Looking at the Great Kahuna, crux of the Nantahala Cascades, from a photo dated November 14, 2009 when the Upper Nantahala Gorge was running about 950 cfs.
NOTE: This foto has since been removed and the server is often unaccessible.
The Nantahala River is one the most famous whitewater runs in North America. Most people, however, know it merely as a scenic but beginner-level run. Only recently has word been getting out about “the Other Nantahala,” the river of the Class V-VI Cascades, frequent floodstage big water, of shooting the Horns of the Ram into the maw of Big Wesser Falls. Carving a deep gorge across an earthquake fault through some of the steepest mountains in the Southeast – mountains so rough they have earned the dread of many Appalachian Trail thruhikers – it is home to the paddleheads of the Nantahala Outdoor Center.
Located deep in the boonies of Southwestern North Carolina, down there where Tennessee, Georgia, and South Carolina all butt up against the Tarheel State, the “Nanty” runs year round. Most of the recent International Peace Rally-Nantahala ’90, featuring competitors from around the world including the Soviet Union – were held in the Nantahala’s narrow, heavily-forested gorge. Right before the rally, the Nantahala raged up to a near-record 9.5 ft.
After several years of unrelenting drought, the Southeast has been in the whitewater limelight since heavy rains and frequent flooding returned in January 1989. While disastrous in the eyes of many, the high water has been a boon to paddlers. It has been a special boon to water-starved boaters of the Nantahala area.
Rising high in the Nantahala Mountains, the small river and its headwaters drop into an artificial impoundment, Nantahala Lake. Here Nantahala Power and Light Company (NLP) pumps water through 5.6 miles of pipe and releases at the generating plant about 13 miles downstream.
Most boaters put in below the powerhouse for an exciting dash through continuous Class II-III rapids as the river drops a mellow 33 feet per mile. The icy waters clash with the warm air to create thick ribbons of fog through which one spies bobbing multicolored helmets. In fact, the word Nantahala is Cherokee for “Valley of the Noonday Sun.” The river crashes on until the run culminates in Class III Nantahala Falls, 400 feet above the takeout.
This is the normal run, great for beginners to learn and for intermediates to hone their moves without fear. In the summer the river is often crowded with rafters.
But for others there is the Other Nantahala, the Nantahala of frequent high water. For a time in 1989, NPL was releasing from the lake itself. Water continues to pour down the spillway even now. In both 1989 and 1990 there were numerous extended releases on White Oak Creek, a major tributary of the Nantahala. The character of the river changed as boaters came from all over to experience the Upper Nanty, the Cascades, and Big Wesser. Or even the regular run during high water.
For many miles below the dam, the Nantahala runs through dense willow thickets, gradually widening and descending. The rapids begin to build up to Class II, sometimes III, becoming more continuous and technical. The river plunges over three jumbled waterfalls known as the Upper Cascades and finally merges with White Oak Creek to form the famous Upper Nantahala run. The stretch above the confluence is only rarely run due to the congestion of brush and the fact that the Class IV-V+ Upper Cascades are runnable only when the rest of the Upper Nantahala below is just too high, thus prematurely ending the trip.
White Oak Creek deserves mention. It is one of the hardest hair runs in the Southeast. White Oak flows through continuous Class II rapids through a gentle valley into a small NPL lake. Below the dam the bottom drops out as it plunges for several miles through a tiny gorge with continuous Class II-V rapids. Halfway down is Triple Drop (or Becky’s Catapult), a nasty Class VI three-tier waterfall choked with jagged rocks, vertical pins, and shallow pools. It has been run only once to my knowledge. Becky Weiss, one of NOC’s best hair boaters, catapulted end over end, miraculously without injury.
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