INDEPENDENCE DAY ON THE OCOEE ~ Pushing A Bucket Boat down an AmericanClassic. by Michael Potter

Bottoms up! Ashley Law, Lee Torbush,  and Kate Shaffer at Tablesaw on the Ocoee. Photo: Ashley Law

a short historical sketch of the Middle Ocoee Dam #2.
The Toccoa River starts in the Appalachian foothills of Northeastern Georgia and continues 56 miles to the state line in the twin cities of McCaysville, Georgia and Copperhill, Tennessee. Upon reaching the state lines the name changes to the Ocoee River and continues it’s flow for another 37 miles into Tennessee at a northwestern angle. 
Construction was started on the dam in 1912 by the East Tennessee Power Company and finalized in 1913. It’s purpose was to provide power to the Alcoa company just south of Knoxville, Tennessee in Blount County. The contractors at time of production deemed that the pristine building site for the dam and the powerhouse were 4.5 miles apart.  They then contemplated the best way to transfer the force of water downstream to the powerhouse. At this point a large wooden flume was built on river left to connect the water source to the powerhouse. This flume still operates today, the same as when first constructed. 

Unfortunately the flume consumed all natural river flow and the Middle Ocoee ran dry for many years, reportedly unnavigable except in rare instances where there was enough rainfall to overflow the dam. In 1939 East Tennessee Power Company was forced by the federal government to sell out to the Tennessee Valley Authority, who acquired Ocoee Dams #1 and #2, then started production on Dam #3. The river still ran dry until 1976, when the wooden flume incurred damage from a rockslide. The TVA was forced to return the natural flow to do repairs on the flume. 
This returned flow caught the attention of several entrepreneurs who started rafting companies with pickup trucks and used rafts. Their combined business generated 7000 paddlers on the Ocoee River in the first year and has grown repeatedly every year since. The Ocoee now brings over 250,000 paddlers of all types of watercraft each season. 
The initial interest sparked talks with the TVA, who now under contract provides over 100 recreational releases each year. The 35 year agreement is good until 2019. New negotiations are presently underway with the TVA for new releases after 2019. Long live the fun of the Ocoee River.

Left to right: Ned Knowles, Sam Knowles, Mike Ward, and Michael Potter. Pic by Shannon Whitlow

