Predicting the future is a hard thing to do. Mark Twain refused to invest $5,000 in the telephone because he thought it wasn’t practical. In 1927, H.M. Warner of Warner Brothers Studios said talking movies were a fad. Decca Recording Company rejected the Beatles in 1962, saying “guitar music is on the way out.” For every Nostradamus, there’s a Lord Kelvin, the British scientist at the turn of the 20th century who said radio had no future, flying machines were impossible, and the X-ray was a hoax. Prophecy is a difficult thing. But that’s not going to stop us from trying, particularly those of us interested in the ever-fickle world of paddling. Trends move fast in the paddling industry. Records are celebrated in the morning and broken in the afternoon. Boaters fall in and out of love with rivers faster than the characters on a WB teen drama. So you can’t help but wonder, what’s next for Southeastern boaters? What river will take the place of the Green in the near future? What city will start building a whitewater park next?
We at Blue Ridge Outdoors can’t help but speculate, so we talked to the experts, analyzed the trends and are willing divulge the “Next Big Thing.” From the next hot creek boating destination to troubling environmental issues yet to be battled, we’ve discovered what’s on the horizon for southeastern boaters.
The Next Big Sucess Story: Chattooga River
Nobody’s paddled the headwaters of the Chattooga in 30 years. Back in the 70s, Sumter National Forest banned boating of any kind on this remote stretch of class IV-V+ water, which is famous for its narrow gorges and steep drops, due to adverse environmental impacts. The ban was based largely on anecdotal evidence given by fishermen who didn’t want to share their favorite river with boaters. When the Forest Service renewed the ban in the ‘90s, American Whitewater was quick to appeal the decision.
“We’re ten years into the process of getting boaters back into the headwaters of the Chattooga,” says American Whitewater’s access director, Kevin Colburn. “It’s the only river in the entire National Forest System that is off limits to boaters.”
The Chattooga that’s currently open to boaters is considered some of the most remote whitewater in the Southeast, but the headwaters go a step further. The dense forests and narrow gorge that surround 20+ miles of the headwaters make the current popular run on the Chattooga look like the James through Richmond.
Because of American Whitewater’s appeal, the Forest Service will begin a User Capacity Analysis of the headwaters in order to develop a broader management plan. Analysis is scheduled to begin this month and last for a year, during which time the Forest Service will look at paddling and other recreation along the headwaters.
Runner-Up: Releases on the West Fork of the Tuckaseegee were scheduled to begin in 2005, but things got delayed on the federal level, and there’s been grumbling from local landowners who would like to see any agreement with Duke Power benefit a larger spectrum of residents. Still, things are looking good for creek boaters. Test runs on the West Fork went well and American Whitewater is optimistic about the seven releases previously negotiated with Duke. The West Fork of the Tuck is a 9.5-mile class IV creek with steep, long slides and impressive drops through a narrow gorge. Regular releases are now tentatively scheduled to begin in 2007.
The Next Great Paddler
BEN FRAKER / AGE: 16 / BOAT: C1
2005 was a good year for Fraker, a 16 year-old paddler from Peachtree City, Ga. First, the teenager wins the Glacier Breaker, the first slalom race of the season on the Nantahala, besting Olympian and top dog Chris Ennis by three seconds. Then Fraker wins the Junior Pre-World Championships in Slovenia, the toughest competition of the year.
“That was the biggest event in the world last year,” says Luke Dieker of USA Canoe and Kayak, “so we’re expecting him to do pretty well in this year’s Junior World Championships.”
Of course, excellence on the junior level doesn’t necessarily translate to greatness in adult competitions. Dieker says it’s difficult for some juniors to make the jump to the senior level because paddlers don’t usually come into their own until their mid-20s, so there can be a few rough years with little success. That shouldn’t be a problem with Fraker. He already made the senior team in 2005 and competed in the World Championships, finishing 41st. That’s 41st in the world. And he was only 16. The future looks bright indeed.
Runner-Up: Dane Jackson, the 12 year-old son of Eric Jackson of Jackson Kayaks. Last year, Jackson finished 18th in the Junior World Championships, competing against athletes who have the advantage of already going through puberty. They didn’t have a junior class at the Teva Mountain Games in Vail, so Jackson competed against the world’s top pros and finished 8th-at the age of 12. He’s already paddled the Zambezi and Nile Rivers in Africa and has his sights set on making the big wave World Championship team in 2007. Did we mention he’s only 12?
