On September 17, 2005, the Cheoah River in North Carolina was born again. I was part of the 450+ lucky (crazy) people who paddled the Cheoah River on the first recreational water release.

The river flow had been diverted for 75 years by the Santeetlah Dam. The Forest Service bulletin said, "This nine mile section has numerous Class IV and IV+ rapids and should be attempted only by highly skilled boaters." River gradient averages 83 feet per mile (fpm), but the last two miles drop over 100 fpm.

Compare this to a famous (notorious) river, like Section 4 of Chattooga which has average drop of 60 fpm with maximum of 114 fpm. So the Cheoah has a lot of drop in a small stream bed with big water volume.

Descriptions by those who had run it after severe storms called it an advanced to expert section. If water levels are 700 cubic feet per second (cfs) it is rated as class III-IV; at 1000 cfs rated at class IV+; and at 1600 cfs rated class V. Levels over about 3000 cfs were said to be "probably too high for mere mortals."

The scheduled water release was 1000 cubic feet per second (cfs) which was supposed to give up to class IV+ difficulty. More on the actual water level later. Most web talk opinion was if you could handle the Upper Ocoee, then you should be comfortable on the Cheoah.

This was the first of three recreational releases for fall 2005, with more next year. A mandatory bus shuttle was set up at Robbinsville High School, starting at 8 a.m. John Eskew and I drove up Friday night so we could get a good rest. Four other paddling buddies promised they would be there by 9:30 but we registered early. My number was 130 and the bus held about 60.

Peter, Bryant, Rick and Doug didn't arrive until almost eleven and their numbers were 300+, so John and I decided to go on. I had never paddled with John, but he had run Chattooga often with my old paddling buddy, Peter. On the drive up together I learned he had good respect for rivers, so I trusted him.

So, here I was getting on a river I had never seen, with a guy I had never paddled with and assuming a water level and difficulty told to us by strangers. I also figured we could scout as we went down, which turned out to be a big mistake. Nevertheless, we knew by putting on this river, we were accepting the risks.

The first two miles did remind me of the Upper Ocoee with warm water and good scenery. But I began to worry as the channels constricted, eddies vanished and brush blocked our view. All of a sudden we were into class 4 rapids, with blind drops and no chance to get out to scout. We went on nonstop for miles; grabbing whatever eddies we could find.

Finally, we reached a relatively calm spot where John and I had to rest. A ranger was on the bank holding a throw rope. We weren't sure how helpful a rope would be with such fast current and long rapids. I had a chance to take the first videos. We saw three of John's friends and asked if they knew the names of any rapids. One guy said he just named three, "S__T!, OH, S__T!, and _OH, S__T AGAIN!" A father-son team we met on the bus caught up with us. The father asked if I was having fun. I said, "Can you wait and ask me at the take out?"

About six miles in, we stopped at another Rescue Station and asked the ranger how far to the "Big One." He said, "In about a mile the bottom drops out." He was right. We came around a bend and saw a hundred yards of continuous white water, but many boats pulled over on river right. We agreed best to pull out on the road side with all the other boats and find out why everyone stopped.

We were right above "The Big One" or "Big Gun" or "Ten Foot Falls." New rapids get a lot of names until one sticks. This was a river wide ten foot ledge, but it had a chute on far right. We watched and videoed several boaters run both sides and middle. Some made it upright and others were flipped. I decided to portage, but John elected to run the right chute. I filmed him drop into the bottom hole and flip. He rolled once, but couldn't stay up. He made the second attempt just in time to eddy out on right before the next set of blind ledges.

John seemed a bit dazed as he told me he hit his cheek on a rock when he flipped in the hole. We decided to walk downstream a bit to scout the rapids as the last section was supposed to be the hardest. We passed another river wide wave/hole and constant white water. After a few hundred yards we met two paddlers walking back upstream. They said it got even worse but no more waterfalls. We figured we could boat scout and pick our way down.

John didn't seem as eager to lead all the time now. I wanted to avoid the river wide hole we had seen, so planned to stay far left. But there was a pinned raft blocking most of the channel on left. Another kayaker was below in an eddy yelling something about a lost paddle. I ferried across river as hard as I could stroke, just missing the raft. John followed and it looked like my idea gave us calmer water. But this channel ended in a rock jumble and I had to cut right back into the vortex.

It was getting harder to see where to go and it was coming at us so fast. Blind horizons, huge boulders and trees blocked our way and vision. I had to start just guessing where to go and we were into survival paddling. Paddle up to a blind drop and try to build up enough speed to boof off the edge so you don't get stopped in the hole below. Crash through a wave and shake the water out of my eyes to look for the next drop or hole.

I chose the left side of a blind drop and as I went over I knew I had picked wrong. I bounced off a rock into the hole and flipped. The current was so strong I couldn't pull my body up to the boat to set up for a roll and my head glanced off something hard. This scared me into getting my nose on the deck and rolling. Now I was backwards, still in the midst of the chop. My boat didn't seem to care and I crashed through two holes looking up stream before it calmed down enough to spin around. I could see John wide eyed in a rare eddy above me looking for guidance. I gave the signal I was okay, pointed to river right and he joined me.

Looking downstream all I saw were more horizon lines with bursts of water kicking up. Again the left side seemed to look cleaner. Maybe I'm just left brained, but I was wrong again and almost got brained. After flipping I bounced my head again and missed my roll. I fell over and tried to set up. Hard jolt on my left shoulder and pain. Forget the pain, concentrate on your roll and don't miss this one. Don't want to swim in this mess.

I came up facing another drop a dozen feet away. Dig hard to get some speed and boof the ledge and dodge more holes. Then abruptly all the chaos stops and I am sitting in the calm water of Lake Cheoah. It took several minutes for my heart rate to slow. We had made it.

Back at the high school our four friends had a different story. Bryant's canoe got wrapped around a tree and was still in the river. The Big One ate Peter's boat and paddle and he had to take out. Then there were two. Doug flipped and swam in last mile. I understand Ricky did flip, but he gets the sticky butt award for staying in his boat.

That afternoon the river gave up Peter's boat and paddle, but kept Bryant's canoe overnight. They had to spend the night and retrieve the canoe on Sunday morning, bent but useable.

At the take-out we saw Corey, Robby and some of their friends. They had made three runs, with the last two of only the bottom two miles and thought it was a blast. When I said it looked like much more than 1000 cfs, Corey commented it was better than being much less than 1000. Which just proves that one person's fun level is another's horror level.


by Hank Klausman
From The Eddy Line, November 2005