In 1993, I was fortunate enough to participate in the American Whitewater Affiliation's and Georgia Power's test for the suitability of recreational whitewater releases in Georgia's Tallulah Gorge. The following account was written for the Georgia Canoeing Association's newsletter "The Eddyline".
We did get a chance to go back and run the river again in October, 1994, this time for the State of Georgia. Tallulah Gorge is being converted to a State Park and they wanted some film of whitewater boating to be shown in the new visitor center. Unfortunately, I hear I did not make the final cut of the movie, but it was fun anyway.
Dave Cox's Tallulah Page has permit information for upcoming releases.
May 26, 1993. 6:30 AM. I was tired after getting up at four am to drive from Holly Springs to what's left of the community of Tallulah Falls, GA. Why was I here at this ungodly hour on a Wednesday morning? I was driving up to participate in the first whitewater boating ever on the Tallulah River since it was dammed way back in 1913. In the summers prior to 1913, Tallulah Gorge was a very popular tourist destination. People would travel here to escape the Atlanta heat, and of course to view the magnificent waterfalls: Ladore, Tempesta, Hurricane, Oceana, Bridal Veil. Tallulah Falls was truly the "Niagara of the South", with dozens of hotels and boarding houses and restaurants. The community died when the gates were closed on the first dam on the river. The water was diverted through a 1+ mile tunnel to the turbines at the mouth of the gorge. Where once a powerful river flowed over magnificent cascades now stood only dripping cliffs.
Today for a brief time those same dripping cliffs have been restored to their former glory. Once every fifty years, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) reviews the licenses to operate hydropower dams. At that time any interested party can intervene to alter the management of the water resources affected by that dam. 1993 is Tallulah's year. The Georgia Canoeing Association signed on as an intervener along with the American Whitewater Affiliation, American Rivers, Atlanta Whitewater Club, and American Outdoors. The interveners requested that as a condition of relicensing the Tallulah Falls dam, that the river be allowed to flow for several weekends a year for recreational purposes. A test of the recreational capabilities of the river was originally scheduled for April, but canceled at the last minute due the State of Georgia's concern that the U.S. 441 bridge directly below the dam would be endangered by the release of water. Engineers examined the situation closely, found there was little to fear, and the test was rescheduled for the end of May.
Only ten paddlers will be allowed on the river, and the only observers would be from the interveners, the power company, FERC, the state DNR, and the local fire and rescue authorities. Sadly, my name was not on the list of approved boaters so I was to be shore based safety for the people who were fortunate enough to be allowed to run the river. Ever the optimist, I brought a boat just in case...
I met Jim Silavent and Mark Levine, two of the divinely anointed ten, in a cafe across from the gorge. Also joining us was Ed Schultz, Adrian Freeman, and Charles Brewer. We knew this was not going to be a routine day on the river when we were joined by a photographer and reporter from the Atlanta Constitution. I guess they either expected or were hoping for major carnage by the way they were trying to get "before-they-were-maimed-on-the-river" pictures of all the paddlers.
After breakfast, we drove across the street to Wallenda's Walk where we were to walk down to the river. We were greeted first by a stern looking men asking to see our badges (which proclaimed we had the right to be there - no badge, no admittance!), then by a full bore media circus. All four major Atlanta TV stations were there - 2, 5, 11, and 46 - as well as reporters and photographers from every newspaper in northern South Carolina and Georgia. Adding to the confusion were helicopters flying overhead, various representatives of the local police and rescue authorities, and dozens of Georgia Power employees. Anyone found to even remotely resemble a paddler was constantly barraged with questions. One TV station even went around to each boater begging to let them tape a (large) video camera to the bow of their boat on the first descent. Not too surprisingly, there were no takers.
