By Heather Mullinix
One of the greatest adventures offered in Tennessee can be found only in the outdoors, where centuries of rushing water and a deal struck with the Tennessee Valley Authority have forged a wild ride that hundreds of thousands of visitors suit up for each year.
The world famous Ocoee River offers two sections of whitewater adventure, boasting rapid after rapid, dip after dip and scream after scream of fun and thrills. It’s divided into two sections. The middle section is the most popular, with five miles of continuous class III and class IV rapids, with intense, powerful rapids the norm, not the exception.
In fact, you’re not in your raft more than a few feet before you enter Grumpy, a class IV challenge. If you weren’t awake before you got in the boat, you certainly will be when the river water, ice cold year round, splashes you in the face.
Outfitters serve the river, offering all the equipment necessary and the expertise of an experienced guide to navigate the rapids for maximum fun and maximum safety. And while you wouldn’t want to travel the river without your personal flotation device and helmet, the guide is quite possibly the most important part of your trip. He or she tells you when to paddle and how to paddle, forward or back, so that you can avoid hazards and enjoy the ride. This isn’t a recreation activity where you get to rest on your laurels. It takes everyone in your raft, usually six people, to go where you need to go and do what you need to do.
On a recent whitewater excursion, Ted explained it was his 14th season as a river guide on the Ocoee. He’s a native of Knoxville and when told where his boat hailed from said, “You have some of the best whitewater in the world right there.”
He’s right. The Cumberland Plateau boasts world class whitewater on the Obed, Clear Creek, Daddy’s Creek and other rivers and streams, but those rivers require water from above. While that’s not been a problem this year, it can make it difficult to plan an excursion. That’s one of the draws of the Ocoee. Not only is the river fast and furious, it’s dependable with TVA scheduling release of water regularly. In fact, the whitewater season stretches from March through October.
The experienced guides are the reason those with little whitewater experience can enjoy the world-class whitewater offered on the river. Those class III and IV rapids are difficult, but with a good guide at the helm, they are navigable.
After Grumpy gets the show rolling, you’ll enter Gonzo Shoals next, with rocks just under the surface causing your boat to bounce along. You’ll navigate Broken Nose, Moon Shoot, Double Suck, Double Trouble, Jump Rock, Squeeze Play, Hollywood Hole and Flipper, where your guide will likely let you surf the rapid for a minute or two.
If you fall out at Flipper, don’t worry. Just turn on your back, point your feet downstream and let the current take you to the Doldrums. It’s about halfway down the Middle Ocoee and is the only chance to rest up, catch your breath and take a look around at the beauty of the river.
Once you’re back in the boat, you’ll continue on to Sneaky Pete and Western Flyer. Don’t get complacent. Even if you’ve managed to stay in the boat to this point, there’s still Surprise ahead, with a ledge appearing almost out of nowhere. You’ll go through Tablesaw, where the river channels into a narrow chute creating turbulence, and Diamond Splitter then on to Dixie Drive and Torpedo before it’s time for Hell’s Hole, the final challenge and most famous rapid.
You’ll know you’re hitting Hell’s Hole when you spot the Powerhouse. In fact, when the rafters aren’t on the river, about 200 days out of the year, TVA diverts that water through a flume and tunnel system to generate electric power. That’s why you’ll find an additional fee on your river trip, with every rafter helping compensate TVA for lost energy production.
A relative newcomer to Ocoee River whitewater recreation is the Upper Ocoee, created for the 1996 summer Olympics held in Atlanta. This is also a five-mile course, with fewer rapids. But what is lacking in number is more than made up for in difficulty and excitement. These powerful rapids include Mickey’s, where riders choose between a five-foot drop on one side into a deep hole or a rocky descent down a four-foot ledge. With a name like Humongous, you know this has to be the largest rapid offered on the Ocoee’s Olympic course, with challenging eddies with large waves and plunging hydraulics.
The river narrows after Humongous and then drops three times the large holes. This is Roach Motel, and you’re going to want to avoid that large center hole.
Of course, there are also great opportunities on the Ocoee for a calmer ride, with a more family-friendly adventure. You have to be at least 12 to take on the Upper or Middle Ocoee, but the lower Ocoee features mostly class I and II rapids.
You’ll take about one and a half to two hours to complete the Middle Ocoee, and about 1 and 1/2 hours for the Upper Ocoee. Outfitters can accommodate a full-day full-river run, but TVA doesn’t release water for the Upper Ocoee as often as the Middle Ocoee, so call ahead and check the water release schedule when scheduling your adventure.
Just up the road you can find Hiwassee State Scenic River, offering primarily class I and II rapids, and a relaxing day on the water. Many outfitters serving the Ocoee River offer tubing trips on the Hiwassee, or inflatable kayaks, rafts and other water craft.
A recent study by the University of Tennessee found the Ocoee was the most visited whitewater river in the United States, drawing 229,542 visitors in 2012 and supplying 622 jobs with a $43.8 million economic impact on this region.
That’s more people than visited the Arkansas River in Colorado that year, or that ventured over the state line to the Nantahala River, with it’s slightly calmer waters. Of those visitors, the majority of rafting adventurers were women, with fully a third between the ages of 18 and 25.
Of course, it’s not just the water that’s drawing visitors to the Ocoee River area. There’s a full slate adrenaline-packed activities, including zip lines and ropes course, or soar through the air like a bird with hang gliding and gliders, towed up into the air by a towplane and captained by a commercial glider pilot. You can enjoy a day of rappelling or take a subterranean adventure in area caves. There’s also lots of hiking and camping opportunities, with Cherokee National Forest and the Great Smokey Mountains national Park just a short distance from the Ocoee River. Many outfitters offer lodging, from campsites to cabins.