president of the Georgia Canoeing Association,
paddled the river in April, 1974, and remembers a particularly
dangerous group of rapids known as “the falls”. “It
was beautiful,” he says, “but obviously treacherous. I had
heard of people who were accidentally swept over and drowned.”
In one instance, Weems says a canoeist, stranded on the island by
high water, had to be rescued by helicopter.

Ellijay
resident Bill Middleton recalls a fatality at the falls. “In
1966,” Middleton recounts, “Jimmy Wright got in the river
to cool off and drowned after being swept over the falls.”

Middleton,
who often went to the Coosawattee Falls to fish, says they were ten
to fifteen feet high. Forever submerged 400 feet beneath the surface
of Carter’s Lake, however, the once swiftly-moving body of water no
longer poses a threat to anyone.

James
Dickey does not recall any public outcry against construction of the
dam. “The damming of the Coosawattee began before America
became conscious of the environment,” he adds. It was a time
when no one doubted the wisdom of converting a remote gorge into a
source of hydroelectric power, flood control, and recreation.

Both
Dickey and Terry later contributed to efforts to protect the
Chattooga River. Dickey addressed both houses of Congress. Terry
took then-Governor Jimmy Carter down Section III of the Chattooga.
“I believe,” says Terry, “that we were the first pair
to run Bull Sluice (a notorious Class V rapid) in a tandem canoe.”

Later,
Terry was present when Carter telephoned an influential, undecided
congressman and persuaded him to vote in favor of designating the
Chattooga for protection as a “Wild And Scenic River”.
This designation ensures that the Chattooga will forever remain
undammed.

And
as for the once-mighty Coosawattee, the recreation, flood-control,
and power generation attributes of Carters Lake and Dam are
undeniable. Without exception, however, those interviewed for this
article expressed a profound sense of loss arising from the
impoundment of the waters.

“You
know,” reflects Dickey, who is 72, “I will probably never
get into another canoe. But I remember those days when I paddled the
Coosawattee with great favor. ‘Progress’ so called, can be a
dreadful thing.”

(Daniel
M. Roper is a partner with the law firm of Shaw, Maddox, Graham, Monk
& Boling in Rome, Georgia.)


ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

James
A. Dickey was a poet-in-residence at the University of South
Carolina. His most recent novel, To The White Sea, will soon be made
into a feature-length movie. Mr. Dickey passed away on January 19,
1997.

In
1972, Claude Terry founded Southeastern Expeditions, a popular white
water outfitting business in northeast Georgia.

by Daniel M.
Roper

Originally
published in the Summer 1995 issue of North Georgia Journal,
Post Office Box 127, Roswell, Georgia 30077. Reprinted with
permission of the author and publisher.