On a normal day, the dammed Cheoah River is just a shallow meandering stream. But the hydropower company is occasionally letting water spill over the dam and into the river instead of diverting it to their power house. The resulting river makes for a wild and wooly ride. These special whitewater releases are held 19 days a year. This year, most of the special releases occurred during the winter and spring.
There are only two releases left: Oct 1 and Nov. 1. While a long way off, trips are expected to fill up fast. Only three companies from the region are offering trips on the Cheoah — Wildwater, Endless River and Nantahala Outdoor Center, all based in the Nantahala Gorge. The Nantahala Outdoor Center has already filled up its trips for the year. While raft companies are just starting to offer trips on the Cheoah after getting guides trained and comfortable on the new river, the whitewater releases have attracted large numbers of kayakers going down the river in their own boats.
“I have rafted many times in West Virginia on the Gauley River, and the Cheoah surpasses in excitement and challenge,” said Dudley Orr, a Robbinsville native and partner in Fontana Village resort. “I am so excited that I can see in my lifetime this river attract visitors to this area. I also know that once they come, they’ll also discover the other great outdoor resources we have to offer.”
The forest service has strict training standards for guides and companies offering trips on the river. Because the Cheoah has stronger rapids, companies must have two guides per raft. Each raft also must be accompanied by a guide in a kayak to aid with rescue should the need arise.
Anyone thrown from the raft should have sufficient swimming skills to make the sometimes long and difficult swim to get back to the raft.
“This is not a river to ignore; this is a river to respect,” said Lance Luke of Wildwater Rafting. “We know we will be running this river in years to come and we want to be absolutely sure we can run an exciting but safe trip.”
A raft is also limited to four passengers. The training, small group sizes in the raft, and requirements on the number of guides are a good thing but do add cost to the trip compared to other rivers, explained Juliet Kastorff, owner of Endless Rivers Adventures based in Nantahala Gorge.
Rafting companies and paddlers hope the dates of the release will include more warm weather days and fewer winter days next year. American Whitewater, a national paddling advocacy organization based in Sylva, is leading an effort to change the line up of dates.
“No one is going rafting in February,” Kastorff said.
The Cheoah is a combination of large waves, quick turns and maneuvering, and large drops. There are 4-Class III, 13-Class IV/IV+, and 1-Class V rapid on this 9-mile stretch. The river trip begins with mild rapids and gradual building over the first few miles. Sections are still blind and require maneuvering into limited channels with many obstacles. Once the rapids begin to build they continue to increase in challenge, duration and size to the end of the run at Lake Calderwood.