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Beauty and the Beast

I like to paddle flatwater. My boyfriend and his buddies are whitewater junkies. So I’m used to hearing comments like “Flatwater Floozy” and “Are you going on a snooze-fest this weekend while we go paddle some real water?”

Maybe it is inevitable that more skilled whitewater boaters will look down on the flatwater boaters—that is, until said flatwater boaters show up at the takeout with a cooler full of cold beer and sandwiches.

But after awhile, I got to thinking: what the hell was wrong with paddling flatwater anyway? I wondered how many other couples out there participate in this sport of paddling, yet choose two completely opposite ends of the paddling spectrum. Could the two worlds come together in a sort of watery truce?

So I began searching for the best spots for both kickass whitewater and scenic flatwater boaters. For better or worse, the Southeast is blessed (or cursed) with an abundance of dammed rivers that create gorgeous lakes. And regular releases of these dammed rivers make for predictable whitewater flows nearby.


One of the best is Summersville Lake, just above the Gauley River. Summersville Lake has 60 miles of shoreline and 2,790 acres of incredibly clear aquamarine water. The tall cliffs of the gorge contain the water and provide a spectacular natural backdrop for swimming and flatwater paddling. On a recent trip, I was dazzled watching three deer swim across a channel from the mainland onto an island. Plenty of heron, red-tail hawks and other wildlife will keep your attention while paddling Summersville.

Just downstream, the Gauley River is the premier whitewater destination of the Southeast. The Gauley comes to life each fall with six weekend releases and is a much anticipated paddling event. Ranging from Class III to Class V, the releases from Summersville Lake create those incredible Gauley rapids. More than one whitewater kayaker has extolled the virtues of harnessing the “pucker-factor” in order to focus on a successful run through these turbulent waters.

Septuagenarians Motty and Maurice Blackburn are whitewater canoeists, who seek out both flatwater and whitewater. For 26 years, they have paddled all over the Southeast (and all over the world) as a tandem team in their Dagger Caption Whitewater Canoe. Over the years they’ve owned several whitewater canoes and have wrapped more than one around a rock.

Motty says that all their paddling and traveling together have taught them to work together as a team. And to never go to bed mad at each other. “At the end of the day, those tents are mighty small,” Maurice adds wryly.

When asked about their favorite places to paddle both whitewater and flatwater, they enthusiastically describe trips to the mighty Chattooga River and Lake Tugaloo in Georgia, and several oft-traveled waterways along the Catawba River chain. “The area below Lake Wateree in South Carolina is fantastically impressive,” says Maurice.

But their most frequently visited area is the Nantahala Gorge. Cold but thrilling Class II and III whitewater on the Nantahala River combines with the spectacular scenery surrounding Fontana Lake and Lake Nantahala. This entire area is a giant playground. Creekboaters can tackle the Cascades of the Nantahala, and playboaters can surf the numerous park-and-play spots. Meanwhile, their flatwater friends can paddle Fontana Lake in search of small waterfalls, submerged towns, or old graveyards.


The real thrill seekers will take all their paddling buddies and continue on into Tennessee. Just over the border, the Ocoee River boasts an Olympic-caliber course and hosted the 1996 Olympic Canoe and Kayak Slalom competitions. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) releases water for hydroelectric purposes, but also does recreational releases at specific times from spring through the fall. For experienced whitewater paddlers, the Upper and Middle Ocoee is ‘it.’ Meanwhile, the Lower Ocoee is described by whitewater paddlers as ‘boring’—translation: flatwater. It feeds the Parksville Reservoir (which is actually three lakes separated by dams). Scenic flatwater paddles, primitive camping, and the requisite game of “tag” with the power boaters can all be found here. The best flatwater paddling is heading ‘upstream’ to the base of the Ocoee River.


On a recent weekend trip, a dozen of us—both flatwater and whitewater enthusiasts— headed to the Cheoah River, where the bad-ass boaters braved the Cheoah while I joined a few others to paddle the flatwater Calderwood Reservoir, a pristine mountain waterway at the end of the Cheoah. The conversation at the campfire that night was decidedly animated. Stories of crystal-clear lake water, glorious swaths of trees and a remote hike along the Slickrock Creek trail to waterfalls were interrupted with tales of broken paddles, swimmers stranded on islands choked with tree limbs, and lines gone horribly wrong. Around the campfire, it didn’t matter whether you were a flatwater or whitewater paddler. The joy came from being on the water with friends. •


Nantahala River (NC)

Cheoah River (NC)

Tuckasegee River (NC)

Catawba River/Lookout Shoals (NC)

Catawba River (NC/SC)

Great Falls, in 2010 (SC)

Conagree River (SC)

Horsepasture & Toxaway Rivers (NC)

Saluda River (SC)

Gauley & New Rivers (WV)

Ocoee River (TN)

Hiwassee River (TN)

Chattooga River (NC, SC, GA)

Tallulah (GA)

Fontana Lake & Nantahala Lake (NC)

Calderwood Reservoir & Lake Santeetlah (NC)

Lake Hickory (NC)

Lake Wylie, Fishing Creek, Lake Wateree (SC)

Stumpy Pond (SC)

Lake Marion (SC)

Lakes Jocassee & Keowee (SC)

Lake Murray (SC)

Summersville Lake (WV)

Parksville Reservoir,

three dam separated lakes (TN)

Hiwassee Lake (TN)

Lake Tugaloo (GA, SC)

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