Archive | September, 2013

Float #87: Fontana Lake

27 Sep

Flat Branch Access

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Fontana Lake
Swain County, North Carolina
Friday, August 16
5 Miles

The last float of our vacation was on beautiful Fontana Lake. I’m not usually a lake person (I prefer rivers), but Fontana Lake is really worth checking out. The lake is surrounded by National Forest on one side and Great Smoky Mountain National Park on the other side. There is almost no development on the shores of the lake and the scenery is awesome.

We headed to Flat Branch boat ramp Friday morning. The route involved many narrow, switchbacked roads through small farms and tiny neighborhoods. The boat ramp is primitive, just a small parking area and a gravel ramp. We set up our gear while looking to the sky, which was overcast and threatening drizzle. Once we got out on the lake it cleared up and sun came out.

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The water is very clear, but it wasn’t too cold. We picked a direction and paddled toward the mountains surrounding us. This lake has lots of small inlets which were fun to explore. We heard many small waterfalls near the shore, although they were mostly blocked from view by vegetation. I think this lake would be great to paddle in the winter so you could see more of the mountain terrain. I read that this lake is partially drained in the winter to accommodate for snowfall and the spring thaw. During that time you can see the remains of homesteads and other structures that were covered up when the river was dammed to create the lake.

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We stopped for lunch at a small inlet with some interesting trees partially submerged in the water. The water was probably at least 10 feet deep here and you could see all the way to the bottom. I took a swim to cool off, as it had warmed up quite a bit since the sun came out. Once lunch was finished we got back in our boats and paddled back the way we came.

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As we paddled back to our access we saw some of the “smoke” that the National Park is famous for, as clouds rolled off the mountains. I was very impressed with the pristine scenery of this lake. The water was pretty calm that day, but I bet it would be fun with a little bit of wind to kick up some waves!

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When we finished this float it was early afternoon and we headed back to our camp at the National Park. We spent the rest of the day tubing Deep Creek, which is so much fun. We rented some tubes and then hiked the couple miles up to the top of the tubing area of the creek. Deep creek has a lot of small drops and riffles that are a lot of fun to tube, and the water is pretty cold too. We did that a couple of times until it got dark and then we had an excellent dinner of fire grilled chicken and our last few beers. The next day we broke camp and headed back West toward home. It was an awesome vacation and we really had a lot of fun and a lot of new experiences.

Critter Count: Ducks

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Float #86: Nantahala River

26 Sep

Nantahala Gorge

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Nantahala River
Swain County, North Carolina
Thursday, August 15
6 Miles

After leaving the Tuckasegee River we headed over to the Nantahala Gorge for our second float trip of the day. We stopped in at NOC, a large outfitter for the Nantahala and surrounding area, to inquire about a shuttle to get us up the river. They suggested we just drive to the put-in and hitch a ride back when we’re done. The Nantahala runs right next to the highway and there is a large number of river guides and outfitters driving along the gorge all day long. As with most whitewater communities, if you wear your life jacket and stick out your thumb, someone will give you a ride pretty quickly. That wouldn’t work so well in Missouri and would definitely take much longer!

We drove upriver to one of the upper access points and scouted the river along the way. One of the last rapids in the gorge is Nantahala Falls, a class III drop. As we passed it we noticed the water was much higher than we’d ever experienced it before and the Falls looked pretty daunting. I immediately said, “Nope, I’m not running that.” So I planned to exit the river at a take out above the Falls. DW was all over it and ready for whatever the Falls would bring. Jake was hesitant, but decided to see how the rest of the trip went before he decided to run it or not.

It was getting kind of late in the afternoon as we geared up with life jackets and helmets to enter the swift waters of the “Nanny”. We put in at the confluence of a small creek in a nice calm pool of water. I took a deep breath and paddled into the river, knowing it would take quick thinking and a lot of paddling strength to muscle my boat through the rapids.

Accessing the Nanny

Accessing the Nanny

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The water was pretty choppy and I had to paddle constantly to keep my boat from bouncing all over the place or running off course. The Nanny is a pretty narrow river and there are a lot of eddys on the edge of rapids that will grab you and spin you around if you aren’t careful. It is a beautiful river and the scenery of the gorge makes for a unique trip. Unfortunately, I was too busy paddling and trying to wrestle my boat into the correct lines to take many photos. The water was pretty cold and the waves were big and splashy. I got hit full in the face with a wall of water several times!

