I had heard that folks from all over the country visit the small Tennessee mountain town of Erwin to take on the whitewater rapids of the infamous Nolichucky River. And, when I stepped on a bus full of folks that had traveled for a few days just to feel that cool mountain breeze against the natural flowing waters of what the Cherokee Indians daunted as “rushing and dangerous,” I knew I was in for a day of spiked adrenaline.
Nestled within the Pisgah and Cherokee National Forests, you’ll find USA Raft, a locally owned tour company that specializes in having fun along the Nolichucky Gorge, French Broad River, and also conducting caving adventures and guided fishing tours throughout Northeast Tennessee. Their headquarters felt like a little community complete with cabins for camping, a tiny home along the Nolichucky River banks and the Crockett Cabin that slept about 45 people in a bunkhouse style setting.
Once we were set up and ready to go, Loren, the trip leader who was also our raft guide, explained what the day’s experience would entail. He also added that getting wet was no longer an option, but a guaranteed necessity. We loaded a bus full of families and scout troops for the day long adventure. The bus ride was about 20 minutes and as we winded up a narrow mountain road that seemed to follow the train tracks along the river, Loren filled us in on a bit of history about the area. Soon we had crossed the state line into North Carolina.
Our group consisted of six rafts with six passengers, plus one guide on each raft. Since Loren was the trip leader, our raft went last, so we got to see what to do and not to do when it came to taming the class three and four rapids of the Nolichucky. The first two hours of our trip included the most adventure with higher ranked rapids showcasing names like “Last Chance (self-explanatory), Pearly Gates, On the Rocks, Jaws and Rooster Tail.” We even went through a section called “Quarter Mile,” that consisted of (you guessed it) a quarter mile’s worth of bumping, maneuvering and scooting through rapids like a pinball machine.
After building a bit of confidence, I could feel the folks on our raft start to relax as we began talking about where everyone was from. Our raft team for the day included a dad and his two high school aged teenagers that had traveled from Louisville, Kentucky, in search of a Tennessee mountain getaway mixed with an adrenaline filled trip down the Nolichucky River. Soon our conversation took a turn, just like our raft, and we headed straight for a sloped rock in a landing that was just as exciting as it was smooth. Perhaps our landing was too smooth, because the water spit us out and the raft became wedged between a tight rapid and another pointed rock that towered above the rushing water. The pace of the water churned so fast it turned white all around us. “So, this is why it is called white water,” I thought. I began to go over the safety procedures in my mind that Loren had told us about, including what to do when you fall out of the raft. I found myself contemplating bailing on our little ship, as we all were told to move to the left side of the raft to adjust to the leverage. This is where Loren’s 18 years on the water and experience in the U.S. Navy came in handy. He casually stepped out of the raft and literally pulled and pushed us through the narrow ravine. His next comment, “He’s friendly, but watch out for the crocodile coming up.” I’ll leave that one to the imagination, because you will need to see the old “Nolichucky Croc” in person to believe it.
After the excitement, we caught up with the rest of the group and reached the banks of a secluded forest area for a picnic. As we sat on the rocks, I really began to take in the prolific scenery that we were lucky enough to be traveling through. The Nolichucky Gorge is like none other. The river carves its way through mammoth rocks, as trees soar high above. It’s the steepest gorge east of the Mississippi River, and is also known for world class small mouth bass, with the occasional crappie, musky and catfish. There are no words to really describe the beauty of the gorge, with every season showcasing a different view. USA Raft operates year round, so folks can get an opportunity to experience all the personalities of the Nolichucky River and its surroundings.
Once the group packed up and headed back to the raft, we were ready for action as our team really began to work in unison while Loren commanded, “paddle two, paddle one, back one.” We reached a point on the river that was probably one of my most memorable moments, the opportunity to evacuate the raft (on purpose), and go for a little swim down a serene portion of the water. Since the Nolichucky is a natural running river, meaning there is no dam to control it, the water felt warm and refreshing on a hot summer day. Climbing and being pulled back on to the raft was not as graceful as jumping out, but at this point we were all friends.
Our next stop along the river included a rapid that you could ride without being in the raft, while wearing a life jacket, of course. Almost everyone took advantage of the opportunity to be swept away through the fast moving tunnels of water, ending into a calm opening where the rafts were parked and our guides waited. Loren was great to focus on special points along the way including the train bridge that crossed us back into Tennessee and a black bear conservation area – although we saw none that day.
I knew our trip was coming to an end as we began to pass a small private beach area with a group of loungers soaking in the sun, followed by a campground and the river entrance of USA Raft’s headquarters. We had taken on nine miles of the Nolichucky River and more than 25 rapids. It gave me a new sense of confidence, respect for the power of nature and made for a great memory that I’ll always cherish: The day we cruised down the Nolichucky River.
For more information on whitewater rafting along the Nolichucky River and other outdoor adventure guide services in Northeast Tennessee, visit mountainriverguides.com.