by Amy Walker
On any day in the height of summer on the dam-controlled
Nantahala River in Western North Carolina, you'll see a colorful
parade of rafts, kayaks, canoes and inflatable kayaks ("duckies")
floating downstream. Rafting outfitters began to offer
commercial trips during the early 1970's. Today, even with
U.S. Forest Service permit restrictions, it's estimated that as many
as 160,000 individuals float the river in rafts alone. The
Nantahala as we now know it, from its headwaters at Standing Indian
Mountain on the Georgia state line to its mouth at Fontana Lake, is
a nationally-recognized river of recreation, a river of play and
The Nantahala, a Class II-III river, is considered
ideal for both the first-timer and experienced rafter, as well as
for private boaters of any skill level (novice to advanced).
With a wealth of rapids running the length of river, there's plenty
of fun for rafters, kayakers, and canoeists alike. Families
particularly like this river since USFS regulations stipulate that
participants can weigh as little as 60 pounds, enabling many
children to participate. Outfitters provide the equipment and
safety gear needed for the trip down the river (lifejacket, splash
pants, etc) and many also offer rental rafts or "ducky"
trips, depending on water levels.
From put-in to take-out, the rafting stretch is
eight-and-a-half miles, lasting about two-and-a-half hours on the
water for a commercial trip. Private boaters also use the
Forest Service's commercial put-in and must pay a $1 fee for daily
use or $5 for a season's permit. The put-in is just downstream
of a power plant, where a feeder pipe brings water from Nantahala
Lake, high above the river corridor, down to the generator.
During power production, the discharge from the Nantahala plant, at
586 cubic feet per second, fills the Lower Nantahala Gorge and
enables it to play host to fishermen and whitewater enthusiasts
Downstream of the put-in, there's a historical
plaque commemorating the botanist William Bartram, who traveled the
area in the spring of 1776. The tree-covered ridges of the
Gorge are home to evergreens such as white and pine, and hemlock:
along the river are larger deciduous trees such as tulip, poplar,
sycamore and beech. Among the wildlife are black bear, wild
turkeys, deer, kingfishers, cardinals and wrens, to name a few.
There are places along the Nantahala where high cliffs continue to
shut out the direct sunlight until nearly noon, making the name
"Nantahala" appropriate as a version of the Cherokee
"Nundayeli", meaning "middle sun" or
With over 20 named rapids, the Nantahala has plenty
of exciting fun for boaters, and calmer areas for simply floating
and quietly appreciating the natural beauty of the river. The
fun begins with Class III Patton's Run followed immediately by Class
II+ Tumble Dry. Downstream of Ferebee Park is the well-known
Delabar's Rock, featuring two Volkswagen sized rocks on river left,
one after the other, and Delabar's Rock on river right, a
diamond-shaped rock known for flipping rafts!
Whirlpool Rapid is marked by a large slanted rock on
river left, behind which is the infamous whirlpool -- a powerful
eddy known to many boaters. Kayakers and canoeists can be seen
surfing the wave that furls off the rock or getting enders if their
playboats are small enough. This is a huge mass of surging,
squirrelly water, great for kayaker's squirts and play moves.
Seasoned raft guides sometimes take delight in playing here, using
the eddy's powerful line to catch a corner of the raft and create
some fast spins. If a rafter falls in, they may take a few
turns before the next boat picks them up!
A fitting climax to the run, Nantahala Falls is just
above the usual take-out. Some kayakers and canoeists prefer
to break the Falls down into a few steps, eddy-hopping their way
down using Truck Stop eddy and others. At the base of the
Falls is the area where kayakers and canoeists may spend much of
their time perfecting play moves or practicing ferrying techniques.
A spectator's area on river right ensures that the
Falls is a social spot where folks congregate to watch the action
from above. Outfitter photographers also set up their
equipment here beneath brightly colored umbrellas, capturing the
most intense action of the day. For those who didn't
successfully run Nantahala Falls, it is a short easy walk upstream
to the top of the rapid, for another attempt!
