So you read my previous article and got all your whitewater gear together and found some paddle buddies. So what rivers should you start on? Where should you go next? I’m going to give my advice for Atlanta area boaters. This advice will go to the upper end of intermediate/lower end of advanced. By that time, you should be able assess for yourself pretty clearly what you should or shouldn’t try. Also, this is by no means a comprehensive list of rivers to paddle, just some suggestions to get you started.
So what should your first river be? That’s somewhere between a slow moving river with little or no rapids at one end to the Nantahala at the other. This is a very individual sport and people can advance at very different paces, so it’s really hard to say. If you are feeling very conservative, take some time at the lake and some easier rivers, like the Etowah below lake Allatoona or many sections of the Chattahoochee. If you are conservative, but still want a few mild rapids, then maybe get started with the Metro Hooch. The Metro Hooch starts at Powers Island and ends at Paces Mill. So, the suitability of this run for beginners is also somewhat dependent on water level, and that’s true for ALL the rivers we are going to talk about. Also, rivers like the Etowah Falls section of the Etowah are very easy and mild whitewater sections for people just getting orientated.
Many people will prefer to start with rivers that are a little more challenging than that. To me whitewater really begins at class 2. Some basic, straightforward class 2 rivers to consider are: The Cartecay (Lower Cartecay Road to Blackberry Falls/Stegall Mills), The Upper Hooch (GA 115 to Duncan Bridge Rd) These two rivers are the bread and butter of class 2 boating in North Georgia. The Chattooga (Thrifts Ferry to Bull Sluice) also offers a great class 2 paddle, just make sure you have an experienced guide because you don’t want to run Bull Sluice (Class IV) accidentally. The Toccoa in Blue Ridge has a great class 2 section upstream of lake Blue Ridge, and an easier section downstream of the lake as well. The Broad River, near Athens, (US 281 to US 172) is another class 2 river to consider. All of these rivers are free flowing and will run more often in the Winter and early Spring, so cold weather gear should be considered. My experience is that the Cartecay, Chattooga, and Metro Hooch will still run a fair bit in the Summer and Fall, though at lower levels.
Outside of Georgia, let’s look at the recreationally released rivers that run in the Summer: The Hiwassee in Tennessee and the Tuckasegee in North Carolina. Both of these rivers are mostly straightforward class 2. (Do note that on the Tuckasegee, a new rapid was created at the top of the run above the bridge. Many consider this rapid class 3 and if you are a very green boater, you might want to walk it or put in at the old put in below it.) Sometimes in the Summer, there won’t be enough water in North Georgia and these two rivers will become your class 2 bread and butter.
Well what about the Nantahala? It’s also a mostly class 2+ river in North Carolina, very near the Tuck. The Nantahala is a bit of a step up from these other rivers and it ends in a benchmark class III rapid. The “Nanty” is very cold and very fast, compared to these other rivers. Please don’t underestimate how much these two factors will increase the challenge! Some people start out at the Nanty (some of them do fine, but many of them have an unpleasant experience). I recommend getting some experience on the other rivers that I have mentioned first! How much experience? Can you catch eddies, peel out, and make confident ferries on the previously mentioned rivers? Are you trying some basic surfing/play maneuvers? (And yes, you can play in a big boat!) * If you are simply paddling straight down the river, then you are merely surviving it. You need to be working it, learning from it and really breaking down the rapids. When you are working most every feature, and can confidently catch most any eddy you want, make any ferry you want, etc, and then you are getting a little bored with the river, THEN…………THEN you can think about what’s next and stepping up to that next river. There’s a rapid that’s 50 yards long. Others paddle straight down it in just a few seconds. You, on the other hand, spent 10 minutes catching a dozen eddies through out the rapid. So okay, now go look for a harder river. Do you get it?
Don’t forget about Alabama. Alabama has some sweet Winter/Spring Whitewater. The Locust Fork of the Warrior puts all the class 2 in North Georgia to shame. The Mulberry Fork is also a great learning and playboating river. And when you get more experience, you can check out class 3/4 Chairlift section of the Little River Canyon, Town Creek (class 3/3+), and more!
