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Almost Gone, But Not Forgotten: Why We Should Bring Playboating Back to the Ocoee

On any given release day, expert kayakers from across the region can be found practicing tight and technical lines through the bigger rapids on the Ocoee River. Competitive paddlers training for races are doing attainments, paddling upstream against the current to work on efficiency and endurance. Intermediate boaters are stepping up to more challenging lines on rapids they may have snuck around last time. And beginner paddlers are working on boat control in mellow currents, perfecting their rolls in the lake by the takeout.

Throughout the history of whitewater kayaking in the Southeast, the Ocoee River has been an iconic mecca and a heralded hotbed for river rats of all disciplines and skill levels. And it wouldn’t be at all unfair to say that it’s one of the best overall rivers in the world when it comes to easy access and an endless variety of whitewater features.

However, although the Ocoee is, and has been, such a valuable resource for kayakers of all types, there’s been one key discipline of kayaking that has seen a decline over recent years: playboating.

What used to be long lines of paddlers waiting their turn to surf at play spots along the Ocoee have gradually faded into boaters passing downstream and overlooking many of the river’s dynamic and opportunistic features.

As kayaking has evolved, competitions took playboating into a nearly separate division of the sport, known as freestyle. Specific features began to be built for freestyle competitions. Playboat designs were catered specifically to performing tricks and were not as efficient for running rivers. As a result of these changes, playboating became more associated with advanced technical training for competition than it did with working the river for the development of overall skill. This separation of playboating left more versatile kayakers using boats meant primarily for going downstream, rather than utilizing the Ocoee’s play spots along the way.

Photo by Angela Greenwell.
Photo by Angela Greenwell.

Joe Gudger, head kayaking instructor of Ace Kayaking School teaches lessons on the Ocoee nearly every day that the river is running, and he’s noticed the decline in playboating popularity firsthand:

“I think that with the shift of freestyle kayaks to more hole-and-wave designs verses old-school designs, the Ocoee doesn’t seem to be the freestyle mecca that it once was.”

This lack of experience in playing and interacting with whitewater features leaves a large population of kayakers on the river with holes in their fundamental skills.

As any serious paddler knows, playboating is easily one of the most beneficial aspects of paddling for strengthening a kayaker’s confidence and understanding of whitewater. Surfing waves and holes teaches efficiency in knowing how to work with a current rather than against it. Flipping over and getting caught out of control is almost unavoidable when surfing, and there’s an undeniable level of confidence that is gained in body awareness and quick recovery when this happens.

Clay Wright, six-time member of the U.S. freestyle kayaking team, and longtime Ocoee paddler reflects on the benefits he’s garnered over the years from playboating on the Ocoee:

“I was playing in Hell Hole daily, and really that was what made all the difference. While making hard ferries is a great skill, the ability to land on your head, roll fast, and sprint for the eddy is what really gets someone ready for big water with consequences. It adds a huge margin of safety to any paddler’s arsenal.”

Playboating forces paddlers to interact with whitewater features, while having fun at the same time. The skills gained are often hidden under insuppressible smiles and giggles, and go unnoticed until they emerge at some later time as a natural and ingrained knee-jerk reaction when something goes wrong.

Pat Keller, a creek boating legend who holds many extreme racing titles, describes this phenomenon:

“As you tumble, twist, and launch, you gain the skills needed to stay calm in an awful hole where you don’t want to be, and the time spent learning holes and how to ride them helps you get out in a pinch. I can’t think of any one aspect of kayaking [other than playboating] that one can practice and get so good at all aspects at the same time.”

Given that playboating is such a crucial base for developing a solid kayaking skill set, it is safe to assume that a decline in this discipline would hamper the progression of individual paddlers and the sport of kayaking as a whole.

While playboaters have become more scarce on the Ocoee, it is not because the river is lacking in potential. In fact, for those looking to gain confidence, the ability to recover quickly, and an overall deeper understanding of whitewater, the Ocoee is truly overflowing with opportunities.
It once was, and it still can be, a prime resource to be taken advantage of for playboating and for the development of crucial skillsets for paddlers of all backgrounds and experience.

The river just needs a little help from its friends (and maybe a little proactive forward-thinking).

Our Ocoee store carries the full line of Jaskon Kayak's Fun and Rockstar series
Our Ocoee store carries the full line of Jackson Kayak’s Fun and Rockstar series

Kat Levitt, member of Team Jackson Kayak, is a leader in advocating not only for the maintenance, but also for the progression of playboating on the river. She believes that there’s a great opportunity at hand.

