“There are only two ways you can swim if you fall out of the boat in the Cheoah,” says seasoned raft guide, Jonny Horton. “You can swim aggressively, or very aggressively.”
Horton should know. He’s one of the most accomplished guides at the Nantahala Outdoor Center, and has been leading rafts down the Cheoah since 2008. The Cheoah was left dry until 2005, when a series of recreational releases was negotiated, turning the overgrown riverbed into one of the fastest, steepest commercially run rivers in the country. The river sits in the far western corner of North Carolina, and has become a benchmark for rafters in the Southeast.
We asked Horton to dish on his favorite pieces of gear when he’s at the helm of a giant piece of rubber heading down one of the South’s most tumultuous rivers. Here are his picks, in his own words.
Arch Rival Dry Top ($299)
If I’m in the front of the boat, I’ll wear a full dry suit to stay warm, but in the back, where it’s not as wet, this dry top is all I need to keep from being frozen. And it’s easy enough to release the Velcro straps around the wrists and cool off if it gets too hot.
Element Case Sector Black Ops ($199)
The Black Ops phone case delivers tough military-grade protection for your iPhone, wrapping it in aerospace composites to create the one of the most durable cases around.
Throw Bag ($69)
Most rafting companies require safety gear in the boat, but I think you should have everything you need to rescue your boat on your body. This is a waist pack that has a 70-foot rope stashed inside. You don’t need it if you’re being guided down the river, but if you start rafting whitewater on your own, it’s essential.
A Cheap Paddle
I know a few guides who use really expensive paddles, but I’m not about to drop $300 on something I could easily break or drop in the middle of the river and never see again. I say keep it cheap with the paddle.
Sweet Strutter Helmet ($199)
First, it looks good. And it fits really well too. But I like this helmet because of the carbon fiber reinforcement—there’s a plate in the front of the helmet that gives my lid extra protection. That’s key when you’re paddling through a bunch of brush and taking hits.
Astral GreenJacket ($249)
The fit is great, but I like all of the pockets, which are great for stashing gear. I don’t like gear dangling from my PFD because it can get hung up on rocks or limbs. I also like that it’s a high float vest, which keeps you up and out of the water.
IceMule Pro Catch ($89.95)
This cooler designed specifically for kayaks and SUPs features an air-tight roll top closure, multiple tie down points and a burly 1000-denier outer layer that can take a beating. And it keeps your beer, er, water, cold for a full day.
Reflekt Seafarer ($139)
These shades have the classic, Wayfarer look that we want, and polarized lenses for spotting fish, but the best part? They float. Reflekt’s frames are made from a proprietary composite called Vaporlite that’s 20% lighter than your standard frames, and completely unsinkable. We tried. They won’t sink.
Chaco Z/1 Sandal ($105)
The Z is the original water sandal, but Chaco gave the classic a much needed update with a new, super grippy outsole that gives the new versions better traction on wet rocks.