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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Nantahala River

The Nantahala River flows like the plot of a Stephen King novel. The intensity of the rapids slowly increases, tension building to a screaming climax at notorious Nantahala Falls. You’ll recognize the Falls by the unruly mob of spectators crowding the riverbank. These people are not your friends. They are rooting for an overturned raft or crumpled kayak and the Falls feeds them a steady diet of chaos and calamity. The river funnels through a narrow chute of boulders and ledges that catches the unwary in a wrenching spin cycle and spits any remains out the other end. Mess up here and your experience will forever playback in your memory accompanied by a soundtrack of whoops and guffaws. You’ll be a hero or a goat, depending on luck or skill, but either way the Falls is a splashy (literally) finale to this river, one of the Southeast’s most popular whitewater destinations.

Tucked away in the highlands of North Carolina, a couple of hours from Sugar Mountain and Ski Beech ski areas, the Nantahala tumbles cold and crystal clear along the southern edge of the Great Smoky Mountains. With almost two dozen major rapids in eight-and-a-half miles, you’ll be able to paddle on a near-constant string of exciting mountain whitewater. The most memorable drops–Patton’s Run, Tumble Dry, Whirlpool, and Surfer’s Rapid—are excellent spots to try out your kayaking moves or just play in the spray. The biggest rapids on the Nantahala are Class III, which means that you don’t have to be a world-class paddler to handle this river.

This challenging-but-not-life-threatening reputation also means that you’ll be sharing your run with a fleet of kayaks, canoes, and rafts—about 200,000 people float the Nantahala annually. If you’re a serious kayaker you may have to queue up for the most popular play areas. But don’t let that bother you, there is plenty of river here for all. Peel out and paddle a few yards downstream and there’ll be another rapid to surf and play in. And if your arms start to ache, lean back and float through the flatwater stretches where you can enjoy the richness of the rhododendron, mountain laurel, azalea, and trillium that paint the near-vertical cliffs of the Nantahala Gorge. Just remember to save some muscle for Nantahala Falls!

Details: More than a dozen outfitters serve the river but the premier outfitter is the Nantahala Outdoor Center (888-662-1662), www.nocweb.com. If you are running the river in your own kayak or canoe, NOC offers a restaurant, outdoor equipment store, and lodging conveniently located right on the river. Kayaking skills a little rusty? NOC also provides kayaking classes. If you’d rather attack the Nantahala in a raft NOC can handle that too, or you can also try USA Raft (800-USA-RAFT), www.usaraft.com. Check out the Bryson City website at www.greatsmokies.com for info on the area.

(This article originally appeared in SKI Magazine)

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