Upper Chattooga / Section 00
The upper Chattooga had been illegal to paddle since 1976 but a landmark agreement negotiated by American Whitewater finally opened things up in 2013 by granting whitewater paddlers access December thru April when flows exceeded 350cfs. These severe restrictions imposed by the US Forest Service are the only ones of their kind in the entire Unites States and are intended to benefit anglers who pursue heavily stocked non-native trout in this reach. Grateful for AW’s continuing work, I had the opportunity to jump on the upper Chattooga shortly after the agreement was implemented and since then “Section 00” of the upper Chattooga has grown to become one of my favorites places and yet still remains a seldom run southeast classic.
Shouldering your boat for the 2 mile hike into the gorge along the Green Creek Trail sets the tone for the rest of the day as you descend into this remote and unique canyon. Thousands of hemlock tree skeletons stand in defiance to the woolly adelgid that’s caused widespread mortality of the hemlock making the upper Chattooga feel a little ominous and looking like a scene from the Hobbit. As the river finally comes into view you find crystal clear waters slowly meandering over a sandy river bottom littered by fallen trees, raising concerns for deadfall issues further downstream. In fact, this run remains one of the places I find myself hyper vigilant for wood in the major rapids. The decaying hemlocks surrounding the gorge will provide a source of fuel for potential river hazards for decades to come.
Not long after putting in you come to “First Falls” a straight forward 10-12ft slide into a beautiful open pool that’s been bathed in sunlight every time I have run this section. Almost as soon as you exit the pool you come across your first mandatory portage as the river is blocked bank to bank and more than 15ft high by a massive strainer made up of entire trees locked in by other detritus. The huge boulders locking in this strainer are actually doing us a massive favor as I can only imagine what the narrow canyon downstream would look like if this lot let go. The easiest portage seems to be on the left and on our last run we found a neat place to put in directly below a large undercut propping up a roof of wedged in trees.
Once back in your boat you find yourself directly above the first significant rapid called “Separation Falls.” There’s a good eddy river left from which to scout the drop and its narrow run out. Separation Falls is very picturesque and fairly straight forward to run even with some shaky legs after the hard portage above.
Your entering the depths of the upper Chattooga now and the canyon walls are tight with rhododendron pressing in from both sides almost creating a tunnel in places. A little ways downstream the river pinches down even further and you see a small horizon line with a calm pool below. Welcome to “Potholes Left, Logs Right.” Treat this easy rapid with the utmost respect. As the name suggests, there’s a lot that can go wrong in this simple looking rapid, so a little discretion goes a long way.
The reward for your discretion is passage into the heart of the gorge and some of the upper Chattooga’s most iconic rapids. Immediately below you’ll find “Beauty and Beast” a long narrow alley created by a series of drops that progressively gets narrower and narrower as you descend into a unique rock gorge. At the end of the alley the river pinches down even further and ducks left into a blind drop that often holds wood, so scout the exit, which can easily be done down the river left bank. Beauty and Beast exits into an incredible narrow alleyway with scrubbed vertical walls on your right with a waterfall tumbling into the creek while the left bank is near vertical too and vanishes into the rhododendron.
The upper Chattooga’s not done with you yet! Blocking the exit of the narrow alleyway is “Sieve Rapid.” It’s been run at high water (~1500cfs) but at these levels a portage or even scouting would be super hard given the narrow, vertical nature of the alleyway. At reasonable flows, carefully portage on the right. On our last run at 650cfs, there was an intriguing line that would require you to drive into the portage on river right and then do a Christopher Columbus type slide to drop into the rapid directly below the sieve. We looked at it hard but elected not to try it this time, but it’s there. Portaging around the sieve, we slid in and ran the exit drop called “Crease Boof” which is a fun drop requiring a hard drive left into a narrow landing.
For the next mile to the take out, the river opens up and the canyon walls slide away to reveal the beauty of the valley. Just above Bull Pen the river wakes up for one last test with a short narrow fun rapid called “Wake Up” that ends right above the significant “Bull Pen Falls” which indicates the end of Section 00. Take out above it on river right or run Bull Pen and take out below.
Although Section 00 of the upper Chattooga might not have the hardest whitewater or dozens of rapids, it does have the most incredible blend of scenery, adventure and whitewater, making it a must visit location. You have to work hard to get in their, portage and scout, but it’s worth every ounce of sweat to visit this remote corner of Appalachia that remained off limits for so long.