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.
At the very end of the run, the creek plunges over White Oak Falls, a second Class VI where the creek whips around a 90-degree bend, dropping immediately into a narrow slot shooting water onto a huge whirlpool cushion before dashing over broken ledges into a deep but narrow pool rimmed with logs. It has been run several times, but never clean. White Oak is to be looked at.
The confluence of White Oak Creek and the Nantahala is the put-in for the Upper Nantahala run. This stretch is in turn divided into two sections: the short but exciting mile-long Cascades followed by the three-mile “regular” Upper Nanty. At runnable levels the Cascades are Class V. Even when the rest of the Upper is too low to boat, there is usually water in the narrow Cascades. During very high water, the narrow chasm combines with big volume and extreme gradient to produce Class VI rapids marked by one river-wide keeper after another. Medium level is considered to be the best, as one risks the cockpit-in-the-armpit syndrome at very low levels.
After warming up in continuous Class II-III rapids, one approaches the Horns of God, a Class V double drop into boiling froth. One drops over a series of offset ledges and has little time to line up before shooting the Horns, where a tongue of liquid energy blasts between two flakes of rock into an incredibly deep pool. (The alternate route down a watery gully on the left is not recommended due to the great risk of pinning.) Then one zips over the second drop, a plunge into a bad hole with undercut rocks on the far right.
One eddy hops down another stretch of continuous Class III whitewater before tackling the crux the Cascades, a long, monstrous slide known as the Great Kahuna. The Great Kahuna is terrifying to behold. A dangerous Class V, it requires much eddy hopping. The world vanishes into the roar of forever as one whips around a blind curve and hammers over one horizon line after another down a narrow chasm filled with enormous rocks, tall compression waves, and grabby holes.
There is a large eddy halfway down on river right, but it is guarded by a line of three kettle hydraulics. A sheer wall rises on the left. The Great Kahuna then funnels its way through a maelstrom of cross currents before dashing over a jagged drop into a deep hole. There used to be wickedly angled splat rock in the drop on the right, followed by a dragon’s tooth pin rock in the center of the runout, but the pre-Rally flood of March ’90 rolled both rocks away.
On my first run down the Great Kahuna in May ’89 I got stuck in one of the kettle holes and surfed about, much to the excitement of spectators above. After working out the side, I flipped, rolled with a burst of adrenalin, got slammed into the left wall and flipped by a diagonal curler, rolled up on the lip of the falls, and – not having enough time to pivot – straightened up and shot off clean and backwards into a dream of white bubbles. Fortunately, I rolled up and eddied out. I don’t recommend praying to the Great Kahuna like this!
After more tight Class III rock gardens comes Deep Surrender, a Class IV drop into a deep, river-wide hole. Run this one far to the right and then eddy hop to set up for Chinese Feet, the last of the big Cascades. Chinese Feet is Class V, especially if you screw up and run it to the right. The drop is split by an enormous boulder jutting out like the eye of a Cyclops. The recent flood shoved a new line of boulders above the drop, but you still catch the eddy river left to peel out down the left chute as close to the Cyclop’s eye as possible. The tongue will take you deep down into the abyss. You blast out below the bad hole into a good pool. One expert recently probed Chinese Feet at low water and banged up his ankles, ending up with a little foot binding, hence the name. Run it at medium levels, and it’s a great safe squirt. Dare it at higher levels and you’ll recirculate till someone pulls you out.
Below Chinese Feet is a long, technical Class IV rapid shooting between large, offset blocks of rock. After this is a short Class III-IV drop over jutting boulders.
Below is the First Bridge and the takeout, which is where most boaters put-in for the rest of the Upper Nanty. From here on the Upper Nantahala is an advanced paddler’s delight of technical and continuous Class III rapids and a few Class IV drops. At higher flows this stretch becomes continuous Class IV with enormous choppy waves, powerful cross currents, and sticky holes. Strainers and tree shredders are possible.
The takeout for the Upper Nantahala run is three miles downstream where everyone else puts in for the 8-mile-long Middle Nantahala, the regular run. At high water, the Middle Nanty becomes huge, exploding waves, long wave trains, and big pulsating holes. Nantahala Falls (or Little Wesser) merges with entrance and exit rapids to become one humongous wave train that can flip rafts. Then one takes out at NOC. That is, unless one wants to run Big Wesser Falls, the entrance to the Lower Nantahala.
Big Wesser is an abomination. An artificial rapid, it was formed by the railroad companies dynamiting through an oxbow to save them the trouble of building an extra bridge. The blasting created Big Wesser Falls through the neck of the oxbow. At low water it’s a Class VI as the Nantahala pours over a jumble of jagged stone and dead-end sluices. At higher levels the falls get progressively easier, at one point a Class III. Yet as river levels keep rising, Big Wesser again gets harder, becoming an intimidating Class IV-V. There’s no clear route. Far left and far right are deadly at any level. One tries to run the Horns of the Ram, a peculiarity formed by two monster diagonals curling away like sheep horns from a peak of water.
One then shoots at incredible velocity down an enormous tongue between mammoth diagonal waves right into an exploding wave hole. One either slams through it along a seam or gets surfed about and sucked under and dragged along the riverbed for a few wet seconds as one kayaker experienced.
