Hanging on for Dear Life
My brother said he had a good time “shooting the Hooch” in Columbus on Saturday, but he noted, “it was a bit slow for him.” He shared photos of himself and his entourage — wearing helmets, life vests, and with paddles in their hands — navigating a stretch of the Chattahoochee River in a big reddish-orange raft with sprays of water going everywhere. In several of the photos, I noticed Andy wearing an ear-to-ear grin. Looking at his photos made me remember the times we’ve rafted the Ocoee and the Nantahala. I wouldn’t describe our adventures as “slow.” I think better modifiers would be, “spirited” and maybe even, “terrifying.”
The Ocoee River’s rushing waters zig and zag through powerful channels and crash violently against mammoth boulders left in the channel from a prehistoric era. The roar of the current is deafening, but somehow rafters can hear the guide’s voice commanding, “Left forward, right back! Left forward, right back! Down and brace!” As for us, I remember paddling a few strokes then hanging on for dear life — my heart pumping and pounding as the current sucked our raft downstream. The front of our vessel plunged low and water blasted over us like a bomb exploding. Then the rear of the raft dropped and the front kicked-up like a rodeo bull. My stomach flip flopped as if I was riding the most thrilling of amusement park rides.
Moments later, our raft floated peacefully through shimmering, calm waters. I drew a deep breath, relaxed, and looked around. Beautiful rocks, towering oaks, and spreads of mountain laurel cradle the river’s watery landscape. It’s truly breathtaking from the water’s vantage point. But the calm was short lived, and in the distance, I could hear the swishy sounds of more whitewater growing louder and louder as we floated in its direction. I gripped my paddle and prepared for Round Two of rapids — another adrenaline rush.
The mighty Ocoee is a TVA damcontrolled river about two hours from our home. The section we have rafted boasts a nonstop line-up of rapids with foreboding names like Broken Nose, Double Suck, Table Saw, Slam Dunk, Humongous, and Hell Hole. With names like that, I can’t believe we’ve ever climbed aboard a raft on purpose. It’s as if we have a death wish or something.
The course offers an exhilarating 260 feet drop from start to finish and delivers 20 consecutive Class III and IV rapids that are certainly a thrill to navigate. Sounds dangerous, doesn’t it? Well, it feels dangerous when you are hurtling downstream in a flimsy, inflated raft. And believe it or not, no prior experience is necessary to raft those world class waters. Indeed, over 200,000 people raft the Ocoee each year, and the main requirement is that rafters have to be at least 12 years old. That’s right! Just 12! Sure, a guide rides along with rafters and covers safety practices, risks, and basic information with groups prior to stepping into the water. But once you put the raft into the Ocoee, it’s go time — the rapids start immediately.
The Ocoee adventures typically take four hours, and don’t get me wrong, it’s a fun-filled, action-packed blast, but I am so happy and relieved once the ride is over. I feel like I have somehow cheated death in those first moments walking on dirt again. The outfitter usually takes photos you can download so that you can show crazy action shots to your friends — proof that you and your friends actually did it and survived to talk about it. As for Andy, I’m happy he shot the Hooch in a raft with his friends this past weekend. It really is an experience like no other. He says they are going back, and next time, they’ll book a course that’s “a little wilder and faster.” He’s in his sixties. He may need to rethink that plan.