I had been in the first group to canoe/ kayak the lower Ocoee in the Fall of
1976, and even got to name two of the rapids, I had never run the
upper Ocoee. Until they built the Olympic course for the 1996 Games,
the only times the upper section was runnable came during the winter,
and I have never been a winter paddler. So, it was great news to
learn the TVA would be releasing in the upper section on Saturdays in
old paddling buddy of twenty plus years, David Asbell, had run the
upper part earlier, and agreed to guide me down on September 13.
Maybe the date being the 13th should have warned me, but generally
this has been my lucky day, as I was born on the 13th.
the put-in we hooked up with some fellow members of the Georgia
Canoeing Association who had done this section. All were people I
had known for years, including Evelyn Hopkins, Jim Silavent, and Mark
Levine in decked boats, and Zack Gowin in open canoe.
first mile or so was easy Class II and III, with some nice waves and
holes to surf, so it was a good warm up. I am not sure how much
water was being released, but the river bed was full, with a strong
current. I guess water volume was over 1000 cfs.
first major rapid was called the Gauntlet. David said you have to
get on river right and run over a steep ledge. He said just go over
the slot. I made a big error in not getting out to scout. All I
could see was a big jumble of very large rocks, but most of the
current went to the right side. Everyone ahead of me caught an eddy
on the right bank, just above a blind drop.
ledge appeared to start at a large boulder in the river, and went
straight across the river for about 20 yards toward the right bank.
Then it turned downstream and continued another 10 or 15 yards to a
large rock at the bank. After staging in the eddy above, all the
paddlers ran over the ledge near the elbow. I could not see the
bottom of the drop from the eddy, and guessed it to be a six foot
blindly peeled out of the eddy, looking for a slot as I approached
the lip. It wasn’t until I was at the top of the ledge that I could
see I was in the wrong place. There were two currents going over the
ledge. The left current went over the ledge before it turned
downstream, and the right current was after the curve.
landed right where both streams came together. It flipped me so fast
there was no chance to throw out a brace. My paddle was on the right
side (my strong side), so I did a quick roll, and was overjoyed to
come right up. However, the current immediately slapped me into a
huge cliff on the right bank, and knocked me back over to my left.
remember hitting the wall so hard with my face that the visor on my
helmet was pushed up, and my lips kissed the rock. I felt my head
and shoulders bouncing off submerged rocks. My paddle was on the
left side (my weak side), but I was getting so beat up it made sense
to try an offside roll. To my great surprise, I came upright, and
was glad for the pool practice earlier in the summer.
before I could get oriented, something knocked me over again. My
friends later told me that I fell into another wave/hole. At least
this time I was on my good side, so I was able to roll up for the
third and final time. I grabbed the first available eddy to assess
the damage. My right shoulder had been scraped up, but everything
paddled over laughing, but said everyone had seen my run, and were
impressed at my tenacity. I screamed at David above the roar of the
water that there was no G/D “slot”, and the only reason I
kept rolling is to avoid swimming that mess. I made a mental note to
scout this rapid next time. For those of you who have ever paddled
Section 4 of the Chattooga, this rapid reminded me of Sock-Em-Dog.
again, the river below resembled a rock jumble, with no clear paths.
David and I were ahead of the rest, and he started down the left
side. However, I noticed another group staying right. I now had
some doubt about my pathfinder, so I decided to check out the right
side. Sure enough, right was right, and even David managed to work
his way over. There were several ledges and rocks to handle, then a
run out through some large waves. It was very technical paddling.
last we came to the start of the Olympic course. The riverbed
narrowed by half where a 1500 yard slalom racing course had been
created for the 1996 Summer Olympics. Tourists were standing on the
bridge at the Visitors Center for a better look at the rafts and
first rapid on the course was a river-wide ledge, as the channel
curves to the left. We ran on the far right where the drop was not
as severe, but there was a good sized hydraulic, which you have to
punch with speed. Once below this ledge, David showed us a neat
elevator move. He positioned himself facing the ledge upstream with
the tongue into the hydraulic on his left, so he was basically in an
eddy. He then paddled hard up and to his left across the eddy line.
By jumping onto the tongue with momentum, his boat floated across the
current above the hydraulic, so he was able to run the same hole
next rapid was called “Slam Dunk”. Before they built the
Olympic course, if you paddled back up into the current pouring over
the ledge, this would give you an automatic ender. Decked boats were
lined up in the eddy for their opportunity to get flipped end to end.
Several paddlers commented the enders were not so reliable today, as
the water level was higher than normal.
next major rapid was “Humongous”, and it looked ugly from
upstream. During the Olympics, I had been seated on the bleachers
just below, and watched Humongous eat the world’s best paddlers.
