Stress, Danger and Discovery

Published: February 18th 2012
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Rock CityRock CityRock City

Entrance to the Enchanted Garden Trail at Rock City
Today, I run the Ocoee.

This river is considered the best whitewater trip in Tennessee.

It’s also the most popular rafting trip in the United States.

A month from now, it will be nearly impossible to move due to all the boats in the river.

For me, the trip was very important; after my experience on the Chatooga, I was using this river as a bellwether about booking more rafting on this road trip.

I ultimately got my answer, but not in the way I had intended.

The Ocoee River is dam controlled.

The dams were built in the 1920s, by a power company that was ultimately acquired by the Tennessee Valley Authority.

In 1976, the Authority was forced to open the dams completely while it rebuilt the power canals.

Thousands of whitewater enthusiasts descended on a river they could use for the first time.

They discovered they liked it.

The TVA raced to complete the work while enthusiasts raced to ensure access after the work was done.

It ultimately took an act of Congress, but the TVA finally agreed to daily water releases in spring and
Needle's EyeNeedle's EyeNeedle's Eye

The famously clastrophobic Needle's Eye. People have to squeeze through sideways.

The Ocoee has been a favorite river ever since.

We have the Olympics to thank for another stretch of the same river.

Olympic whitewater events are traditionally done in pools.

The Atlanta organizers wanted to hold them in an actual river.

They located a wide and rocky stretch of the Ocoee.

With some clever engineering, they could craft a suitable course in the middle of the river bed, with the remaining providing space for spectators.

The only problem was this stretch of the river had been bypassed by another dam for sixty years.

The TVA finally agreed to release the water, and the organizers had their whitewater course.

As visitors have probably guessed, other paddlers clamored to use the course as well, and the TVA ultimately had to agree to a schedule of weekend releases.

Today, I run both sections in one long day.

I ran the trip with the Nantahala Outdoor Center.

They are the largest and one of the oldest whitewater outfitters in the Southeast.

The company runs a large and famous hostel on their namesake river, which they use for kayak clinics.
Garden Gnome gardeningGarden Gnome gardeningGarden Gnome gardening

A garden gnome building a garden, at Rock City

I picked them after reading internet reviews.

Upper Ocoee River

The trip begins with a nasty section called the jungle.

The upper Ocoee section has no water for much of the year.

Trees grow in the riverbed. Rafts need to skillfully work their way through the flooded forest.

This section is more dangerous than it first appears, because any rafter that falls out could easily get entangled and pulled under.

Soon enough, little drops appear.

These are warm-ups for later.

I realized early on that this crew was much more experienced than the one from my earlier trip, and I managed to relax a bit.

The first real rapid comes soon after.

Mickey’s is a three foot drop over a ledge.

Guides run as close to the right shore as they dare, to avoid a hidden rock in the middle that can eject them from the boat.

I was a little nervous running this one, even though we got through perfectly.

I should have noticed something during this rapid: the guide pushed the raft slightly away from obstacles on his side of
Mushroom RockMushroom RockMushroom Rock

The infamous Mushroom Rock at Rock City
the boat.

The natural consequence of this is that rocks on the other side where I was were closer.

This has very important implications for later.

Olympic Whitewater Course

Eventually, we reached a footbridge across the river.

This signals the start of the Olympic slalom course.

The course is a quarter mile of continuous class IV whitewater.

Officially, it consists of six different rapids, but rafters don’t notice where one ends and the next starts.

The river in this section is constricted to run in a narrow channel.

The bottom has rocks stuck in place with concrete to create huge standing waves.

The concrete means that any swim here will be like hitting sandpaper.

Thankfully, this section attracts a large number of kayakers, and many of them bring rescue ropes.

Whatever happened, we were going to have an audience.

We got through clean.

The only way through is to paddle continuously, and ignore the huge waves all around.

This was particularly important for the last rapid, Humongous, which basically consists of multiple three foot waves.

