Balsam Lake high and dry as tourist season hits full stride

Repairs to the dam at Balsam Lake in the Nantahala National Forest have been delayed because of high creek levels, leaving the popular lake drained as the Western North Carolina tourist season gets under way.


Splashboards that keep the 8-acre reservoir filled failed months ago, causing the lake water to drain. That left only the natural flow of the Wolf Creek meandering through the lakebed. But heavy rains and a fast-flowing creek have prevented contractors from assessing the damage to the boards and taking measures to fix the problem.

The lake is dry, but ironically, the creek running through it, which is typically dammed off, is too high for workers to see what is wrong. Now, it is just a waiting game as workers monitor creek levels until they are safe enough to allow them to get at the deepest boards.

“All we know is there’s a hole in it — some sort of stress crack,” said Mike Wilkins, the Nantahala District ranger.

The lake is stocked regularly by the N.C. Wildlife Commission for anglers and also used by boaters. But until the repairs can be made, the Jackson County fishing hole isn’t seeing the action it normally gets this time of year. And the commission instead had to stock the stream above it in hopes the fish would make their way into the lake once filled.

“It’s not a high-use area,” Wilkins said. “But this time of year, there is usually someone in a canoe, or kayak, fishing.”

Balsam Lake’s shores are also home to the Balsam Lake Lodge, which has 16 bunks and is available for vacation rentals. Wilkins said it stays full most of the summer but already 20 percent or so of those who booked the lodge have cancelled their reservations because there is no lake.

The spot is also a special access point for people with mobility issues. Handicap accessible paths and fishing piers make it one of the few places like it in the region that is suitable for all anglers of all abilities. 

The recent break marks the second instance in two years that the dam has failed. The Forest Service had the lake filled up last summer, but come winter, it failed again, Wilkins said. This latest fix will cost the agency somewhere in the ballpark of $10,000 to $15,000. But this time around, Wilkins wants to have reinforced boards put in place to ensure it’s less likely to happen in the future.

“It’s very discouraging because we worked so hard last year to get it up and running,” Wilkins said.

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