Located in western North Carolina’s Graham County, the Cheoah River – named for the Cherokee word for “otter” is a unique stretch of whitewater not typical of southeastern whitewater.  The Cheoah is unusually continuous with a steep gradient in its 9.25 miles of Class IV+ whitewater.

A Quick History of the Cheoah River

The river was dammed in 1928 by Alcoa Co. to create Lake Santeetlah and generate hydropower, similar to many other western North Carolina Rivers.  The original federal license did not require recreational flows and the Cheoah River – from Santeelah Dam to Lake Calderwood, was a dry river bed for over 70+ years.

Choeah River Class IV+Whitewater

While the streambed was dewatered by the bypass, that does not mean there was never any water in the river.  Paddlers began eyeing the Cheoah in the 1970’s.  A contingent of southeastern pioneers including Jimmy Holcombe, John John Kennedy, Ken Kastorff, Homer King and Arlo Kleinrath became regulars on the river when rain brought the levels up.

Many of the rapids earned their original names during this time. The stories are colorful and entertaining of those early runs – being done in fiberglass boats that were all about 13.2′ in length, with names like the Mark IV, the Phoenix Savage and Slipper, and Ken and Homer’s favorite creek boat:  the Seda Cobra end hole C-2.

One of our personal favorite stores is how the rapid Joe’s Demise earned its name


When the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) dam license came up for renewal, the current power company, Brookfield Renewable, was obligated to work with stakeholders including American Whitewater and other paddling groups, Graham County, the Forest Service, the state Wildlife Commission, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and river outfitters to reach an agreement that balanced out the needs of the power company with the biology of the river and the economy of the local region. The first scheduled release happened in the fall of 2005

Why the Cheoah Release Dates are so Restricted

One of the challenges with the Cheoah River is that the license mandated that the releases had to simulate natural flows in the stream bed.  One of the reasons for this is that during the relicensing process, the infamous elk toad mussel – an endangered specie, was discovered by Federal Fish & Wildlife.  To this day, Federal Fish & Wildlife and the US Forest Service are introducing species into the stream bed to study.  Because of this, there is great resistance to changing the release dates and/or increasing the number of release dates in a year.

2021 Release Dates for the Cheoah River

The scheduled release dates are agreed upon in advance by a planning committee.  The 2021 release dates have been made public. Following are the 2021 release dates for the Cheoah River:

Cheoah River RaftingFebruary 27, 28 (Saturday, Sunday)
March 20, 21, 22 (Saturday, Sunday, Monday)
April 3, 4 (Saturday, Sunday)
April 17, 18 (Saturday, Sunday)
April 24, 25 (Saturday, Sunday)
May 15, 16 (Saturday, Sunday)
May 29, 30 (Saturday, Sunday)
June 19, 20 (Saturday, Sunday)
October 09 (Saturday)
November 13 (Saturday)


For more beta about getting on the Cheoah River, check out our website.