Paddling the Gnarly Nolichucky
It doesn't take long before a raft comes through sideways, catapulting paddlers over the ledge and into the pool below. Of course, in the gallant code of the whitewater world, we guffaw and point mercilessly. Too much fun to miss, so we pull over for a lunch break and watch the carnage for the next 45 minutes.
The next three miles don't get a whole lot easier. A series of Class III-IV rapids; Roostertail, Rollercoaster, Surprise, Rock Garden, and Maggie's Rock offer a quality selection of standing waves, technical maneuvers, crunching holes, and chaotic drops. Below Maggie's, the character of the river changes a little. These first few miles of river have dropped an average of almost 67 feet per mile, but now the river starts to level out. The near-vertical walls of the Nolichucky Gorge, steep and constricted before, flatten out and broaden, angling into more gradual slopes. The gorge widens out here and so does the river.
The last three major rapids are Hole-in-the-Wall, Big Eddy, Shoo-Fly Shoals, and the Slide. These are big pillowy Class II-III rollers that give us a chance to lean back and enjoy the scenery of Pisgah National Forest and Cherokee National Forest. The stark gray bluffs disappear and lower tree-shrouded hills angle up and away from the river. The early-April buds are just beginning to appear on the redbud, dogwood, and poplar trees vying for space on the hillsides and vestigial leaves paint the slopes with just a hint of green. Thick patches of rhododendron and mountain laurel begin to appear, their waxy green leaves splashing the scenery with deep emerald swatches. The final four miles of the commercial section smooth out into gentle pools and eddies where ducks, geese, herons, and deer play.
Below the commercial section, the river flattens out even more and becomes a much tamer run. Rafts and kayaks are replaced by open canoes and, on hot summer days, by inner tubes. The Nolichucky mellows out and the big drops and rollers are replaced by lively riffles and Class I and II rapids. The claustrophobic towering walls of the gorge are replaced by long vistas of the Appalachians fronted by open meadows of wildflowers. This section is especially attractive in the late spring and fall, when you can enjoy the blooming wildflowers or the autumn foliage.
The Nolichucky is sometimes a questionable run in the summer, and the past two summers have been particularly dry. Be sure to check with one of the local outfitters for water levels before making the trek to the mountains. A level of less than 2.4 is marginal for paddlers and only experienced paddlers should attempt anything near 3 feet. As with any free-flowing river, caution should be exercised any time water is high. At medium levels, the surfing spots and playholes are full of kayakers who descend magically on the Nolichucky as if on some telepathic cue. The spring rains make March through April the best times to experience exciting water levels. If you catch it right say, after a generous April storm as we did you'll enjoy an almost continuous series of Class III and Class IV foam and experience eastern whitewater rafting at its finest. Or as our extremely eloquent guide exclaims as we beach our raft at the take out,"Gnarly!"
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication