We made it through the cat’s pajamas relatively unscathed as our raft rocked and rolled, but only took on a minimal amount of water. Our group included six rookies to rafting and they started celebrating as if we had won Olympic gold. Jake Trotter of ACE Ocoee Adventures then took us back to the moment. Trotter quickly called in new instructions to prepare us for what the Ocoee River still had in store.
I will never forget that perfect morning in early June. It was the kind of cool, refreshing day that only the mountains can provide. The East Tennessee hills were shrouded in morning fog, but by 9 a.m. the sun had broken through and the crystal-clear water of the Ocoee River shimmered invitingly.
The Ocoee River is a scenic 37-mile-long stretch of a single 93-mile-long river that flows through the Appalachians in parts of Georgia and Tennessee. The Ocoee River is located in Polk County at an elevation of over 2,100 feet. Many whitewater rating companies are located in historic Ducktown, Tennessee. The river is called the Toccoa River for 56 miles flowing through northern Georgia and becomes the Ocoee River when it reaches the cities of McCaysville, Georgia and Copperhill, Tennessee.
This beautiful river is divided into three parts by dams and has been welcoming whitewater enthusiasts since 1977. Rafters, kayakers and canoeists flock to the area to take on the challenge of the middle section of the Ocoee River. This section includes about 20 named rapids of at least Class III and Class IV on the International Whitewater Classification System.
The entire river is controlled by the Tennessee Valley Authority and has a total of four dams. Three of the dams control the flow of the Ocoee River. These dams are simply named Ocoee Dam #1, Ocoee Dam #2 and Ocoee Dam #3. Construction of the first two dams began in 1911 and was completed in 1913. The East Tennessee Power Company built the dams to provide hydroelectric power to the new Alcoa Company which was accelerating aluminum production in the county of Blount.
In 1939, TVA purchased the original pair of braces. Instruction work began on Ocoee Dam #3 a year later. More than 100 years after construction was completed, Ocoee Dams No. 1 and No. 2 are still producing electricity for the region. Ocoee Dam #1 has generated an average of 60,000 megawatt hours in recent years.
Ocoee Dam #2 is only 30 feet high and diverts the river in a unique channel system. The raised wooden channel carries water nearly five miles along the Ocoee River Gorge to the powerhouse. As the water moves through the channel towards the powerhouse downstream, it only descends a total of 19 feet. At the end of the historic canal, the water plunges 250 feet into the turbine-generator units below. This unique system gives the 30 foot dam the capacity to generate electricity equal to that of a 250 foot high dam.
Extensive damage to the old canal caused the TVA to shut down the system in September 1976. The shutdown allowed water to once again flow freely through the Ocoee River Gorge. Conservators and some sentimental TVA engineers wanted to restore the old canal because of its efficiency and historical significance. The old canal system and Ocoee Dam No. 2 was listed on the National Register of Historic Places through the efforts of many people and the help of TVA.
As engineers worked to rebuild the canal, the newly filled riverbed of the midsection of the Ocoee River became a beacon for whitewater enthusiasts around the world. Rafting companies began offering trips on the Ocoee River to the general public, and a new industry soon began to take shape in the area. In 1983, the canal was fully repaired and ready to resume transporting water from the river to the power station.
The Ocoee River Council was formed by the State of Tennessee and has worked with the thriving whitewater community, as well as local governments, to ensure the region continues to benefit from the water rapids alive from the flowing river. There was initial resistance from the TVA and legal action ensued. After lengthy negotiations and legal action (act of Congress), TVA agreed to a broadcast schedule that produced 116 days of recreational broadcast per year. The Middle Ocoee River has quickly become one of the most popular whitewater destinations in the world.
Each year, more than 250,000 visitors make the journey to Polk County to reach the five-mile stretch of whitewater rapids that the Ocoee River provides. The State of Tennessee created a council to promote whitewater sports on the Ocoee River in 2017. The economic impact of the river has become enormous for the region. It is estimated that the Ocoee River and the water sports industry combine to have a $43 million impact on the local economy.
The first whitewater racing events held on the Ocoee River began in 1978. Several national whitewater championships have been held on the river. The pinnacle of this type of competition for the Ocoee River was reached when the Ocoee River hosted the whitewater kayaking and canoeing events for the 1996 Summer Olympics. The host city of Atlanta is more than 100 miles, but 1992 Olympic gold medalist Joe Jacobi had a successful campaign to run the whitewater events on the Ocoee River.
There’s nothing quite like white water rafting. It offers the perfect combination of danger and relaxation with incredible scenery. I was hooked the first time I sat in a raft.
The thrill of riding down the river as it descends the mountains cannot be overstated. Giant boulders force the fast-moving water to dramatically change course, making every expedition a new and exhilarating experience. Successive sets of rapids help make the Ocoee River one of the top 10 whitewater rivers in the United States, according to Canoe Magazine.
Whitewater rafting can obviously be dangerous, but the professional river guides from Ace Ocoee Adventures and one of the many other whitewater teams in the area have intimate knowledge of every rapid and whirlpool in the river. Outfitters provide life jackets, helmets, and instruction before you begin your two-hour adventure.
Trotter, our guide, weaved stories that conveyed both the joys and dangers of rafting the Ocoee River while ensuring that if we followed his instructions, we would have a safe and fun trip. Trotter’s laid-back style and a lifetime of experience as a whitewater kayaker and rafting guide provided our group with a sense of comfort as we carried our raft into launch position. That being said, the river is wild and even expert rafters and kayakers can succumb to the ultimate power of nature.
During our trip to the middle part of the Ocoee River, we saw many rafts flipping over and individuals being thrown into the freezing water. Trotter expertly guided us through rapids with intimidating names and reputations. Rapids with names like Broken Nose, Slice-n-Dice, Tablesaw and Hell’s Hole await rafters ready for the challenge. The middle section of the Ocoee River begins just below Ocoee Dam #2 at a launch point that quickly turns into the first Class IV rapid on the river. This first foray into the raging rapids of the Ocoee is known as “Grumpy” and actually claimed the lives of two women in 24 hours in August 2013.
After three hours on the river, we passed Cat’s Pajamas and Trotter barked, “Three ahead.” It was our signal to paddle three strokes forward to help our boat pick up speed. We were heading straight for the teeth of the last two rapids on our trip down the famous Ocoee River. Back-to-back Class IV Hell’s Hole and Powerhouse Ledge rapids were all that kept us from successfully completing our run without toppling our raft or even losing one of our team members overboard.
Trotter bellowed instructions as we quickly approached the last two Class IV rapids. Our raft had turned around out of the cat’s pajamas, but Trotter lined us up deftly to tackle the finish rapids before a calm float back to the start point. We killed Hell’s Hole, then immediately conquered Powerhouse Ledge for a thrilling conclusion to our journey.
I got out of the raft and onto dry land. I had become soaked from head to toe in the freezing water during the trip, but my spirit was not chilled at all. The song of the Ocoee River did not stop at its banks for me…it continues to linger deep within my heart.