Whitewater Fever

From springs and steams near Cashiers, N.C., grows a mighty river. Rising as a glittering mountain stream near Whitesides Mountain, the Chattooga flows 10 miles in North Carolina before forming a 40-mile border between Georgia and South Carolina. The river drops 2,469 feet over 50 miles (49.3 feet per mile), creating a wild, dangerous run. The river surges, pools and slashes through Chattooga Country, as National Geographic referred to it. It’s known too as “Deliverance Country,” owing to the 1972 film, Deliverance, that made it a legend.

Chattooga Country is up in Oconee County, approximately 150 miles away. Take I-26 to I-385 North to I-85 south and take SC-11 at Exit 1 toward Walhalla. It’s slow going in the mountains so allow yourself at least three hours to arrive at your chosen outfitter’s headquarters. A night-before stay is advisable.

Let’s make a very important point right up front: You do not want to run the Chattooga without the assistance of trained professionals. Note that this column provides three outfitters who can take you down the river. These outfitters provide safety equipment and trained guides familiar with the river’s ways and dangers. The National Forestry Service regulates all three.

This savage-but-stunning river flows through ancient Cherokee lands and to this day it remains untamed. Dams straddle most rivers in the Southeast; not the Chattooga. It runs free. It attracts people from throughout the world. Fishermen, naturalists, novelists, environmentalists, essayists, filmmakers and the curious come to the Chattooga. Rafters and veteran kayakers brave its Sections III and IV. The river has long attracted thrill seekers, many times fatally. The intimidated cling to its banks and stare.

Geological forces over millions of years carved out the Chattooga’s path. When first formed, the Blue Ridge Mountains reached higher than the Rockies. Millennia of water and weather whittled away the jagged peaks and carved deep narrow valleys in the terrain. The Chattooga courses through this tumbled topography to become a river steeped in myth. The true Earth lives along this National and Scenic River, the Earth too wild to tame.

Hurdling downriver between canyon walls, rafters glide, pitch, jostle and buck on an untamable river. Guides who run the Chattooga must be unerring judges of depths, colors and shadows to avoid death traps perfected by geological processes 250 million years old.

Be advised. Rafters on the Chattooga go from smiling to terror in the blink of an eye. Helmets and lifejackets are mandatory on this river that has claimed many a life. As quick as a pencil point breaks, rafters find themselves hurled into the river where swift currents slam them against rocks. Approach this adventure with a serious attitude. Several deaths have occurred here, one as recently as mid-July 2012.

 Learn more about Tom Poland, a Southern writer, and his work at www.tompoland.net. Email day-trip ideas to him at [email protected]