If you’re like me, you probably have a hard time getting excited about rain.
Personally, I always thought mountain adventure was best enjoyed on sunny days. But then I talked to Dooley Tombras, the North American Champion of Canoe Slalom racing. According to Dooley, precipitation means big adventure. That’s because when rain rolls around, great whitewater isn’t far behind.
And when Dooley—who hails from Knoxville, Tennessee—is looking for rivers to paddle, he doesn’t have to look very far.
“East Tennessee is one of the best places in the country for whitewater,” he says. “You’re right in the middle of a 200-mile radius of world-class rivers. And whether you’re a beginner or expert, it’s got what you want.”
Those are pretty strong words, coming from a former national champion of down-river racing, and a member of the US Freestyle team in 2007 (he got 6th place in the World Championships that year). So it’s pretty safe to assume Dooley knows what he’s talking about.
“Rain means more water. And more water means faster water, bigger waves, and more excitement. And for a big watershed rivers, like the Nolichucky and Watauga, it doesn’t take much rain to make great whitewater.”
Now, you’ve heard me talk about the Watauga River before…and how the cold tailwaters make for some of the best trout fishing you can find. Add to that the notion of consistent rafting, kayaking and canoeing, and you’ve got an all-season, all-weather mountain adventure. But don’t take the Watauga lightly…Dooley says it’s not for everyone.
“The Watauga River is a Class IV-V river, and a Class V is as tough as you can ride (a Class VI is typically considered unrunnable). The Doe River (outside Elizabethton) is a Class IV. And if you’re looking for a more family-friendly river, the Nolichucky is a Class III-IV.”
For the laymen out there, that means one heck of a time, without actually endangering life and limb.
But Dooley will be the first to tell you, it’s not ALL about adrenaline.
“The Nolichucky is a spectacular gorge. You get the feeling you’re away from everything, and depending on the time of day, you might have the whole gorge to yourself. It’s pristine. It gives you a sense of what it would have been like to be in East Tennessee 200 years ago.
“Part of the great thing about paddling is that it’s easy to get lost in the moment and forget about your everyday troubles. Any family can play golf or laser tag, which is a good escape—until the action slows down. With paddling, you’re outside amongst incredible scenery. It’s thrilling. It’s something you will remember.”
So being that I’m a little bit partial to Northeast Tennessee, I wanted to see how this part of the country stacks up against those big rivers out west. And according to Dooley, that answer is “mighty well.”
“The Appalachian Mountains are much, much older than the Rockies. So the rocks are rounder, smoother. Out west, a jagged rock will break a kayak or canoe. Here, you can jump your boat right over them.
“Plus, there’s the seasonal difference. Out west, the rivers are only good for a few months out of the year. That’s because, in the off-season, the water drops so low you can’t paddle on it. But here, you can paddle all year long.”
So how does someone get started? Well, if you just want a good, fun, family experience, start by scheduling a rafting trip. I like Cherokee Adventures on the Nolichucky. They’re just 1.4 miles from I-26 in Erwin. Call them at 423-743-7733, or go to CherokeeAdventures.com.
Or, if you’re feeling a little more ambitious, look up the Tri-Cities foremost paddling club: the River APES. (It actually stands for Appalachian Paddling Enthusiasts) They do everything from safety demonstrations to club paddling trips, and they’d love to have you come along.
Either way, if you’re looking for an outdoor adventure that your whole family will instantly fall in love with (and remember forever), you don’t have to look much further than the whitewater of Northeast Tennessee.
And when you’re on the river, keep your eyes peeled for Dooley Tombras. If you see him, wish him luck at this year’s North American Slalom Championships, July 8-10 in Golden, Colorado.