The Ocoee River is a pure southern gem that challenges rafters and kayakers of all skill levels. It is a solid boulder garden that claims title to over twenty named rapids. Names like Grumpys, Broken Nose, Table Saw, Double Trouble , and Hell Hole are good indicators that there could be some challenges ahead, skills to be learned, or maybe even some down right stupid shenanigans in play.
The Ocoee is easily accessible to the paddlers of the states of Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. Centrally located, it is also conveniently located for the two different regional tourist attractions, The Great Smoky Mountains and Chattanooga, TN. Laced with numerous rafting companies, this combination interests locals and visitors alike, making the Ocoee one of the most visited rivers in the South.
I received a message from Matt Jackson back in October asking me about water flows in the South. I explained that we are basically search and destroy at this point until we get some rain down here in the Sahara Desert. Everything we have at the present moment is dam release, which is quickly coming to a sad end.
I ran through a list of all the dam release rivers that I thought he might be interested in. “There is the Cheoah release, which has rumors of cancellation due to the lack of rain. The Tallulah is releasing three weekends in November. The Nantahala is under your skill level…” Finally I told Matt, “But this is the last weekend of Ocoee releases for the year.”
I could tell he was interested. I had no plans of going at the moment, but I knew people who were planning to run the Middle Ocoee. I decided to put Matt in a group chat with my friend Lee Torbush. Within seconds Lee replied to the message. It sounded something like this:
Me: Lee, meet Matt Jackson. He just moved to the Atlanta area and is asking about the Ocoee release.
Lee: This is the last weekend of scheduled release Matt. What are your credentials?
Lee: What class water do you normally paddle?
Matt: I’m a solid class II boater.
My phone rang within seconds. I looked at the screen – Lee Torbush!
I explained to Lee that Matt was good for the Ocoee. Lee told me to grab my gear and get my butt to the Ocoee Saturday night. He said, “We’ll meet up at Adventures Unlimited. Not where we were last time. Go through the gate and turn left. You’re coming to paddle too. No is not an option.” He didn’t know it, but I’d really got a kick out of his persistence. I had no plans. I was searching for something to do for the weekend; there was a drought; this was the last Ocoee release. Lee would have needed to pressure me really, really hard to convince me to have a good time with all that negativity! I was in from the start of the conversation!
Saturday finally arrived. I left the driveway loaded up for the night with camping and kayaking gear. As I rolled past the first house on my street, I got a message from Matt saying he was leaving from Kennesaw, GA. His arrival time would be 9:30 pm.
I knew that Matt lives closer to the campground than I do, so I tried to make up all the time I could. I drove through Knoxville doing 70 in a 55mph zone – surprisingly no tickets! Most of the trip I was driving 80 in a 65… I even caught my speed at 90 at one point! I have used up all of my luck on this trip. No more speeding for awhile! I have a CDL, my livelihood can’t afford it! I arrived within three minutes of Matt.
I had no idea how many people were going on this trip. I only knew of five paddlers including myself. When I found the campsite I was surprised! There were several Georgia Canoeing Association members there. I think Matt was the only one who wasn’t.
I introduced Matt to everyone, then we sat around the campfire, telling stories and talking about rivers, trips, and good friends until Lee used all of the accumulated firewood. It was midnight. Time for bed and dreams of breakfast and Wallace in the morning.
Sunday we woke up early and policed the area. We grabbed grub at the Huddle House, and set shuttle. The faucet turns on at 10am and we planned on playing all day on the river.
It was a beautiful fall day. The temperature was in the high 60s, perfect for paddling. The autumn leaves were in full change, with some of the colorful leaves already littering the ground. The water was barely cool enough for a dry top. The river glistened, sparkling, shining as it flowed over the dam. We headed down the ramp toward Grumpys.
We had a very mixed range of paddlers for this trip. Josh Hendricks, Kate Shaffer, Lee Torbush, and Hunter Torbush like to play in every wave and hole. If they think that there’s a way to get the boat in there, they push their limits. Jason McCay, Chris Davis, Deborah Webb and I are more conservative. We will surf a bit, but mostly just run the lines that we like. This is the first time we’d paddled with Matt Jackson.
We sat in the staging eddy and awaited our respective turn to paddle the raging, angry rapid known as Grumpys. It was easy to see the multitude of mixed emotion overcoming the group – anxiousness, nervousness, and pure delight to get started.
Grumpys is one of my least favorite rapids on any river. It’s not a hard rapid to navigate. I personally feel that it only takes simple class ll moves to ferry across and drop the rapid on river left. Unfortunately if you don’t make the moves and find yourself with an out of boat experience, Grumpys becomes a class III-III+ beatering with some lucky recipient collecting presents from Santa. There is no warm up time here. Just simply jump in your boat and paddle.
Josh Hendricks became the proud new owner of 24 new stitching holes and a story to tell at the campfire from an earlier Grumpys butt whipping this summer, during probably one of the shortest and fastest river trips in history. He put the boat in the water, ran half the rapid, Wallaced the other half, took the boat out of the water, and rode to the hospital, explaining what happened while the doctor looked at him as if he was an idiot. Josh’s is not the only situation that’s happened here and doctors have no sense of humor when it comes to this kind of foolishness.
