by Amy Walker
On any day in the height of summer on the dam-controlled Nantahala River
in Western North Carolina, you'll see a colorful parade of rafts, kayaks,
canoes and inflatable kayaks ("duckies") floating downstream.
Rafting outfitters began to offer commercial trips during the early
1970's. Today, even with U.S. Forest Service permit restrictions, it's
estimated that as many as 160,000 individuals float the river in rafts
alone. The Nantahala as we now know it, from its headwaters at Standing
Indian Mountain on the Georgia state line to its mouth at Fontana Lake,
is a nationally-recognized river of recreation, a river of play and
The Nantahala, a Class II-III river, is considered ideal for both the
first-timer and experienced rafter, as well as for private boaters of any
skill level (novice to advanced). With a wealth of rapids running the
length of river, there's plenty of fun for rafters, kayakers, and
canoeists alike. Families particularly like this river since USFS
regulations stipulate that participants can weigh as little as 60 pounds,
enabling many children to participate. Outfitters provide the equipment
and safety gear needed for the trip down the river (lifejacket, splash
pants, etc) and many also offer rental rafts or "ducky" trips,
depending on water levels.
From put-in to take-out, the rafting stretch is eight-and-a-half miles,
lasting about two-and-a-half hours on the water for a commercial trip.
Private boaters also use the Forest Service's commercial put-in and must
pay a $1 fee for daily use or $5 for a season's permit. The put-in is
just downstream of a power plant, where a feeder pipe brings water from
Nantahala Lake, high above the river corridor, down to the generator.
During power production, the discharge from the Nantahala plant, at 586
cubic feet per second, fills the Lower Nantahala Gorge and enables it to
play host to fishermen and whitewater enthusiasts alike.
Downstream of the put-in, there's a historical plaque commemorating the
botanist William Bartram, who traveled the area in the spring of 1776.
The tree-covered ridges of the Gorge are home to evergreens such as white
and pine, and hemlock: along the river are larger deciduous trees such as
tulip, poplar, sycamore and beech. Among the wildlife are black bear,
wild turkeys, deer, kingfishers, cardinals and wrens, to name a few.
There are places along the Nantahala where high cliffs continue to shut
out the direct sunlight until nearly noon, making the name
"Nantahala" appropriate as a version of the Cherokee
"Nundayeli", meaning "middle sun" or "midday
With over 20 named rapids, the Nantahala has plenty of exciting fun for
boaters, and calmer areas for simply floating and quietly appreciating
the natural beauty of the river. The fun begins with Class III Patton's
Run followed immediately by Class II+ Tumble Dry. Downstream of Ferebee
Park is the well-known Delabar's Rock, featuring two Volkswagen sized
rocks on river left, one after the other, and Delabar's Rock on river
right, a diamond-shaped rock known for flipping rafts!
Whirlpool Rapid is marked by a large slanted rock on river left, behind
which is the infamous whirlpool -- a powerful eddy known to many boaters.
Kayakers and canoeists can be seen surfing the wave that furls off the
rock or getting enders if their playboats are small enough. This is a
huge mass of surging, squirrelly water, great for kayaker's squirts and
play moves. Seasoned raft guides sometimes take delight in playing here,
using the eddy's powerful line to catch a corner of the raft and create
some fast spins. If a rafter falls in, they may take a few turns before
the next boat picks them up!
A fitting climax to the run, Nantahala Falls is just above the usual
take-out. Some kayakers and canoeists prefer to break the Falls down into
a few steps, eddy-hopping their way down using Truck Stop eddy and
others. At the base of the Falls is the area where kayakers and canoeists
may spend much of their time perfecting play moves or practicing ferrying
A spectator's area on river right ensures that the Falls is a social spot
where folks congregate to watch the action from above. Outfitter
photographers also set up their equipment here beneath brightly colored
umbrellas, capturing the most intense action of the day. For those who
didn't successfully run Nantahala Falls, it is a short easy walk upstream
to the top of the rapid, for another attempt!
Amy Walker (used with permission)
North Carolina's Nantahala: A River of Riches
by Amy Walker
On any whitewater adventure down the Nantahala, there's ample opportunity
to float on flatwater and gaze at the wealth of botanical wonders that
line the river corridor. Downstream of Patton's Run rapid near Tumble
Dry, on the highway on river left, there's a historical plaque
commemorating the botanist William Bartram. Bartram spent the spring of
1776 traveling through the Southern Appalachians in pursuit of new plants
and traced the Savannah River to the Little Tennessee and then on to the
Nantahala, encountering a forest of fast-growing evergreen species, black
spruce and balsam fir, along with alder and birch.
In addition to Bartram's findings, botanists have since identified 1500
to 2000 species of plant life. Today we continue to appreciate azalea and
laurel in early summer, rhododendron in June and treasures such as wild
tiger lilies in August. Add to that floral palette daffodils, trillium
and even kudzu! From the vantage point of the water, trees dominate the
steep ridges that create the Gorge -- evergreens like white pine, hemlock
and yellow pine, while tulip, poplar, sycamore and beech are the larger
trees directly along the river banks.
There are many ideal points while on the river to look up to the sky
beyond the steep ridges that are characteristic of the area. So steep are
the ridges, anthropologist James Mooney writes, that the noted hunter
Tsasta'wi would stand on a bluff overlooking his settlement and throw the
liver of a freshly-killed deer down onto his roof. Supposedly his wife
would have it prepared for him by the time he descended the mountain!
Nantahala Lake and the surrounding area were home to the Cherokee one
thousand years ago and there is evidence of settlers ten thousand years
The geology of the Southern Appalachian mountain system is such that the
terrain does not have the natural storehouses that are typical of the
northern system -- lakes and glacial deposits. Sudden rainfalls bring
rapid rises and falls to the Southern Appalachian stream flows. With the
establishment of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in 1933, a system
of dams and lakes were created to harness flood conditions and use
Appalachian water power to produce electrical power.
On the approach to the put-in by road, the power plant comes into view,
an imposing cage of steel and wire, as well as the feeder pipe that
brings water to the plant from the Nantahala Lake high above the river
corridor. The Nantahala Hydroelectric Project -- Nantahala Lake
(reservoir), pipeline and tunnels -- completed in 1942, today serves
50,000 customers in five Western North Carolina counties (Swain, Macon,
Jackson, Graham and Cherokee). As much as the Nantahala's known for
recreation, it's also a river of utility. Literally, a river of power.
Among the many unique natural features of the Gorge is below Patton's Run
rapid, where the river surprisingly takes a 90 degree bend to the right.
Writing for the Asheville Citizen-Times in 1992, Bryson City, NC-based
writer George Ellison wrote "Few of the thousands of whitewater
enthusiasts who set off from this area...realize that it's one of the
most significant geological sites in the southern mountains." It was
proposed by geologist Arthur Keith that the river originally ran
northwards from Georgia, but was hijacked by a resolute limestone strata
and made to run in the easterly direction it follows today. Put forth by
Keith early this century, the theory continues to hold.
While the Nantahala is dam-controlled and it flows at the whim of a
switch, it is by no means benign. Its character can change swiftly,
thanks to the heavy rains that grip the area from time to time. Take, for
example, the year 1990. During the Nantahala '90 International Raft
Rally, the river reached 10 feet in flood stage -- quite a departure from
the typical 3.5 ft. The river was transformed into a raging torrent with
well-known features blown out, race gates washed away, and the assembly
area drowned. A relief operation of dozers, gravel and whitewater
enthusiasts kept the raft races on schedule as competitors from all over
the world met the mighty(!) Nantahala, many for the first time. Without
question, a river of play!
Amy Walker (used with permission)