Wildwater Rafting on the Chattooga River
Alison and I are in Oconee County, South Carolina at the invitation of Ken Sloan, the county’s director of everything related to tourism and man, does he have a great product to showcase. Oconee is the state’s westernmost county and the highest in elevation. When most people think of visiting South Carolina the first things that come to mind are usually Charleston, Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head – all fine destinations to be sure. However, there is a much wilder side to the Palmetto State and you’ll find it here in Oconee County. Much of it lies in the Blue Ridge Mountains, famous for beautiful Carolinian forests, mountain streams and waterfalls and gorgeous, deep clear lakes. I will be putting up a few posts on Oconee County, but I couldn’t wait to write this one about rafting the Chattooga River with Wildwater Rafting. It was one of the best days of my life – here’s why and how you can do the same.
The Chattooga River
Whitewater rafting is one of the most exciting things you can do on an adventure based holiday – it can provide a massive adrenalin hit along with just a great day on the water. However, you need to pick the right river and the right outfitter. We have been on whitewater trips that were closer to a theme park ride than a natural experience. What you want is a river that is not lined with houses, docks and old tires and other debris on the bottom. You also want a river that is not overrun with fellow whitewater enthusiasts where all you see are other rafts and you have to queue up to shoot any of the rapids. And of course you want a challenge and not just a piffle through some riffles. The Chattooga River fits the bill on all accounts.
The Chattooga (not be confused with the Chattanooga) is a designated Wild and Scenic River under the auspices of the National Park Service which means that is has never been damned and has no development on or within a quarter mile of its banks. In other words, it’s truly wild and believe me, it is scenic. Other whitewater trips in the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains take place on rivers that have been dammed and where the water level is controlled by the the outflow from these dams. The water level on the Chattooga is controlled only by Mother Nature.
As a designated Wild and Scenic River and having the further protection of being in Sumter National Forest, access to the Chattooga is strictly regulated. There are only three licensed operators on the entire river and the whitewater trips are scheduled in such a way that the only other people you are likely to see on the river are the group you are with. The Chattooga is a deadly serious river in terms of the degree of difficulty, with some stretches including Class VI rapids which are just too dangerous to be commercially rafted. For most people, Section 3 which includes many Class I to III rapids and one Class IV, Bull Sluice, should be ideal. For more experienced whitewater enthusiasts Section 4 offers Class IV and V rapids which are pretty well the limit for what you can do anywhere in the world.
The picture above is Bull Sluice from the South Carolina side of the river – Georgia’s on the other side. Ken took us here on the day before our trip just to make sure we were OK with running this portion of the river. Our answer? Of course!
But there’s one more reason to pick the Chattooga for you next whitewater adventure. Cue the banjos – much of the movie Deliverance was filmed on the very stretch of river that Wildwater Rafting will be taking us on today.
Deliverance is one of the most iconic movies of the 20th century and not just for the fact that is a great modern horror story unlike anything before or after it was made. The story behind the story is just as compelling. Director John Boorman didn’t have a big budget, insurance or stunt men when he took Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox out onto the Chattooga River in 1971 to film some of the most hair raising scenes ever shot. Everything you see in the river scenes of Deliverance is the real deal with the actors doing everything Boorman asked them to. Both Reynolds and Beatty nearly drowned and Voight climbed straight up a cliff without any protection from a fall. Boorman said his cast “Had more guts than a burglar.”
So who would pass up a chance to raft the same waters that Boorman and company made famous almost fifty years ago?
Wildwater Rafting started on the Chattooga River not long after Deliverance came out and the notoriety of that film helped kickstart the business that now is in its 47th year and third generation of family ownership. They currently offer whitewater rafting trips in Tennessee, Georgia and North Carolina, but it all started here in Oconee County and this is the company’s home base. They occupy the grounds of an old boarding school that operated from the early 1900’s to the 1950’s when kids who lived too far from school to walk or ride a horse, had to be sent to live at the school. This is the old girl’s dormitory that now serves as the administrative office and check-in site for Chattooga River trips.
After being fitted with a Personal Flotation Device and helmet we are introduced to our guides. Alison, Ken and I will go with Dylan Carr who is in his fourth year with Wildwater Rafting and a couple from Galveston who are back for the second day in a row will go with 17 year veteran Mike ‘Tupelo’ Richardson. So there’ll only be seven of us in two small rafts on the river today.
Rafting the Chattooga
What follows is our experience on the Chattooga River with Dylan and Mike as illustrated by photos and videos. The photos of us shooting Bull Sluice were taken by Whetstone Photography who are onsite at Wildwater Rafting headquarters. They were kind enough to let me use the photos for this post.
