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Kayaking at the Ocoee River

The Ocoee river has undeniably fueled the growing interest in paddling in our region. The river offers many rapids at an intermediate level, and was the site of the 1996 Olympics.

The Ocoee begins roughly a hundred miles due north of Atlanta, as the Taccoa River creeps silently across the Tennessee state line into Polk County, where it changes its name and magically slips into the skin of a cat.

A cat? The Ocoee becomes a cat?

Indeed, the Ocoee must be part cat. After all, only a cat has nine lives. What else can explain the fact that this river has already died twice, yet it’s still alive and kicking?

helmets_samThe first assault on the Ocoee was chemical in nature. The Ocoee river flows through the Tennessee copper basin, an area intensively mined for its copper ore since way back in the nineteenth century.(US64 from Ducktown to Cleveland is still known locally as the Old Copper Road.)

In the early days, those immense copper smelters were fired with wood fuel. Over the years, their voracious appetites stripped the watershed of its trees, literally sucking up entire forests of virgin timber and belching out megatons of filth and poison in return.

As timber barons were systematically denuding the watershed of its timber, airborne sulfur dioxide, a byproduct of copper smelting, entered the atmosphere and combined with water molecules to form sulfuric acid, which then condensed every evening and early morning in the form of acid dew, which was creating an environment where nothing could grow. For years plant life was alien to the copper basin. It’s red clay soil was as barren as the Sahara. Environmental degradation was so severe that the region showed blightly on satellite photographs.

With no plant life to anchor the soil, every rainstorm produced progressive soil erosion. Eventually, all topsoil washed away. The Ocoee River was laden with chemical poisons. The stream was so polluted that nothing could live in it.

That was its first death.

The Second Assault

But some people weren’t convinced that chemically dead was dead enough. After all, the river was still flowing, wasn’t it? No use taking unnecessary chances. They decided to really hammer it. They dammed the river and diverted every drop of its waters into a flume that ran along the side of the gorge, up on the side of the mountain, high above the desicated stream bed.

There, that should do it! First poison it into submission. Then dam it. Then divert it. And finally, hide its carcass in a flume. Out of site, out of mind.

And that’s pretty much the way it was. For many, many years. Until…

…That Fateful Day in 1976…

…when TVA management, which had lulled itself into a false sense of complacency, discovered that the diversion flume had deteriorated so badly that the river had to be returned to its natural bed while they rebuilt the flume…

What they didn’t anticipate at the time – indeed what they had no way of even comprehending at the time – was that when they let the river down off the mountain to make those flume repairs, it was tantamount to letting the proverbial cat out of the proverbial bag. The return of the natural river, notwithstanding its pitiable water quality, created seventh heaven for white water paddlers.

Rapids & Paddling Guide

The view of the put-in is enough to intimidate anyone paddling the river for the first time. The water spills over the top of a high diversion dam, enters the old stream bed, and blows through a rubble field of debris. It’s solid white for as far downstream as you can see. Hence the name: Snow White.

The hole named Grumpy’s lies within this stretch of white water, and it is best avoided by running river left. If you end up in the hole, plan on staying there for a while and receiving a thorough thrashing. Typically the only way out of Grumpy’s, if you accidentally end up in it, is to swim out. If this happens go for the river right shore. Oh and by the way, this part of the river has plenty of tourist gathered to watch the rafters and kayakers; so don’t worry, if you screw up your blunder will be seen and possibly even photographed. All kidding aside, you do not want to end up in this hole. If you do not feel confident enough in your skills to ferry across powerful currents with very little warm-up you should put in below Grumpy’s. If you have trouble negotiating this rapid, and end up swimming, do yourself a favor and call it a day.

After negotiating Grumpy’s move toward the center of the river. From there you can either catch a large eddy on river left, just below a large boulder in left center, or continue on down through a series of standing waves and holes. This large eddy allows easy access to a large wave in the center of the river. To surf the wave punch through the eddy line high while facing upstream. Move toward the center of the river to catch the steepest part of the wave face. If you wash off the wave, paddle hard for the river left bank to catch the tail end of the eddy where you started. If you miss the eddy move to the river right to miss the rock ledges and holes on river left. The best route below the wave is through a series of standing waves on river left.

The next rapid is called Cat’s Pajamas and contains Staging Eddy. The entrance to this rapid has a friendly standing wave with a large eddy behind a rock jumble on river left. Catch the eddy on river left if you want to practice your surfing skills. The wave has a small hole extending from the rock on river left. To catch the wave you should paddle hard and punch the hole while maintaining a slight angle toward the river right shore as you face upstream. Allow your boat to be carried across the hole, but don’t bury your bow or you’ll be pushed off the wave before you make it to the face. Once you break past the hole paddle hard to get on the wave face. Now you can it kick back and enjoy a smooth ride. If you don’t make it paddle hard for the eddy on river left and try again. This is possibly one of the friendliest places on the river to practice surfing. If you roll you have about 20 meters before you end up in Whirly Bird. It’s best not to run the next rapid upside down.

“Whirly Bird” is easily negotiated by paddling down the obvious tongue near the center of the river. The hole known as “whirly bird” is river right at the beginning of the tongue. Stay in the inverted v path and you will easily avoid it. If you end up in the hole don’t panic. Try to push yourself river left back out into the main current. Avoid getting surfed below the rock ledge to the right of the hole. The ledge creates a very sticky hole that may not spit you out if you flip in it. Just below “whirly bird” there are large eddies on river right and river left. Catch either eddy if you want to practice stern squirting or flat spins. There is a good play hole on river left just past “whirly bird”. It is easy to recognize because there is usually a line of boaters waiting to get in it coming from the river left eddy. The hole can be side surfed toward the river left, but as you move river right it forms a wave and will push you out. There is a small eddy that extends along a rock perpendicular to that hole. Move up along the eddy and paddle hard to clear the foam pile created by the hole. To practice enders move river right while in the hole and drive your bow forward into the green water. Let the river do the rest. This is also a great place to practice cartwheels. There is a definite sweet spot in this hole for catching enders. If you are too far to the right you will get kicked out and if you are too far left you will hit bottom.

The river creates a strong eddy line just below “whirly bird” that is great for stern squirts as you come out of the river left eddy. About 20 meters below “whirly bird”, in the center of the river, and to the right of “staging eddy”, there is a pulsating hole that can be fun to surf and practice cartwheels as well as flat spins.
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