Mention the Chattooga River to any southern paddler and you’ll probably get a knowing smile, along with some tales of harrowing whitewater runs through features with ominous names like “Eye-of- Needle” and “Deadman’s Pool.”
But the Chattooga is not just about hairy whitewater and Class V drops. The river has a milder side, one perfect for canoeing and camping. This April, Headwaters Outfitters in Rosman will lead a guided overnight trip in hopes of introducing paddlers to this kinder, gentler side of the Chattooga.
On April 13, Headwaters will launch up to 12 canoes at the Warwoman Bridge in Section I of the Chattooga and float roughly 11 miles over two days, camping in a forested site roughly halfway through Section II. Participants will paddle through a remote wilderness setting, running Class II rapids suitable even for novices, according to David Whitmire, operations director at Headwater.
“It’s like this stretch of river was designed for classic canoeing,” Whitmire said. “Unlike the famous rapids of Section III, the sections we’re paddling aren’t used by a lot of commercial outfitters. So it retains a backcountry feel, with rapids that are playful instead of scary. There’s no need for floatation bags or the latest, greatest gear. It’s just paddlers in open boats using their skills to navigate a route that keeps them upright and dry.”
The first mile or so of the trip will take Headwaters guides and their crew down the West Fork of the Chattooga, a tree-shaded tributary about 40 feet wide with a placid current and few rapids. Its first drop, nicknamed “Dam Sluice,” is easily run by novice boaters, Whitmire said, and its sister run, called “Big Slide” is just as canoefriendly.
As they float the West Fork, paddlers will parallel the journey taken by thousands of cut logs around the turn of the century. The steep flows of West Fork tributaries like Holcomb and Overflow creeks were used by early logging crews to power “splash dams.” Cut logs were dragged down to the creeks and backed up behind these dams, then released en masse into the main channel to float downriver to sawmills in Madison, South Carolina.
“Many of the big white pine you see along the river seeded in after the hardwoods were harvested and sent downriver,” Whitmire said. “You can still see the remnants of the old splash dams in places along the upper river. We’ll paddle past another dam ruin that originally powered a turbine for milling asbestos ore, which was mined nearby.”
The paddling party will soon enter the main Chattooga channel, drifting past rock formations and exposed cliffs topped by pine and hemlock before reaching Long Bottom Ford, a major putin for Section II. Once known as “Low Water Bridge,” the ford was used by early settlers of the Pine Mountain area to cross the West Fork. Before that, it was the site of an 18th century Cherokee village consisting of about 90 residents. “Chattogee” was on the main trading path that crossed the river, connecting lower Cherokee towns in S.C. with those in Georgia and N.C.
The expedition coincides perfectly with the peak of the spring wildflower bloom, Whitmire said, providing ample opportunity for identification and photography. Crested dwarf iris, wake robin trillium, Solomon’s seal, mayapple, bleeding heart and wild geranium may all be found along the Chattooga’s fertile banks this time of year.
The night of April 13th will be spent in one of the many primitive campsites along the river, Whitmire said. Participants will have to bring their own camping gear, including tents and sleeping bags. Headwaters will provide four meals, drinks and all paddling gear, including canoes and lifejackets. The price of this trip is $295 per person and reservations are required.
“While Section II can be challenging, with the right instruction and quality guides even unseasoned boaters can paddle this section of the Chattooga,” said Whitmire. “If someone wants to advance from flatwater canoeing to something a bit more challenging, this is the perfect learning environment when the river is at normal water levels.”
In the event of high water, the trip will be postponed. All participants must be able to swim and be in good physical shape. For more information about this or other Chattooga expeditions, including the “Rivers of the Cherokee Exploration,” call Sid at (828) 877-3106. Or, visit www.headwatersoutfitters.com and click on “Special Events.”