The one downside, and it’s not if you are the Chattooga River, is that because it is a Wild and Scenic River you must walk in about a quarter mile to get to the launch spot. While Dylan and Mike carry the rafts you will be expected to do your share by carrying some necessary supplies.
It is an absolutely gorgeous spring day.
Like all good things in life the journey starts off fairly easily and builds to a crescendo at Bull Sluice followed by an amazing series of Class III rapids that all completely different, each presenting their own challenges.
Alison looks calm and determined at the same time.
Within a few minutes and after traversing a few Class I and II rapids it pretty obvious that Dylan and Mike have things fully in control. This is a typical small rapid traverse. For anything more serious you’d have to be an idiot to try and film it without a GoPro.
We are expected to paddle at certain times, but I would not in any way describe the paddling on this river run as tiring. All of the people in our group are experienced paddlers so that makes things easier for the guides.
After shooting our first challenging set of rapids Dylan asks us if we would like to float them. Sure, looks pretty easy. Here we are gingerly making our way out to the rock from which we will launch ourselves into the river.
And here goes Alison.
We got on the river about 10:30 and our arrival at Bull Sluice is scheduled for 1:15 so we stop for an early lunch with Dylan and Mike putting out a spread using one of the rafts as a table. Nothing tastes better than dining al fresco with a river running beside you.
That’s Ken Sloan having a tough day at the office, but it’s about to get tougher.
Bull Sluice with Wildwater Rafting
Running Bull Sluice, the only Class IV stretch on Section 3 of the Chattooga River is optional. The guides are required to remove all the gear and transport it to the other side leaving the rafts with only the guide and guests to shoot the sluice. Everybody gets out to visually examine the area for debris like sunken logs that might pose a danger. Looking down at Bull Sluice I don’t see the need for there to be any debris to make it dangerous. Judge for yourself.
Despite everything in my 66 years of experience telling me this is not a good idea, Alison and I decide to accept the challenge. So does the couple from Texas and since I couldn’t be in two places at once, here is my video of them shooting Bull Sluice. Notice how friggin’ calm Mike is throughout.
OK. Now here’s our transit as captured in photos by Devon of Whetstone Photography.
Ready for Bull Sluice with Dylan Carr of Wildwater Rafting. We don’t look too terrified do we?
Too late to turn back now.
Dylan is actually standing up as we go over the steepest part.
Alison is practically buried as we hit the bottom.
But we do come up.
Then there’s a final narrow chute where the raft rattles between the rocks like a rubber duck in a kid’s bath.
And just like that, after only 20 seconds it’s over. We’ve conquered Bull Sluice with nary a scratch – actually not true. Somewhere in the middle of that maelstrom Alison managed to scratch the side of her nose pretty good when one of her hands was knocked up by the force of the water.
Just as my heartbeat is starting to return to normal Mike says he’s got another way of experiencing Bull Sluice – just jump into the middle of the damn thing. My first thought is that Mike is a f***in’ lunatic, but he dances out to the edge of the rocks and throws himself in just to prove it’s only about 90% lunacy. They say a fool and his money are soon parted and I wonder if the same goes for a fool and his life. But others say, “Nothing ventured. Nothing gained”. So with nothing to lose but our lives we go on to part 2 of the Bull Sluice challenge.
It’s amazing how stupidly happy one can look only moments before jumping into God knows what.
I go first and this photo makes it look like I’m actually doing the moonwalk on the water.
Alison goes next and shows much better form.
With a little help from an expertly tossed throw line, we get back to shore and look at each other with a “What we’re we thinking? ” look and then just laugh. Really, Bull Sluice was a blast.
One would think that everything after Bull Sluice would be anti-climactic, but it’s not. Far from it, with Class III beauties like Screaming Left Turn (and it is), Rock Jumble and the very tricky ending at Woodall Shoals where we had our only out of boat experience. Anne from Texas ended up in the water not 100 yards from our ending point and I’m pretty sure Mike had something to do with it, but I wouldn’t swear on it. Just the twinkle in his eye seemed a little too shiny.
My favourite part of the lower section was called Surfer, because it was where Burt Reynolds was swept through the rapids after being tossed from his canoe in Deliverance. Shooting it on the raft was not too hard, but doing it like Burt was another matter altogether. Trust Mike to talk me into another dumb, but ultimately exhilarating thing to do with Wildwater Rafting. Getting into the middle of the top of the rapids was the hardest part. You can see it in this video, but you won’t see me actually performing a Reynoldslike manoeuvre through the rapids because the bloody memory card was full and stopped recording. Trust me, I was brilliant.
We were on the Chattooga River with Wildwater Rafting for almost five hours and covered over eight miles and dozens of rapids. It was one of the best experiences of my life. Thank you Ken Sloan and Oconee County for giving me the opportunity to write about this amazing opportunity.