“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien

"Everybody dies. Not everybody really lives."

The saddest sound in the world is a man saying, "I wish I'd have done that."

Monday, May 7, 2012

Paddling the Gnarly Nolichucky

On this cool April morning the Nolichucky River is running high and fast. Not a roiling mass of whitewater but definitely enough to grab your attention. We shiver in the cool mountain air and the sight of the wild river adds to our trembling.

"Gnarly," says the guide at the outfitter's store."You guys are definitely going to have some good rafting this weekend."

We've traveled a long way to reach the banks of this isolated river and we definitely do not want to hear that we won't be rafting today, so his words are music to our ears. Unlike many eastern whitewater runs, the Nolichucky is a free-flowing river, which means that no upstream dam provides reliable flows of rollicking whitewater. When you head to other popular whitewater runs in the southeast, like the Ocoee or the Gauley, predictable and planned releases guarantee specific water levels. When you run the Nolichucky you take your chances. You may be met with a raging — and dangerous — torrent of runoff from violent spring rains or a trickle over a rocky riverbed that makes for a bumpy, dragging ordeal. The Nolichucky is kinda like that old saw about the weather: You don't like it? Stick around and it'll change.

We stand on the riverbank 48 hours after a tropical storm worked its way up the Eastern seaboard, dumping some serious rain on the Carolinas, so we knew we'd have enough water to raft the river. Our worry was that we'd have too much water — the commercial outfitters refuse to run rafts when water levels are too high. Standing on the front porch of the outfitter's store and looking out over the rushing brown and white runoff churning past, we wonder if the water is too wild and we are concerned that we won't be rafting. But our guide assures us that we'll hit the water today.

With dozens of outstanding rivers competing for the attention of eastern whitewater enthusiasts, the Nolichucky is often overlooked. Part of this is due to its isolation — the river is hidden in the mountains of North Carolina on the Tennessee border near the tiny town of Erwin, Tennessee. Once you reach Erwin, which is nestled in the Appalachians of eastern Tennessee near Johnson City, it is still a good one-hour drive on snaking two-lane mountain roads to the put in point in North Carolina. By then you're WAY back in the mountains, so far back that you'll cross the Appalachian Trail to get to the river.

This is a true mountain stream, the headwaters originating near Mt. Mitchell in North Carolina, at 6684 feet, the highest point in the eastern U.S. The water flowing from the Mt. Mitchell drainage swells into the Cane River and the South Toe River and, after joining with the North Toe River flowing out of Iron Mountain and Roan Mountain, forms the Nolichucky. Imagine over eight hundred square miles of steep mountain peaks and valleys funneling water into one narrow 900-foot deep gorge. Add a heavy spring rain and a riverbed sprinkled with a healthy mix of truck-sized boulders and the result is exactly what you would expect: a churning maelstrom of standing waves, steep drops, and rushing chutes producing a staccato series of rapids that go on for miles.

The stretch of river we're rafting from the town of Poplar, North Carolina to Erwin is the most popular section of river for kayakers and commercial whitewater rafting outfitters. This ten-mile stretch is a challenging series of Class III-IV rapids and it drops an average of 33 feet per mile so there is not going to be any slowing down during this trip. The rapids here are the biggest on the entire 110-mile length of the Nolichucky. Minivan-sized boulders, plummeting drops, and technical chutes characterize this section of the river.

It looks daunting from the gravel bar as we push off. "Gnarly!" our guide shouts again. "The river's running above three feet on the gauge."  He tells us that this is just about the upper limit for commercial running and we quickly find that this is not going to be a leisurely laid-back float. The raft barely loses hold on the crunching pebbles and gravel before the current grabs us and jerks our bow around into its clutches. Within a quarter mile of the put in, we stumble into the Class III+ Railroad Rapid and paddle furiously to keep our raft just right of the main drop to avoid the hole below. One thought crosses our minds: This is going to be a great run!

We've hardly recovered from Railroad and our guide is yelling over the roar of the whitewater for us to set up for On The Rocks, a Class III-IV four-foot drop with two major holes below and a huge boulder exactly where the river tries to drop you. Next is Jaws, a Class III ledge that is a prime surfing spot for rafts and kayaks at lower water levels but is dicey today. We paddle into an eddy and watch a small coterie of kayakers playing below the ledge before pressing on.