Finally, the boaters shouldered their boats and started down trail. The trail was tough, and the carry was made even tougher by all the TV cameramen scurrying around to get in front of us to get footage. I don't think anyone was really prepared for all that attention. Fortunately, Georgia Power kept the press from the bottom of the gorge, so we lost them about halfway down. Getting the boats down Wallenda's Walk Trail proved to be very difficult due its to steep gradient and rocky footbed. I started out helping Jim Silavent with his boat, but we found it was easier for one to carry person than for two to try to work together. We dropped a total of about 600 feet in less than half a mile to get to the river at the bottom of the gorge. The trail comes to the river about one-third of the way of the whitewater run at Bridal Veil Falls. Bridal Veil is a long, smooth slide that drops a total of around 20 feet over a distance of 100 feet. The locals call this drop Sliding Rock. With 400 cfs of water, it looks more like a nuclear powered sliding rock. I think the equation goes something like this: Lots of Water + Smooth, Sloping Ledge + Unobstructed Base = Big Hole With Long Backwash. Suffice it to say, you would not want to swim in the hole at the base of Bridal Veil. The only good thing about the hole was that it "kicked" out to the left at 400 cfs, so surfing would probably not be terminal.
Like I said, Bridal Veil was one third of the way through the run so the boaters had to carry upstream from there to get to their put-in below Hurricane Falls. The only way to get upstream on foot from Bridal Veil was to ferry across the river above the falls, and carry up from there. Those of use who were observing could not see any of the run upstream of Bridal Veil as there was no foot access on our side of the river. Instead, since we there to provide safety, we went downstream to find someplace to be useful as shore-based safety people. Ed Schultz, Adrian Freeman, Selena Lynch, and I hiked downstream (through the one of the worst poison ivy patches I've seen) to a place called the Amphitheater. There was reportedly a large tree in a rapid there, and we wanted to be sure that the paddlers were adequately warned of its presence. We found the tree, figured out our safety plan and waited for the boats to arrive.
The ten paddlers broke up into two groups of five. the first group included Kent Wiginton, Nolan Whitesell, Jerry Jascomb, Charles Brewer, and Ron Stewart. The second group consisted of our own Jim Silavent, Mark Levine, and Walter Lynch, and also Mike Hipsher and Bill Hester from the NOC. We were able to follow the progress of the teams by listening to the radio of the Georgia Power film crew accompanying us. Between the put-in and Bridal Veil Falls lies Oceana Falls, the largest rapid that would be attempted. For what seemed like along time we kept hearing radio reports that they were still scouting Oceana. Finally we heard over the radio observers at Oceana there thought the first team was running it, but they could not be sure because no one could actually see it being run. Their only indication of success was a lot of Yahoos coming from that general direction. I had to grin with that news; it sounded like boaters were having fun and contrary to what the state and the power company may have thought, this thing might be very doable!
The second group encountered a little trouble above Oceana. Walt Lynch flipped while going over a five foot high, narrow ledge. Immediately below this ledge was a large boulder that completely blocked the river the water flowing it around to another narrow slot on the right. Walt was unable to roll in before he hit the stream-blocking boulder and in the process, he cut the bridge of his nose on the rock. After this swim, Walter and two others in the group decided to portage Oceana just below.
In the meantime, the first group had gotten down to where we were stationed. We set up our safety, pointed out the portage around the tree, and sent them on their way. Immediately below the wedged tree, the first team did an extensive "scientific investigation" of the Rodeo Hole. (After all, this WAS a STUDY, wasn't it?) Words cannot express how jealous I was of those guys out there surfing in that marvelous looking hole. They were having a big time and I was standing there on the shore in a poison ivy patch holding an (unneeded) throw rope. Oh well, at least I got to see the falls with water in them...
The first group reluctantly peeled out and headed downriver out of sight. We were now hearing radio reports of the second group coming through Bridal Veil. The paramedics on the scene gave Walt's nose a quick check and they proceed downriver towards us. Again we showed them the portage around the wedged log, and everyone got out and ALMOST everyone got back in without incident. To get back in the river below the tree, the paddlers had to slide down a rock slope into some fast water. Right where the boats hit the water, there was a small wave-hole that could give you some trouble if you hit it wrong. Walt hit it wrong. He got stuck side-surfing in the hole and could not get out. After a brief struggle to remain upright, he flipped and swam. Due to the terrain, we on shore could not go any further downstream to offer help. The last thing we saw was Walt hanging on to Mark's bow as they swept around the corner out of sight. It looked like he had been rescued successfully until we saw Jim running up the opposite river bank, waving his arms wildly. "Call Paramedic!!!" Uh-Oh. Walt had been hurt. It was difficult to hear above the roar of the water, but we soon found out that Walt had dislocated his shoulder. A serious injury, but not that serious. Mike Hipsher was able to reduce the dislocation on the spot. Walt would be OK. There was still the problem of how to evacuate. The victim was on the wrong side of the river from the trail, and there was no good way to cross. It was eventually decided to swim Walt across with a rope ferry and a kayak alongside for support. This was accomplished without incident and Walt was able to walk out under his own power.
