By Hope S. Philbrick
Water rushing across rocks and down inclines is picturesque when observed from the shore.
On a hot summer day, it looks invigorating.
The view is a bit more intimidating, however, when seen while perched on the edge of an inflated raft.
But paddle the Chattooga River with a skilled guide from Wildwater Adventure Company, and you’ll come out victorious in the classic outdoor survival conflict of Man vs. Nature.
Whitewater rafting gained popularity in the ‘70s, in large part thanks to the movie Deliverance, based on a novel by James Dickey. Though the film depicts a canoe trip gone horribly wrong, it “planted in the minds of lounge chair adventurers that they too could have an adventure like the four Atlanta businessmen characterized in the film,” says Carolyn Allison, Wildwater director of marketing. Forty years ago, Deliverance was filmed in Georgia’s Rabun County, South Carolina’s Oconee County, and on the Chauga, Tallulah and Chattooga Rivers, which were edited together as the fictional Cahulawassee River.
The Chattooga River forms part of the border between Georgia and South Carolina (its headwaters are located near Cashiers, North Carolina). Considered one of the nation’s wildest and most beautiful whitewater rivers, it was the first river in the Southeast to be designated as a National Wild and Scenic River by Congress. Since May 10, 1974, the 57-mile river has been protected from development. The commercially rafted sections (III and IV) boast a pristine natural setting since the Sumter and Chattahoochee National Forests create a buffer zone protecting both sides of the river. Odds are that you’ll see more flora and fauna than other folks while your group navigates the current.
The spectacular river has inherent risk. In earlier days, “there were deaths on the Chattooga since people would just grab a raft or inner tube and jump on the river,” says Becky Wise, whose parents Jim and Jeanette Griner launched Wildwater in 1971. “At first there were some issues as far as people who didn’t know what they were doing. But when the commercial rafting outfitters opened up it gave people the option to do a trip with professionals.” Wildwater has safely introduced over a million people to the whitewater rafting experience and is one of the nation’s top three outfitters. All Wildwater rafting guides have First Aid, CPR and rescue training and, before they’re allowed to take guests, have completed at least eight trips down river, know rapids by name and can “read water”—that is, look at lines, whirlpools and formations on the water surface above a rapid and be able to select the best route accordingly.
There are of course no guarantees, underscored by the waiver that must be signed before embarking on a trip. But Wildwater outfits all rafters with safety gear including helmets and personal flotation devices (a.k.a., life vests). The company also provides complimentary wet suits in cold or rainy weather and jackets anytime plus advises guests to wear shoes (not flip-flops; rental booties are available) and avoid cotton clothing since it gets wet, cold and clammy. What’s more, the equipment for the sport has grown increasingly sophisticated and safer, with innovations like self-bailing rafts and plastic paddles less prone to breakage than wooden ones. Before leading groups onto the water, guides provide safety instructions and demonstrations. Then after a short bus ride, all trips start with a quarter-mile hike to the river during which guests help carry equipment.
Starting in relatively calm water, the half-day Section III route passes through patches of whitewater that gradually increase in intensity and navigational difficulty as the trip progresses; the overall route offers a balance of moments that are relaxing and those that are a pure adrenaline rush. Water levels on the free-flowing Chattooga River vary with the amount of rainfall each season—the higher the water levels, the more exciting the trips. Water is highest during spring and early summer, lowest in late summer and fall.
Since whitewater rafting rides the current, it requires less physical exertion than might be anticipated. Often, rafters can just sit and admire the view while holding paddles above water. But when the guide says, “Two strokes, left,” it’s time to get busy. There are moments while rafting that you might wish you’d pay more attention in certain school classes. “Rafting is applied physics,” says Allison. So while it may feel counter-intuitive to paddle in the midst of a swift rapid, doing so actually provides leverage to help keep you more firmly seated on the boat. An advanced science degree is not necessary, however; just listen to your guide.
Wildwater’s Chattooga trips traverse several Deliverance movie locations, which guides will happily point out—though to avoid jitters it’s recommended to learn where Burt Reynolds’ character broke his leg only after successfully passing through that stretch. The half-day trip takes about four hours while the full-day trip is seven hours. Both include lunch; on shore guides flip over a raft, cover it with a cloth and lay out a build-your-own sandwich bar with tasty options like hummus, deli meats, veggies and more. After lunch, it’s back on the river where the biggest thrills await.
The highlight of Section III is Bull Sluice, a challenging rapid that drops 14 feet in two tiers. Before tackling it, rafts are beached so guests can scramble up the rocky shoreline for a good look. If it appears too intimidating, watch from the sidelines while those who feel up for the challenge get a resounding introduction to the class of rapids more common downstream in Section IV. Once all rafts have cruised through Bull Sluice, rafters are invited to jump into the water while a photographer snaps commemorative shots. Then it’s back into the rafts to navigate a few more rapids before pulling out of the river and hiking up to the bus.
After exploring the five-mile Section III, the urge to continue down river is strong. Section IV full-day trips begin where Section III ends, traveling the steepest five-mile section of river that’s today commercially run in the Southeast. In a quarter-mile gorge, the river drops more than 75 feet through a series of five falls. Strenuous and intense, the Section IV trip is recommended for experienced rafters (minimum age 12). For adventurers who want to run both Sections back-to-back, Wildwater hosts overnight camping trips that run Section III on the first day and Section IV on the second.
In rafting terms the Chattooga is a considered drop and pool river, which means there’s not a chain of rapids but rather big drops into pools. Rapids are classed from those appropriate for novices with rocks and medium-sized waves to those with irregular waves and rocky obstacles that require complex maneuvers. The objective when whitewater rafting is to remain on the raft rather than tumble into powerful waters for a swim. Traversing rapids is technical. Steering crafts through chosen routes, skilled guides can help groups enjoy a trip that is relatively calm or more action-packed as suits the mood. So it’s possible to witness one raft full of teens spin circles through a rapid while another filled with adults zips straight through immediately afterwards. Who knew physics could be so fun?
***Odds of Encountering Children: Wildwater is equipped to take children as young as eight onto Section III, a tamer river segment appropriate for whitewater rafting novices. But you can request to be placed in a raft with other adults–and, if you’re at all timid, I recommend doing just that since teens more often crave a more adventurous ride than you might enjoy.
Chattooga Ridge Adventure Center
Long Creek, South Carolina
Recognized as one of the nation’s finest whitewater rafting outfitters, Wildwater also offers zip-line courses, canoe and kayak clinics, climbing walls, team building, Jeep tours, and a variety of lodging facilities.
The 1972 Oscar-nominated film Deliverance celebrated its 40th Anniversary June 2012 with a new premium blu-ray package from Warner Home Video that includes new special features and a 42-page commemorative book (SRP: $34.99). Starring Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox, the film was directed by John Boorman. The screenplay by James Dickey was adapted from his novel. The film was nominated for three Academy Awards including Best Picture, Directing and Film Editing.
-Photo Credits: Top three images courtesy Wildwater; fourth photo courtesy whetstonephoto.com.
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