So it’s Saturday morning July 2nd, and I’m on my way home for a relaxing holiday weekend. I have nothing planned except for a little class ll Tuckaseegee paddle with friends Sunday morning. While driving through Corbin, KY down 25E my phone gives me a notification light. I  reach over and swipe the screen to see why the blue beacon is blinking. It’s that darn dirtbag Mike Joseph. He is explaining that in August the Magazine will cover the popular rivers that most of you beaters like to explore on your days off work. He has chosen the Ocoee River for me, explaining that I have plenty of time to cover a story on it. He has an outline set in place already. 
I pull off the road and send him back a message saying that I have never paddled the Ocoee yet. Wallace! We start thinking and discussing other rivers. He already has the Pigeon assigned to Associate Editor Wes Breitenbach. Mike explains that he can change us around, but Wes is pumped on the Pigeon. I think about it and tell him to forget that idea. I’ll get on the Ocoee for the article.   
For the next hour down the road I’m searching my brain on how to pull this off. The timing is my biggest concern. Another issue is that I don’t want to kayak a river by myself, especially if I don’t know the lines. I’m even thinking about a commercial trip. Now I prefer to boat with friends and have never rafted commercially.  Actually, I have only rafted once. Remember, I am a kayaker. I’m definitely not against commercial rafting; as long as it’s wet and fun, I’m happy. 
Now if you read my WALLACE article in June, you know that I was demoing a Liquid Logic Flying Squirrel 85. Some dweeb stole my Pyranha Everest and I’ve been looking for a new boat. It turns out that I loved that Squirrel 85, and contacted Scott Chandler of Eagle Vision Outfitters to purchase one. Turns out Scott had given my number to his partner Mike (Shaggy) Ward.            
Mike calls me about 45 minutes after I had accepted the Ocoee assignment, confirming our meeting to deliver my 85. We chat for a few minutes, agreeing to meet at the NOC the next morning in Bryson City, NC. We talk a bit more and he explains his schedule, Nantahala on Sunday 3rd and Ocoee Monday 4th. I  mention that I am going to cover the Ocoee for DBP.  Mike immediately says, “Come raft it with us. I have an old school bucket boat.” 
I didn’t even take time to think about it. “I’ll take you up on that.”
I drive on to the house and coordinate plans for the weekend. I have a friend from Knoxville and my brother going to the Tuck with me Sunday. I’ve bought a Wavesport ZG playboat I have to pick up. I have to meet Mike to pick up the Squirrel. I have another boat that I have to drop off to send to Georgia for Jimmy Jones to weld. I also have a full crew of paddling friends to meet at 11 for the Tuck run. All this is to occur Sunday morning with a 3 hour drive…
Sunday morning rolls around and I pull off every single thing on my list and meet Mike at the NOC on time. He gives me my Squirrel and an extra Eagle Vision Outfitters sticker. (I love stickers.) Then I set off to run the Tuck. 
The Tuck trip goes well and I drive 3 hours to the house to drop off my brother and friend. I go in and take a shower and wash my gear. I grab a quick bite from the fridge, reload my gear, and get back in the SUV for another 3 hour drive. (Whitewater is not friendly to vehicle mileage.) I reach the middle Ocoee put in at 2:30am Monday morning. I throw my air mattress in the back, turn on the air conditioner, and go to bed exhausted.
Monday morning I wake up and step out of the pathfinder around 8am. The forest service is cleaning the parking lot. I speak with the Ranger about the situation.  Personally I feel that the space is provided for the public and we should leave no trace behind. I also understand that it is a small percentage of people who trash our rivers and access. I send Mike a picture of my pathfinder and tell him I’m there. I immediately get a reply saying that he is coming and will be a little late. No problem with me, I can use some more relaxing time.
Mike finally shows up with his raft strapped to the roof of his Honda Pilot. He whips in front of my vehicle, says he will meet me at staging, and pulls off. I walk across to staging to help unload the raft. He already has it on the ground with all the accessories before I can even walk across the parking lot. He introduces me to the crew. There are six of us today, five rubber pushers and a kayaker: Mike Ward, Shannon Whitlow, Sam Knowles,  Ned Knowles, and myself in the raft, and Chris Durden in a Dagger Axiom.
After all the gear is checked, I explain to Mike that I am normally not a rubber pusher. I can do what he tells me, but not to expect me to act on my own power. He says he has no problem telling me what to do or where to go. I am really looking forward to this trip as we pack down the concrete ramp to Grumpys. It will give me a chance to scout lines from the boat before I decide to kayak the Ocoee. It’s also a chance to paddle with people I’ve never paddled with before. We place the raft in the staging eddy and decide on seat position. Mike explains the first line and gives the all forward.  
The first line of Grumpys for a raft is to push directly left into the current, then downstream between two large boulders on river right, and back left to the center of the river for a full on wavetrain to the bottom of the rapid. We give four good strokes forward until the current starts pulling us toward the gap in the rocks. Mike angles the boat and yells forward again. As we pass between the rocks with a little right lean, we encounter our first drop. The gap between the rocks forms a pour over, where the current shoves directly and quickly down the middle of the river. We paddle hard and style the drop like a professional team, straight into the current, and suddenly the current from upstream catches the rubber sides and quickly spins the raft to the right. 
Mike is sitting dead center on the back when the raft spins. The force is so violent against the boat that Mike is slingshotted into Grumpys like a toy doll tossed aside. Everyone is looking forward at the coming wavetrains.  Suddenly we hear Mike yell and look back at where he was sitting. No Mike! The very first rapid and the S.S. Minnow has lost the Skipper! 
Ten feet back, Mike is swimming as fast as he can to catch up with his mutiny. We give a couple of backstroke so the raft will slow down for him. As he catches up with the raft he tries to heave overboard with no luck. I take a look ahead while he hangs on to the side of the raft to make sure our path is good. (Mike is probably getting a smack down by the gazillion rocks that make up Grumpys while I look out for myself here safe in his raft. Friends, right?) I see that all is good and abandon my post. I stand up, turn around, grab his PFD and help chunk him back into the raft. 