© Amy Walker (used with permission)
Nantahala: A River of Riches
by Amy Walker
On any whitewater adventure down the Nantahala,
there's ample opportunity to float on flatwater and gaze at the
wealth of botanical wonders that line the river corridor.
Downstream of Patton's Run rapid near Tumble Dry, on the highway on
river left, there's a historical plaque commemorating the botanist
William Bartram. Bartram spent the spring of 1776 traveling through
the Southern Appalachians in pursuit of new plants and traced the
Savannah River to the Little Tennessee and then on to the Nantahala,
encountering a forest of fast-growing evergreen species, black
spruce and balsam fir, along with alder and birch.
In addition to Bartram's findings, botanists have
since identified 1500 to 2000 species of plant life. Today we
continue to appreciate azalea and laurel in early summer,
rhododendron in June and treasures such as wild tiger lilies in
August. Add to that floral palette daffodils, trillium and
even kudzu! From the vantage point of the water, trees
dominate the steep ridges that create the Gorge -- evergreens like
white pine, hemlock and yellow pine, while tulip, poplar, sycamore
and beech are the larger trees directly along the river banks.
There are many ideal points while on the river to
look up to the sky beyond the steep ridges that are characteristic
of the area. So steep are the ridges, anthropologist James
Mooney writes, that the noted hunter Tsasta'wi would stand on a
bluff overlooking his settlement and throw the liver of a
freshly-killed deer down onto his roof. Supposedly his wife
would have it prepared for him by the time he descended the
mountain! Nantahala Lake and the surrounding area were home to
the Cherokee one thousand years ago and there is evidence of
settlers ten thousand years ago.
The geology of the Southern Appalachian mountain
system is such that the terrain does not have the natural
storehouses that are typical of the northern system -- lakes and
glacial deposits. Sudden rainfalls bring rapid rises and falls
to the Southern Appalachian stream flows. With the
establishment of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in 1933, a
system of dams and lakes were created to harness flood conditions
and use Appalachian water power to produce electrical power.
On the approach to the put-in by road, the power
plant comes into view, an imposing cage of steel and wire, as well
as the feeder pipe that brings water to the plant from the Nantahala
Lake high above the river corridor. The Nantahala
Hydroelectric Project -- Nantahala Lake (reservoir), pipeline and
tunnels -- completed in 1942, today serves 50,000 customers in five
Western North Carolina counties (Swain, Macon, Jackson, Graham and
Cherokee). As much as the Nantahala's known for recreation,
it's also a river of utility. Literally, a river of power.
Among the many unique natural features of the Gorge
is below Patton's Run rapid, where the river surprisingly takes a 90
degree bend to the right. Writing for the Asheville
Citizen-Times in 1992, Bryson City, NC-based writer George Ellison
wrote "Few of the thousands of whitewater enthusiasts who set
off from this area...realize that it's one of the most significant
geological sites in the southern mountains." It was
proposed by geologist Arthur Keith that the river originally ran
northwards from Georgia, but was hijacked by a resolute limestone
strata and made to run in the easterly direction it follows today.
Put forth by Keith early this century, the theory continues to hold.
While the Nantahala is dam-controlled and it flows
at the whim of a switch, it is by no means benign. Its
character can change swiftly, thanks to the heavy rains that grip
the area from time to time. Take, for example, the year 1990.
During the Nantahala '90 International Raft Rally, the river reached
10 feet in flood stage -- quite a departure from the typical 3.5 ft.
The river was transformed into a raging torrent with well-known
features blown out, race gates washed away, and the assembly area
drowned. A relief operation of dozers, gravel and whitewater
enthusiasts kept the raft races on schedule as competitors from all
over the world met the mighty(!) Nantahala, many for the first time.
Without question, a river of play!
© Amy Walker (used with permission)