Looking Upstream Midway through the Five Falls at Very Low Water
At the top is Entrance, Midway to the right is Corkscrew
There is a mystique about the Chattooga River that is embedded in the subconscious of the American psyche. The most popular whitewater rafting t-shirts being sold today carry the slogan: “Paddle Faster, I Hear Banjo Music.” These shirts sell just as well in Maryland as they do in West Virginia. They sell just as well in Colorado as they do in North Carolina. But they owe their sales to a story written and made into a movie in 1972 called Deliverance, and to a river known as the Chattooga.
The Chattooga River, born in the highlands of southwestern North Carolina, rushes south from its headwaters to form the border between northwest South Carolina and northeast Georgia. Meandering through the Sumter and Oconee National Forests, the Chattooga is a mercurial creature. One of the first rivers to be added to the United States’ Wild and Scenic River System as a Wilderness River, its emerald-hued vistas are worth a drive to this remote southeastern locale and the hike to the river to behold. But the sight you will behold one moment can be dramatically different the next.
The Chattooga is a free-flowing river, and as such, its level and speed and rapids depend on rainfall. Its level is usually measured in tenths of feet. One foot is a normal summertime level. 1.1 is more intense. And so on and so on. Above two feet and the high water experience you’ll receive may be more than you wanted to take on. Below one foot and the river slows down, but the drops become bigger and steeper as they are no longer padded by water filling in the pools between the rapids.
There are two sections of the Chattooga River that are commercially rafted: Section III and Section IV. Section III is mostly a Class III section of whitewater, suitable for beginners and children as young as eight years old with one Class V rapid, at higher water levels, at the end. Section IV is a Class IV section of river, but it’s noteworthy because the last five rapids compose the Five Falls. In the Five Falls, the river drops 75 feet in one quarter mile through massive boulder gardens with hazards such as undercut rocks, potholes and sieves everywhere. This section is composed of five major rapids—Entrance, Corkscrew, Crack in the Rock, Jawbone and Soc ‘Em Dog—hence the name “Five Falls,” and the rapids range in difficulty from Class IV+ to Class VI—which is a mandatory portage. More than a few people have died boating Section IV.
My first rafting trip down Section IV took place in March, 2001. It was just six months after my first trip down the Upper Gauley in West Virginia. It was a cold, late winter day. The river was at 1.3 feet. The rapids would be big and swims would be consequential as the cold would quickly suck the energy of anyone that fell out of the raft and into the water. I had done my homework, and I was warned to be careful. The Five Falls were notorious, but there were other rapids and hazards to watch out for as well: Seven Foot Falls, Woodall Shoals, Raven’s Chute.
Well, those rafting with me had never rafted before. They had a hard time paddling together. We couldn’t get in sync. But for the skill of our raft guide, Jamie, I shudder at the thought of flipping in Corkscrew or Jawbone. Still, we had made it and I left the river triumphant.
The following March, I was back to raft Section IV again. This time the level was 1.5 feet. But before we got to the Five Falls, we had difficulty. We flipped at Seven Foot Falls. By this time, I had enough experience on the Upper Gauley and the Upper Yough in Maryland and other rivers to be able to judge a raft guide’s skill. The kid taking us down Section IV, although he might have had the skills necessary to take guests, he wasn’t on his game this day. The other rafters in my boat were on their first rafting trip, the guide could not get them to listen or to work together, and right up to the flip at Seven Foot Falls, I felt like we were out of control and I was dreading the Five Falls.
Well the rest of the run was no better. We kept hitting rocks we shouldn’t have and the Five Falls were sketchy, but at least we made our way through them without flipping over or losing anyone from the boat. But I had had enough of Section IV and in March of 2002, I had had no desire whatsoever to go back to that dangerous piece of whitewater or to put my life in the hands of the somewhat arrogant guides with God complexes who work that river.
Since March of ’02, however, I’ve racked up quite a few miles of whitewater rafting. I have over 100 runs each of the Class IV-V New River and Class V Gauley River in West Virginia at all kinds of water levels—including many high water edge-of-the-seat runs. I’ve run the Class V Upper Youghiogheny in Maryland a dozen times. I’ve rafted Class V Cherry Creek in California—the most difficult nine miles of commercial whitewater in the entire United States—and I’ve become a river guide in my own right working for the Nantahala Outdoor Center.
