Milt
Aitken and I were almost giddy as we pulled into the Andrew Pickens
District Ranger Office in Walhalla, South Carolina the first Thursday
evening of 2007. Our skepticism about whether we would ever see the
upper Chattooga River legally in a boat was gradually fading. It was
becoming more and more apparent that this user study was really going
to happen. A tremendous excitement and anticipation now replaced that
skepticism.

Our
excitement began to build on Monday after we received an email from
Ben Ellis, a consultant with the Louis Berger Group, telling us that
the recent storm and the predicted rainfall met their “trigger”
to mobilize the study team. Consultants from as far away as Jackson,
Wyoming, Corvallis, Oregon and Anchorage, Alaska would converge on
the Chattooga during the next few days. They would be working with
both anglers and boaters as part of the ongoing User Capacity
Analysis of the upper Chattooga River ordered by the U.S. Forest
Service (USFS) Chief in April, 2005.

Those
of us lucky enough to receive Ben’s call spent the next three days
focused on the weather websites and the USGS gauge at Highway 76. We
rearranged our schedules on short notice to be part of something
special, our excitement growing and waning as the forecast vacillated
and the river levels fell.

Now
we were actually here to begin the field work and legally run the
upper 21 miles of the Chattooga River for the first time in over 30
years. We entered the room and joined the crowd milling about,
waiting for the meeting to start. Each of us knew that we were about
to be a part of something historic. The excitement among the boating
panelists was palpable. You could sense it.

The
boaters were easy to discern from the anglers. We were the ones with
the smiles on our faces, laughing and joking with each other,
obviously glad to be there. This contrasted starkly with the visible
dismay on the faces of several anglers, clearly disgusted with the
thought of boaters on “their” river. However, this did not dampen
our spirits as we looked forward to this great adventure.

The
meeting began with the customary introductions of the consultants,
panelists and agency staff, either present or on the phone. This was
one of the few times during the next two days that we would have any
interaction with the anglers, either here or on the river.

David
Hedden and Jeff Owensby were there representing the USFS. David and
Jeff were joined by Tony White and several other agency staff on the
conference phone. John Cleeves, the User Capacity Study Program
Manager, would join us on Saturday.

Once
we were all properly introduced, Ben Ellis chaired the meeting. He
was joined by Bo Shelby, Doug Whitaker, and Karen Koslowski, the
consulting team.

The
boating panel included 10 lucky boaters: GCA members Don Piper and
Don Kinser as well as Shayne Day, Milt Aitken, Todd Corvey, Brian
Jacobson, Wade Vagias, Ken Holmes, Ben Ellis (consultant) and Bo
Shelby (consultant). We would get to know both Ben and Bo well during
the next two days as they joined us on the river.

The
anglers’ panel included Doug Adams, a longtime Chattooga angler. I
had the great pleasure of spending a magical day on the upper
Chattooga fishing with Doug several years ago (and we didn’t even
catch any fish!). No one loves the Chattooga more than Doug.

Doug
was joined by Alex Watson, David Cannon and a number of others whose
names I cannot recall. It was interesting how they kept the boater
and angler panels segregated, never even giving us the list of
anglers names. Doug Whitaker, the consultant from Anchorage, would
accompany the anglers on the river for the study. The plan was to
meet at the boater access just below the Highway 28 Bridge at 8:00
a.m. Friday morning. The USFS would shuttle us from there to
Burrell’s Ford and we would paddle the Rock Gorge and Nicholson
Fields reaches of the upper Chattooga (a/k/a Section 1). We were to
return to the Ranger office for a debriefing with the consultants and
anglers at 3:00 p.m..

Assuming
all went well and the predicted rainfall materialized, we would then
do the Chattooga Cliffs and Ellicott Rock reaches on Saturday. The
meeting ended and we headed to our cars. It was raining. This was
going to be good!

Day
1 – Rock Gorge (a/k/a Section 1) – 12.5 miles

Friday
dawned cloudy and rainy, just as predicted. It was also unusually
warm for January, perfect weather for a great day on the Forbidden
River
.

We
assembled at the boater access just downstream of the Highway 28
Bridge at 8:00 a.m. Even with our “alpine” start, everyone was
all smiles and on time as we nursed our coffee, conversed, and joked
around while getting our gear together. The excitement was thick in
the air: you could feel it. This was going to be a great day on the
river.

Meanwhile,
on the other side of the parking lot, the anglers didn’t look quite
as excited as we were to spend a day in the rain. USFS Rangers David
Hedden and Jeff Owensby were friendly and cordial as they handed out
permits for us to fill out, helped us load boats and then shuttled us
to Burrell’s Ford. They seemed almost as excited as we were.

Our
caravan arrived at the Burrell’s Ford Bridge, made ready, and
headed down the established trail to the river bank. For the last 30
plus years what we were doing has been illegal (and still is) and
here we were being graciously shuttled by the USFS. I felt a great
rush of personal satisfaction as I unloaded my gear on the Burrell’s
Ford Bridge from that green USFS truck.

After
a short riverside meeting with the consultants, Ben and Bo, to
discuss river safety and how we would travel down the river, we
shoved off at about 9:30 a.m. Everyone was in high spirits. That
would not change for the rest of the weekend.

