Rafting the Nantahala River

Go with the flow. You really have no choice.

Original Post was made on July 27, 2007.

Going white water rafting has been a dream of mine for at least 20 years. So, to celebrate my 43rd birthday, (Yikes, I’ll be middle age in another 10 years or so!), I finally realized that dream.

17 years ago, my blushing bride and I took our honeymoon in the beautiful Smoky Mountains. On our last day we drove over to Bryson City, North Carolina, and watched all the happy people rafting on the Nantahala River , I was really envious, but all the companies had sent out their last buses for the day, so all I could do was buy a T-shirt and keep it in mind as something to eventually do.

17 years later we decided to take a family vacation in the Smokies and you better believe that I remembered the Nantahala! As there are many, many rafting companies on the river I did a lot of research of the different ones and settled on the Carolina Outfitters. They seemed to offer the best overall “bang for the buck” in pricing and service.

Word to the wise: if you’re staying in Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge allow at least 2 ½ hours to get to the Nantahala. It can be done in 2, but you’ll be pushing it.

The Nantahala is dam fed and as the water comes from the bottom of a 500 foot lake it is consistently between 45 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit. On the day of my trip it was cold and rainy and was a brisk 65 degrees outside. To say we froze our butts off would be an understatement.

Accompanying me on my trip was my oldest son, born 2 years after we were married. As both of us are cool and tough guys we decided to pass on the big rafts that hold 10 people or more and rented a two person raft. He is a boy scout with a lot of experience canoing on flat water, and I’ve been in a boat or two myself over the years, so we thought we’d be good to go. Course all of our experience is in Indiana and that just doesn’t compare to the white water in North Carolina.

We were greeted by the super friendly staff at Carolina Outfitters and talked to the various guides while we waited for our bus to depart. I was a little surprised at one point as I heard Evelyn, one of the guides, (I think that was her name) talking loudly in a foreign language. One of the guys answered her and so I had to ask what language they were speaking. “Polish”, he said.

“I knew they talked funny in the south, but I didn’t know they talked THAT funny”, I jokingly said.

We rode the bus down to the put in and all was well until the moment we put our raft in the water. Then I realized that my son and I just could not properly coordinate our paddling in the raft and as we headed over the first rapid backwards, a class II+ called Patton’s run, I wondered if we had made the right decision to do this on our own.

I eventually realized though that our raft was quite sturdy and as long as we tucked our legs in under the raft and went with the flow, we did just fine going down the rapids backwards, sideways, and even a few facing forward. Not to be corny, but afterwards the whole thing really struck me as a metaphor for life. Going with the flow.That no matter how much you try to exert control over life, sometimes you just have to “go with the flow”.

Due to all the rain and cold it was very foggy on the river. We could barely see 10 feet in front of us. This was cool except that it made scouting the rapids very difficult as we could only see them just before we hit them. The section of the river that you raft on is approximately 8 miles long and takes between 2 and 3 hours to complete.

We eventually worked out most of the kinks in our paddling and enjoyed a great trip down the river. During the instruction we were given before we left the outfitters we were told that we didn’t want to miss our put out after the class III Nantahala Falls rapid, because after that was a class V rapid and they wouldn’t be able to get to us. Well, we went through the Nantahala Falls rapid pretty easily and started paddling towards the put out, but the draw of the next rapid was too strong and as I paddled with all my might, I realized that we were going over the class V…backwards. Luckily, we came through unscathed, but knew we had to get out of there. I saw a put out on the far side of the river and we made for it with all we had. We got out and carried our raft across a bridge to the waiting buses.

The trip and staff at Carolina Outfitters was great and I can’t think of any other way I would rather have spent my birthday. So, get out there and raft the Nantahala, but remember, rafting and banjo music don’t mix!

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