According to one Park Ranger, every member of the Japanese team ended
up swimming out of this hole at some time during the Olympics.
the Olympic events were being held, they decided special safety
precautions were needed here, so two rescue persons were stationed on
the right bank. One was the usual person with a throw rope. The
other was a swimmer in fins attached to a safety line whose job was
to actually swim into the hole and retrieve any paddlers who could
saw a very few kayakers, but no canoers, who were able to paddle
their boats out of this hole, once they were caught. Any boat
without enough speed, or which fell in sideways, was generally
devoured by the hydraulic. The paddler normally had to leave the
boat and swim out of the hole. The boat would later follow after it
filled with water.
is split in the very middle of the river by a very long rock going
downstream and about 10 feet wide. The TV crews had mounted a camera
on top of this rock, so we had spectacular views of this rapid during
the Olympics. The prudent route was to catch an eddy above on river
left, then run left of the rock through some big, but not keeper,
holes to another eddy on that side.
designers of the Olympic slalom course created the hardest part of
the course here. First, they put an upstream gate above an eddy on
the right side of the river, just above the worst hole in Humongous.
Paddlers had to go through a pretty big hole at top right of the mid
river rock into the eddy just above the lower hole.
they had to paddle upstream through a gate above the eddy, and
immediately cut diagonally across the river through the bottom hole
and below the rock into a gate on the left side of the river. This
series caused more problems than any part of the Olympic course. We
saw several miss the moves, and either end up off course or in the
had no intention of testing the right side of Humongous, and neither
did most of the group. We ran the “chicken” left side, and
pulled out on river left to watch the carnage. Zack in his open
canoe felt he could punch the right holes if he kept good speed. The
top wave/hole did slow him down, so when he reached the second hole
only a few yards down, he was almost dead in the water. Being a big
and strong young buck, he was able to get a few power strokes in as
he hit the bottom wave. It threw him right towards the worst part of
the hole. Zack took one more desperate stroke. His tail dropped
down, and the canoe popped out.
Asbell had waited above to see how Zack made out. Now David thought
he could make this side. We saw him punch through the top hole, but
it slowed him down as he came to the last hole. He seemed to hit the
weakest part of the wave, but he just didn’t have enough speed to get
over. I saw the front of his boat rise up to the sky, and his boat
was back endered into the hole.
who has spent a lot of time in hydraulics in his boating career,
handled himself magnificently. His boat was sideways in the hole
facing the right bank, so he rolled up on his left side. He tried
working his way out at either end. He was flipped, and the boat now
faced river left.
rolled up on his right side, and continued trying to exit at either
end, but to no avail. He flipped once again. At this point, I can’t
remember the exact sequence, but a commercial raft punched by just to
his left. The raft guide grabbed the bow of David’s kayak and pulled
him out of the hole. David said he has no recollection of this
rescue, but just remembers being upright at the right bank.
said he had sharp pain in his right side, and felt like something was
“loose” in his rib cage. A female kayaker was standing on
the bank next to her boat. David told her he thought he was hurt and
needed some help getting out of his boat. He was able to walk, and
crossed the lower bridge at the end of the course to tell us the
had originally planned to portage our boats back up to the top of the
course and run this part again. Since David was riding with me, I
told the others to go ahead and run the course again, and I would
paddle the last mile to my car, and come get David. Ever safety
conscious, my good friends wisely decided to stay with me. There
were still at least two dangerous rapids below, which I had never
seen, and I was grateful for their company.
next big rapid was a series of very large hydraulics in the middle of
the river, which could classify as a class IV at this water level.
The last was a true hazard, which I had been warned about. It was
the long ledge drop at the campground below Ocoee Dam #3. It has
been named Roach Hotel, because you can get in, but you can’t get
ledge starts on river left where the water comes out of Dam #3. It
goes straight across the river about 20 or 30 yards, then turns
downstream. It appears to be partially or wholly manmade, so the
water going over forms a low head dam, referred to as a weir. This
is the most deadly type of hydraulic, because there is no break in
the wave, and the hydraulic extends from the left bank down the ledge
for several hundred feet.
kayak instructor I know somehow got sideways in this hole. He had to
eject from his boat, and said he had just about given up hope before
he was recirculated to the bottom and washed out. It is essential to
keep straight over this ledge, and have good speed. You can bet my
kayak paddle looked like hummingbird wings, and I literally jumped
waiting for us to return, David had helped save three more paddlers
from Humongous. He said the hole was very picky. Some boats just
floated through, while others were munched. Maybe we ought to call
this hole “Lady Humongous”.
packed David in ice and drove him home for some medical attention.
He has a dislocated rib. Nothing broken, just separated from the
cartilage, but his paddling is over for this season. I plan to
return to the Upper Ocoee next Saturday, but you can be sure I will
scout the Gauntlet this time.