“While the Ocoee has frequently and reliably floated a record number of rafters and enthusiasts over the past three decades, whitewater venues around the nation and globe have been changing and multiplying,” says Levitt. “Our valuable little corner of Tennessee is no longer unique or the only show in town. It needs to be put back on the radar of world class athletes in various paddle sports disciplines.”

It’s clear that, as other areas in the region have moved forward in playboating, constructing features that are suitable for the training and competition of freestyle kayakers, many paddlers have gravitated towards these areas and away from the Ocoee.

Many communities throughout the United States, and around the world, have begun to build recreational whitewater features, and have seen exceptional economic benefits in doing so. However, many of these venues are limited in use due to low water levels and harsh winters.

The Ocoee, on the other hand, has high potential for developing similar opportunities, with fewer limitations.

“One great idea that originated from Ocoee River Ace Kayaking School founder, Jeff West, is to create a modern surf feature venue in the tailwaters area below the traditional section of whitewater. Here, releases are predictable year round by means of peaking hydroelectric generators.”

Having all of the recreational and economic benefits of a playboating feature combined with the generation of hydroelectric power is a win-win situation, believes Levitt. Combined with a mild climate and reliable water supply, the Ocoee only has room to grow.

“Our best bet to put the Ocoee back on the map here is to leverage the valuable water resources we’re blessed with in ways that maximize the value of every drop,” says Kat. “Our community has loved and enjoyed the Ocoee for a long time, and we want to see the river continue to whet the appetites of whitewater enthusiasts for years to come.”

Angela-Greenwell---Unbored-Life---Ocoee-River-84-smcrop
Photo by Angela Greenwell.

March 18-19th, 2016 marks this season’s first weekend of recreational releases on the Ocoee. If you want to work on your playboating, make sure to hit these top four playboating spots on the Ocoee as you make your way down the river:

1. Staging Eddy
Staging Eddy is located just downstream from the Ocoee number 2 dam and has two small
waves that are great for learning basic playboating fundamentals. Surfing in control, 360’s, and carving are great skills to start working on here. It is a very friendly and easy spot to try some rolls, get warmed up, and build confidence for the rest of your run down the river.

2. Slice and Dice
Slice and Dice is located about a fourth of the way down the river, just below Broken Nose
rapid. The wave can be found right in the middle of the main current, and it is also a friendly spot to learn basic playboating skills. However, it is also a slightly more dynamic feature than Staging Eddy, and has potential for those working on more advanced tricks to improve their technique as well.

3. Flipper
Flipper is a fast, powerful ledge hole and wave that is located halfway down the river, just upstream of the Goforth Creek Bridge. For more advanced boaters with confident rolls this is an exciting feature to play in. Mystery moves, loops, enders, spins, and blunts are just some of the tricks possible in this feature. However, after washing out of the hole, the current moves swiftly into shallow rocks, so make sure you roll up quick!

4. Hell Hole
Hell Hole is the Ocoee’s most famous playboating feature. Located directly below the bridge
crossing from Highway 64 to the Middle Ocoee Powerhouse, it is one of the last rapids on the river. Action-packed, fast, bouncy, and sometimes a little bit out of control is the best way to describe Hell Hole. Most playboating tricks are possible here, so whether you’re trying to go big or you’re just looking for a wild ride, Hell Hole is one of the best spots for playboating on the river. There are big eddies, but make sure to roll up quick to avoid washing into Powerhouse rapid which is just downstream!

Feature photo by Angela Greenwell.

Come visit our Ocoee store!
Come visit our Ocoee store!

We’re open at the Ocoee starting this weekend, Saturday and Sunday, March 19-20th, 9am-6pm.

Call us for more information: 423-338-1075
Stop by this weekend! Our address is 1690 US-64, Benton, TN 37307

  • Blake McPherson

    Having started paddling the Ocoee back in ’94, I too have seen the decline in playboating. We used to wait a LONG time at Hell Hole to play. Great article. Thanks for sharing. RIP Jeff West. Joe and Kat, I manage Cherokee Rafting. Stop by or feel free to share your ideas. As you may know, the Ocoee is facing some dire challenges ahead, including future water releases. I’d love to hear your ideas and how we can work together to secure future paddling and recreational boating both private and commercial on our river. Cheers!

    • Thanks for the comments, Blake! We’ll make sure to pass along the message to Joe and Kat.