Flatwater Paddling the Lower Ocoee

From a trip Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Ocoee River in Tennessee is mostly known as one of the most frequently rafted whitewater rivers in the United States, but it's a long river, and there are multiple sections. Downstream of the whitewater there is a class I flatwater section from below Ocoee Dam #1 (Parksville Dam) to the confluence with the Hiwassee. There are good public access points at the dam and downstream next to the Nancy Ward grave site on old US Highway 411 just outside Benton, Tennessee. Locals know this as a section for floating on tubes or even swimming in a PFD, but usually look for an intermediate takeout. I was interested in paddling all the way from the dam to 411.

The view upstream from the launch below Ocoee Dam #1, a.k.a. Parksville Dam, right at the chokepoint where the Ocoee flows out of the Blue Ridge Mountains and into the Ridge and Valley region. The flow here is 2 units.

I had proposed a flatwater run of this section with my friends-that-tolerate-flatwater in the past several times but usually if there was any whitewater at all running they would not do it. I got in a short but amusing run from the dam to OAR outfitters last year with some friends on stand up paddleboards (SUPs) and pool floats with beer coolers but had not actually completed the section all the way to 411. Finally the stars aligned and a small group came together consisting of my canoeist friend Lois, and Mark and Carolyn Rand. Lois and Mark were to paddle a tandem canoe, owing somewhat to the availability of watercraft. I no longer own a long boat suitable for flatwater so I took one of my whitewater kayaks that was the most comfortable option for a long day. Unfortunately the use of the boat pretty much guaranteed that it would, in fact, be a long day, but I decided comfort was more important than hull speed.

Sugarloaf Mountain from a short distance downstream of the put-in. It doesn't look much like a sugar loaf from this angle.

The first time I ran the Lower Ocoee, the release seemed swift, but it must have been a bit lower, because there were a couple of riffle type class I rapids. Some of the places I remember there being rapids were completely washed out on this trip though the current was quite obviously even swifter. On the other hand, the increased flow meant that there were long sections with class I wave trains. There were no discernible features that made these sections technical in any way, but it was a sign of lively current. Mark had a GPS along and determined after about an hour that we were actually making better than 4 miles per hour, which is ridiculous in my opinion. That said, my arms, shoulders, and back were tiring trying to keep up in the short kayak. I'm almost never in that much of a hurry unless I'm on my way to work. I eventually pushed back a bit on the pace and the crew allowed me to take the lead since I was in the slowest boat and could not keep up with the group. This worked out much better. I admit I threw a small tantrum to achieve that but we really were moving way too fast, as I knew the distance was easily runnable within 4 hours and could see no reason to be in that much of a hurry.

Lois Newton and Mark Rand in the tandem canoe, Carolyn Rand in the kayak.

After a while, we passed some large rock formations and small cliffs and I was reminded of my recent trip down South Chickamauga Creek in Catoosa County, Georgia. There were occasional views over cleared river banks of the Blue Ridge Mountains, mostly 2800 foot Chilhowee Mountain, and there were cows, cabins, and rope swings. We stopped for lunch on a nice rock formation and spied some medium sized fish in the water. The whitewater sections of the Ocoee are nearly dead due to extreme pollution from past mining and industrial activities and are just beginning to recover. The headwaters are still pristine and this lower section below Dam #1 is teaming with fish and waterfowl. I'm amazed that people whine about pollution controls and the Clean Water Act. Would you rather have a dead river or a live one? I for one, am grateful for the laws that have preserved the headwaters and helped to revive the Lower Ocoee, and are slowly reviving the Upper and Middle Ocoee. I do not understand people who are against that. May they all be forced to drink polluted water. It's basic law and order and basic common sense.

Moo. A stretch in the middle of the run is, uh, pastoral.
There are some nice cliffs and rock outcroppings on the run. Sorry about the bad lighting. It was not a good day for lousy photographers.

Eventually we reached a really long pool and I wondered if we were going to be pushing against true slackwater but eventually we reached the end of the pool and things picked up again in the form of a long section of waves to the right of a very long island. Finally we passed an important landmark bridge and knew we were within a mile or two of highway 411. I regretted our rapid descent but it was still a good day on the water with plenty of photo ops and good conversation.

Glassy water in one of the few long pools. For the most part, the river is pretty swift at 2 generators.

The takeout featured the best rapid up to that point. Carolyn had run the section before and had experienced difficulties making the eddy but when we got there it was apparent that the high flows had created a very large eddy in front of the boat ramp. Nonetheless Lois and Mark made their move a little too early, bounced the bow off a boulder, and missed the main eddy. They pulled into a flushy eddy on the downstream side of the boat ramp and paddled against the current. I scrambled and grabbed their bow line and pulled them back upstream. It was a pretty funny end to the day.

We recovered the vehicle from the launch and reconvened at Huddle House in Ocoee where everyone ordered breakfast for supper. I have paddled several sections of this river, almost everything runnable above Blue Ridge Lake (where it is called the Toccoa), the Upper Ocoee, the Middle Ocoee, and sections of Ocoee Lake #1 (Parksville Lake). I'm glad to have finally checked off this nice pastoral section. I think my remaining goals are to paddle the section from below Blue Ridge Dam to McCaysville, Georgia, explore Lake #3 above the Upper Ocoee, and the section from Old Highway 411 down to the Hiwassee on the Lower.


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