Ride the Rapids
Nantahala Outdoor Center
NOC’s Nantahala River Outpost
13077 Hwy. 19 West, Bryson City, NC 28713
Offers guided raft trips on the Chattooga (GA); Nantahala, French Broad, Cheoah (NC); Ocoee, Nolichucky, Pigeon (TN).
From Atlanta: Approx. 2 1/2 hours
Cost: $48 per person for our half-day trip, but there are many other options. Call or visit website for details.
The Nantahala Outdoor Center has something for every possible water rat, with river adventures offered on more than a half-dozen different rivers, from Asheville, N.C., to Gatlinburg and Johnson City, Tenn. On a recent Sunday morning, our family rose before sunrise to reach the Nantahala Outpost for the 10 a.m. rafting trip we had booked. The last eight miles of our ride to Bryson City took us alongside the winding Nantahala, on the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. From the car, we caught glimpses of some of the rapids we were about to encounter.
The Cherokee called the Nantahala the “Land of the Noonday Sun” because the walls on both sides of the river tower so tall that direct sunlight only shines into the gorge in the middle of the day. Nowadays, the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) plays a leading role in the outdoor recreation world and serves as training ground for Olympic athletes.
For our experience, we met at the NOC Outpost, where you can buy anything you may have forgotten, or even rent a wetsuit. Once our signed waivers were turned in, we got our life jackets and watched a brief safety video before boarding a shuttle bus with other rafting parties for the 10-minute trip to the launching spot.
Once we launched into the Nantahala, we practiced paddling together. Rob, our informative and experienced guide, did a great job preparing us for the nine rapids we would traverse during the next two hours. (The trip we chose allows kids 7 and older and has an experienced guide in every boat.) As we made our way down the first set of rapids, called Patton’s Run, Rob steered us through the rough waters.
We quickly learned that paddling is a workout! We had two teen boys with us, one who had rafted before on the Ocoee River, and one who had never been rafting. Both boys took turns at the helm, working with Rob to operate the rudder and guiding us downstream while “directing” us to paddle together “four or more” to navigate through the Quarry Rapids, then the Rock Rapids. My 12-year-old daughter, who had never been rafting, enjoyed taking pictures of birds, wildflowers and other rafters. Kayakers were plentiful.
The serene beauty in this “Land of the Noonday Sun” was incredible. There’s something peaceful about floating down the river, listening to your guide, and paddling along as you watch the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad Train chug along the riverbank. I had the sense of being in an earlier time, or in a scene from a book or old movie. Of course, just when I started to kick back, it was time for the final class III rapid, called Nantahala Falls – the favorite of everyone in our boat. We stopped along the jetty and discussed how we were going to safely navigate our way through the longest, swiftest and most exciting rapid on our trip. We made it through fine, finishing with a “grand finale splash,” big smiles – and a photo that captures our raft amid the action.
A change of clothes and dry shoes were in order for all. After saying yes to the photo purchase and tipping our guide (15-20 percent is customary), we were sad to be finished, but glad to find three nearby restaurants. One thing’s for sure, the kids said: They can’t wait to do it again!
– Amy Smith
Rolling Thunder River Co.
20 Hughes St., McCaysville, GA 30555
Offers guided raft trips on the Ocoee and Nantahala Rivers (TN and NC). A full-day river trip (10 miles) is offered Sat. and Sun. through late Sept. The middle section of the Ocoee (5 miles) is offered Thurs.-Sun. through late Sept. Book in advance.
From Atlanta: Approx. 90 min.
Cost: Full river trip on the Ocoee is $90 per person; visit website for details about shorter trips and more.
Despite a drizzly day, rafting was still a go at the Rolling Thunder River Co. in McCaysville, so Atlanta Parent joined the Meier family of Lawrenceville for a day trip down the Ocoee in Tennessee. After a brief safety speech about what to expect, we got on the school bus with our life jackets and paddles in hand, ready to float the upper and middle sections of the Ocoee, about 10 miles total.
