Hillbilly Whitewater

Paddling the Upper Tellico River
  |  Gorp.com
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The winter skies cloud over. The rains come. Quiet creeks and rivers, filled with runoff, begin to surge and roil down mountain valleys. To certain people, the crashing creeks are a call to action. Loaded with the colorful tools of their trade, they drive in minivans, jeeps, and trucks over two-lane gravel roads, hemmed in by water on one side and mountainside on the other. Upward they course, anticipation growing as it becomes time to challenge the churning whitewater. They are the wild ones you see running menacing rapids in colorful cigar-shape boats: the kayakers.

The combination of mountainous terrain and abundant rainfall make East Tennessee one of the hottest kayaking areas in the country. From the mighty Ocoee River, site of the 1996 Olympics whitewater venue, to the Doe River near the Virginia border, to the nationally designated wild and scenic Obed River in the Cumberland Mountains, the topographic variety in this region offers rivers aplenty for the avid kayaker.

Though the name and basic design were borrowed from Indians of the far north, if it weren't for plastics, modern river kayaks wouldn't exist. Into the small, elongated watercraft—essentially Tupperware—goes the paddler, who is clad in an assortment of oil-based plastic clothing and gear to keep the water out and warmth in. A circular "spray skirt" fits snugly around the paddler's body and actually attaches to the boat itself to keep water out of the low-riding kayak as it slaloms among boulders through splashing whitewater. A vital piece of gear is the safety helmet; a kayaker who's slammed against one of those boulders without protection could be knocked unconscious or worse, then drown.

The Wild Bunch
The group I accompanied on a recent trip is very safety conscious. Led by veteran paddler Tom Kenny, whose father taught him the tricks of whitewater, we headed to the scenic and exhilarating Tellico River, in Monroe County, Tennessee. Lauren Kenny, wife of Tom, and Patrick Mulroy rounded out the crew. Before meeting Tom, Lauren had never kayaked, but now she more than holds her own. Patrick is a fearless daredevil paddler who just can't say no to a challenge.

But for these folks, this wouldn't be just another day at the office. With the temperature in the 30s, it didn't seem like the kind of weather to frolic in the water. But kayakers need sufficient water to ply their trade, so after it rains, they go—regardless of temperature. Winter and early spring is both the rainiest time and the most popular time to kayak in southern Appalachia.

The Tellico River runs through the Cherokee National Forest. The section Tom chose to run, known as "the Ledges," lies between Panther Branch and Turkey Creek, sidestreams of the Tellico. The Ledges encompass the most exciting stretch of rapids, dropping 120 feet per mile of water. At normal levels, the Tellico is too low to float, but Tom had done his homework by calling Tennessee Valley Authority's Lake Information line, a godsend for whitewater fans (800-238-2264). It lists 21 Tennessee River Valley streams and their flow rates; that way some guesswork is eliminated in judging whether or not a river can be floated. A rate of 180 cubic feet per second was the flow that day, a bit low but floatable. The optimum flow rate for the Tellico is 250 cfs.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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