One problem. We now had four boaters and five boats. None of us on shore wanted to carry Walt's Gyra-Max back up that hill. Heck, we did not want to carry ourselves up that hill again. That's when they saw me standing there in my helmet and PFD. I saw Jim talking to Mike, then pointing at me. Then Jim motioned me over to them and asked if I would be interested in paddling the rest of the river. You bet!!! Mike would paddle Walt's boat and I would take Mike's kayak. It pays to be in the right place at the right time!
(Don't get me wrong, I hated the REASON that I was getting the opportunity to get on this river. I would never wish for another's injury as the reason for me to get to paddle. However, I can't deny that I was very excited to get the chance to paddle the Tallulah. I did tell Walt later that to make up for his bad day, I would never again let him buy a beer in my presence. He laughed, but I don't think it's going to make up for a busted shoulder... My heart goes out to him.)
In honor of Walt we named the rapid in the Amphitheater "Lynch's Wrench".
On the river at last. In an unfamiliar boat. With no warm up. Very cool indeed!
I really don't remember much about the river I saw during the rest of that first run. It seemed continuous, steep, and rocky. The whitewater wasn't all that hard, but a swim in the middle of some of those rapids would not have been fun. Eighty years without flow had allowed trees to grow in the riverbed, so swimmers would have an interesting time negotiating a few of them. Fortunately the main channel had very few trees obstructing the way and passage was relatively simple.
After about three-fourths of a mile, we saw a large horizon line stretching across the river, and a bunch of TV cameras on shore just below. Hmmmm. Better scout this. Don't want to show the folks back home any carnage 'cause then they might not let us do it again. We looked it over, no problem. If you had watched ANY television newscast that night you saw this rapid. You also saw Mark, Jim, Mike, Bill and myself. Jerry Jascomb got the front page of the paper the next day, but our crew made ALL the newscasts. (Too bad we weren't wearing big jerseys that said "GCA")
We took out immediately below at the powerhouse. Georgia Power was waiting with a cooler full of soft drinks and snacks. We filled out a 20 question survey about our impressions of the river. We got interviewed by the press. We were thoroughly videotaped. We put on earplugs and walked through the turbine room of the powerhouse. We rode the cable car to rim of the gorge. A chauffeur drove us to a catered lunch. Just your typical day on the river...
(After lunch they tried to throw me off the river for the subsequent runs, but I begged and pleaded and they allowed me to continue with the test in Walt's place. Hooray!)
While we were at lunch, Georgia Power cracked opened the gates a bit more and really got the Tallulah pumping. Instead of using Wallenda's Walk Trail to get to the river, this time we were to use a shorter, steeper trail across some property owned by the Tallulah Falls School that took us straight to the base of Hurricane Falls. While it was steeper, this route proved to be much easier than the one used in the morning. The river now appeared to have about 800 cfs worth of flow. Immediately below the put-in, the river dropped over a good sized broken ledge, turned hard left against a cliff, and ran over few small to medium sized pourovers before giving a good eddy on the left. It was pretty intense looking, but the first group down didn't appear to have much trouble. Jim and I sat there and looked at it dry-mouthed for a while until we finally got the OK to put on. The others had seen this stretch at lower water this morning, so they sort of had an idea of what was down there, where I, on the other hand, was seeing this for the first time. I was really pumped up but surprisingly not too nervous. we ran it without incident, took out below and went down to look at Oceana.