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Nantahala Falls

Nantahala Falls

Rapids always look much smaller in photos than they do in real life. The waves don’t look so impressive on camera, or when you’re looking down on it from above. When you are in a boat on the same level as the water, getting rocked all over the place and drenched with each new rapid it is quite the experience!

When we started this float I told Jake to follow my lead, as I usually take the less exciting route. DW is always looking for a challenge and will often take the harder route. Jake followed my advice most of the time, but when he didn’t he soon found himself exiting his boat! There was one rapid that was a nice little drop with a big wave at the bottom. I paddled just to the right of the main course to avoid the big wave, which I was sure would flip me. Jake ignored my course and followed the route DW had taken. He flipped his boat for the first time and swam his first rapid. While DW helped him bail the boat I furiously headed downstream to catch Jake’s paddle.

After we got reorganized we continued downstream toward the Falls. I was getting pretty tired at this point. I had already done one whitewater trip that morning and was quickly running out of steam to paddle hard on this trip. I opted to pull out at one of the many convenient access points. I thought it was the one right above the Falls, but it proved to be a couple of miles above that.

We decided to take a break. DW hitched a ride back to our put in to fetch the car. It took about 3 minutes for him to get a ride and about 10 minutes until he returned with the car. Jake decided to keep going and run the Falls. We loaded my boat and gear and I drove down to the Falls to wait for them and get some photos of them attempting the rapid.

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By the time I parked the car at the take out and hiked back up to the Falls, I only had to wait about 15 minutes for DW and Jake to arrive. I positioned myself just below the Falls to take some photos as they paddled through. DW had a little change of course as an eddy right at the top of the Falls grabbed his boat and spun him around. He then had to reorient the boat to a less optimal line to go over the first drop. He made it down the Falls alright, but at the bottom he nearly rolled the boat over. All you could see was the very top of his helmet in the waves as he made a quick snap to right the boat. He then paddled down to calmer water to wait for Jake.

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As you can see, Jake somehow managed to flip his boat before he even entered the Falls. So he got to swim his second rapid of the day, and a big one at that! At least he held on to his paddle this time. I was laughing the whole time he was swimming, and I laughed again while editing these photos. His boat bobbed along gently beside him, full of water. Eventually it snagged on a rock, right in the middle with the full force of the water bearing down on it. DW and I both winced and hoped the boat would hold and not fold in half! DW quickly paddled upstream to the boat and was able to give it a gentle nudge that dislodged it from the rock. It was a great testament to the quality of Liquid Logic boats. Most cheaper boats would have folded in half right away with the pressure of that much water against a rock.

When Jake emerged from the rapid he was able to stand up and walk over to the shore. The Nanny isn’t very deep and the water only comes up to your knees in most places. I practiced my rope rescue skills and threw the rope bag at his face a few times, just for fun. We then bailed his boat and carried everything down to the car. By this time it was after 7pm and dusk was beginning to fall. We headed back to our campground to dry off and recount the stories of the day. Jake learned a lot about his kayak, his paddle skills and reading the water. We all had a lot of fun and stories to tell when we got back home. I would definitely do this trip again, but I would rent a whitewater boat! Our last day of vacation was spent on relaxing activities; floating Fontana Lake and tubing on Deep Creek.

Float #85: Tuckasegee River

26 Sep

Dillsboro to Barkers Creek

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Tuckasegee River
Swain County, North Carolina
Thursday, August 15
5 Miles

After rafting the Pigeon river on Tuesday, we took a day of rest of Wednesday and did nothing. Well, nothing except leaving Asheville and our wonderful hosts, Chris & Cynthia to drive to the Deep Creek campground at Great Smoky Mountain National Park. We picked a nice spot right by the creek and set up camp, drank some beer and made a delicious beef stew in a dutch oven over the campfire. We needed our rest because the next day we tackled some beginner whitewater rivers with our own kayaks. The only whitewater DW and I have ever done in our own boats is the Millstream Gardens section of the St. Francis river. Last time we vacationed in North Carolina, 6 or 7 years ago we floated the Nantahala in a funyak (a two person inflatable kayak/raft hybrid). It was a lot of fun and we knew we wanted to do that again. After some research we decided the Tuckasegee river was also a good choice for some beginner whitewater and it was very close to our campground.

