Sensation or thrill seeking is a personality trait defined by the need to have experiences and feelings that are varied, novel, complex and intense and by the eagerness to take risks for the sake of such experiences. However, risk is not an essential part of the trait, as there are many activities that fulfill this urge that are not inherently risky. Whitewater rafting, then, is the perfect outlet for those in the Midlands who wish to indulge their inner thrill-seeker without taking on the danger of high risk. It also helps that a mere couple hours away are some of the best rafting rivers in the country, offering a world-class experience.
The Chattooga River, known best by some as the setting for the film Deliverance, offers anything from lazy Class 2 rapids to roaring Class 5 rapids, depending on the section. The Chattooga was one of the first rivers in the United States to be designated “Wild and Scenic,” which means no development within a quarter mile of the actual river. Rafts, therefore, float through the river corridor without the distractions of roads, trains or other buildings, offering a truly wilderness experience.
Wildwater is the oldest outfitter in the Southeast and started offering tours on the Chattooga in 1971. Woody Woodruff started working for Wildwater as a guide 30 years ago and says that for him, the best part about the sport is watching families and friends come together through the shared experience of adventure and the pleasure that comes in being outside. “These days, what surprises me is how quickly guests begin to lose the feelings of needing to check their digital devices and enjoy being outside directly communicating with their raft partners,” he says. “Many folks think rafting is too scary for them; however, all rivers are rated for difficulty on a Class Scale from 1 to 6, with 1 being flat water and 6 being huge waterfalls. Wildwater offers trips from Class 1 to Class 5. Classes 1 and 2 are perfect for families and beginners. Classes 3 to 5 are for the folks searching for more adventure.”
Woody explains that Section 4 of the Chattooga River is rated Class 4/5. “Section 4 is listed as one of the top rafting rivers in the country, and will often be listed as one of the top rivers for rating in the world. It is the wildest river I have ever rafted!”
One key element for enjoying the sport is having a good guide — who navigates from the back of the raft and instructs the paddlers how to maneuver the craft down the river. Water doesn’t move straight downstream, so it is essential to have an expert in the back to keep the raft from swirling into eddies and to teach the guests how to paddle in sync and at the right time. A guide’s skill determines if rafters spend the day bumping into every rock in the river and getting stuck on rapids, or if they enjoy a seamless ride down rapids of every class. “The guides act as the quarterback in the back of the raft, calling commands to the team in the raft, steering the raft to the very best action on the river,” says Woody. “The guide also has knowledge of the natural history of the river; as well as the flora and fauna.”
Joe Jacobi, the first American Olympic Gold Medalist in Whitewater Canoe Slalom, works as an ambassador at the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC). He says that the movement, challenge and independence of the whitewater sports were the ways that the river called to him. “Like many folks in Columbia, I grew up in a city that had fabulous whitewater very close by. Growing up in the Washington, D.C. area, coming to the Nantahala River was like coming home to the center of the sport. The river and surrounding mountains insert a much-needed pause into your life — an opportunity to slow down and appreciate nature and the outdoors.”
He concurs with Woody that for rafting, Section 4 of the Chattooga is the wildest experience he has had. “And you would be hard-pressed to find another river in America that suits ‘wildest’ better than the Chattooga. It’s a truly one-of-a-kind wilderness experience that endears you to the southeastern United States.”
As a professional whitewater canoer and kayaker, Joe says that rafting allows for two critical experiences that he doesn’t get from the boating sports. Rafting allows for people to enjoy the river socially with a larger group of people than just one potential partner, and it also allows for people to have easier access to enjoy the rivers with whitewater sports. Rafting only requires enthusiasm to have a good day on the river, whereas whitewater canoeing and kayaking takes extensive training and experience. “I’m sure athletes in sports like the bobsled or ski jumping would love to have a rafting-type equivalent. We are very fortunate to have rafting, and I’m proud of the way NOC has cultivated rafting and, more importantly, raft guides, over the years. Guides are a huge part of the experience at NOC.”
Joe first came to the Nantahala for a competition in 1984 and the moved in 1990 to be close to the river to train for the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. On the Nantahala was even where he met his wife. “Just a few days after the blizzard of March 1993, I was at NOC for the biggest race of that spring, the Nantahala Double-header. The first of the women’s kayakers came down the race course, and I watched her capsize at the Nantahala Falls, miss her attempt at rolling the boat upright, followed by her swimming out of her kayak. She happened to swim to the shore where I was standing, and I pulled this paddler out of the frigid water and on to the riverbank,” he says with a sheepish smile. “Yadie-yadie-yaddah … and today we are married, have a 14-year-old daughter who paddles all the time at NOC and are proud members of the NOC community.”
