At the heart of Southeastern whitewater, North Georgia’s rivers offer a year-round playground for paddlers. The difficulty of a river is based on a rating system ranging from a tame Class I to a death-defying Class VI. Of interest to kayakers is what lies in between. Class II whitewater is characterized by moderate rapids, with regular waves, small drops, wide channels and clear passages. Class III has moderately difficult rapids with larger, irregular waves, requiring complex maneuvering to avoid obstacles, while Class IV rapids are intense and powerful, requiring precise maneuvering in fast, turbulent water. Class V is purely expert only; featuring long, violent rapids, steep gradients, and drops with unavoidable waves and holes or congested chutes with difficult routes. Most rivers offer a mix of each, and are run in sections based on the paddler’s skill level. Here are the facts on five rivers:
Chattooga If the bluegrass banjo tune of the fabled flick “Deliverance” comes to mind at mention of the Chattooga River, so too should the sound of some of the wildest whitewater in the southeast. Infamous for raging rapids such as the Class IV Bull Sluice and the spin-cycle suck hole at Woodall Shoals, the eerie beauty and strength of the Chattooga forms the border between South Carolina and Georgia. Two stretches of the designated Wild & Scenic River are ideal for whitewater kayakers.
From the put-in at Earl’s Ford, the intermediate/advanced Section III of the river requires maneuvering obstacles like the slanting rocks of the Rockgarden, good control through two 90 degree turns on the Class III Dick’s Creek Ledge, dropping the two-stage Class III rapids of The Narrows, and threading the Eye-of-the-Needle Class III chute.
The grand finale comes at the notorious Bull Sluice, a benchmark Class IV of immense power and not a rapid to be run blind. Whether paddlers choose to go down or around it, Bull Sluice signifies the end of this run; the takeout is 200 yards downstream.
Section IV of the Chattooga starts out amiably enough, with two miles of fun whitewater before the advanced Deliverance-calibre obstacles appear around the bend from Woodall Shoals. Be particularly careful of a re-circulating Class VI hydraulic near this area. As the river narrows to become more gorge-like, Seven Foot Falls and Ravens Chute are fun to run. Being out of control is a bad idea, but being out of your boat is worse on the following succession of Class IV+ rapids at Five Falls. The excitement of Section IV ends in a calming 2-mile lake paddle. For a first hand account of running this section in a raft, see Chattooga River Whitewater
Although its wicked whitewater is released only five times a year, the river slicing through the breathtaking Tallulah Gorge in the North Georgia mountains is a formidable force in the paddling circle. Most paddlers agree that the Tallulah is one of the hardest runs in Georgia, both in technical difficulty and the portage – be prepared to shoulder your 45-pound boat down more than 500 steps to the put-in deep in the gorge below. For three weekends in November and two in April the falls are released for kayaking at 500-700 cubic feet per second, making this river’s rapids for experts only.
Recent lobbying efforts by whitewater conservation groups have helped increase the daily flow of water over Tallulah dam as well making the river permit-free on a trial basis. Tallulah’s most infamous rapid is Oceana, a Class V + drop featuring a possible boat-breaking ledge called The Thing. Relax after your descent at a playspot below Oceana known as a good cartwheel hole. Non-boaters can catch a glimpse of the whitewater action at viewpoints and walkways leading into the gorge.
Ocoee A hundred miles due north of Atlanta, just over the Tennessee state line, is a paddler’s paradise: the ever-popular Ocoee River. Loved for its size and power, constant flow rate and continuous waves and holes, kayaks and commercial raft companies fight for the right to run its Class III-IV rapids. The Tennessee Valley Authority releases the dam-controlled river on certain days between March and November, at an average level of 1200 cubic feet per second. From the intimidating put-in below the roaring spillover from the dam, paddlers must maneuver – or swim – Class III and IV rapids with foreboding names like Broken Nose, Double Suck, Double Trouble and Tablesaw.
The grand finale lies in the shadow of the bridge at the Class III+ Powerhouse Rapid, a feature known as Hell Hole. Freestyle kayakers surf the hole, performing splits, spins and cartwheels for the crowd of paddlers and pedestrians who stop to stare. But access to the upper section of the Ocoee, home of the 1996 Olympic whitewater events, is facing a hazy future. Conservation groups like American Whitewater (www.americanwhitewater.org) are facing an ongoing battle for river access with TVA, which has designated only two days of public river access in 2003 and may let the Upper Ocoee run dry.
Novice and intermediate paddlers can hone their whitewater maneuvering skills on the Cartecay River meandering through hill country and residential areas near Ellijay. Winter and spring are the best time to check out these moderately technical rapids, characterized by Class II water conditions and highlighted by three sizeable rapids and small drops. The Cartecay’s natural progression from flatwater to Class III rapids, with plenty of play spots in between, makes it a great beginner river. The put-ins are located on river right and river left at the bridge on Lower Cartecay Road, and are managed by commercial outfitters. Other options include putting in at Highway 52 and paddling the extra mile to Lower Cartecay Road. The take out, on Stegall Mill Road, is just past the bridge downriver from Blackberry Falls, the Class II + grand finale slide.
Chattahoochee Want to kayak closer to home? Believe it or not, the calm Chattahoochee River does offer up a few wild waves. Crisscrossing I-75 and I-285, the 3.5-mile stretch of the Class I-III Metro Hooch encompasses Powers Ferry to West Pallisades/Paces Mill. A mix of flatwater and small rapids, paddlers mainly regard the Metro Hooch as a play spot and practice area. At the put-in paddlers have the option stay near the parking lot and run some flatwater slalom gates, a popular practice spot for Olympic-calibre paddlers. The other option is to paddle into the main channel.
Ledges offer a great place for novices to practice eddy catching. A highlight of this section is a high cliff, known as the Diving Rock, as evidenced by the large crowds who flock there in warmer months. At high flow levels, surfing can be found at the third set of ledges just past the Diving Rock. Another popular play spot on the metro Hooch is The Wave, located upstream of Atlanta Road at the water works intake. The lower the river, the better the play on The Wave’s Class II-III waters. The Upper Hooch, near Cornelia, features four miles of Class II-III whitewater perfect for novice boaters. The Class III Third Ledge is a fun surfing hole and a highlight of this section.
INSTRUCTION Kayaking requires skill and safety. Nail the survival skills of rolling and bracing in the practice pool before trying wild whitewater. Here are local kayak clinics to help beginners get their feet wet:
High Country Outfitters: Two-day courses held on the Chattahoochee, Cartecay, Hiwassee and Ocoee rivers. Beginner kayak classes and private instruction, taught by American Canoe Association certified instructors, will guarantee your roll.
Georgia Canoeing Association: Offering beginner and intermediate whitewater kayak and canoe courses, river rescue and safety clinics taught by American Canoe Association certified instructors.