The Next City To Get a Whitewater Park
It’s a simple concept: if you don't live near the river, bring the river to you. While the success of the US National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, N.C. is yet to be determined, you can’t help but get sucked into the hype. They’re building a class IV river on the edge of a city. It doesn’t get much cooler than that. These types of whitewater parks are thriving in Steamboat Springs, Golden, Co., and Fort Worth, Texas, and Reno’s park has helped redefine that city as an outdoor oasis. So which Southern city will be the next to join the swift water bandwagon? While no contracts have been signed and there are no definite plans on the books, Scott Shipley at Recreation Engineering and Planning, the company that designed Charlotte’s park, says Chattanooga is prime for some homemade world-class whitewater. And Shipley should know. REP is responsible for 90 percent of all whitewater parks built in America and he personally designed the USNWC in Charlotte.
“These parks market their communities as outdoor meccas,” Shipley says, “and Chattanooga is ripe for this sort of thing. A whitewater park provides the sort of outdoor identity that a town like Chattanooga can capitalize on.”
Shipley says that REP is discussing future parks with three or four cities but won’t disclose which municipalities are in the mix until the contracts are signed.
We like Chattanooga’s odds because it’s the only Southern city actively pursuing the outdoor market. (They’re building 100 miles of singletrack near downtown.) The Tennessee River runs through the city and is already a hotbed of flatwater paddling at Nooga’s most popular park.
Runner-up: Don’t fret if you’re not a resident of Chattanooga. Shipley says even smaller towns are looking at whitewater parks in order to promote a healthy lifestyle. “The aquarium in Atlanta is great, but these parks get people out and moving. And it’s very profitable in the long run. Charlotte will recoup their building costs quickly and then essentially get a city park that provides an identity for free,” Shipley says.
Our pick for the city that desperately needs and would cherish a whitewater park? Asheville. “The Paris of the South” has the outdoor culture to support such a venture and the Swannanoa River, which runs through the city limits, is in desperate need of some love and attention. Think about it: paddlers running class III-IV whitewater right in the heart of the Biltmore Village. Sounds good to us.
The Next Park and Play
Hot Spot: The Nantahala Cascades
The Cascades on the upper Nantahala take “park and play” to the next level. Forget pulling off on the side of the road to do a little surfing on a class II wave. How about some park and play creeking? The .7 mile run drops 210 feet in a series of drops and slides through a roadside canyon that can be run and repeated at will. American Whitewater has negotiated eight spring and summer releases with Duke Power, which will turn this normally dry creek bed into a frolicking roadside wonderland. Releases are scheduled to start this spring, at which time experienced boaters are encouraged to park, run the class IV creek, and repeat. How cool is that?
The Next Southeastern Classic
Rivers move in and out of fashion quicker than pop stars change their hair color. One day, boaters profess their undying love for creeks like the Watauga, the next day they’re on to bigger and better things. When most of the creeks in the state of South Carolina lost their gauges due to budget cuts, boaters forgot about the miles of water in the Upstate all together.
“People used to come from Atlanta to paddle our creeks,” says Kevin Miller, an Upstate paddler. “That’s not the case anymore. It’s hard to justify a two hour drive when you don’t know if the river will be running.”
While many South Carolina rivers like Flat Shoals and the Upper Saluda simply fell out of favor with Southeastern paddlers after the gauges were dropped, others, like Eastatoe Creek, never even had the chance to be discovered. Until 2003, the Eastatoe was undocumented for paddling purposes and generally unknown to all but a few local paddlers. The secluded class III-V river in Pickens County has yet to see the paddling traffic it deserves.
Interest in the creek has slowly been building since local boaters got the Eastatoe listed on American Whitewater’s web site, and now the river is poised to become a classic boating destination. There’s been an active attempt to restore vegetation along the banks of the Eastatoe which will improve water quality, parking improvements have been made at key access points, and most importantly, boaters have linked the Eastatoe to an established gauge on Eighteenmile Creek. The gauge will allow out of state boaters the opportunity to check the water level before making a trip, giving them a reason to come back to South Carolina. And the Eastatoe is worth the gas money. The lower gorge is a nonstop class III creek filled with slides, wave trains, and big holes.
