Born-again river brings big water to WNC
Cheoah River, dammed 80 years ago, gets new life
by Karen Chávez, KCHAVEZ@CITIZEN-TIMES.com
published May 11, 2006 12:15 am
Richard Schulz was looking for an icy cold shot of adrenaline last weekend. The 62-year-old retiree from Vero Beach, Fla. — with time and money on his hands — has enjoyed a life of adventurous travel, hang-gliding and shooting rapids on rivers from Colorado to Costa Rica.
When he heard about the first-ever rafting runs on the Cheoah River through the Nantahala National Forest near Robbinsville, he had to add the feat to his high-octane recreational resume.
“I’m a big-water nut,” Schulz said. “When I read about the Cheoah on the Internet at the last minute, I had to do it.”
Schulz was planning a trip to Western North Carolina last weekend to raft the Nolichucky and Chattooga rivers and found out that the Cheoah — a river long “dead” after being diverted nearly 80 years ago — was now up and running and available for whitewater rafting. So he booked a trip last Saturday with the Nantahala Outdoor Center, the first commercial outfitter to offer trips.
“It is probably the best river, after the Gauley (in West Virginia) that I’ve ever been on,” Schulz said. “It was pretty awesome. But you need to know what you’re doing — it can get dangerous pretty quickly.”
Re-energizing the river
As far as rivers go in this country, there probably aren’t any left to discover. But the Cheoah (pronounced Chee-O-ah) is one that hasn’t been run in 78 years since Alcoa Co. dammed the river to create Lake Santeetlah in 1928, and the Cheoah went dry.
A few years ago, when Alcoa was applying for its license renewal with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, they conducted biological and recreational use studies, working with the Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, American Whitewater, outdoor outfitters and other groups, said Frank Findley, assistant ranger with the Cheoah District of the Nantahala National Forest.
Some of the issues reviewed included letting the river water flow again to help endangered species such as the Appalachian elktoe, a freshwater mussel, and Virginia spirea, a plant, as well as the economic benefits that commercial rafting would have on the local economy, Findley said.
“The Cheoah River was looked at as something that would help Graham County,” said Ken Kastorff, owner and president of Endless River Adventures in the Nantahala Gorge, one of the outfitters with a permit to guide on the Cheoah. “It’s really exciting obviously to see a new river come into play.”
Alcoa Co. will release the water to simulate a natural flow, Findley said. This means there will be a base flow of 50 to 100 cubic feet per second per second, with occasional “high flow events” in the spring and fall to simulate the natural occurrences of storms during those seasons of 1,000 cfs. The scheduled release dates are May 27 and 28, June 3 and 4, Oct. 1 and Nov. 1.
“It seems kind of ridiculous not to have releases in the summer, since that is high recreation season,” Findley said. “But summer is often a time of drought.”
River is not for the meek
Last September, the first recreational release of water gushed forth from the Santeetlah Dam, and the Cheoah became a born-again river.
After a few more releases last fall and this spring, the first commercial trips with paying customers were led by NOC last Saturday.
“This is a new, Class IV river in our backyard that’s never been explored,” said Lee Leibfarth, Cheoah River manager with the NOC, one of four that have received permits to run commercial trips on the Cheoah. “It seemed like an incredible opportunity for recreation in Graham County. This adds the highest level of rafting challenge (in WNC). It’s sort of the apex, the premier trip.”
Leibfarth, who was a guide on the trip, said the high volume, consistent rapids and dangerous nature of the new river led NOC to take extra precautions. Unlike any of the other rivers on which they guide in WNC, each trip on the nine-mile section of the Cheoah will have two guides in each raft and will only allow four guests at a time. Guests must be at least 16 years old and have previous paddling experience on at least a Class III river such as the Ocoee. In addition, NOC had several kayak “safety boats” paddling alongside the rafts.
“One person fell out, but he was pulled back in before his feet went over,” Leibfarth said. “We’ve put together a team of expert guides. We have to be a little conservative now — we don’t have 30 years of rafting this river.”
While outfitters are excited about the new rafting opportunity and excited to get people out on the “new” river, all four of the guiding companies are stressing that this is not a river for everybody.
“The Cheoah has big drops, big waves, is very narrow and very technical,” said Jeff Greiner, vice president of marketing and guest services for Wildwater Ltd., which will run trips down the Cheoah. “This is not a family float trip — it’s not a step up from the Nantahala. This is extremely challenging and extremely strenuous. It’s unlike anything most rafting guests have experienced in the Southeast