So you got comfortable on some basic class 2 rivers, and worked them really hard. Now you are working the Nantahala and getting comfortable there. You are willing to try surfing at Whirlpool and Surfer’s Rapid. You are willing to catch a few basic eddies at Nanty Falls. You can run that class 3 rapid with a good bit of confidence, usually upright the vast majority of the time. You are working on your roll, but maybe still have some things to perfect (don’t we all?). So let’s look at class 3 rivers. My favorite introduction to class 3 (and also one of the easier class 3 sections, IMO) is Chattooga 3.5 (or more accurately Section 3.75 to 4.25 since it’s the last bit of section 3 to the first part of section 4). Chattooga 3.5 goes from Thrift’s Ferry to Woodall Shoals. This section has 2 major hazards, Bull Sluice, a class 4 rapid, and very strong hydraulic at the top of Woodall Shoals. The Bull can be portaged, and Woodall can be sneaked or portaged. But it’s critical that you have a guide who can point out these hazards to you or you could get into serious trouble. The first part is fun class 2 with some easy surfing opportunities. Below the Bull offers some rapids with good introductions to slightly technial whitewater with 4 class III rapids. Chattooga Sec. 3 is also a good step up, but it’s more remote and longer. It also runs less frequently. That’s one great thing about 3.5, it runs for a good length of the year. Also, if you are struggling on the class 2 above Bull Sluice, then you can get out at the Bull and get a ride to your car. The Middle Tellico also offers a good introduction to technical whitewater, but runs for a limited portion of the year. The Alcovy and Sweetwater Creek can also offer technical class 3 opportunities at lower levels. It’s very important to have a good guide who knows what the correct levels are for newer class 3 boaters on these rivers. The Pigeon is a rec release Summer season river in Tennessee and it also offers a good class 3 experience for boaters who may not be quite ready for the Ocoee, but are starting to consider it. It’s a bit of a drive, though!
So what about the Ocoee? So, you’ve worked all those rivers, you feel solid on 3.5, and similar, you can work the eddies at Nanty Falls, and paddling the Nanty feels utterly routine. You are starting to hit some combat rolls and develop some confidence in that area. On the rivers I’ve talked about previously, you might be able to get away with little to no roll. But once you get to the Ocoee you need to be hitting your combat rolls. Everybody messes up and swims sometimes, but if you aren’t making the majority of your combat rolls, you should probably keep boning up on that skill before you try the Ocoee or similar rivers. The Ocoee is somewhat forgiving for the size of the rapids, but swims can be long and unpleasant. (Just to be clear, when I say the river is somewhat forgiving, it’s still a river. It still has many hazards, and opportunities for danger and injury.) You really want a roll, as well as confident class 3 paddling skills. When you’ve made it to the Ocoee, here are some other rivers to consider: The Tellico Ledges, above the middle section previously mentioned, has some great steep and technical ledges at the right level, including Baby Falls a 15 foot waterfall, and class IV Jerrod’s Knee. Again this is not a river you want to unnecessarily swim a bunch on! When the Ocoee is starting to feel good and you are confident, you can add the Upper Ocoee to your list. A common question for people considering harder rivers like the Cheoah is “How are you doing on the Upper Ocoee?” The Upper Nanty is also a bit of continuous, technical, solid class 3 whitewater that you can enjoy about the same time you are ready for the Ocoee. When you are feeling good about all these rivers, and working them hard, then you can consider class IV whitewater and just how much risk you are willing to undertake while having fun.
Here are some resources:
American Whitewater’s website offers good descriptions of rivers on a state by state basis. This is a good place to start, but sometimes the information can be incomplete or out of date.
“A Canoeing and Kayaking Guide to Georgia” By Suzanne Welander, Bob Sehlinger, and Don Otey is a great and comprehensive resource for the Georgia paddler. You should own this book, if you don’t!
Alabama has it’s own website that provides more info for that state than AW does:
The Ocoee Guidebook by Jeff West is the comprehensive book for the Ocoee River!