This one flips boats regularly, and can even fold them
Lovers LeapLovers LeapLovers Leap

Lover's Leap, the famous cliff with views of seven states. I took this photo from the trail along the cliff.
in half.

Watch it from a helmet camera

What the spectators are hoping for (future rafters may want to skip this)

The last major rapid on this section is called the Edge of the World.

It consists of a three foot drop over a ledge into a tight channel.

The channel looks artificial since it is completely straight, but my guide stated it was natural.

Falling out here is very dangerous because the current has undercut the rocks after the drop.

We got through clean.

Before long, we reached the dam between the two sections.

The dam must be portaged on a trail.

The dam has signs I have not seen elsewhere.

Most signs upstream of dams warn of the dam and all the dangers it poses.

This one has signs warning of the large fines if people decided to run a boat over it.

Walking down the portage trail shows the reason.

The dam surface is basically a
Ruby FallsRuby FallsRuby Falls

A shot directly DOWN Ruby Falls, from the bridge over the top. This waterfall is completely artificial, but still looks good.
long series of little cascades, forming a steep slide.

Skilled kayakers can safely run something like this, and a few have run the dam over the years.

Lower Ocoee River

When we got to the bottom, the excitement started immediately.

The concrete ledge used for the put-in was overflowing with water.

This meant the dam release into the upper section was now flowing into the lower, making for a more exciting ride.

The rapids start immediately with Entrance.

We had to quickly paddle across the river to avoid a huge hole in the middle called Grumpy.

Hit it and people don’t need to ask where the name comes from.

After Entrance, the river becomes nearly continuous whitewater.

This layout, plus easy accessibility, is what makes it so popular.

Most of the rapids are Class II, dropping over lots of little rocks, but there is tougher stuff to contend with.

One of these is Double Suck, which is named for its series of holes.

Rafts have to get though each one, and then immediately contend with the next in line.

It’s very
Chattanooga from Lovers LeapChattanooga from Lovers LeapChattanooga from Lovers Leap

A typical view from Lover's Leap, covering two states (Georgia and Tennessee).
tempting to relax in the middle, which then causes trouble.

The most difficult hole, and the biggest ride, is at the end.

Swimming Surprise Rapid

Soon afterward, I had the moment that I really didn’t want but probably did need.

Surprise Rapid is a nasty little ledge drop at the end of a set of easier stuff.

It’s called Surprise because it sneaks up on people.

It’s normally an easy rapid to run.

A set of rocks breaks the river into channels, each of which then drops over the ledge.

Some of the channels are tighter than others.

When we got there, another raft was in the channel we wanted to use, so we had to take the next one over.

Remember my guide’s tendency to get close to rocks on my side of the boat from earlier?

While squeezing through the channel, we hit one of the rocks.

I fell in, right at the bottom of the drop.

This is the second scariest swim possible after an undercut rock.

One needs to react quickly, in very specific ways, to come out without injury.
Balanced RockBalanced RockBalanced Rock

Balanced Rock at Rock City. The pyramid shaped rock underneath it is one of two rocks it rests on (the third point is the wall to the right).

The problem with the swim is that the current tries to push a rafter down to the river bottom, while their life vest tries to pull them up.

These two normally counteract each other to send a swimmer around and around like a washing machine.

People have drowned this way.

The way out is to swim down and sideways, into the current flowing forward out of the drop.

This is far from the natural reaction, which is to find air at all costs.

After getting out of the drop, I had another problem.

I found myself facing a large rubber surface, with no air.

Clear thinking here is also vital.

I quickly realized I had to be underneath a boat.

The correct response is to push the boat forward with my hands, to pop out the back into air.

A swimmer wants the boat in front of them so it hits obstacles before they do.

I managed to get out from under the boat, at which point people pulled me in.

I ended up exhausted with really sore muscles,
Hall of the Mountain KingHall of the Mountain KingHall of the Mountain King

Part of the Hall of the Mountain King at Rock City
but otherwise fine.

I was able to paddle again fairly quickly.

For a swim of that danger level, this was a very good result.

The lesson to take away is that I finally had sufficient whitewater experience to stay calm enough to react properly in a situation like that.

I could take other whitewater trips during the road trip with a manageable risk level.

That was not quite the way I wanted to learn this fact, but it was well worth learning.

Downstream from Surprise, there were other rapids to deal with.

I was understandably hesitant for the first few of them.

Eventually, we reached the double finale of this trip, Hell Hole and Powerhouse.

Both of these feature huge standing waves.

We felt like we were on a roller coaster, and got soaked.

Then, the trip was over.

A taste of the Middle Ocoee:

Rock City

I had some time available after the trip.

I finally decided to use it by going to Chattanooga.

My target was Rock City, which ranks with Stone Mountain
Gnome Moonshine stillGnome Moonshine stillGnome Moonshine still

Like all good stills, this one takes effort to find, deep in the Hall of the Mountain King.
and Weeki Wachee Springs as a classic Southern tourist site.

This is as much due to the ingenious promotion of the original developer, Garnet Carter, as the site’s merits.

Starting in the 1930s, he would provide a free paint, and attraction tickets, to any farmer that agreed to paint “See Rock City” on their barn.

Thousands of farmers in several states took him up on the offer.

A few of the painted barns still exist on back roads.

Rock city has the potential to be the cheesiest tourist trap in existence, but it’s actually pretty good.

Rock City is a large group of boulders located on Lookout Mountain near Chattanooga.

Early settlers compared the rocks to houses, and the gaps between them to streets, giving the name Rock City.

Even though the sight is identified with Chattanooga, it is actually located across the border in Georgia.

When it became an attraction, Carter built a trail through the boulders, designed to show off the natural features to their best extent.

It’s called the Enchanted Garden.

It takes roughly two hours to hike,
Fairytale CavernsFairytale CavernsFairytale Caverns

Old Mother Hubbard in the Fairytale Caverns, Rock City. This photo required a night time exposure with no flash
and passes a large number of sights.

They all have whimsical names such as “Needle’s Eye” (a gap in rocks so narrow one needs to hike sideways), “Hall of the Mountain King” (a huge cave formed by three boulders), “Balanced Rock” (a huge rock balanced on three points) and “Mushroom Rock” (readers can guess this one).

Lovers Leap

The most famous of the features is probably Lovers Leap.

It’s an exposed cliff right on the edge of the mountain.

When the air is very clear, it has a view of mountains in seven states, which the park milks for all its worth.

Of course, on a typical smoggy summer day, people will be lucky to see less than half that.

Just before Lovers Leap, a waterfall runs down the cliff, Ruby Falls.

It’s completely artificial, but I forgive this because it looks so good.

A bridge runs right in front of the waterfall.

If one can handle the vertigo, it’s possible to look over the side of the bridge and straight down the waterfall.

This view is very rare for a high waterfall.

Mother Goose VillageMother Goose VillageMother Goose Village

A tiny section of Mother Goose Village, Rock City

The park has been eagerly chasing the garden gnome trend.

They are located at strategic spots along the trail, often doing something humorous.

Be sure to find the gnome moonshine still located deep in the Hall of the Mountain King.

Fairytale Caverns

The final feature of the trail is Fairytale Caverns.

In the 1960s, the park hired a group of German artists led by sculptor Jessie Schmidt to create scenes from fairytales in caves within the rocks.

They glow in black light.

It sounds really cheesy, but they did a good job.

The artistry level is really impressive.

This leads into Mother Goose Village, a huge display of Mother Goose tales one after the other, which works surprisingly well.

Like any proper tourist attraction, this one sells food and sweets.

Most of it is pretty generic, but their fudge is good enough it has become famous.

They had a special on it, one slice for seventy nine cents!

I had to try some, and found it very sweet.


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