In 2007 I was invited to go raft Section IV with some of my coworkers, however, we were in a drought for most of 2007 and the river never really came up. It was always at super low water and I didn’t feel like dragging a raft over rocks most of the way down the river. In 2007 I also got to meet quite a few legends in the whitewater world.
Back in 1971 when they were filming Deliverance, the film crew quickly found themselves in trouble when their boats and cameras kept succumbing to the power of the river. The Director decided he needed help, so he called upon some locals who were canoeing the river and asked if they wouldn’t mind being stunt doubles and technical advisers on the film. Turns out one of those men was Payson Kennedy, who founded the Nantahala Outdoor Center in 1972, and he is actually in the film as a stunt double for John Voight.
Well, last June, we had a staff trip to Section IV, and because I had become pretty well-known as a ducky master on the Nantahala River along with the Nolichucky and the French Broad, I was invited to join Payson Kennedy, his daughter Cathy Kennedy, his granddaughter Jennifer Holcombe on a Ducky Trip of Section IV along with one of our Board Members, Karen V’Soske, our IT director Kevin Sisson, and our Food and Beverage Director, Ron Mitshke.
Well I couldn’t say “no.” If I had said “no” I never would have been able to live it down from my coworkers. Although I certainly wanted to. But Payson, Cathy and Jennifer are all world-class boaters. They all know Section IV better than the back of their hands. They know where every rock and hole and sieve are. The water was at a pretty reasonably low level as well considering the drought that had carried over to 2008, AND I had become a pretty darn good boater in my own right—and during the course of 2008 I had led and instructed numerous ducky trips down the Nantahala River. I figured, if I was going to ever ducky Section IV, I was going to do it with a technical adviser from the movie Deliverance and his family. Besides, Cathy kept taunting me. She kept telling me “Evelyn did it. And if Evelyn could ducky Section IV, so could you.” You have to know Evelyn. There was no way I could say “no.”
So the day of the trip dawns warm and sunny and we’re leaving NOC and driving down to Section IV. And what happens? In the van I get sweaty. I get nauseous. I’m nervous as hell and I think of backing out. I just can’t figure out how I’m going to finesse it. God has given me an out in the form of my nervous sickness, but somehow, I just can’t quite chicken out. I guess I just looked down at my balls and realized that I couldn’t do that to them.
We pulled over in the parking lot of a grocery store in Clayton, Georgia, just about fifteen minutes from the river. We go inside. I buy a banana and two quarts of Gatorade Rain. I eat the banana and drink the Gatorade. I feel better. I had made my decision.
We continue on to the put-in. There’s a parking lot where Highway 76 crosses the Chattooga River just below Bull Sluice. We unload our gear. We carry it to the river. The water is warm. The sun is hot. It’s a beautiful day. The water is at 0.8 feet. Low enough where you have time to collect yourself between rapids, but still high enough that the run will be exciting with plenty of consequences along the way if you’re not on your game.
We start down the river. I keep looking for the constriction of the river valley that heralds the first major rapid 7 Foot Falls. That just tells you I wasn’t paying attention. Never in my wildest dreams did I think about Class VI Woodall Shoals. At levels above 1.1 feet, this death trap is always portaged. We approach this rapid and Payson Kennedy decides it’s runnable. The hole is still quite intense, so as we paddle over the seven foot drop, we’re advised to stay right of the hole. Great. No problem. I’ve never attempted a Class VI feature on a river before, nor have I ever wanted to, nor have I expected to. Here I was. We were here. No place to go but down.
Grasping my paddle so tightly my knuckles hurt, I followed Cathy down Woodall Shoals. Perfect line. “Yeaaaaaaaah!” The scream of triumph that erupted from my lips was so loud I think the Canada Geese honked in alarm. I didn’t care. By the time I reached the pool below and the others joined me, we were all smiling, high-fiving, and feeling much relieved. In the aftermath of running Woodall Shoals, I kind of forgot about Seven Foot Falls and just started to enjoy the experience.
