A River of Riches

Running the River
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Stirring it up on the Nantahala
Stirring it up on the Nantahala

With over 20 named rapids on the Nantahala, there are plenty of play spots for boaters to discover and waves for rafters to crash through. There are also many flatwater opportunities for simply floating and quietly appreciating the natural character of the river.

PATTON'S RUN (Class III, Mile 0-1)—Below the commercial put-in, where the highway meets the river for the first time, the river takes a surprising 90-degree bend to the right. Patton's Run follows the bend, where a fin-shaped rock named Jaws waits on the left of the wide channel. Rafts generally run to the right here, taking advantage of the faster flowing water on river right and providing entertainment for spectators who pull over on the road high up over river left to watch the antics. Kayakers and canoeists begin their day with a little face splashing here. All in all, it's a fun bouncy rapid, an early taste of the rambunctious character of the Nantahala.

And what of the 90-degree bend? As North Carolinabased writer George Ellison wrote for the Asheville Citizen Times in 1992,"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." The prevailing theory, proposed by geologist Arthur Keith, holds 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.

TUMBLE DRY (Class II+, Mile 1-2)—Right on the heels of Patton's Run, Tumble Dry features a chain of riverwide waves. There's no real chance to eddy out here but the reward is a fun, big wave at the end of the train. Leggo Rock sits below the last wave on river right. For this reason boaters want to be far left as they go through the last wave.

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 near Tumble Dry, on the highway on river left, there's a plaque commemorating the botanist William Bartram. Bartram spent the spring of 1776 traveling through the Southern Appalachians in pursuit of new plants; he 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 his 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! As boaters will be able to appreciate from the vantage point of the water, trees dominate the steep ridges that create the Gorge; evergreens like white pine, hemlock, and yellow pine, as well as while tulip, poplar, sycamore, and beech, are the larger trees directly along the river banks. Along the forested banks and surrounding ridges roam varieties of wildlife—black bear, wild turkeys, deer, kingfishers, cardinals, and wrens to name a few.

DELABAR'S ROCK (Class II, Mile 3-4)—Downstream of Ferebee Park, Delabar's features two Volkswagen-sized rocks on river left, one after the other, and a diamond-shaped rock on river right called Delabar's Rock. Rafters, beware Delabar's Rock! Bouncing off the rock could tip folks from the raft. For kayakers there are eddys everywhere for hopping, a great wave to surf, and awesome squirt potential for playboaters.

WHIRLPOOL RAPID (Class II, Mile 4-5)—Whirlpool is marked by a large slanted rock on river left. Directly behind the rock is the infamous whirlpool—a powerful eddy feared by many boaters. Kayakers and canoeists can be seen surfing the wave that furls off the rock, while rafts generally punch through it. Kayakers can also achieve enders here if their playboats are small enough. This area is a huge mass of surging, squirrely water great for kayaker's squirts and play moves. Seasoned raft guides sometimes enjoy 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.

LEDGES RAPID (Class II, Mile 5-6)—The entrance to Ledges is marked by a picnic table by the highway on river right. A long, continuous rapid with many eddies, kayakers can hop from spot to spot, finding side-surfing opportunities on the little curling waves along with other delights. The challenge for rafters here is negotiating the rapid successfully without coming to grief on Turtle Rock on river right. By starting left and moving right towards the undercut rock, then cutting back strong to the left before the rock, rafters can achieve a clean run. For self-guided rafts (without a licensed raft guide) this is the last test of prowess before Nantahala Falls.

The stretch after Ledges is one of the many ideal points on the river to take a moment and look up to the sky beyond the steep ridges characteristic of the area. There are places along the Nantahala where high cliffs continue to shut out the direct sunlight until nearly noon. The name"Nantahala" is a corruption of the Cherokee word Nundayeli, meaning "middle sun" or "midday sun." So steep are the ridges, anthropologist James Mooney writes, that the fabled hunter Tsasta'wi would stand on a bluff overlooking his settlement and throw the liver of a freshly-killed deer down. Supposedly his wife would have it prepared for him by the time he descended the mountain. Nantahala Lake and the surrounding area was home to the Cherokee one thousand years ago; there is evidence that settlers have lived here for ten thousand years.

SURFING RAPID (Class II, Mile 6-7)—Known for its perfect surfing wave and subsequent wave train bang-smack in the middle of the channel, this rapid is ideal for kayakers or canoeists wishing to hone technique and form. With this perfectly smooth wave available, many kayakers try hand-surfing without a paddle here, knowing that the channel is deep enough for rolling. The more advanced practice back-surfing (bow pointing downstream). Driving by on river right, it's not uncommon to glimpse boaters surfing the wave and practicing ferrying or jet-squirts. Rafters enjoy the straight-shot move through this rapid and barely even get wet. On weekends during summer this is an especially popular place.

NANTAHALA FALLS (Class III+, Mile 8-take-out)—Just upstream of outfitters' take-outs, the Falls is the last (and biggest) rapid of the day. Good surfing waves mark the entrance to the rapid. A Class III+ rapid, the Falls features ledge drops and big rocks within a narrow channel. Rafters literally bounce and crash through this rapid, encountering the biggest, splashiest whitewater of the day. Typically, it's an s-move for rafts as they begin from river left above the top hole, use the left corner of the hole, and sweep strongly to move towards river right, following the main tongue through. A detour into the top hole for any craft often results in being held there. Large eddys on river right and left below the Falls provide a catchment area for any unfortunate swimmers, as well as playboaters waiting a turn in the bottom hole.

Kayakers and canoeists may prefer to break the Falls down into a few steps. The pyramidal Billboard rock sits on the sweeping curve directly upstream of the Falls on river left (many rafts accidentally drift into this one on their approach to the Falls). Truck Stop eddy is the next logical stopping place (if desired) on river left directly above the Falls. For novice kayakers and canoeists this is the perfect place to eddy out and prepare for the run through the Falls from the boat. More advanced boaters often utilize the micro-eddy here, a one-boat eddy below the first ledge drop on river left. From here playboaters can peel out into the current and run the second drop or head for the macro-eddy on river right, just above the drop. At the base of the Falls is the area where kayakers and canoeists spend much of their time perfecting play moves or practicing ferrying techniques.

A spectator's area on river right means that the Falls is always a social spot, a place where folks congregate to watch the action from above. Outfitter photographers also set up their equipment here beneath brightly colored umbrellas to capture the most intense action of the day.

A Maverick Character

While the Nantahala is dam-controlled and its flow generally at the whim of a switch, it is by no means benign. It 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 at the height of its flood stage—quite a departure from the typical 3.5 feet. 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 made up of bulldozers, 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 fun river.

Thanks to the Nantahala Outdoor Center for this article.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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