For creekers looking for more of a challenge, the upper Eastatoe Creek is a skinny and powerful class IV-V river that gets so narrow, sunshine rarely hits the floor of the gorge. Both the upper and lower Eastatoe are very rain dependent, which makes linking the creek to the Eighteenmile gauge even more important.
The Next Dam To Be Removed
Currently, the best whitewater on Twelvemile Creek in South Carolina is buried under water beneath a couple of reservoirs. Boaters want water, but not this much water. Three dams were built on Twelvemile at the turn of the 20th century so nobody’s seen the riverbed in 100 years, but that doesn’t stop boaters from speculating.
“It’s hard to define Twelvemile’s potential for paddling,” says Kevin Miller, a South Carolina paddler heading the project for American Whitewater. “But for two miles, the river has a 60 fpm gradient. We don’t know if it’s gonna be a spectacular class V drop and pool run, or continuous class II whitewater.”
Twelvemile runs from Pickens to Lake Hartwell near Clemson and could change the face of Palmetto State paddling, but nothing’s set in stone yet. The removal of the lower two dams is ensured in a recent agreement, but nothing has been decided about the upper dam, which would have to come down to turn Twelvemile into a free-flowing river. Still, money has been set aside for future projects, and the removal of the upper dam is being seriously considered.
“It’s hard to define Twelvemile’s potential for paddling,” Miller says, “the river is close to a large population zone. And a lot of South Carolina paddlers leave the state to paddle. This could change that.”
The removal of these three dams could change a lot more than just South Carolina paddling. According to Kevin Colburn, access director at American Whitewater, dam removal is the next frontier in access issues. “Most of the unchartered whitewater in the Southeast is under reservoirs,” Colburn says. “There aren’t too many more dam relicensing success stories like the Cheoah out there. Dam removals are the next step.”
Removal of the two lower dams on Twelvemile will begin this year and Miller is hopeful that in five years, the Twelvemile will be a naturally flowing river.
The Next Waterfall You’ll Want To Run
Little Stony Falls: 25 Foot Vertical Drop
Big game hunters have been known to spend thousands of dollars and weeks of their lives in the bush of some remote location just for the chance of bagging a beast. The question is, do you have the same sort of determination? Will you travel to the edge of Virginia to bag a waterfall that only runs 20 days a year at best? Yeah, we think you will.
Little Stony Falls is a 25-foot vertical falls that kicks off Little Stony Creek, a river that isn’t even on the radar of most boaters.
“Absolutely nobody knows about this creek,” says Steve Ruth, a local that runs Little Stony whenever possible. “But I’d put it up there with any creek in North Carolina. The quality of the run, the length, it has it all. Everything that creek boaters love.”
Little Stony, which runs into the Clinch, is a class V creek with a gradient equivalent to the Green Narrows. It’s riddled with boulder gardens, massive long slides, heinous rapids, small drops, big drops, and the 25-foot falls, right at the beginning.
“You get in the water and you’ve got 150 yards before you’re at the waterfall,” Ruth says. “But it’s a no brainer. You can fall off this drop and be fine.”
Little Stony Falls is a rare thing in the south: a high vertical falls free of obstacles that empties into a large, deep pool. The combination makes Little Stony ripe for the picking for those of you looking to spread your wings.
Of course, if Little Stony Falls is too tame for you, you can always try the 35-foot Big Falls on the same river, which, according to Ruth, only three people have ever run-one of whom broke his back. Portaging is encouraged.
The Next River We Should Clean Up
Many boaters refuse to paddle the French Broad because of run off, the Pigeon below the paper mill is nasty, and rumor has it that the EPA is thinking about banning public use on the Ocoee because it could be a health hazard to boaters. The sad truth is that the majority of our rivers are in poor shape.
“If people knew what was in most of these rivers, they wouldn’t paddle them,” says Kevin Colburn of American Whitewater. “I suppose ignorance is bliss.”
One river who’s poor quality can’t be ignored is Sweetwater Creek in metro Atlanta. The class III-IV creek is the best whitewater in the densely populated area, but its watershed is filled with warehouses, highways, and theme parks.
“It’s right on the edge of Atlanta, which is really convenient for an after work run,” says Chad Spangler, president of the Atlanta Whitewater Club. “But you get out of that river and your gear smells like gasoline.”
