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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
From The Eddy Line, November 2005