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Sunday, July 01, 2007

Asheville White Water Rafting: Getting the Experience You Imagined, Even in Dry Summers


In 2005, "Paddler Magazine", featured Asheville as one of the great white water towns in the nation. This is something that has been known by the private boating community for decades.
North Carolina has rivers for every boater, from Class V monsters like the Green to play runs such as the Nolichucky, intermediate stretches on the Pigeon and even overnight canoe camping on the Tuckasegee—it’s all there for the taking. And the epicenter of it all is Asheville, with nearly 300 Class II-V runs within a three-hour drive.

and later..................

"You can find as high quality of runs here as you would traveling halfway around the world."
The purpose of todays posting is to provide some context for those of you who might someday take a rafting trip with one of the many commercial operators in the area. The number of rivers available for that is nowhere near 300, but probably more like 20. The reasons for this, and several tips to get the best trip available at your time, are illuminated below.

Where Can We Go Rafting?
Commercial rafting operations have certain economic necessities. The river must have ease of access for the public, and the river cannot become "dry" in the summer as the vast majority of them do. As such, the average visitor has a finite menu of places and degrees of difficulty from which to choose.

Access to the main commercial rivers in the region is excellent. The "put ins" are usually such that we can drive right to the water's edge. But what about the water itself?

Free Flowing Rivers & Dam Controlled Rivers

Given the need for adequate flows over the entire season, there are two types of rivers where commercial operations have placed themselves, in North Carolina, or anywhere for that matter.

1) Rivers with dams/hydroelectric plants that release water into an otherwise dry riverbed, at predictable times, and raise it to known water levels.

2) Rivers without dams, but with large watersheds that narrow up or "channelize" at some point, thus taking the water that is available and focusing it so that rapids to some degree are present, even during dry weather patterns. These are often called "free flowing rivers", as opposed to "dam controlled".

Are the Rapids Big Today?
It is important for potential rafting guests to understand that the water level fluctuates in free flowing rivers. There is no dam/hydro plant to make water available in certain quantities at specific times, thus the "size" of the rapids is variable, but not in radical ways. Sure, rivers can rise a few feet over night with heavy rains, but the change is much more gradual than that in normal weather.

Free flowing rivers with fresh rains are good things, and the quality of the trip is not difficult to predict when that happens. What guests really need to know, is how to assess the free flowing rivers in dry seasons, in order to get close to the experience you pictured, the most for your money, and at the time your are ready to go.

How Big Are the Rafts??
Big rafts dwarf the water in dry seasons, therefore, companies on free flowing rivers have made adaptations in order to "be open" over a wide range of low water conditions, and still provide a quality white water experience. The first change is to use smaller boats or "lighter loads". This will allow the water to be experienced more intimately, even in dry periods.

The normal experience is to have a raft with 6 or 7 guests, plus a guide in the back. As water levels drop, (some summers they never do), companies will switch to smaller rafts, or put less guests in each raft, usually four plus a guide. This is still a solid experience for most weather patterns, even moderate dry spells, and gets you closer to the water.

The other change often seen is to use smaller rafts in conjunction with what are called "duckies", "funyaks", or inflatable kayaks. (Pictured at Right). These are one person, inflatable boats, paddled like an Eskimo kayak.

The guest is now up close to the water and gets the wet experience that he or she may have anticipated when the trip was booked. They are stable, and quite appropriate for a wide range of physical abilities. In most cases they do not require prior river experience. Talk to the outfitter you booked with about what is best for you.

Is the Water High or Low Today?
PLEASE NOTE: I have paddled or worked as a guide on most rivers in the South. Many owners came to be personal friends. As such, my purpose here is not to provide links to outfitters, perhaps overlooking some good people, but only to provide information to help you choose your time and place.

Use the outbound links to find real time water levels from USGS for three rivers within an hour of Asheville. Hopefully, that information and my comments for each river can help you decide where to go.

French Broad River: Closest to Asheville say all the brochures. Last I knew, The USFS operating plan specified a minimum age of 8, which conveys a lot of info about its difficulty level. A free flowing river with variable water levels. Small rafts and "ducks" would be typical in summer.

Enjoyable in a large raft down to 1,000 cubic feet per second, (cfs), perhaps 800 cfs if the guide is skilled. Below that, insist on a small raft or ducky. Much below 500-550 cfs, I'm not sure I could suggest going there for far away visitors. Appropriate in duckies up to as much as 1,500 cfs, or a bit more.

The Nolichucky Gorge: A free flowing river that is, without exaggeration, one of THE great day trips in the east for scenery. USFS minimum age is 12, some operators go to 13 or 14. Intermediate to adventurous rapids, depending on water levels. This is not a float trip, and expect to be working for brief spurts, especially at medium to higher levels, roughly anything over 2,100 cfs.

Great fun in a raft down to 600 cfs, although insist on a small raft at less than 800 cfs. Duckies increase as an option at roughly 2,100 cfs and lower. This trip is 8.5 to 9 miles of beauty in a deep river gorge, but I could not recommend it much below 475 cfs for most visitors. It is navigable at less than that, even into the 200's. It is a long day at those levels, though still breathtaking in its ambiance.

There is a so called "Lower Nolichucky", for younger folks, I am not sure of the USFS minimum, but the river is quite easy. It has a moment or two of nice rapids, and scenery. I could not send a guest here at much below 475 cfs, and insist on a small raft at levels less than 800 cfs.

The Big Pigeon: Dam controlled with rafts as the only option. The dam releases water from 12 noon until 6pm, on Tues, Wed, Thurs, and Saturdays of each week from May 15-September 15. Consistently fun and wet experience, with minimum requirements, of 8 years or 70 lbs. Farther away, and more crowded than the other rivers mentioned, but this makes a nice festive atmosphere for some patrons. If you want a quieter time, then book your trip later in the day, perhaps combining with an outing to The Smokies or Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg, TN.

The Lower Pigeon: Same as above for days of operation, but very easy, last I knew, the permit specified a minimum age of 3, (which always struck me as too young), some outfitters go higher to 4 or 5 years of age.

We will visit more Asheville area rivers in future postings.

Thanks for stopping by,
Tom Ploski
Black Bear Realty Website
Anti Spam Graphic: tom AT bleackbearre DOT com

Filed Under: Taste of Mountain Life Asheville Items Buyers' Info Wolf Laurel Things To Do

On a Personal Note: I took my first white water canoe trip in the summer of 1972, with my father. Since then, sometimes logging as many as 150 days/year on the water thanks to him. He paddled Class 4 rivers in a canoe, with grace and style, past the age of 70. He made his final river trip with me, in a raft on The Upper Gauley at age 77. I hope I can be as good on the water as he was when I get there.

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