Sweetwater Creek holds water after a rain for a good two to three days, which is both a blessing and a curse given the current water quality. Sediment from development and sewage overflow are the biggest problems for rivers in the metro Atlanta area. When a heavy rain falls, the sewers overflow, depositing waste directly into the rivers. And yet a few brave paddlers can’t stay away from Sweetwater. It’s a four-mile run of class III-IV+ water with continuous rapids, play waves, and big class IV water usually only seen in West Virginia. And it’s all capped off by the Falls, a long ledge-drop-slide-combo that demands more moves than a disco. It’s no wonder Atlanta boaters are willing to risk infection.
RUNNER UP: The James River has carried the brunt of America’s development for 400 years. The James watershed covers 25 percent of Virginia and for a long time, the river acted as the main sewer line of the state. At one point, 100 miles of the river were closed to the public due to severe pollution, and Richmond employees who came into contact with the James had to be inoculated. While the water quality has certainly rebounded from these drastic lows, the river is still a far cry from being clean.
“The number one problem right now is sediment pollution,” says Bill Street, executive director of the James River Association. “It’s the number one killer of aquatic species up and down the James.”
The reasons for sediment pollution are varied, from development, to the lack of riverside forests, to poor agriculture practices, but the effects are the same: a river that can’t support the ecosystems that are supposed to thrive.
Many rivers share the James’ current problems, but cleaning up the James should always be at the top of our “to do” list. It’s America’s first great river and it’s the only natural class IV whitewater running through a large city. In many ways, it is the poster child of whitewater paddling.
“The James has been putting up with us for a long time,” Street says. “We’ve made some progress, but we’ve still got a long way to go.”
The Next Green River
THE GREEN RIVER
We searched high and low for a paddler who would go on record saying there was a better, more ideal class V creek out there, but we came up short. While creek boaters have been fickle in the past, moving from one creek to the next, chances are they’re not going to leave the Green River Narrows behind.
“Paddlers have advanced passed other creeks like the Watauga,” says Leland Davis, author of the guidebook North Carolina Rivers and Creeks and founder of the N.C. Creeking Clinics in Asheville. “But the thrill never goes away with the Green. I’ve run it 500 times and I can’t imagine any river ever getting better.”
Boaters have been known to arrange their lives around the Green, some moving from across the country just to be near this river. And the rapids are only a fraction of the Green’s popularity. The major contributing factor to the Green’s rabid following is the regular dam releases.
“It’s a class V creek that’s runnable 300 days out of the year,” Davis says. “You don’t have that anywhere else in America.”
That’s not to say there aren’t more difficult creeks out there. The Raven Fork in Western North Carolina has been dubbed by the few that have run it as “the steepest mile in the south.”
“It has 12 rapids in a row that are as hard as the hardest rapids on the Green,” Davis says. “But it’s self limiting. It’s so hard that only a handful of paddlers can manage it. Plus, access is always a tenuous situation.”
Much of the Raven Fork is on the Cherokee Indian Reservation, which has repeatedly closed access to the river over the years. And the takeout is squarely on private property. Boaters have made friends with the property owner in the past by plying the gentleman with Budweiser and cigarettes.
The Next Big News for Creek Boaters
Summer Releases On the Russell Fork Gorge
You can run the Russell Fork Gorge year round after a rain but the river is so tucked away in the corner of Virginia near the Kentucky border that most boaters only hit the steep creek during the October release season. The 3.8 miles of water that runs through the gorge is a pushy, dynamic pool and drop river that has some of the same characteristics of the Green Narrows; and it’s all but untouched by paddlers because of fickle water levels.
With a little bit of luck and a lot of lobbying, that could all change. Recently, a group of local boaters began trying to get regular weekend releases on the Russell Fork throughout July and August.
“It’s been in the process for years, but we’ve recently made some headway,” says Steve Ruth, a local paddler who’s spearheading the push for releases. “If we keep banging on the wall, we’ll get there. We just have to be patient.”
The Russell Fork Gorge is littered with 10-foot drops from beginning to end, and the most famous rapid, El Horrendo, is a 30-foot drop that comes at you in stages. Two months of summer releases on this river would create consistent class IV-V creeking in Virginia and could turn the river into a core destination for all Southeastern paddlers.