Many
of you may know this river reach as Section 1. However, throughout
the study we were encouraged to refer to this section as the Rock
Gorge and Nicholson Fields Section (the stretch down from Lick Log
Creek). Quite frankly, “Rock Gorge” sounded a whole lot more fun
than “Section 1” and a whole lot more descriptive. So from now it
will be the Rock Gorge reach. The river starts off meekly, gradually
picking up gradient as you float down from Burrell’s Ford. After
about a mile the river starts to take a long sweeping left turn and
you enter a nice stretch of Class 3 “steps” that are easily boat
scouted and straightforward.

The
scenery was outstanding at every turn, with beautiful views up and
down the river. However, all of us were surprised at the dire state
of the hemlocks here on the upper river. The hemlock woolly adelgid
has wreaked havoc on them, far worse than down lower in the
watershed. It is sad.

We
reached Big Bend Falls about 10:15 a.m. And easily eddied out to the
right, just above it. The rain that had been sporadic much of the
morning was now falling steadily. Big Bend Falls is a beautiful spot
on the river and can be reached by foot. This was the only time
during the day that I saw any other people. Joe Robles with the USFS
was there to observe us at the falls and Becky Johnson from the Smoky
Mountain News was there taking photos. Otherwise we had the entire
river corridor to ourselves.

The
falls are clearly runnable, albeit Class 5. We spent about 30 minutes
scouting and picture taking. However, on this day there was a
vertical log pinned in the preferred landing zone on the river right
side. Some contemplated a left side line and we all portaged. This
was easily accomplished down the bedrock on the river right side. I
believe most will choose to portage this drop when running this
section.

Downstream
of Big Bend Falls, things start to pick up with a number of Class 3-4
read and run rapids as the river winds it way around Round Top
Mountain. We reached the next major rapid, called “Rock in the
Crack in the Hole in the Wall,” at about 11:20 a.m. This was
another of the many rapids in the watershed originally named by early
Chattooga pioneer Alan Singley. We scouted this Class 4+ drop for
about 10 minutes and then we all successfully ran it, some more
successfully than others.

After
leaving “Rock in the Crack in the Hole in the Wall,” it was on to
the Rock Gorge. But before entering the Rock Gorge, we had to “do
the laundry” at Maytag, a stout class 4+ or 5 drop that guards the
gates to the Rock Gorge about ten minutes downriver.

Most
paddlers will have already guessed why this rapid is so named. It is
because of the spin cycle in the large hole at the bottom of the
drop. We all scouted, noting some wood in the drop. I can’t
remember if anyone walked this drop or not, and most of us ran it.
Most of us ran it without any issues, but not all. I got “tagged”
in the hole and took a brief and uneventful swim. All of the scouting
and so forth at Maytag took our group about 30 minutes.

The
Rock Gorge is a magical place of awesome beauty. It’s a great place
to hike when the water is low, and even better when experienced from
a boat with the energy of the freely flowing river pulsating around
you.

The
rain continued to come down as we entered the Rock Gorge and met our
next major challenge “Harvey

Wallbanger.”
This is another stout Class 4+ drop that we all scouted. I am not
sure, but I think at least one in our group chose to portage. Most
had uneventful runs; I, on the other hand, took another short and
uneventful swim.

Next
was a quick lunch break, very quick, and then on to upper and lower
Big Hairy Bastard. These are two fun read and run Class 4 drops that
everyone aced. We reached the end of the Rock Gorge at about 1:00
p.m. and the gradient began to ease considerably as we passed Lick
Log Creek. From Lick Log the Highway 28 takeout is another 5 miles.

We
now found ourselves floating lazily for the next several miles along
a beautiful mountain river. Everyone was all smiles even as the
thunder and lightning began to rumble and light up the river gorge. I
was in the back of the group talking with Bo Shelby, one of the
consultants. We did not see anyone along the river. Others in the
front of our group saw two backpackers, heads down, hiking in the
rain, oblivious to our presence on the river.

They
also saw David Cannon, one of the angler panelists. David was just
leaving the river as they approached. Next they found Buzz Williams
of the Chattooga Conservancy scowling at them from the Highway 28
Bridge.

We
reached the Highway 28 boater access at about 2:45, just as the rain
eased off. This allowed us to get dressed quickly. We pulled into the
District Ranger Office at exactly 3:00 p.m., right on time for two
more hours of debriefing with the consultants.

Next
month in Part 2: Chattooga Cliffs and Ellicott Rock

Editor’s
Note: Article copyright 2007 by Don Kinser: may be reprinted with
permission and attribution. Photos copyright 2007 by Brian
Jacobson/Trout Lips VideoLLC and Todd Corvey. Text and photos used
with permission.

Additional
photos of this section are on the American
Whitewater
website at www.americanwhitewater.org/content/River/detail/id/1049
.

To
help with the efforts to reopen the Chattooga headwaters to boating,
join American Whitewater at www.americanwhitewater.org/membership or
call 1.866.BOAT4AW.

By Don Kinser, GCA River Protection Chair

From
“The Eddy Line”, February 2007