We awoke the next morning and headed toward Dillsboro where we purchased a shuttle from a local outfitter, set up our gear and were on the water by mid morning. The water temperature was much colder than any of the rafting trips we had been on and I was glad to have my skirt because we were going to get splashed! The Tuckasegee was a good choice to warm up our skills for whitewater. The river here has long, calm stretches intermixed with some class II drops and fun, small waves.

The bridge at Whittier access

The bridge at Whittier access

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Jake practices his surfing

Jake practices his surfing

A small drop

Looking upriver

DW surfs the rapid

DW surfs the rapid

Railroad bridge

Railroad bridge

The first few rapids were simple shelf drops that posed no problem. We had fun surfing the rapids and spent a good chunk of time doing so. After we passed the railroad bridge the drops became a little bigger and the rapids were closer together. The river flowed around outcroppings of boulders and we had to pay attention to find the best route through the rapids. There were a few that splashed me pretty good, but overall it was an exciting but easy stretch of river.

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The most difficult rapid was Double Drop, a nice drop with a big wave. A rafting outfitter photographer was stationed here so we all got a nice photo of ourselves paddling through. Double Drop was a good reminder to always paddle through a rapid. If you aren’t paddling, the river is faster than you and it will take you where it pleases. If you paddle there is a better chance you can control where you are going!

Me shredding the gnar on Double Drop

Me shredding the gnar on Double Drop

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After Double Drop there were a few more class II rapids before we arrived at our take out at Barker’s Creek. It was an excellent morning on the river and a lot of fun. We loaded up our gear, ate some lunch and headed to the Nantahala for our second whitewater adventure of the day. The Nantahala’s waters were slightly high and the waves were big. Experiences were had by all.

Critter Count: Herons, Osprey, 1 Bald Eagle, Turtles

Float #84: Pigeon River

12 Sep

Carolina Power House to Smoky Mountain Outdoors

F84_PigeonPigeon River
Cocke County, Tennessee
Tuesday, August 13
6 Miles

After all the fun we had on the Ocoee we really wanted to go rafting one more time on our vacation, but we hadn’t planned anything ahead of time. DW suggested the Pigeon river, as it was near by and we could easily go rafting on a moment’s notice. A quick internet search provided many options for rafting companies. We picked Smoky Mountain Outdoors on the Upper Pigeon River. DW made a phone call to reserve a spot for us and that afternoon we made the hour drive to the Pigeon. This rafting company is definitely more of a commercial feel than Endless River Adventures on the Ocoee, but the guides were friendly and we had a good time all the same.

When arrived an hour before our scheduled trip to check-in and buy some cheesy souvenirs. DW and I collect gaudy refrigerator magnets from all the places we visit, so we picked up a “Pigeon River Swim Team” magnet that fit our exclusive tastes. We waited around for a bit until our group number was called. Then we geared up, met our raft guide and our two other boat partners, and loaded onto the bus for a really short drive to the put in. Our guide was a tiny woman and this was her first year guiding commercially, but she did a great job! We got the requisite safety talk with cheesy guide jokes on the bus ride and within minutes of arriving at the put in we were on the water.

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Just like all the other rivers in the area, the Pigeon was a bit high for this time of year, so the waves were a little higher and probably more fun! Our access point was at a powerhouse right on the Tennessee/North Carolina state line. The river runs along Interstate 40 most of the way, but we were in a tree-lined gorge and didn’t really notice the road. We also floated past the Appalachian trail at one point. Apparently the Pigeon River used to be incredibly polluted and devoid of life, due to toxic runoff from a paper mill. All that has changed in the last 20 years and aquatic life and recreation have returned to the river.

The morning had been hot and sunny, but soon after we put on the water it clouded over and began to rain a little. We didn’t mind; when you’re rafting you’re getting soaked anyway. We chatted with our guide and asked her about her first summer guiding and the area. She was helping some friends with a farm on a mountainside in Tennessee and advised us to never buy property on the North side of a mountain; the sun never shines there!

As soon as we hit the water we went through a class III rapid, named Powerhouse of course. That was followed by some rolling class II waves and a few more class III rapids.

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Our most eventful rapid was Lost Guide, a class IV that deserves its name. DW almost fell out of the boat (he was sitting rear left) and managed to stay in only by grabbing on to the first thing he could grip: our guide’s leg. Our guide’s paddle hit a bump and smacked her in the lip, causing a bit of blood. Guides often get tossed in this rapid. Our guide said she had been launched from her position in the back all the way to the front on a couple of occasions. I had a lot of fun though!

