Recently I spent a day attending a FERC re-licensing meeting for the Cheoah River. This was the fourth meeting that I had attended, trying to follow what was being done to provide recreational releases on the river. As I was sitting though one of the talks that was being given on economic impacts for the area, I found myself drifting off a bit, thinking about the many times I had the opportunity to paddle this amazing piece of white water!
For those of you that have never heard of the Cheoah River, it flows out of Santeetlah Lake in Graham County, North Carolina. It’s only about a forty-minute drive from our Nantahala store. After spilling out of Santeetlah Lake, the Cheoah River flows along Highway 129 for about eight miles before becoming part of the Little Tennessee River system, where it eventually enters Calderwood Reservoir. The river flows through a beautiful forested canyon in the Nantahala National Forest with little or no development along its banks. In fact, about the only development there is a country store near the put in and Tapoca Lodge about a half -mile before the Cheoah power plant at the end of the run.
The Cheaoh has been a dry riverbed since 1916 when construction was begun on the dam. I can remember driving past the dry riverbed several times back in the 70’s. I always wondered what all the brush and trees growing in the river were hiding. No one that I knew had ever talked about running Cheoah. While driving over to Knoxville one day, I was surprised to see that all the trees had been cut out of the riverbed. It appeared that the powers-to-be (aka: Alcoa) were planning to spill water from the lake and run water down the riverbed. I asked around and found that my suspicions were correct. Alcoa was indeed going to be doing some repairs to the powerhouse and consequently needed to dump water from the lake. Hearing that, I made a beeline back to the Gorge to let folks know that we were going to finally get to see what the Cheoah was all about.
Near the put-in is a country store. I had given the owner my phone number and asked him to please give me a call if he ever saw water running in the river. Two days later I got the call! That call initiated a mad dash to see who could get off of work to go paddle. Three of us succeeded — Homer King of SilverCreek Paddles, Joe Huggins of Slow Joe’s Diner and myself. We loaded our boats and were at the put-in an hour after the call.
Standing at the put-in, we were amazed at the amount of water flowing down the river. And although it was a beautiful day, the water was steaming. When we went down to check it out, we found it was COLD! We decided to do a quick car scout of the river from top to bottom and back to make sure there weren’t any unexpected problems that we needed to know about. We did not scout far before we realized that not only was this going to be one of the most beautiful runs we had ever done, but a busy, busy run to say the least!
Now for the good stuff! It was good that we looked at all that scenery before getting on the river, because with the water level flowing that day, we were going to be to busy watching where to go once having shoved off of shore. We noted that the riverbed was just a little bit bigger than the Nantahala, but that was where the similarity ended. We guestimated the gradient to be somewhere between 60-100 feet per mile with steep boulder-choked rapids and a few interesting ledges that we knew would get our attention. Oh, and did I mention the holes?
The first thing we encountered on our scout were the ledges — a couple of six foot drops situated under the flume that crossed the river and highway, that usually carried the water to the power plant downstream at the edge of Cheoah reservoir. We slowed the vehicle down enough to see that we should be able to punch the holes at the bottom of the drops without too much trouble. Below the ledges the river moved away from the road for several hundred yards before becoming visible again — which almost always spells trouble. We all agreed that we should make sure to have a closer look at the river where it disappeared from the road. Downstream, the river came back to join the road and looked like it was going to be a high water Ocoee-type run. It was steep and fast down to the bridge across the Cheoah where the Forest Service road goes up to Big Fat Gap (which by the way, takes you to the put-in for Slick Rock Creek, another great run in the area).
From that bridge down to the take out on Calderwood reservoir, it appeared that the river turned into an entirely different run. We could see that the gradient increased and the rapids became much more continuous. There was one big ledge drop that we stopped to look at that had a complicated approach. We all agreed that it would be ugly if someone came out of the boat above that one or got shoved off line and ended up out in the middle going off of the ledge. And down below it did not appear that there was any of stopping below the “Big One” rapid, as we called it. In fact, if anything it just got more complicated with one ledge after another of pour-overs. After two hundred yards of mayhem, the river settled down just before going under the highway bridge at Tapaco Lodge. After going under the highway bridge, the river kept going. We could see that it went into a steep canyon. (We would soon learn that the moment it went under that bridge all you-know-what let loose again for the last several hundred yards down to the lake).
Well, to say the least, we were impressed. This was a section of river that was not to be taken lightly. But with some care we felt that we could make the run. We turned around and drove back to the top. On the way back we came to that one spot where the river and the road parted and this time we noticed some white through the trees. Homer said “Hey, let’s have a look at what’s going on here!” So we pulled over and took a quick look. And as we suspected, the moment the river got out of sight of the road it started doing some nasty stuff. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen that happen!
When the river bent away from the road it turned into a teenager left home alone for the first time, deciding to have a party that gets all out of hand. Here the Cheoah dropped like the downhill-side of a mad roller coaster through a boulder-choked maelstrom of holes and blind drops. The worst of it was all the way down the river left side of the rapid. The right side wasn’t anything to write home about either. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the grand daddy of all holes was in the middle of the river just as you entered the rapid. It looked like whatever side of the hole at the top you entered at, your fate was pretty much sealed as to where you were going down the rest of the rapid.
