Paddlers hit the river in wake of torrential downpours
The recurring deluge of heavy rains has brought paddlers out of hibernation and onto Western North Carolina rivers over the past few weeks.
While the rest of mountain residents nervously eyed the rivers and creeks as they approached flood levels, advanced paddlers were quick to take advantage of the high water to get in more challenging runs than usual.
Employees at Nantahala Outdoors Center, within the Nantahala Gorge outside Bryson City, have noticed more kayakers than normal braving the waters despite the inveterate wintery mix and frigid temperatures that kept making an encore appearance on the mountains’ weather radar lately. There was at least one weekend where the skies broke, however, leaving a perfect combination of both high river levels and milder weather, at least as far as winter goes.
“We had one sunny Saturday where we had ton of people out there paddling the Nanty,” said Brad Caldwell, who works at NOC’s gear store. “The high water definitely brought the more experienced paddlers out.”
Heavy rains not only gave experienced boaters a chance to run creeks that are usually too shallow to boat in normal conditions, but they also served up more aggressive rapids for them to test their skills on.
“It was definitely a lot of fun — a treat,” said Zuzana Vanha events manager for NOC and an advanced paddler. “The folks that we cater to have definitely been having a ball.”
One popular river in the region was the Upper Nantahala, a steep, narrow plunge down a series of cascades from Nantahala Lake into the Nantahala Gorge.
The Upper Nantahala normally isn’t boat-able, its flows choked off by Duke Energy hydropower operations that diverts water from a seven-mile section of the riverbed.
But heavy rains are a game changer — especially sustained downpours of the magnitude WNC saw. Even with Duke diverting the normal flow of water from the river, the rains filled it up. The Upper Nantahala was running so high, in fact, it was borderline unsafe.
Paddler Raymond Brugger estimated that the main stem of the Nantahala River, at times, had three or four times more water running in it than usual, and waves reached heights of six to eight feet tall.
The water was “quite different from the normal Nantahala,” Brugger said. “You couldn’t see downstream until you were cresting the wave.”
However, with the faster, higher waters, paddlers faced dangers. The surging water picks up logs and branches from the shore and turns them into floating puncheons.
“I remember going down the river seeing logs 10 feet long,” Brugger said.
And, of course, paddlers have to be skilled enough to handle the faster flows.
Brugger said the Nantahala reminded him of the experience of running higher classification rivers out west, or the Gauley in West Virginia.
“I kind of thought of it as having a little piece of the Gauley River,” Brugger said. “It was just amazing to see.”
While many are happy to see the sun shining after weeks of crazy weather, “we would prefer it rain,” Caldwell said, bringing paddlers and possibly business to NOC.