Ocoee Sneak Preview

A Run Down the Olympic Whitewater Course
By Mark Singleton
  |  Gorp.com

Sharing an office with Wayne Dickert, Executive Director of the Nantahala Racing Club, has some advantages. A wide range of wet paddling gear regularly graces the floor and office walls, and with a view of NOC's retail boat storage area, the location's perfect! When the phone rang with the U.S. Forest Service at the other end coordinating the first "test release" of the new Ocoee whitewater venue, Wayne and I grabbed our gear, loaded a quiver of boats and set out to hurl ourselves down the new course as human sticks so that course designers could assess how the water behaves. Course designer John Anderson used a 10 to 1 scale model to understand how the water in the course would respond to the planned riverbed enhancements. Although the model had been studied, no one knew quite what to expect from the course with the first water release.

John, Wayne and I gathered at the race course for the "test paddle." Tension filled the air. I couldn't tell if we were at a funeral, a birth, or both. We walked the course a couple of times before the water arrived. Each test paddler was assigned a scribe to record observations. The input would be used by the designers to tweak the course. The Forest Service gave a quick briefing on what to expect and we waited for the press and the water. Both seemed to fill in at the same time.

We watched as the water filled the course. First you could hear it coming from upstream then you could see it as the riverbed transformed from rock to river features: waves, holes and eddies. The course came alive with the surges, sights and sounds of a rushing river. It was showing its new character: fun wave trains, ledges creating drops into pools, clean eddy lines and big holes! It was starting to look like good fun!

What was our experience on the water, and how does the course paddle? Here's a quick run-down on what to expect.

Ocoee Whitewater Venue
The start is a large pool flowing into a channel that gets things moving and below the channel is a small pool leading into the first big drop.

Smiley Face, named for a smiling face icon painted on one of the larger rocks in the rapid, is a playful section of water with good surfing waves and holes. The rapid starts with a powerful wave train leading into the Smiley Face rock. Above the rock are large waves and a breaking wave/hole—good surfing all the way around! A boof move off the left side of Smiley Face rock makes for some great air time for those in plastic boats. Below the rock on river left is a large hole, one of three great rodeo sites on the course.

A mish-mash of waves and eddies follows leading to the next drop, Slam Dunk. This drop had been a concern for the course designers as at lower flows it did not have the punch needed for powerful enders. Ah, but today was a new day! What type of ender would you like? Pirouettes, back-enders, cartwheels, retendos or just your basic big air ender? All these moves came easily at 1,400-1,600 cfs. What fun it would be for a clinic group at the intermediate level. They'd love this place for their first enders. With a large eddy next to the ender hole and a big pool downstream, it's an ideal spot for intermediates looking for their first inverted aerials.

Conveyer Belt, below the large pool downstream of Slam Dunk, makes up one of the most fun wave trains anywhere. The top three waves are Maui waves. Six paddlers fit on these waves at the same time, carving up the clean wave faces with big grins. Don Piper, NOC's retail boat buyer, could not contain himself after he spent the better part of a day carving up these wave faces. A series of waves and holes leads to the next major drop.

Calihan Ledge, so-called from the spray-painted name on the rock ledge, forms one of the largest holes on the course. The hole extends from the far river left to well past the middle of the river. This is one of the best rodeo sites anywhere. The hole has some stick to it, but can be quite fun for retendos and spins. A large eddy on river left, capable of holding 20-30 boats, could form a staging eddy for future rodeo competition. There is a choice here: Work the hole or let the hole work you!

By the time any normal human being gets to the largest rapid, Humongous, muscle tissue just doesn't respond like it does when fresh. The river constricts, forming an "Olympic"-size wave train. Hidden below the wave train is a group of rocks dividing the main channel into two, left and right. The tricky part is that these rocks cannot be seen while paddling from above. The only clue that they are there is a small rooster tail on the last of the "Olympic" waves. The river left side has large eddies extending out from the left river bank. On the right are small eddies and larger holes. During Olympic competition this is where a good bit of the action will be. The most challenging water will be found here. So imagine your arms and shoulders feeling like they're carrying a ton of bricks and you've got to negotiate the Olympic wave train, make an upstream on the far side of the river, peel-out into the main channel and sprint to the finish! You get the idea it's a lot of action late in the course. Below Humongous the finish is just a few strokes away.

During the first international event in September '95, athletes and coaches gave the new venue rave reviews. Cathy Hearn, long-time member of the U.S. Canoe and Kayak Team, called the new Ocoee venue, the best course she had ever seen, "a gift and a treasure." What I did not realize at the start of the first "test paddle" day was that the tension that filled the air came not from a funeral, nor a birth. Rather, it came from a reincarnation—new life to a river that is now the ultimate whitewater playground.

Mark Singleton is Vice President of Marketing at the Nantahala Outdoor Center. Special thanks to the Nantahala Outdoor Center for providing these pages.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


Sign up to Away's Travel Insider

Preview newsletter »