Right then and there I made up my mind where I was going in this rapid — right and right some more. But when I heard Homer telling us he was going left of the first hole, saying something about “I think I’m going to go for the big stuff!” I had to look again to make sure I wasn’t missing something. Homer going left into the big stuff did not totally surprise me, it was Joe agreeing and saying, “Me too.” Well, I wasn’t changing my mind, I figured that both of my buddies were big boys and capable of making decisions for themselves. But I was going to start out right and if it looked any better after I entered I figured I could always bite off a little more.
So back at the put-in we dressed for the cold water. Forever the fashion-conscious paddler, Homer wore an old wool sweater, with a paddle jacket, holey paddling pants, a life jacket that was marginal at best and a helmet that had been repainted but looked as if it did some time in the “Great War.” Not WW I — I’m talking about one of the Roman conquests! I usually would give him grief about his attire but after checking out Joe’s wardrobe, Homer looked like he was going to a formal. Joe always looked like he got most of his paddling gear from the lost and found box. Today he was exceptionally attired, complete with white long underwear and high top tennis shoes. He had more of the appearance of a drunken cowboy caught somewhere he shouldn’t have been. God knows what he had on under his paddle jacket. Nonetheless, what might have been missing in style was more than made up for in enthusiasm..
We finally put in and found ourselves quickly drifting downstream in a fast-moving pool, enjoying the absolute beauty of the place. But shortly, the pace picked up and we found ourselves a bit too occupied to be watching any more scenery. About the only thing the trees on shore told us now was how fast we were flying downstream.
We stopped above the ledges under the flume and one by one dropped over them without mishap. At the bottom of “The Ledges” Homer took the lead from me and Joe was in the third position. It seemed like it was only a few moments before the river pulled away from the road and I could see that we were heading for a horizon line. I turned and shouted to Joe that this was the rapid we had stopped to look at.
IAs was the plan, Homer eased toward the left side of the river and disappeared over the lip of the drop. As we got closer to the edge of the rapid I could see that at the last minute Homer apparently changed his mind and somehow managed to do a close-to-impossible move and get back more toward the center of the river rather than stay along the left side. I went flying by the right side of the hole at the top and was shocked at how big it was. Then for several seconds the rapid below had my undivided attention.
As soon as I could, I looked over my shoulder to see how Joe was faring. At first I couldn’t understand where he was. But all of a sudden I saw one end of his boat go flying by in the center hole. Then another end and another and so on — I guess in the confusion of Homer going one way and me going another, he had gotten lost and ended up dropping in for the surf of a lifetime!
Today everyone looks for that short boat so that they can do easy multiple ends and hot rodeo moves. I’ve said for a long time it doesn’t matter what length boat you have as long as you find the right hole. And if the number of ends I saw zinging by was any indication, Joe found just the right size hole for his thirteen- foot boat. As soon as I could, I caught an eddy. That is using the term “eddy” loosely, as it was pretty much non-existent. But it was enough to hold my position in the rapid long enough so that I could help Joe. This was one of those “not if he swam, but when he swam” situations. Nobody was coming out of that hole in one piece. Joe finally surfaced about twenty feet below the hole and about ten feet off of the left shore. Looking at his face, I was pretty sure that he had seen God.
I got Joe on the back of my boat and it was “let the games begin.” We were on the left side of the rapid in the quote, unquote, big stuff that Homer had referred to. We had gone about fifty feet like a bat out of you-know-where, when Joe suddenly let go of my boat. I was horrified! I hollered at him not to let go, but it was too late. That’s when I saw that he had let go of my boat to grab a limb sticking off of shore.
When I turned around I had only enough time to think, OH NO! While I was watching Joe I failed to notice that there was another hole at the bottom of the rapid and I was zeroed in on it like a well-placed shot out of a rifle. I don’t know exactly what rodeo moves I invented but luckily it washed me out pretty quick.
Homer was chasing Joe’s boat and finally caught it several hundred yards downstream, where he was waiting for me. I got out of the river and walked up the road to see where Joe was. Our shuttle driver had spotted him and we were all now watching him walk downstream to the spot were Homer had stashed his boat. Our shuttle driver asked me, “Hey wasn’t Joe wearing long johns and high-topped tennis shoes?” I looked and she was right, the long johns and high tops were gone. In fact, Joe had lost everything from the spray skirt down!
We finally got Joe and his boat to the roadside of the river. He opted to see the rest of the run from the shuttle vehicle. I have say that I could hardly blame him. He told me that seeing my boat next to him in that rapid was the best sight he had ever seen.
Homer and I continued downstream and had a great run. The section from the road to Big Fat Gap down to the take-out was some of the best water he and I ever had the chance to run. We returned every day to run the Cheoah until they finally turned the water off.
IOn rare occasions over the years we have had other opportunities to get back on the Cheoah, but it was always a hit and miss situation at best. Once Homer and I caught it with enough water to run the lower section on our way back from running Slick Rock Creek in our C-2. I’m pretty sure that up to this year, he and I may be the only people to ever have run Cheoah in a C-2, but that’s another story.