Not surprisingly, Joe’s favorite part about the sport is the people. “Think about the participants of paddle-sports for a moment — the kind of people who want to be in the water on an adventure as opposed standing on the shore watching life go by. It’s that ‘doing’ spirit of paddlers that makes the sport so special, and it allows absolutely anyone to be that that special!”
Joe explains that for those who perhaps do not have quite as much of the thrill-seeker within, whitewater rafting can be a great way to push the boundaries of one’s comfort zone in a protected atmosphere. The lessons that come with rafting apply into many areas of normal life. “Overcoming fear is a part of everything we do every day in our lives,” he says. “It’s hard to find a better activity that models the opportunity to overcome fear like whitewater. The reality is that we succeed in whitewater not by focusing on what the obstacles are in the river but working with the river to navigate the right path through the water. Every day on whitewater is a day of learning and growing.”
Not only is a day on the river always full of learning and growth, but it is also always full of laughter and bonding. Woody explains that on many occasions the hot-shot of a group will fall in the river and inevitably will not have tied his waist band tight enough on his shorts to withstand the rapid currents. “For whatever reason, a guy always seems to end in up the river with his shorts down around his ankles … attempting to pull them back up as he is being hauled back into the raft with his buddies laughing beyond control,” Woody says.
For those who want to have an adventure and still go out for a nice dinner or some shopping immediately afterwards, the U.S. National Whitewater Center (USNWC) in Charlotte offers adventurous outdoor recreation only 15 minutes away from the downtown hub. “Sometimes the fact that the facility is manmade tends to mislead people to underestimate the intensity of the whitewater,” says guide Danny Yopp. “But make no mistake, the rafting is one crazy trip. The center has lots of other cool stuff too, such as rock climbing walls, mountain biking and flat water paddling, all available on site. It’s a pretty amazing anomaly when it comes to outdoor recreation. I’m happy to see how the USNWC has been able to introduce all sorts of people to outdoor recreation sports who have never had exposure to these kinds of activities.”
Danny is the perfect example of overcoming the fear of whitewater. As a child, he went a few times and was terrified of falling out. However, in high school a guide recruiter approached him and asked if he was interested in learning how to guide. “I only decided to go for it after multiple people came up to me and said that they could really see me doing that. Now I’ve been guiding for eight years,” he says with a smile. “I think the most important thing as a guide is to facilitate comradery in the raft, and right after that to teach good paddling. I’ll spend as long as it takes in flat water working on paddling with my crew to be sure they are prepared to paddle well in the rapids. The boat needs speed to make it over a rapid as well as to turn around rocks and other obstacles.”
Dr. Hampton “Hank” Alford, a doctor of Internal Medicine at Lexington Medical Center, has made time for the Boy Scouts for the past 11 years. In his opinion, whitewater rafting is a perfect opportunity for both outdoor excitement and practical learning in this age group. “We try to present the scouts with a variety of exciting outdoor opportunities,” says Hank. “If you have ever been whitewater rafting, you will agree that it is a thrilling, unpredictable experience from start to finish. The excitement and enthusiasm of the scouts is really contagious. Mix speed, water and a great deal of jostling about and you have a recipe for great day!”
Hank feels that it is also a great opportunity to teach boys the importance of safety. “I would say the most valuable lesson would be to treat the river with respect as there is always an emphasis on water safety and to include mandatory life jackets and helmets. Seeing an adult thrown out of the raft helped reinforce the need to be smart and aware amid the fun.”
Danny explains that the most typical injuries he has seen result from guest not holding the top of the paddle, or “T-Grip,” correctly. “I always stress to my guests to hold onto the T-Grip while going through the rapids so that it is covered and in control. It is the most common injury for rafters to get hit with a T-Grip while bouncing through rapids,” he says.
If one were, in fact, to fall out of the boat, Woody emphasizes the need to stay calm and to immediately get into the “whitewater swim position.” “The guide instructs all guests to have their nose and toes up off the bottom of the river and to be active swimming back to raft,” he says. “But the very most important technique is a willingness to have fun and enjoy the day … and to smile.”
Though Joe has focused most of his life on spending time in whitewater, including countless hours of intensive training for competitions, he says he never gets tired of it. “Whitewater is my life coach. I re-invent myself every time I’m on the water. The changing conditions and moving medium is just like life — learning to work with the river is learning to work with the different forces in your life.”