From the end of October until March, the sleepy little town of Ocoee, Tennessee, dons its wintry overcoat, throws another log on the fire, and settles in for the season. Hibernating…like a bear…from the nearby snowy ridges. But when the frigid temperatures have left, and April brings the spring thaw, the little town awakens and snaps to life.
Because April brings rafters to Tennessee’s world-class whitewater rapids. They come by car. They come by the busload. They come in droves, clad in scant little bikinis or neoprene wetsuits—all ages, all genders—chattering and whooping and hollering and kicking the town of Ocoee into high gear.
Adrenaline-Filled Days in Ocoee
Along with the tourists looking for that whitewater thrill come the students and transients who staff the twenty-plus river outfitters that raft the churning waters of the Ocoee. For Carlo and Julie Smith, owners of Adventures Unlimited, this exodus from the urban sprawl of the city to the great Tennessee wilderness signals the end of the ‘deserted season’ where working odd jobs is the norm. It’s the beginning of seven months of sunny, adrenaline-filled days. “We take pride in what we do,” says Carlo. “Which is making sure that the guests have a good time. People come here for an experience and we expose them to the great outdoors.”
He admits that ‘repeat rafters’, like my 77-year old father, Lee, are the “bread and butter” of his business. “These are the people we get to know on a first-name basis. We look forward to seeing them year after year.”
Ocoee’s Dam-Controlled Ride
The grand adventure begins the moment you board the bus. As my dad always says, “The rapids may only be a class IV, but the bus ride is a class X!” And the bus never fails to live up to its reputation, as it lurches and careens around the hairpin turns on its way to the put-in at Ocoee Dam #2.
If you’re on the 10:00 a.m. raft trip, you can’t really get a feel for the aesthetic of the river as you gaze out the window. Most of it will be little more than a dry quarry of rock because the whitewater runs here are dam controlled. The TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) flips a proverbial switch and the water begins to surge. Literally within moments of being ‘turned-on’, more than 1200 cubic feet of water per second begin their descent down the riverbed.
It’s this huge convergence of turbulent, frothy whitewater that creates the three drops at Broken Nose, the two ‘holes’ at Double Suck, the violent waves at Tablesaw, and finally, the humongous surf at Hell Hole, near the Powerhouse and the take-out point. Normally, the rafting companies allow 45 minutes to an hour before put-in; otherwise, “it could be possible to catch up with the water”, notes Carlo. With a water shut-off itinerary that almost changes on a daily basis, outfitters have to constantly keep abreast of the scheduling. No one would want to be stranded on the river with the water cut off.
Getting on the Water in Ocoee
The bus arrives at the parking area just above the dam and dozens of bodies bail out onto the asphalt. Following ten minutes of intense instruction, it’s time to tote the 130-pound raft down the concrete ramp to the edge of the already foaming current. Even though it requires all the strength I can muster just to help lift it, I am right there, amongst the men.
Two footsteps into the frigid water and I feel that first tingle of excitement…maybe it ‘s the sight of all that water flowing over the sluiceway at the dam…maybe I’m still trying to get my bearings after all those switchbacks on the harrowing bus-ride to the river…or maybe it’s just the ‘tingle’ in my lower extremities as I plough into that nippy 65° to 70° water. Either way, my adrenaline is pumping.
With a frenzied “everybody, get in!” from our Adventures Unlimited guide, Harley, all five of us bail into the raft, legs and arms all askew. Not wanting to disappoint him or make him think we haven’t listened to every word of his instructional speech, we immediately assume the proper ‘rafter’s’ position—that is, ‘butt crack’ to ‘boat crack’, with our rear ends firmly planted at the cross-section between the seat and outer edge. My feet are anchored in, paddle resting on my lap, fingers clasped tightly around the t-grip handle of my oar. As a seasoned rafter, and having been considered a ‘power paddler’ in the past, I am positioned up front, alongside my husband.
For the biggest thrill of excitement, sitting ‘up front’ usually guarantees the wettest, wildest ride. It also usually means that as you’re bobbing along like a dreidel through the first set of Class IV rapids, known as Grumpy, commencing just seconds down from the dike, you’ll be the first to get swamped by the rush of freezing water washing over the raft. It’s better not to know that this initial stretch of whitewater contains a hydraulic—a deep recirculating hole—and that it has the potential to capsize and roll a boat over in its swells. No one wants to worry about that, and besides, before you know it, you’ve breezed on through and are headed towards Gonzo Shoals.
Pulse-Pounding Whitewater in Ocoee
So we settle into the rhythm of the river: we ride the giant waves through Double Trouble… cruise alongside the protruding rock at Diamond Splitter. It’s an hour-and-a-half of paddling—sometimes intense, sometimes not—surrounded by the natural beauty of the Tennessee woodland. All of the trees have already shed their summer greenery for us, replacing their leaves with autumn’s reds, oranges, and browns. There are even occasional moments of serenity on the trip, in a half-mile stretch called The Doldrums, with only the gentle gurgling sound of the river lapping against the side of the raft.
Being a bit daring, I flip backward out of the boat, into that chilly river, for a quick dip. Not sure what requires the biggest effort—flapping my arms like a wild woman trying to get some heat flowing into my limbs or trying to get back into the raft. Since I’m not one of those ‘catwalk-thin’ girls, I am yanked out of the water by my life preserver and hauled aboard like an enormous sack of potatoes. I try to be graceful…it doesn’t happen. All ‘however-many-pounds’ of me are dumped onto the canvas flooring, between the seats, and I have to struggle quite unladylike to regain composure and my ‘butt crack’ positioning. It doesn’t matter, though, because these ‘moments of serenity’ are short-lived. They are interrupted by waves of roiling whitewater, which sends the raft bouncing and reeling against the jutting rocks and into the turbulent waves.
As we approach the swirling rift at Hell Hole, the largest and final section of world-class rapids, I remember turning back toward my son and yelling out, “Brace in, buddy, here we go!” And away we went. Three generations of rafters—my 77-year old dad, my 12-year old son, Nicolas and myself—disappear into a chasm of churning, foaming surf. Seconds later, we ricochet out of the froth, only to be whisked away again into another maelstrom of whitewater waves.
After a couple hours on the Ocoee, we load up all of our gear and head back to Adventures Unlimited. A little out of breath, and a little sore in the muscles. And hungry. It’s amazing how an afternoon of ferocious paddling works up a hankering for food.
Camping in the Tennessee Wilderness
Back at the Parksville Lake Campground, with our appetites abated, I throw another log onto the fire and settle into my canvas armchair to reminisce about the day. Nothing better than sharing a spirited outing with family and friends, fueled by the surge of adrenaline…except maybe sharing a relaxing moment at sundown fueled by a couple of chocolately, marshmallow s’mores.
To the strains of a symphony of nocturnal crickets, once again, the pall of night settles upon the town of Ocoee like a cloak. Just another exhilarating day in a tiny rafting town a stones-throw from the Cherokee National Forest. One day closer to the return of seclusion, and winter…one day closer to hibernation.
If You Go to Ocoee
522 Highway 64
Ocoee, TN 37361
(800) 662-0667 or (423) 338-4325
Parksville Lake Campground
US Route 64 and State Route 30
Ducktown, TN 37326
(423) 338-6577 – FAX
There are many different things to experience during your visit to Tennessee. When you’re not rafting the Mighty Ocoee, check out some of the other suggestions that Wander writers have for what to see and do in Tennessee.