Route 66 Cities Beaches


Since 1995

Big South Fork

Whitewater rafting in Kentucky is like skiing --- we are surrounded by great runs but have to drive several hours to get to them. But it's certainly worth it. Up and down the Appalachian Mountains we have powerful rivers gushing through magnificent canyons, often far from highways or any signs of civilization. Rafting is as much of a thrill ride as any roller coaster, a participant sport demanding great teamwork and careful planning. More than anything else we do, rafting presents us with problems and decisions at each bend. Even if we run the same river segment three days in a row, we encounter three different sets of conditions, as water levels rise, sandbars shift and currents change. And things can happen pretty fast. Someone can be flipped out and need rescuing, a raft can tilt precariously or catch on a rock and spin, and paddles or ropes can snap.

Whitewater rafting is like football --- it is demanding, exhausting, adrenaline filled and carries a constant element of danger. You don't ever beat the river. You confront it and survive to challenge it again another day. But like football, the awesome difficulty of getting a raft down that river is where the appeal lies. It allows us to measure ourselves against it. We can't beat the river but we can see how close we come. If we can walk away having met the challenge, we are better prepared for the next challenge to come our way, be it a chemistry test, a big soccer game or a major job interview.

In our program, we like new members to develop canoeing skills before they try rafting, and then we start them on smaller half day rivers with five person rafts and guides in each one.

Like the other activities we rank, we understand that tastes, ability levels and budgets differ. However, after two full decades of experience on all these rivers, we offer the following overview before getting to the close analysis of each one.

l. Breaks of the Sandy. Raftable only a few weeks in September or October when the high country dams are released to lower the water levels for the winter and spring rains. This is the highest level of rafting in the East, requiring proof of experience on lesser rivers, the best equipment and peak conditioning. Rafting the Sandy is like falling down a cliff for five hours; the pace never eases and every drop is heart stopping. Expensive.

2. Gauley. Another September - October drawdown opportunity, this is the second toughest river descent east of the Rockies. It's not as expensive as the Breaks of Sandy, but still the experience of a lifetime until you can get out to the Rocky Mountain rivers.


3. Lower New, April or May run. The New is always a scenic trip as it flows through that deep gorge, but by late summer it's more reasonable. Swollen with spring rains, it becomes a hairy monster.

4. Nolichucky. A tighter river with smaller rafts, but the steep drops and technical challenges are just as exciting. This is a good warmup for the New and the Gauley.

5. Big South Fork. No dams here, so it's runnable only in April and May. The most isolated wilderness river in the region. Scenery is spectacular but you won't have much time to look at it.

6. Chatooga. They filmed the movie Deliverance here. A thrilling run, the southernmost rafting river in the East. A closed in feeling, with full canopy often arching entirely over the river.

7. Ocoee. Used for the canoeing and kayaking runs in the Atlanta Olympics. Dam releases allow this to be run year round. Only a half day trip, but almost nonstop whitewater. The fastest pace of any river in the region because it has almost no pools, just drop after drop.

8. Nantahala. The best first river out there. It's a forgiving enough river that new rafters can make their mistakes, but there are enough tricky stretches to stretch their skills. Then it winds up with an adrenaline drop over Nantahala Falls which requires stopping, discussing with a guide how to approach, line across just above the drop, then shoot it at the proper angle. Worth the trip just for the whole whitewater center, with a lodge, training complex and equipment facility.

9. Youghiogheny. Another great paddling center, with training course set up for canoeists and kayakers and a whole village devoted to the river running crowd. This is another half day run, and while it's not quite as intense as the Ocoee, it's still a real rush. Seriously consider making this a multi day trip and spending at least one full day taking instruction in paddling techniques at Riversport, one of the nation's top three canoeing and kayaking instructional programs. The school is located right on the riverbank, adjacent to Ramcat Rapids, where they have gates and chutes installed. You can camp there, and with advance arrangements they'll feed you.

10. Cheat. Mainly a Spring run, this does allow pauses between the big drops and chutes but you'll need them to study the situations and plot your next moves. There's no margin for error. The Cheat probably chews up more rafts, kayaks and canoes than any other river in the region. Don't bring your camera; you won't have time to use it.

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