Luckily all our crew navigated Grumpys with no issues and our trip was started. At the end of Grumpys there is a nice play hole where many kayakers like to surf and perform tricks. We stopped here for awhile, watching as Lee and Hunter enjoyed the hole. Deborah and I hadn’t met before so I introduced myself. I also introduced myself to a local community favorite I have never met before, Tommy Sunshine.
We continued on down Gonzo Shoals to Moonshoot where Deborah, Lee, Kate, Hunter, and Josh walked the plank. This was Deborah’s first time to perform this move. “Walk the plank” is basically a side surf ferry through a hole with a five foot ledge at your back. Deborah handled this move like a sponsored pro, possibly because falling five feet backwards onto your melon is not at all the preferred method of most paddlers.
Surprisingly to me, all of the rapids were going well. Everyone in the group was trying new lines, boofing new rocks, and shoving the nose of their kayaks into places just to see the outcome. This crew was diversified, energetic, and maybe just a little tad crazy. All that mattered on this trip, was the “here and now,” not memories of yesterday, or thoughts of tomorrow, just this very moment in time!
We progressed through several solid class lll rapids before I saw the first Wallace. Lee pulled me into an eddy above Washing Machine and explained what was coming up next. I had been on the Ocoee once before and remembered the lines, but I listened anyway as he talked me through the steps of Washing Machine and Slice and Dice just beyond.
I had just cleaned the Machine and eddied above Slice and Dice when I turned to see a full sized creeker busting Washing Machine wide open into the hole. The boat went down and emerged quickly on the tail. It was the most beautiful ender I had ever seen until it fell backwards on top of the paddler.
The young lady paddling tried an unsuccessful attempt at a roll. Her boat floated over to me with her trailing a few feet behind. While trying to figure out how to help her I suddenly realized that I needed to help myself! I had lost concentration and was now floating into Slice and Dice . I quickly regained my focus, made the directional corrections, and cleaned the rapid.
In the pool at the bottom of the rapid several boats rushed to her aid. I focused on bulldozing her boat out of the current. Another young man was telling her to grab his stern so he could paddle her to shore. When I got the boat far enough from the current, someone rolled it over. I leashed it, paddled it to shore, and started the emptying procedure. When I turned back the young man with swimmer in tow was dropping her on shore and paddling away. He turned once to look back and I realized that she had been in the best hands possible, the ones belonging to Team Jackson paddler Nick Troutman. This was the highlight of the day for Hunter, who was in awe just to be in the presence of such an award winning boater.
We continued on down the river to play in every wave and hole that we could possibly find. I flipped above a rapid called Flipper, of all things! I carped once on my first roll attempt, decided to run Flipper upside down, then successfully rolled up at the bottom of the rapid.
I noticed at several rapids along the way that either Lee or Jason would ask, “Do you know the lines? Are you ok?” Jason is a solid paddler; Lee, I consider to be one of my core group. These guys always have my best interest in mind on the river. They both know that I’m the weak link here. What they didn’t know this day was that I knew where I was going and what to expect. Jason had eddied above Tablesaw, the second biggest rapid on this section. I eddied right up beside him, and Lee came in beside me. I asked if he and Jason were worried about me. They replied, “No, just wanna make sure you know what you’re doing.” Lee looked over his shoulder at me and said, “Do you know where you’re going here?”
I looked at him really confused and serious like, shook my head, and said, “Nope!” Then I paddled around him and busted right through the meat of Tablesaw before I gave him a chance to explain. I thought it was funny, but neither one seemed too concerned about me from that point on. We are always messing with each other on the river.
Josh incurred a minimal Wallace at Witch’s Hole while pushing his skill which allowed me to run the next rapid and take a much needed break. Somewhere in the confusion we lost Matt before we got to Go Forth Creek. Lee and I decided that he had evidently paddled on ahead. We decided to take the usual rest break at Go Forth. This is a common spot for most people to stop who are paddling the whole middle section, and serves as a second put in/take out for those wanting to do a quick lap.
After the break was over it was a clean sweep down to the infamous Hell Hole. Here I eddied out on river left to watch Kate, Hunter, and Lee play in the most photographed wave on the river. After sitting there a few minutes I saw a kayak come through upside down. The paddler attempted a roll as she floated past me within easy reach. She brought her head up too soon and carped. Her second attempt accomplished the same thing. I knew she was swimming through the left side mank of Powerhouse and there was nothing I could do about it. I cringed at the thought of the sharp, shallow rock that awaited just over the edge. She Wallaced out of the boat, swimming like she hated water, and went straight for the concrete wall of the powerhouse. She got to the wall just a split second before she went over the drop, pushed off of the ledge, and sunk her fingers into the most miniscule crack that I have ever seen! I was amazed at how long she held her position until she decided on an escape route. She literally decided to scale a flat, slick, wet concrete wall! To my surprise Spider-woman succeeded without any assistance. With that over I looked up and found Matt on the bridge with his camera in hand, catching the excitement.
We made our way to the takeout. With our paddling done for the day, and our beloved Queen in hibernation till Spring, it was time to go eat. Lee mentioned a country kitchen in McCaysville, GA. There was no argument; we were starving. Every single one of us showed up and stuffed our gut to expansive limits.
It was good to end the Ocoee with a clean run. I can’t wait to see her flow again next year and hopefully bring this crew back together.
MATT’S VIDEO FROM THE TRIP-
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