Oceana. Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw when I walked around the corner and saw that monster. When I'd asked Nolan about it after the morning run he grinned and said it was BIG (in capital letters). That was the only adjective: Big. Okay, so it's big I thought, I didn't realize it was BIG! Like Bridal Veil, Oceana is a long sloping drop over a smooth ledge. Only it's a lot bigger - 45 to 50 feet tall and 150 to 200 feet long. The first part of Oceana is an easy slide on some very thin water. Below that, it get more interesting. Three quarters of the way down, stretching from right to left is an upthrust ledge which funnels most of the water left into "The Thing". The Thing is the most incredible roostertail/wave you will ever see. With 800 cfs, it pulses between 12 and 15 feet high, and is 15-18 feet wide. From downstream, the Thing looks like one of the tubes at Summersville Dam on the Gauley. Remember though, the Thing is only ALMOST at the bottom of the rapid. Below the Thing the river drops another 5-8 feet into a Monster Hole. Fortunately there is a large pool to allow for recovery at the bottom, and good portages on both sides for those less daring. I carried here today after seeing Bill Hester scream down the slide, hit the Thing, pulse once, pulse twice, then disappear!!! The next thing I saw was a head come up, then a paddle, then a boat, none of them connected. He blew his skirt in The Thing and got ripped out of his boat in the Monster Hole. Mike Hipsher ran Oceana without incident. The best thing about Oceana is by the time you get to the bottom, you are traveling so fast the hole can't get you!
I did run Oceana the next day though. At 600 cfs, my recipe for Oceana is as follows: Line up on the far left side. Take two paddle strokes to start you over the edge. Accelerate to 35 miles per hour (really!!). Close your eyes. Do a hard right brace into the Thing and the Monster Hole below. Roll up or swim as necessary. Pretty simple, Huh? (I didn't need the roll up or swim part, thank goodness. After all, there was video being shot here, and I don't want to be part of somebody's whitewater bloopers tape!)
Below Oceana is a long class IV rapid that looks worse than it really is. Then comes Bridal Veil Falls, which at 800 cfs has a really bad looking hole at the bottom. But like Oceana, you are going so fast that your boat literally jumps over the hole, allowing you to escape. The higher flow floated the tree that was such a hazard in the first run out of its spot, making a class VI strainer into an easy class III rapid. All in all, at 800 cfs the Tallulah felt a like the Tellico below Jared's Knee at about 1100-1200 cfs.
This time there was no media at the last rapid, and we paddled on to Tugalo lake below the powerhouse. As we passed from flowing water onto the lake, a siren in the powerhouse sounded, indicating the last boats were off, and the spigot at the dam was closed. It is a very strange feeling to have them wait for you to pass before they turn the river off. Kind of nice actually. I hope someday to experience it again.
We ran the river the next day at 600 cfs, and decided that the fourth release at 1000 cfs was not needed. After the final run, we had what was for me a most unusual meeting. All the boaters, observers, and public safety people made statements for the public record. There was no discussion, only statements. You all know how paddlers love to argue about river stuff, so you can imagine what it was like for everyone to go around the table and make just statements about such things as "what international scale of difficulty rating would you give this river: I-VI?"
Basically, the paddlers all agree that the Tallulah is very doable by many advanced level boaters. Not just "experts" (whatever they are). The consensus was that it was a solid class IV river with Oceana Falls being a class V. The representative from the local rescue squad said he felt that the river did not represent any unusual risk for his people on behalf of the paddlers, and in fact his people were impressed with our safety on the water. I feel he does have some legitimate concerns for spectator safety, though. The other big sticky issue is access, which no matter how you look at it is difficult. My opinion is that the gorge will require some trail construction to minimize the impact of people walking around down there (with or without boats).
I have to end this with a word for Georgia Power. They were opposed to this test. Going into the event, we weren't sure what type of atmosphere was going to exist between the paddlers and Georgia Power's people before we got there. It had the potential to be a very adversarial, tense situation. We were delighted to find quite the opposite was true. We all commended Georgia Power for the job they did on the test. They were absolutely wonderful to work with, and bent over backward to see we were taken care of. Georgia Power has at terrific bunch of people working for them who really know how to maintain a positive and friendly environment. Thank you for the great job! I sincerely hope the whitewater test is not the last time I get a chance to paddle the Tallulah River. I also hope that all of you will have the opportunity to run this magnificent stretch of water. If you want the chance, you've got to make your opinion known now! Write to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Department of Project Review, 810 First Street N.E., Washington, DC 20426 and let them know you want water back in Tallulah Gorge.
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Last updated 1/30/96