Jaws spits us out into Snappy, a lively Class III and then a long, steep rapid called Quarter Mile-and it is at least that long. Quarter Mile is basically a continuous rock garden with boulders and ledges peppered along its entire length. This is probably the"gnarliest" part of the river (our guide tells us so) and an upset in Quarter Mile is no fun, what with boulders and rocks waiting to bang and bruise you. At the bottom of Quarter Mile is Murphy's, a four-foot drop that is high in entertainment value. We pull into an eddy below the ledge and wait for the inevitable disaster.

It doesn't take long before a raft comes through sideways, catapulting paddlers over the ledge and into the pool below. Of course, in the gallant code of the whitewater world, we guffaw and point mercilessly. Too much fun to miss, so we pull over for a lunch break and watch the carnage for the next 45 minutes.

The next three miles don't get a whole lot easier. A series of Class III-IV rapids; Roostertail, Rollercoaster, Surprise, Rock Garden, and Maggie's Rock offer a quality selection of standing waves, technical maneuvers, crunching holes, and chaotic drops. Below Maggie's, the character of the river changes a little. These first few miles of river have dropped an average of almost 67 feet per mile, but now the river starts to level out. The near-vertical walls of the Nolichucky Gorge, steep and constricted before, flatten out and broaden, angling into more gradual slopes. The gorge widens out here and so does the river.

The last four major rapids are Hole-in-the-Wall, Big Eddy, Shoo-Fly Shoals, and the Slide. These are big pillowy Class II-III rollers that give us a chance to lean back and enjoy the scenery of Pisgah National Forest and Cherokee National Forest. The stark gray bluffs disappear and lower tree-shrouded hills angle up and away from the river. The early-April buds are just beginning to appear on the redbud, dogwood, and poplar trees vying for space on the hillsides and vestigial leaves paint the slopes with just a hint of green. Thick patches of rhododendron and mountain laurel begin to appear, their waxy green leaves splashing the scenery with deep emerald swatches. The final four miles of the commercial section smooth out into gentle pools and eddies where ducks, geese, herons, and deer play.

Below the commercial section, the river flattens out even more and becomes a much tamer run. Rafts and kayaks are replaced by open canoes and, on hot summer days, by inner tubes. The Nolichucky mellows out and the big drops and rollers are replaced by lively riffles and Class I and II rapids. The claustrophobic towering walls of the gorge are replaced by long vistas of the Appalachians fronted by open meadows of wildflowers. This section is especially attractive in the late spring and fall, when you can enjoy the blooming wildflowers or the autumn foliage.

The Nolichucky is sometimes a questionable run in the summer. Be sure to check with one of the local outfitters for water levels before making the trek to the mountains. A level of less than 2.4 feet is marginal for paddlers and only experienced paddlers should attempt anything near 3 feet. As with any free-flowing river, caution should be exercised any time water is high. At medium levels, the surfing spots and playholes are full of kayakers who descend magically on the Nolichucky as if on some telepathic cue. The spring rains make March through April the best times to experience exciting water levels. If you catch it right — say, after a generous April storm as we did — you'll enjoy an almost continuous series of Class III and Class IV foam and experience eastern whitewater rafting at its finest. Or as our extremely eloquent guide exclaims as we beach our raft at the take out,"Gnarly!"


Erwin is about fifteen miles south of Johnson City, Tennessee on Highway 19 or highway 19/23 north out of Asheville, North Carolina. The section described in this article starts in the Pisgah National Forest and then enters the Cherokee National Forest.

Although most of the 110-mile length of the Nolichucky can be paddled, the 30-mile section from Poplar, NC to Embreeville, TN is the prime section. This section can be broken into three smaller runs depending on your skills and time available. The run from Poplar to the railroad bridge near Erwin is nine miles of Class III-IV whitewater. From the railroad bridge to highway 81 you can enjoy ten miles of Class I-II Water. Another ten mile run from Riverview to Embreeville is a nice Class II paddle. The milder water of the lower sections is good canoeing water.

(This article originally appeared on GORP.com (Great Outdoor Recreation Pages))