The Ocoee River is nationally recognized for its location in the Cherokee National Forest. Rhododendrons grow 50 feet high and Ruth’s Golden Astor fights to survive as the raging Ocoee flows below. The river is world-renowned as the 1996 Olympics kayaking course.
It was reassuring that our raft guide, Ted Champion, has worked at Rolling Thunder for 14 seasons. There wasn’t a question he couldn’t answer when it came to the river and history of the area. First-time rafter Nicole Meier, on a trip with her father Ken and brother Anthony, is the mother of 4- and 5-year-old boys. She regretfully had to leave them at home, because the state age requirement to raft the Ocoee is 12. Ted agrees with the law; he says 12 is a good age in terms of physical development and risk assessment.
Upon loading our rafts, we shoved off and were quickly met with a series of whitewater challenges. The raging rapids of the Ocoee did not disappoint. There was hardly a calm stretch of water for the entire day. Throughout the trip, we negotiated class IV rapids with names like Grumpys, Table Saw and Broken Nose. We were moving so fast, we even had to pull to the riverbank when the dams were releasing water.
Ted believes that rafting is a huge confidence builder for kids. His favorite part of the job is helping people overcome their fears, he says.
“When anyone looks down at the Ocoee, it looks mighty. It is maybe a little intimidating and not uncommon to seem scary,” Ted says. But after a few practice strokes, rafters usually feel they have the skills to help their guide down the river. “Above all, it is a great team-building activity,” he adds.
For all types of older kids, it’s tough not to have a good time rafting the Ocoee.
– Kate Wallace
7350 Hwy. 76 East, Clayton, GA 30525
Guided raft trips on the Chattooga River (Ga. and S.C.); two sister companies – Ocoee Adventure Center and Big Frog Expeditions – also run trips on the Ocoee. From mid-March through Oct., trips on sections III and IV of the Chattooga River are offered daily, as long as water levels are high enough. The Chattooga is a free-flowing river that relies solely on rainfall.
From Atlanta: Approx. 2 hours
Cost: $99 for full-day Saturday trip, lunch included; price varies, depending on the day of the week, so check website for other trips and pricing options.
The T-shirt hanging on the wall in the raft shop reads: “A life without danger is a waste of oxygen.” This seems to be the mantra of the river guides who work for Southeastern Expeditions on the “wild and scenic” Chattooga River. On a recent Saturday morning, that was the Bagby family’s motto, too. And Atlanta Parent’s.
Kelly Bagby and her two boys – Colton, 11, and Peyton, 9 – are a family with a “let’s have fun” agenda. Kelly had rafted the Chattooga three times and was looking forward to the day her boys were past the minimum age requirement of 8. After a quick bus ride and short hike down to the put-in spot, we were given paddles, helmets and life jackets. Our group gathered around for a safety speech that lead guide Geoff Doolittle delivered in detail and with enthusiasm. We loaded up our raft and embarked on our journey through class III and IV rapids on a 12-mile stretch of the river.
This was the boys’ first time rafting, but their faces showed no fear when we crested our first class IV rapid called Bull Sluice, a six-foot vertical drop into a narrow channel surrounded by jagged rocks. After a wall of water cleared our heads, Peyton declared that he “took one for the team” by sitting in the front. Geoff steered the raft to the side so he could “set safety” for the rafts behind us. Setting safety is when the guides stand on a rock below a major rapid, ready to throw an 80-foot rope to anyone who might fall out of the raft.
Geoff did an exceptional job at making us feel safe. During the school year, he is an eighth-grade math teacher. How long has he been a river guide? “Only 19 seasons,” he sheepishly replies. Geoff was also the trip leader in charge of watching out for other guides and their rafts – a big responsibility he doesn’t take lightly. Southeastern Expeditions requires its guides-in-training to raft with an experienced guide for at least 10 trips. Guides must also be certified in CPR and first aid.
Through many more rapids and a nice picnic lunch, our trip went off without a hitch, something to be thankful for when you’re dealing with potentially dangerous situations. The boys had a blast and Atlanta Parent lived to write again.
– Kate Wallace