We are still floating at high speed with three paddlers, Mike and I searching over the stern for his guidestick. It appears a little to the left side and we have Shannon, Sam, and Ned backstroke while Mike uses my paddle to divert his own paddle to within reach. By this time we are at the end of Grumpys and eddy to river right so Mike can catch his breath and search for yardsale items. He has lost his drybag and Nalgene bottle. The local kayakers were very helpful in returning the articles to the raft. As this was happening we sat around and had a smoke and laughed off the event. I look the shoreline over and noticing the relics that were positioned strategically on the rocks higher than the normal flow. There was much evidence of the WALLACE gone by. The thing that impressed me was that the boaters that had found items had laid them up for the rightful owner to reclaim them.
We successfully maneuvered the rest of the rapids with me scouting my descent through the boulders as we went. We would run a rapid, then take the five gallon bucket and bail the water from the bottom of the raft. There are many good Class lll  rapids on the Ocoee.  Bailing became a chore after a while, so I started doing it on the fly every chance I had. This seemed to make the paddle go a bit smoother. Shannon and Ned changed sides to make the power of the raft more equally transferred.

We stopped at the bottom of several rapids such as Double Trouble to watch kayakers play and surf. Todd and Olivia McGinnis were playing at Jump Rock when we stopped. Chris demonstrated the mystery move, where a person jumps from the rock into the heaviest part of the current. The jumper pencils in straight and disappears to resurface 25 yards downstream. We left Jump Rock and meandered onward without consequence to the confluence with Go Forth Creek. 
Go Forth is a place with public parking where many that are not wanting to do the full run put in for a short lap and catch the last few major rapids. It was a great place to take a break and empty water from the boat. 
Soon we were moving again and coming into Hell Hole. Here Ned decided to throw caution to the wind and ride the bull. For safety’s  sake I will not describe this move. I’m sure you rubber pushers know what this is. Ned made it successfully through and I missed the chance to practice my SWR skills. 
Unfortunately Ned’s move took our attention away from the lines we should have been paddling. Immediately after Hell Hole, while getting Ned resituated into position, we realized we were far left and off course for Powerhouse Rapid. We were too late to compensate and accepted our fate. Pushing hard on extreme far left, we angled into the hydraulic. Just before the drop I heard Mike in the background over the roaring rapid, “We’re screwed!” To a rookie rubber pusher, those are not words inspiring confidence. I braced and fully prepared to accept my WALLACE! The boat landed in the hydraulic and surfed safely. We gave two strokes and we were home free. 

The rest of the run was flattish paddling to the takeout, so we splashed each other and talked up the run on the way in. Chris paddles up beside us and leans from his kayak to pull Ned over the side, grabbing his shoulder strap on the PFD. Ned, reacting quickly, braces and grabs the edge of the raft and an attached pull strap. Sam, seeing Ned save himself from the swim, jumps up quickly, grabs Ned’s feet, and gives the best toss he has. Ned comes flying loose from the hold he has on the raft and sails a full backflip over Chris’s Axiom. Thinking fast, as Ned flips through the air he grabs hold of Chris’s paddle and pulls him over as he enters the water. We see Chris flailing like a fish on a hook trying to fight the paddle away from him with no success. Finally the struggle is over and both men resurface laughing as the Axiom floats away. We hoist the kayak onto the raft and drain it as both swimmers climb aboard for the lake paddle to the end. 
Thanks to Mike Ward and Eagle Vision Outfitters for a great day on the Ocoee! Check them out on Facebook-
PENCIL DRAWING CAPTIONS in order. (Credit original photos to Gwendolyn Butts)
~Grumpys before release
~Dam #2 and the put in ramp
~Chris Durden couldn’t cheat the Wallace!
~The famous Hell Hole!
~Chris demonstrating the mystery move.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Michael Potter is a DBP Admin and covers his native Southeastern United States as a correspondent for DBP MAGAZINE ONLINE. He wrote a brilliant piece on what it truly means to be a dirtbag paddler and live the #OneLoveOneRiver Philosophy-

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