The Chattooga River is beautiful in June. The South Carolina Shore is on the left as you go downstream. The Georgia Shore is on the right. Both shores were covered in thousands of shades of green. It was lush. The water was cool and clean. The air smelled of wildflowers. And the only sounds to be heard were those of insects chirping, our conversation, and our paddles as they propelled us through the water.
And then, Seven Foot Falls was in front of us. We lined up. I was gripped. This was a seven foot vertical waterfall and I was gripped. Now that I’ve run it, I can’t really understand why. I’ve swam the rapid before…no big deal, really. But staring over the precipice, waiting for my turn to run the drop, I felt sick and the enormous sense of confidence I had gained from running Woodall Shoals was gone just like a snap of the fingers. Well, it was my turn, I paddled forward. My boat dropped. I stayed in and upright. “Yeaaaaaaah!” I screamed. The high fives followed for each of us in turn.
Running Raven's Chute
This is where we caught up to the staff rafting trip that had put on the river before us. We stopped and ate lunch before continuing on down the river. Next up was Raven’s Chute. Piece of Cake, and fun.
Running Class IV Entrance
Well, we continued down the river and we finally arrived at the Five Falls and I was nervous again. At the top of Entrance my boat got a little far right and momentarily got stuck on a rock, but I righted the boat and went over the drop fine. Next up was Corkscrew. Even Cathy says that Corkscrew is the rapid that usually makes her a little uneasy. Okay, if Cathy Kennedy was uneasy, I was terrified.
Corkscrew is a Class V rapid that you enter from the right side of the river. You move over to the left side of the river. The river makes a sharp right hand turn. You make the right hand turn. But as the river is turning to the right, there’s this massive wave that resembles a “corkscrew” that you have to run. According to Cathy, you want to run just to the left of the wave before making the sharp right hand turn and driving hard down the rest of the drop and through the waves. I followed Cathy about fifteen feet behind her. I watched her run the drop. I waited for her to set up safety below Corkscrew because if you end up out of the boat, you have to swim hard to avoid being swept into Class VI Crack in the Rock which was just downstream. Deep breath. Then I went. I paddled hard. I hit the wave. It jostled me and I fell on my back. I heard Cathy shout: “Nice, Matt!” but I didn’t have time to think about it because I kept paddling and made the right turn, even though I was lying on my back. I thought I was going to end up flipping, but I ran the rapid clean. You should have seen the wide smile on my face.
Cathy later said I was the only one of the group that had the “A-line” through Corkscrew. Yes, I was on my back, but I had the cleanest run of that rapid. Such praise from a legend in whitewater as Cathy Kennedy. I could have died happy right then.
We portaged Crack in the Rock and I was confident going into Class V Jawbone. Jawbone was fun. Steep, fast, and a rush. And then Soc ‘Em Dog. I ran it clean. And in my celebrations at the bottom of the infamous Five Falls, I floated into a rock and flipped over into the warm water of the pool at the bottom. I had been Delivered by the Chattooga River and reminded in a friendly way that I had still owed the river my attention at all times—right up to the very end of the run.
Running the Bottom of Class V Soc 'Em Dog
There wasn’t much left to paddle after the Five Falls. Just Class III Shoulder Bone and then the two miles of lake paddle to the take out. It got hot. I was glad I had the second quart of Gatorade. But the paddle was one of those life-changing experiences. I had faced my fears and had matched my adrenaline with my mind and the skills I had acquired in my 13 seasons of whitewater boating. And I exchanged the last of my fear, as irrational as most of it was, with respect.
Whenever I get out on the river, I always respect it. Fear hasn’t been in the equation since my first run of the Upper Gauley—except for on the Chattooga. For some reason, the Chattooga River had worked its way into my psyche and evoked fear. No longer. This river trip changed me the way my swim of Insignificant on the Upper Gauley changed me. It changed me the way my high-water Hurricane Isabel run of the Upper Gauley changed me. It changed me the way Cherry Creek changed me.
The river runs through me, and I through it. I feel exhilarated. I feel humbled. I feel privileged. And at peace.
Thanks for reading.
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