Trip Report: Coosawattee River

Coosawattee River
July 20, 2013
Level ~800 cfs

The author James Dickey constructed the novel Deliverance from his experiences canoeing whitewater around the Southeast, but the particular story of meeting up with violent moonshiners is said to have occurred on the Coosawattee River in Georgia. If you've read the novel or seen the movie, you know the trip ends when the river flows into an area where a new reservoir is being constructed, soon to flood out the free flowing stream. This part of the story also refers to the Coosawattee and the construction of Carters Lake, although is applicable to any number of other rivers in the region. Dickey changed the name of the river to the fictional "Cahoolawassee" so he could take creative license as he saw fit, but you can still experience a float on the real Coosawattee above the lake when there is enough flow.

We've had an unusually wet and cool summer in the Southern Appalachians this year but strangely I haven't gotten out much on free flowing whitewater. Some of this was due to various commitments, and some was due to a lack of commitment to paddling on my part. About the only float trips that really interest me lately are those where I get to run a river completely new to me, or get to meet and paddle with people that are new to me. Such an opportunity was presented to me through some friends for Saturday, July 20. With the levels up, I would be able to explore the remaining parts of the Coosawattee that I had never run before.

Previously I'd enjoyed a trip down a lower tributary of the Coosawattee, Mountaintown Creek in 2006. It was a delightful, small, swift stream, only then being encroached upon by development. Mountaintown flows into the river only shortly before the lake, so there remained an approximately 8 or 9 mile section of the river upstream that I had not paddled before, from a public park in Ellijay, Georgia down to the Mountaintown confluence. I was fairly excited and a little nervous to get on the new run.

I had not realized the trip was going to be a club trip, but I ended up signing a waiver for the Georgia Canoeing Association. This was accompanied by the usual mob on a large canoe club trip! The very patient organizer of the trip was Vincent Payne, someone I'd heard of from listservs but had never met. Friendly guy and I'm grateful for the opportunity to join his trip!

Half the Georgia Canoeing Association showed up for the trip, friendly as usual.

The level was approaching 800 cfs, apparently considered to be slightly higher than optimal, but perfectly safe due to the light gradient of the river. The water was a muddy brown and looked like a pastoral flatland stream in the middle of Ellijay where we launched. The Coosawattee actually forms just a short distance upstream of the put-in by the confluence of the Cartecay River and the Ellijay River so we launched nearly at the beginning of the free flowing section of the river.

Turtles in the more placid section of the river. I saw several pairs of turtles sunning themselves like this and a few alone but never more than two at once. Note the muddy water due to weeks of summer rain.

At this slightly elevated water level, there are not many rapids in the first couple of miles, and those rapids that we did see were just riffles, nothing beyond class I or I+. We also saw a couple of campgrounds which looked like comfortable places in moderate weather, along with many houses, cabins, and small mansions along the river. It's apparent that the Coosawattee suffers from proximity to the population and wealth of Atlanta and is doomed to be lined with development at some point. We've seen the same thing on so many other streams of the Georgia Mountains: the Cartecay and Toccoa, Mountaintown Creek and Talking Rock Creek, and many other streams.

We continued stroking downstream, at first at a furious pace but I soon realized that Vincent was hanging back and maintaining a more moderate pace and I decided that I was not going to make it for the full 13 miles of the trip, including a 3 to 4 mile lake paddle at the end, if I did not also slow down a little. Soon I was back into my more casual mode of paddle, taking time to converse and check out the homes and wildlife of the riverbanks.

Eventually I saw a more significant horizon line and heard the roar of a rapid, and wandered up closer to the front of the group. A couple of paddlers had already dropped the first proper class II, a nice rapid with multiple lines and some boulders. I eddy hopped right to left and pulled in to take some pics of the rest of the group.

Jamie Higgins in the first class II of the day.

After this, the rapids came with increasing frequency, although I still characterized the river not as pool-and-drop, but as pool-and-pool-and-pool-and-drop. It's a flatter river than I expected, though Vincent said this was somewhat due to the water level washing out some of the rapids.

