Paddling the Gnarly Nolichucky
This is a true mountain stream, the headwaters originating near Mt. Mitchell in North Carolina, at 6684 feet, the highest point in the eastern U.S. The water flowing from the Mt. Mitchell drainage swells into the Cane River and the South Toe River and, after joining with the North Toe River flowing out of Iron Mountain and Roan Mountain, forms the Nolichucky. Imagine over eight hundred square miles of steep mountain peaks and valleys funneling water into one narrow 900-foot deep gorge. Add a heavy spring rain and a riverbed sprinkled with a healthy mix of truck-sized boulders and the result is exactly what you would expect: a churning maelstrom of standing waves, steep drops, and rushing chutes producing a staccato series of rapids that go on for miles.
The stretch of river we're rafting from the town of Poplar, North Carolina to Erwin is the most popular section of river for kayakers and commercial whitewater rafting outfitters. This ten-mile stretch is a challenging series of Class III-IV rapids and it drops an average of 33 feet per mile so there is not going to be any slowing down during this trip. The rapids here are the biggest on the entire 110-mile length of the Nolichucky. Minivan-sized boulders, plummeting drops, and technical chutes characterize this section of the river.
It looks daunting from the gravel bar as we push off. "Gnarly!" our guide shouts again. "The river's running above three feet on the gauge."
This is just about the limit for commercial running and we quickly find that this is not going to be a leisurely laid-back float. The rubber tubes of the raft barely lose their hold on the crunching pebbles and gravel underneath the cold spring water before the current grabs us and jerks our bow around into its clutches. Within a quarter mile of the put in, we stumble into the Class III+ Railroad Rapid and paddle furiously to keep our raft just right of the main drop to avoid the hole below. One thought crosses our minds: This is going to be a great run!
We've hardly recovered from Railroad and our guide is yelling over the roar of the whitewater for us to set up for On The Rocks, a Class III-IV four-foot drop with two major holes below and a huge boulder exactly where the river tries to drop you. Next is Jaws, a Class III ledge that is a prime surfing spot for rafts and kayaks at lower water levels but is dicey today. We paddle into an eddy and watch a small coterie of kayakers playing below the ledge before pressing on.
Jaws spits us out into Snappy, a lively Class III and then a long, steep rapid called Quarter Mile-and it is at least that long. Quarter Mile is basically a continuous rock garden with boulders and ledges peppered along its entire length. This is probably the"gnarliest" part of the river (our guide tells us so) and an upset in Quarter Mile is no fun, what with boulders and rocks waiting to bang and bruise you. At the bottom of Quarter Mile is Murphy's, a four-foot drop that is high in entertainment value. We pull into an eddy below the ledge and wait for the inevitable disaster.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication