How the Nantahala River Overcame the Landslide

In late August 2019, a landslide interrupted the lives of many adventure seekers when it bombarded its way into the Nantahala River.

The massive landslide caused by heavy rains created significant damage and debris blockages on US Highway 19/74 and the river, inevitably causing talk of closures and worry of the future of the river. The Forest Service had said the closure could last up to two years after assessing the situation initially.

At that time, it was probably hard to believe that the mess caused by the massive landslide could be cleared in less than two weeks – it was.

On September 4th, 2019 the Nantahala River in the Nantahala Gorge was reopened to the public for all uses.

Jan Wojtasinski of Nantahala Outdoor Center, the largest commercial outfitter on the Nantahala, told us a little bit about the impressive efforts put in to ensure the quick reopening of the river and how the potential closure affected him and others who heavily rely on the river for work and play.

“Our number one focus and concern is on the safety of our participants and employees of course,” he said. “The local search and rescue was very, very responsive, as was NCDOT. That highway is a high traffic area, so the fact that this was as big as it was and that there was no injury was amazing.”

Headlines of a “2-year closure” spread, which led to a lot of worried river lovers and participants asking about their planned adventures.

“I think it’s important to note that that closure did technically stage a suspension that could have been in place for two years,” Wojtasinski said. “But I think the important part is for folks to recognize that that’s the default language used by the Forest Service. That’s a default closure period that gives them the flexibility to pass the closure very quickly for public, private, and commercial safety, without getting caught up in red tape. It gives them the leeway to evaluate and issues and then address it accordingly.”

A press release announcing the re-opening stated, “A technical team assessed the river for potential hazards from the recent landslides yesterday, Tuesday, September 3, and did not find any areas of concern. The team included U.S. Forest Service staff and partners with the Nantahala Gorge Association and American Whitewater.”

Acting District Ranger David Perez meeting with representatives from Nantahala Gorge Association and American Whitewater before the river assessment.

The North Carolina Department of Transportation cleared all debris from the highway and repaired damaged portions by Tuesday morning. Once the road opened, U.S. Forest Service sent in a team to assess landslide impacts to the Nantahala River and the scale of the cleanup effort.

Contractors were immediately mobilized and began to remove landslide debris from the Nantahala River on Wednesday, after a field review and opinion from US Fish and Wildlife and US Geological Survey. The debris removal operations in the river were completed by the end of Friday, August 30th, three days later.

“Miraculously, none the large iconic rapids have had major changes, is great,”

Wojtasinski said, “I know there were some people out there who thought that this was going to create some new rapids on the Nantahala which would have been exciting but ultimately we’re glad that it’s still the same great river that it was before the landslide.”

Though there were no major changes, visitors are urged to be aware that there are a few minor changes in the river in some places and paddlers should use caution.

Nantahala District River Ranger Nathan Dewhurst removing debris from Nantahala River. 

Contractors worked 12 hour days with as many as 9 excavators and 9 dump trucks at any given time. Throughout the entire operation, approximately 7,600 tons of soil and rock was removed and approximately 150 loads of woody debris.

Duke Energy released water on Saturday, August 31. They had not performed a release since before the landslides occurred in order to provide a safe environment for U.S. Forest Service contractors to perform debris removal operations. They proceeded to release water through the long weekend in order to draw down lake levels and move back toward normal operation. Duke Energy, North Carolina Department of Transportation, Swain County Emergency Management Services, and the U.S. Forest service monitored the water release and did not observe any significant impacts.

Landslide site after debris removal operations were completed. This site was approx. 75% blocked with landslide debris. 

On Tuesday, September 3, the U.S. Forest Service conducted some chainsaw work to remove potential strainers, downed trees in the river.  This was followed up by a float trip down the river to identify and address any additional concerns. The float team included the U.S. Forest Service, representatives from the Nantahala Gorge Association and American Whitewater. During the assessment, the team did not identify any additional obvious hazards.

“The landslide cleanup in the Nantahala Gorge has been a success,” stated David Perez, Acting Nantahala District Ranger. “I appreciate the public’s patience with us as we worked through it. In the end, I couldn’t be happier and more grateful for all the support from Duke Energy, Swain County Emergency Management, NC-Department of Transportation, Nantahala Gorge Association, American Whitewater, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and all the Forest Service employees that worked tirelessly. Thank you all.”

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