For those of us not-quite-ready for the big water, there's Section II, a fun-packed float trip boasting some 20 Class I and II rapids with one roaring Class III to get your heart pounding.
More than just a whitewater thrill ride, this kinder and gentler section of the river affords paddlers the opportunity to sit back and enjoy the surrounding mountain scenery that earned the Chattooga the designation of National Wild & Scenic River.
The 7.4-mile run starts at the Russell Bridge on Hwy 28 in Oconee County. Because most of Section II is relatively tame, the U.S. Forest Service allows tubing as well as paddling on this segment of the river.
As put-ins go, the Russell Bridge landing is about as accommodating as it gets. It's just a few steps from the parking area to the concrete ramp used to launch boats.
The day we paddled the river, the water level was at 2.8 and falling, making it easy to paddle over some of the more shallow and rocky sections. At the start, the river drops gradually and gently, but picks up volume and speed when the West Fork of the Chattooga flows in from the right about 100 yards below the bridge.
Once the site of Chattooga Old Town, one of the largest Native American settlements in the Southeast, the valley through which the upper river flows was eventually taken over by farmers who recognized the agricultural value of the land. A large farmhouse owned by the Russell family is one of the few structures from this early period that is still standing.
In the first few miles, you'll see several privately owned dwellings along the South Carolina shoreline. Once you leave the valley near the access point known as Long Bottom Ford, the terrain reverts to wilderness and the river gets cranking.
After passing several large islands in the river, you'll reach a long deep pool and then Turn Hole Rapid, the first whitewater worthy of a name. At average water levels, you can run it near the center, dropping over a three-foot ledge.
The next half mile offers mild Class I and II rapids. At Mile 4, you'll see a group of large boulders and rock slabs extending almost completely across the river. This is Big Shoals, a Class II+ to Class III rapid.
We stopped and climbed on the big rocks to the right of center to scout out the best route. You've got a few options here. The easiest and most popular line is next to the right bank. This is a nice tongue that will move you swiftly into a small reversal wave at the head of the pool below. You also can paddle through the curler at the right center and the chute on the far left. Or you can portage around the rapid and avoid it all together.
The diversity of routes makes Big Shoals a great spot to practice your paddling skills. It's relatively easy to portage back up and over the rocks for those who want to try out the different lines.
From Big Shoals, it's mostly smooth sailing. There are a number of long, slow pools with some Class I and Class II whitewater before you get to the Earls Ford takeout where Warwoman Creek enters the river on the right.
But don't be fooled into thinking you've survived Section II. The hardest part of this whitewater adventure is the quarter-mile trek uphill to the parking lot.
Earls Ford is also the put-in to start Section III of the Chattooga. I hope to be back this summer and walk down the gravel path to begin my next whitewater challenge.
For more information on the Chattooga River and its access points, click here.