Of all the rivers in all the towns in all the land, few have the distinction of being designated a National Wild and Scenic River. We're talking a mere quarter of 1 percent.
Among that exclusive A-list of tributaries is South Carolina's Chattooga River, a free-flowing, 50-mile whitewater adventure ride that drops almost half a mile in elevation from its humble beginnings as small rivulets in the Appalachian Mountains to its rip-roaring rapids ending in Lake Tugaloo.
More than just a label bestowed by Congress, "wild and scenic" perfectly describes this Southeastern whitewater classic. A quarter mile of dense forest up both banks of the waterway is protected from development and not easily accessible, preserving the natural beauty and tranquility of the mountainous terrain of South Carolina's upstate.
Granted, it's easy to overlook the breathtaking scenery when you're blasting through a thundering river of class 4 and 5 rapids. And therein lies the "wild" component of the designation.
Sections III and IV of the Chattooga is where you'll find the biggest and baddest cascades. These lower 31 miles of river are touted among the best whitewater anywhere.
But the Chattooga's notoriety extends far beyond paddling circles. The river gained celebrity status in the 1970s when it was featured as the backdrop for the adventure thriller, "Deliverance," starring Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight. Floating along the rippling water, you can almost hear "Dueling Banjos" wafting out of the woods.
It had been years since I made my first trip down the Chattooga with Wildwater Rafting in Long Creek. Having lost some of the fearlessness that one enjoys in youth, I was a tad apprehensive about venturing down what one T-shirt glibly describes as a "raging, bone-crushing, life-threatening class V stream."
Before braving the monster waters, we decided to get our feet wet on Section III, a popular trip for families with younger children. This 7-mile stretch of river begins with easy Class 2 rapids. Directed by an experienced guide, issuing orders from the rear of the boat, we traversed these fun whitewater ripples with hardly a worry.
One of my favorites was "Kick in the Butt," a rapid featuring a big rock that sits just below the water surface. The torrent of water flowing from the left sends rafts up against the rock, resulting in the namesake boot to the backside of the boat. To add to the adventure, we spun our way through the fall.
As the river gathered momentum, plunging over ledges, around boulders and through steep gorges, the ride turned from mild to wild. Before we knew it, we were facing the notorious Bull Sluice, a rock-'em, sock-'em Class 4 rapid known for turning paddlers into swimmers.
We all breathed a sigh of relief as we successfully navigated through the 14-foot double drop without losing any of our five-man crew. Ready for a break, we beached the boat just above Surfing Rapid for a different kind of whitewater experience. With directions from one of the trip guides, we slid down a rock to be swept up by a gush of water into an eddy. Some of us enjoyed the dunking so much, we ran the chute twice.
The next morning we hit the water early to take on Section IV. This white-knuckle ride is chocked full of Class 4 and 5 rapids. None is more legendary than the famed Five Falls, a fast-flowing series of rapids that includes Entrance, Corkscrew, Crack-in-the-Rock, Jawbone and Sock-em Dog. Dropping 75 feet through a narrow jumble of boulders, the water comes to rest in the calm, but ominously named, Dead Man's Pool.
Before each rapid we stopped for detailed instructions on how to best run the chutes to minimize our chances of dumping. As a safety precaution, guides stood watch below the falls ready to throw a rope should any of us find ourselves in the water.
Fortunately, or maybe unfortunately, we made it through without mishap despite a wall of water crashing into our boat. I think some of our fellow rafters were relishing the thrill of the spill. It just added to the excitement of rafting this real life rollercoaster.
Rafting the Chattooga River
Wildwater Rafting offers several guided trips on the Chattooga, one of the few remaining free-flowing rivers in the Southeast. Safety equipment, including helmets, paddling jackets and personal flotation devices (PFDs), are provided.
Wildwater's most popular trip, it is ideally suited for beginner to intermediate rafters. No previous whitewater experience is needed. Minimum age is 8 years old. Approximately 7 hours. Lunch is provided.
This trip covers the steepest section of river currently being run by commercial outfitters in the Southeast. It is suggested for those in good physical health with previous whitewater experience. Minimum age is 12 years old. Approximately 7 hours. Lunch is provided.