We stopped at one point at a small park in one of the many gated communities along the river for a break and snacks. It seemed to be a public place and was not marked with "No Trespassing" signs and it was next to a takeout that was being used for commercial inner tubing. I had not realized there were any outfitters on the Coosawattee but we saw a couple.

Pretty cool looking private bridge just downstream of the outfitter takeout. It appears to be located in a private community but I saw some guys that looked like "civilian" fishermen to me that definitely did not look like they belonged in a gated community, but perhaps I should not judge a book by the cover. Also the outfitter buses surprised me. I'm not sure of the access issues there. I still assume it is private property.

The rest and food improved my energy level and we eventually came upon some more class II, the largest of which was possibly a II+ ledge that drops 4 to 6 feet all told, with a single drop of 3 or 4 feet on the right. I did not like the blindness of the horizon line so I opted to maneuver around the visible left line, which was fast and technical. Having scouted the rapid from the bottom, I would run it on the big drop next time. Several chose to run that line, including those who had run the river before and no one had trouble with it. Kelly Harbac informed me that it is called "Fluffy Bunny."

Fluffy Bunny - it's a little bigger than it looks in this photo but still not difficult.

The closer you get to the confluence with Mountaintown Creek, the more the action picks up, until it reaches almost continuous class II. Even though it had been several years since I had been there, I immediately recognized it and a smile came across my face as I remembered that wonderful trip from back when I was younger, fitter, and filled with enthusiasm for whitewater. I crossed the eddy line and made sure to paddle up into the waters of the creek to reminisce. It's been a while since I've felt so much pleasure at the simple sight of a flowing creek. It was a good feeling.

The mouth of Mountaintown Creek. I had such a good feeling when I saw it that I had to paddle up in there and take a look.
The river really widens after the confluence with Mountaintown Creek and there are many possible play spots.
There are some exceptionally tall pine trees along the lower reaches of the river shortly before the lake.

The Coosawattee had been considerably higher when I ran Mountaintown so many years ago and I did not entirely recognize the run. First of all, there were many more rapids, and the rapids were certainly more technical. I remember the entire thing being a big wave train for some undefined distance. I know it was over quickly the first time, but the more moderate water level meant that the paddle down to the lake was prolonged, and in some ways was more fun. Again I looked on the towering pines along the banks of the river with admiration. Finally we splashed down into Carters Lake with disappointment. We knew we had a very long lake paddle ahead of us.

Looking back upstream at the last rapid. Note the teenagers sunning themselves on the right. I have no idea how they got there. There are no trails visible. The only thing I can think of is that they were dropped off from a motorboat.

I brought a longer kayak this time than before, but nonetheless the paddle wore me down to the nub. Age and the sport have taken their toll. I'm also suffering from a lack of cross training. I was 30 pounds lighter and much, much fitter the first time. I recall I paddled a "spud" playboat back in 2006 yet I remember being tired but untroubled by the lake paddle. We had frolicked, practiced our rolls, and played Frisbee all the way down the lake. This time it seemed like an eternity of epic exertion, with only the diversion of a side falls early in the paddle, and a beaver slapping its tail on the water a couple of times. At one point I said, "I think I just got my second wind - unfortunately it's a headwind." Finally we pulled around a point and into the Ridgeway Park area where the vehicles were parked. I took a swim to cool off and get rid of the sweat and then dragged my boat up the very steep boat ramp.

A lovely side waterfall. It was running nicely and the little mini-ravine I paddled up into was flowing with cool, refreshing air on a hot July afternoon.

Carters Lake. There is no such thing as a following wind when you are trying to plow a whitewater kayak that you are too heavy for across several miles of lake. It's all headwinds, baby.

Another new run crossed off my list. It is one of just a few remaining in the Southeast that I am capable of running and interested in running. I do not have much interest in class IV-V so I've done most things within a 200 mile radius of my home that I'm interested in. Soon I will have to branch out much farther if I want to keep knocking off new runs. I always enjoy a new run, and this was a good one, if long. It was a very good choice to hit the Coosawattee given the rare chance in the summer when the days are long. It's a very, very long paddle, with few good options to pull off the river if something goes wrong so I'm glad I got the opportunity, and I'm glad I took it.



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