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Swimming at the end of the trip

Swimming at the end of the trip

After Lost Guide rapid we collected ourselves and geared up for a few more class III and IV rapids. Everyone had fun and we all managed to stay in the boat. With the exception of Lost Guide I would say this river was a bit easier than the Ocoee and a good way to spend the afternoon. Eventually the sun peeked out again and at the end of our trip we were able to jump out of the boat and swim the last bit. Once we arrived back at Smoky Mountain Outdoors we carried the raft up the ramp, returned our gear and changed into some dry clothes. As soon as I exited the bath house in my dry gear it started to rain again!

On Wednesday we headed out of Asheville and into Smoky Mountain National Park where we relaxed for one day before doing some more floating on our own, including the Tuckasegee and Nantahala rivers.

Float #83: French Broad River

4 Sep

Bent Creek to Jean Webb Park

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French Broad River
Henderson and Buncombe Counties, North Carolina
Monday, August 12
10 Miles

Our second float trip of our vacation to North Carolina was on the French Broad River, which runs through downtown Asheville. Earlier that morning we stopped by the Liquid Logic kayak factory to pick up a new boat for our friend Jake. A few months prior I ran across an artists call for entries that would exchange original works of art for a new kayak. The Liquid Logic company was building a new facility near Asheville and they wanted to fill it with unique artwork. I passed the article along to Jake, a painter and sculptor who was in need a of boat. To my delight, he was one of the artists they picked! We drove his artwork out to the Liquid Logic factory, took a tour of the facility and drove away with a brand new boat, paddle, PFD and skirt. It was really cool to see how the boats come together. We saw everything from the large ovens where kayaks are cooked in the molds, to how they are assembled and accessorized and even the design area where they test out new ideas.

Later that day we did a quick planning session to find our access points and headed to the river to christen Jake’s new boat. Asheville has several river parks with easy access points all along the waterway. There had been more rain than usual in the past week, so the water was up a little and muddy. I have heard that the water is almost always brown, so I guess we didn’t miss much on that point!

French Broad River

Bent Creek access

French Broad River

French Broad River

Jake and his new boat

The day had been very sunny and hot, but that soon changed. The sky started to cloud up and by mid-afternoon we were getting rained on. There weren’t any gravel bars visible and the banks were steep and overgrown, so there was no good place to pull over and wait out the storm. We paddled for about fifteen minutes before seeing a small arched bridge over a creek on the right side of the river. As the rain came down even harder we paddled over and took shelter under the bridge. It was just big enough for the three of us and our boats to hide without getting drenched. I don’t know exactly how long we camped out underneath, but it was probably about an hour. Every time the rain would let up, a few seconds later it would come down even harder. We caught a glimpse of a beaver who popped his head up right where we were sitting. He was quite startled and reentered the water with a loud splash, which in turn startled us! Eventually the sky brightened and the rain reduced to a drizzle, so we decided to paddle onward to our destination.

French Broad River

Taking shelter from the rain

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Jake and DW

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Fog rises from the hills after the storm

One cool thing about this stretch of the French Broad is that it flows parallel to the Biltmore Estate. You can catch a glimpse of the mansion from the river, which is the only way we could afford to see it. Admission to that attraction is not cheap!

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The Biltmore

French Broad River

DW, Jake and the Biltmore in the background

French Broad River

A low bridge

French Broad River

The Biltmore hotel

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The bridge at Jean Webb access

As we paddled past the Biltmore we came to a bridge that was a little bit low. If the water had been a foot higher we would have had to portage, but luckily we were able to pass underneath. There is a dedicated portage route on the right side of the river with signage to guide you. After the bridge we passed the Biltmore hotel and the rest of the estate grounds. On the left side of the river were several parks with access points and one with a campground. We passed under the interstate and one street bridge before we came to the bridge at our take out, a very small park under the overpass. This access is right across the street from The Wedge, a historic building with an artists’ studio space and a microbrewery. DW’s cousin-in-law, Cynthia was kind enough to help us run shuttle. Then we packed up our wet gear, changed into dry clothes and had a few beers at The Wedge Brewery.

Critter Count: Herons, 1 Beaver