Beyond the hole the large wave trains mellow out as the Lower Nantahala flows around the bend through a scenic Class I-II romp before flowing into Lake Fontana of the dammed-up Little Tennessee. Sometime the lake will back all the way up the Lower Nanty and drown Big Wesser.
So boaters, take your pick. The Gorge of the Noonday Sun has much more to offer than the crowded commercial run. Now when rains fall into the water, there beckons the Other Nantahala: the Cascades, the Upper Nanty, the regular Nantahala at high water, or even Big Wesser. The Nantahala offers something for everyone, from flailing beginners to experts to the insane.
2012 Postscript Notes, Stories, & Observations: This was originally published in River Runner: The Whitewater Magazine, August 1990, Volume 10, Number with Rand Green as Editorial Director. That wonderful magazine, unfortunately, is defunct. This is also the first article I received payment for. My first paycheck ever for my writing! It was for the sum of $170.00, and I didn’t get it in the mail until the second week of December 1990. That’s almost 22 years ago as I write today. Wow.
Among the few papers to survive my house fire was a charred copy of that check plus scorched, handwritten note from Rand Green saying, “NOC – I should have known. Your article was super. We’ve got lots of good feedback on it. Thanks for thinking of us.” You’re welcome!
Back then I went by the name of “W. Dudley Bass.” I worked at the Nantahala Outdoor Center at Wesser outside Bryson City, NC, and the Great Smokey Mountains National Park 1988-1990 after visiting the area to take workshops since 1985. For my goodbye to the Eastern U.S., my wife of the time, Gwen Hughes, hiked through NOC with me when we thruhiked the Appalachian Trail in 1991 as “the Pregnant Rhinos.” I call this period of my life my “NOC Days.”
As I sent in no photos for that article, River Runner ran pics from NOC stock photos of paddlers kayaking those runs. Now there are an amazing number of pictures and videos out on the Internet of people tackling these rapids. The foto at top is free to be shared from www.trihoc.com as long as it remains untouched and uncropped. I appreciate the generosity of the photographer. Trihoc seems associated with the Carolina Mountain Club as well as local whitewater paddlers.
Looking back through time, this was during the heyday of print outdoor adventure magazines. These days were before the widespread dominance of the Internet, before digital photography and video, before YouTube and smart phones and cameras in and on clothes, boats, and helmets. It was before blogging, apps, desktop publishing, and instant electronic payment systems.
When I was a young man, I encountered a small number of “old” kayakers and canoeists who had already paddled many steep creeks in remote Appalachian drainages long before waves of high-tech paddlers ventured down to push the limits even further.
As later generations of boaters kept pushing past yesteryear’s limits, many of the whitewater rapids have been downgraded where many consider a Class 5 to actually be a Class 4 or at worse maybe 5-. Many rapids once considered unrunnable began to be called “runnable Class 6” such as Big Wesser Falls and White Oak Falls. Since then they’ve been downgraded to Class 5 in difficulty.
The Nanty Cascades are now considered a Class IV-V run at normal flows, though still a solid Class V or V+ at higher levels. It drops 210 feet per mile for a continuous 0.7 mile run, although it’s a mile if you include the stretch down to First Bridge.
Some of the names have changed. On White Oak Creek Triple Drop Falls or Becky’s Catapult has been shortened to Becky’s. Further down toward the Cascades, one of the larger entrance rapids seems to be called Teacups, although I’m not 100% sure. Deep Surrender is now referred to as Junkyard. Great Kahuna is often Big Kahuna. And sometimes Chinese Feet is called Chinese Slippers, although the original name still remains the most popular from that day expert hairboater Tom Visnius busted up his ankles cranking down around that giant Eye of Cyclops boulder. Tom was also one of the daredevils who I watched perform ugly yet brilliant runs down White Oak Falls back in 1989. The rocky run with the scary hydraulics down at what was First Bridge Rapids now seems to be call Troll Hole or simply the Troll, for troll under the bridge.
A couple of fellow NOC paddlers were amused by the names of these rapids and thought I was the one who made them up, as in who the hell was I to do that? For research I had asked around and got a consensus of names from different boaters. Later on, Tom Visnius went on to challenge our “conquistador presumptions” to “label wilderness.” “Bombast and hype,” he wrote, that prevents us from knowing the history of wilderness and “appreciating the present.” (See: http://www.dusurf.com/vysniacraft/boofin_the_green.) I’ve come to agree with him.
Regardless of river difficulty ratings, these whitewater rapids remain just as dangerous as ever, especially to those who believe themselves far better equipped and skilled than they actually are on the river. The numeric downgrading of a rapid is just numbers and does not alter or otherwise lessen the hazards of whitewater.
William Dudley Bass
Nantahala Outdoor Center
Wesser, North Carolina
Republished as is with slight revision
Plus additional Notes from
In October 2012.
Copyright © 1990, 2012, 2016 by William Dudley Bass. All Rights Reserved until we Humans establish Wise Stewardship of and for our Earth and Solarian Commons. Thank you.