Thoughts on Deliverance and the Pursuit of Quiet 

THE THING I LIKE MOST ABOUT THE movie Deliverance is how quiet the setting is once the group of four guys from Atlanta gets on the river. There’s some hooting and hollering as they canoe through the rapids, but mostly, you just hear the birds and the water. Especially when Jon Voight is rappelling into the gorge after killing the hunter who may or may not have been trying to kill him. It’s so quiet. 

I think about that as I’m doing my part to paddle a raft down the Chattooga River, which as you definitely already know, is where many of the scenes for Deliverance were filmed. The filmmakers got that part right; when my rafting cohorts and I aren’t screaming through rapids and desperately trying to stay in the raft, it’s really quiet on this river. Nothing but the birds and the low rumble of water, which is exactly what I’m looking for on this particular adventure.  

I’ve jumped on a trip with Wildwater Outfitters, one of the South’s O.G. guide services that’s been taking people down the Chattooga for more than 50 years. During those five decades, the Chattooga has become legendary, not just for its whitewater, but for its pristine setting. In 1974, it was designated a Wild and Scenic River, the first of its kind in the Southeast, and because of that designation, there is no other rafting experience quite like it in the Southern Appalachians. 

Photo: The author navigates the rapids of the Chattooga on a guided trip. Photos courtesy of Wildwater

In the movie, Lewis, played by Burt Reynolds, and his cohorts want to run the fictitious Cahulawassee River before it gets dammed because it’s “the last unpolluted, un-fucked up river in the South.” I wanted to raft the Chattooga for basically the same reasons, because it’s one of the last places you can find peace and quiet in the South. The increasing crowds at my favorite spots in the forest are starting to bum me out. I typically like crowds. For years, I would go to the mall on Christmas Eve just to hang out amongst all that frantic energy. Sold out baseball stadiums? I love them. And I don’t begrudge the crowds at the trailheads; we’re all just looking to have a good time and enjoy nature. I have no problem sharing my favorite bike trail with 300 dudes from Charlotte, honest. But every once in a while, I need to enjoy that nature in relative solitude, and the Chattooga is one of the few places in this part of the world where you’re guaranteed to be kind of alone. It’s basically written in the contract.  

Thanks to the Wild and Scenic designation, the Chattooga’s recreation is managed more closely to ensure the pristine atmosphere, so guided trips have a participation cap and those trips are spaced throughout the day so one group never sees another other group. The idea of spacing pods of rafts so you don’t see other pods of rafts is a simple thing that transforms the experience of rafting the Chattooga from “fun” to “enlightening.”  

I’ve rafted all over the South and some of our best rivers can feel like bumper cars on busy days. But being alone on the Chattooga, as it cuts through a steep curtain of green hardwoods and all you see is water, rock, and sandy beaches, I found myself becoming engrossed in the details of the scene. At one point, I watched the fast water roll over a certain rock and form a slithering, white trail, almost like a snake. I stood there for minutes, transfixed by the snake of water. I can’t remember the last time I stared at something other than a screen for minutes.  

Twice, we beached our boats on sandbars and hiked to waterfalls that were hidden behind a cloak of trees, and get this—those falls weren’t littered with sunbathers and big-bellied guys doing cannonballs from high rocks! Have you ever seen a waterfall that wasn’t adorned with people? It’s downright meditative. 

Photo: The author navigates the rapids of the Chattooga on a guided trip. Photos courtesy of Wildwater

Sure, it’s possible to get transfixed by nature when there are hordes of people around you, but it’s hard. I’m not good at it. I get distracted too easily.

That’s not to say the Chattooga is just about finding inner peace. The river can get rowdy occasionally too, especially during the crescendo of the Five Falls, where class IV and V rapids hit back-to-back as the river drops 75 feet in a quarter of a mile. But the drop and pool nature of the Chattooga gives you time to look around and ponder Big Ideas like solitude and whether or not I would look good in a leather vest like Burt Reynolds in Deliverance. (Sadly, nobody can pull off a leather vest like Burt Reynolds).  

It’s easy to watch that movie now (or read the book if you’re into that sort of thing) and see it as a cautionary tale of male hubris and poor expedition planning, but I think you’d miss the greater point at play here: they had a good time before all the murdering started. They steered their long, aluminum canoes through the rapids, shot fish with a bow, played guitar by the campfire…those guys got the wild, rejuvenating experience they were after before Ned Beatty squealed like a piggie. The Cahulawassee delivered everything Lewis and his cohorts were after, just like the Chattooga delivered everything I was after.

Cover photo: The author navigates the rapids of the Chattooga on a guided trip. Photos courtesy of Wildwater

Places to Go, Things to See: