The Whitewater Bug | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

The Whitewater Bug

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In the early '70s, three Atlanta school teachers with a love for whitewater kayaking bought a simple motel on a narrow strip of highway in Wesser, N.C. Beside the highway runs a beautiful mountain river that flows through the Nantahala Gorge, just south of the Great Smoky Mountains.

They decided to make a living by renting rafts to brave souls who would dare to run the river while also quenching their own thirsts for whitewater kayaking—then an almost unheard-of sport. At the time, life jackets looked like big orange horseshoes, the canoes were aluminum with beach balls for flotation, and the kayaks were fragile fiberglass.

There were enough takers to grow the business—along with a few of their neighbors—into one of the Southeast's prime adventure tourism destinations. Today, this region of western North Carolina is a virtual outdoors theme park for rafters, kayakers, hikers, mountain bikers, fly-fishers and others.

It can be as rugged (the arduous Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine crosses here) or as comfortable (high-end cabins, restaurants and spas) as you want it to be.

This past Memorial Day weekend, my wife, Beverly, and I met up with family and joined several hundred others to splash into the summer through the cool waters of the Nantahala River. We were not the only ones with Jackson-area license plates on our cars.

In fact, Jackson actually hosts a small whitewater paddling community. It's made up of road warriors who trek several hours after work on Friday to catch rivers running in and around the southern Appalachian Mountains in the spring and summer. Most of us got our first taste of whitewater by rafting down this river.

Though a 10-hour drive from Jackson (I like to knock out four after work to arrive in time for paddling the next day), the Nantahala River is a great location for a three-day weekend, or better yet a week-long getaway.

It's not Highlands or Cashiers. The stores around here don't focus on antiques or pottery. But you can find $400 carbon-fiber paddles, $1,000 kayaks and $2,000 mountain bikes. If Tevas and T-shirts are your idea of relaxation, put it on your list this summer.

The most obvious landmark here is the one built by those three Atlanta transplants—the Nantahala Outdoor Center at (http://www.noc.com). It anchors an entire economy of fellow outfitters, campgrounds, cabin rentals, restaurants and motels.

Up the road is a smaller shop, Endless River (http://www.endlessriveradventures.com). Don't let the size fool you. ERA is known not only for their raft rentals but also for the top-quality staff and kayaking instruction.

I recommend first-timers start with a rafting trip down the Nantahala, which sports fun (but mostly benign) rapids and beautiful scenery. Ignore the outfits that let you throw a boat on your roof. Endless River, the NOC or Wildwater, Ltd. (http://www.wildwaterrafting.com) have well-established reputations.

If you're nervous about whitewater or have never been in a canoe or boat of any kind, take a guide-assisted trip. There is a National Forest Service-imposed 60-pound weight minimum on the Nantahala. If you have young children, call first to make sure they meet these requirements. If they're a tad too small, drive east to Dillsboro, N.C., and try the tamer Tuckaseegee River.

The Nantahala River "runs" with enough water for rafting when Duke Power is generating electricity, which is relevant because this water will shock you. Not because of the electricity but because of the temperature. Coming from the bottom of a deep reservoir, the river is usually 40 degrees.

You will likely first feel a few chilly drops at Patton's Run—a fun rapid about two minutes after the put-in. From there, you'll paddle and float by other rafters, kayakers, fishermen and onlookers as you splash over and through rapids with nicknames like Whirlpool, Quarry and Surfing.

You end about three hours later at the Nantahala Falls, a class-III rapid on the international whitewater scale of difficulty, which rates rapids and rivers on a scale of I for benign to VI for deadly. The Nantahala is a II-III river.

If rafting the river whets your appetite for whitewater, the next day you can rent duckies—small one or two-person rafts (wet suits are typically provided) that give you a lower and more personal relationship with the river.

If that's still not enough for you, then you are officially infected with a whitewater bug. The Southeast is filled with great whitewater rafting runs—from the Chattooga on the Georgia-South Carolina border to the Ocoee in East Tennessee.

Both Endless River and the NOC offer whitewater kayaking and canoeing instruction, with the NOC designed around classes and Endless River Adventures catered to your specific needs.

Contact Reed for all things outdoors at [e-mail missing]

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