By Kevin Colburn
January 5th and 6th of 2007 marked the first legal descent of the upper Wild and Scenic Chattooga River in over 30 years. A team of kayakers and canoeists took two days to explore the river, traversing countless rapids and small waterfalls as they traveled through a remote and beautiful valley. What they found echoed the findings of the very first exploratory paddling trips made over three decades ago, which inspired the US Congress to designate the Chattooga as a Wild and Scenic River in 1974. Their photos and stories reveal a forbidden national treasure tucked away in the mountains of North Carolina, Georgia, and South Carolina.
While the entire Chattooga River has long been recognized as a classic whitewater run, paddling the upper reaches has been prohibited for over three decades by the US Forest Service. An appeal of this prohibition by American Whitewater resulted in the US Forest Service acknowledging that there was no basis for the prohibition. The appeal decision triggered an analysis of the ban which included allowing a single small team of paddlers to make a single descent of the river, to document its long forgotten public value as recreational paddling destination.
On January 5th, the team paddled the Rock Gorge section of the Chattooga, located between Burrells Ford and Highway 28. The team spent a full day enjoying countless Class IV rapids, and a few that ranked as Class V, with 30 year old names like “Maytag,” “Harvey Wallbanger,” and “Big Bend Falls.” The group had to portage Big Bend Falls due to a log wedged at the base of the falls, but paddled everything else without incident. One highlight of the run was paddling through the roughly half mile section of bedrock and boulder rapids called the Rock Gorge.
The following day, the group traveled upstream to paddle part of the Chattooga Cliffs section and all of the Ellicott Rock section of the Chattooga. Once on the water, the Chattooga Cliffs section treated paddlers to class IV and V rapids set in a stunning gorge with bedrock walls constricting the river. Paddlers portaged over one log jam and around one rapid, and safely completed the rest of the run with no additional portages. The team finished the Chattooga Cliffs section with great lines through a challenging rapid below a spectator-packed Bullpen Bridge. In hindsight, team member Milt Aitken noted that the Chattooga Cliffs reach is the most beautiful paddling location in the entire Chattooga watershed.
The team continued downstream to paddle through the Ellicott Rock Wilderness. The Ellicott Rock section thrilled paddlers with miles of consistent class IV boating, which team member Don Kinser described as a “spectacularly enjoyable read & run boulder dance.” The class IV enjoyment was punctuated by only a single Class V rapid, Super Corkscrew. Many of the group members ran this rapid which was described as the most challenging rapid on the Chattooga River. After their rare chance to paddle through a designated eastern Wilderness area, the group emerged at the Burrells Ford Bridge, and the end of their adventure.
The group safely completed their descent in two days with only 3 portages and rediscovered the rest of a southern paddling classic. The paddlers found a narrow steep creek at the beginning of the reach and experienced its growth into a large river with powerful rapids and peaceful pools. They saw only a handful of people on their entire 21 mile trip, and were treated to a wilderness adventure that few alive have been allowed to experience.
Now, the US Forest Service will consider whether this handful of people will be the last to experience paddling down this amazing river for yet another generation of citizens. Paddling the river remains prohibited until they reach a new decision later this year. Tell the USFS that paddling belongs on the Wild and Scenic Chattooga River – all of it – even if you have filed comments in the past. Submit an online comment. Alternately, email John Cleeves, the USFS project manager your comment at: firstname.lastname@example.org