Find Olympic-Class Thrills on Tennessee's Ocoee River
Byline: Reid Bramblett
I want to make one thing clear: I did not fall out of the boat; the boat fell out from around me. When the raft got sucked down into a hole of violently churning white water, I simply stayed in place, paddling furiously in midair, like Wile E. Coyote in that moment before gravity kicks in.
It didn't matter that Tennessee's Ocoee River ranks among Canoe Magazine's top 10 stretches of white water in America, or that this 10-mile section features some 20 Class III and IV rapids, or even that this was the very course used for the canoe/kayak slalom in the 1996 Olympic Games.
No, all that counted was that I had an audience for my unintentional dip. I popped out of the raft right as we passed the Ocoee Whitewater Center off U.S. Rte. 64/74. Dozens of landlubbers were strewn along the rocky shoreline to watch the parade of rafts tackling the white water and kayaking virtuosos honing their freestyle skills.
One of the people watching was my girlfriend, to whom I had - rather foolishly - given my camera for safekeeping.
So, while there are no pictures of my five raft mates and me thrashing and high-siding through the gnarly rapids of Let's Make a Deal, Blue Hole and Slam Dunk, there is a series of photographs of me getting spiked at Humongous - the largest rapid on the Upper Ocoee - then flailing about in the white water while clinging to the side of the raft.
Stuck between a rock and a hard current:
I had intended to photograph other parts of the river, especially the calm stretches through the big, piney quiet of the Cherokee National Forest. However, I lost my waterproof camera when, about 15 feet down river of the put-in site, we managed to wrap the raft around a rock.
The Upper Ocoee averages 1,400 cubic feet of water per second (that's 628,320 gallons every minute), a swift current that kept us pinned against the rock and up to our bellies in surging water throughout 20 minutes of aborted rescue attempts that would have been comical had the water not been so very cold.
While our trainee rafting guide repeatedly failed to catch the lifelines thrown by his colleagues onshore, we busied ourselves fruitlessly trying to fight the river by hauling on the submerged edges of the raft, occasionally pausing to let our teeth chatter and to throw dirty looks at passing boats in more skilled hands.
Finally, we wrenched our rubber dinghy far enough around the rock that the powerful current suddenly worked in our favor. The river grabbed our raft, spun it into the stream, and we were on our way to nearly four hours of white-water thrills . …