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Memorial Day Whitewater Weekend

posted Jun 1, 2013, 11:16 AM by Justin P

For the Memorial Day long weekend, we headed to the mountains for a weekend of whitewater fun!  We headed out from the Triangle early Friday morning and made our way out towards the mountains.  It's a long drive out to the Nantahala Gorge area, so before reaching the gorge, we stopped to see a waterfall.  Taking exit 64 off US-74 at Bryson City, we headed down Alarka Road away from town.  After a ways, the road turned to gravel and shortly after this, we saw a dog barking furiously at something on the side of the road.  We stopped to look and it was a groundhog!  We shooed the dog away and took a couple pictures of the groundhog before driving to the end of the road and parking.  From the parking area, it was a short climb up to Alarka Falls.  The trail is not well-maintained, with several downed trees over the trail and a bit of bushwhacking in places.  But it's a short trail, and we made it to the falls quickly.  Alarka Falls is a very tall cascading waterfall and it is not possible to view the entire waterfall from any one point.  We first stopped at the base to enjoy the view and take a few pictures then tried to head up further.  We got stuck at a point with a tricky creek crossing and decided not to try and go up further to the top of the falls.  It is possible to get to the top from here, but seemed a little tough today, so we decided not to to bother.  It is also possible to drive around near the top at Alarka Laurel Preserve and get to it that way, but we wanted to get to camp soon, so we that will have to wait for another trip.  We headed back to the car and made our way back to the main road and took US-19 into Nantahala Gorge.  About 10 miles past the Nantahala Outdoor Center, we turned on Wayah Road and then onto the gravel Old River Road, which follows the Nantahala River.  Old River Road ends right at the entrance to the Appletree Group Campground in Nantahala National Forest.  We were in Group Site D, a really nice campground that was a little further away from the other sites and the Bartram Trail ran right past our campsite.  After setting up camp, we built a nice campfire to stay warm.  The temperature was dipping into the 30s overnight, unseasonably cold for Memorial Day weekend.


Saturday morning, we had breakfast and headed out for our first day of paddling.  Our destination was Tuckaseegee Outfitters in Whittier, just west of Sylva and Dillsboro.  Upon arriving, we changed into appropriate clothing, applied sunscreen, and got ready for our trip.  After receiving our equipment and brief safety overview, we piled into the vans and headed to our put-in near Dillsboro under the US-441/US-23 bridge.  We had rented "duckies", inflatable kayaks that are better suited for the rocks and rapids along the river.  The current on the river was swift and soon we were heading down the river.  The first mile or so of the river contains a few Class I rapids and several islands in the river.  We saw several water birds in the river, including ducks, geese, and a great blue heron hunting fish.  After a few easier rapids, we came to Double Drop, a class II rapid.  Two people took a spill on this one, but somehow I managed to say in my duckie and get some video of the carnage on my GoPro.  After everyone was back in their boats, we continued on past a few more rapids and then stopped along a beach for a break.  Sandy and I didn't bring our lunch, so while the others were eating, we got out and stretched our legs a bit.  After our break, we got back in the kayaks and finished up our paddle back to the outfitters.  After returning our gear, the group broke up, with some people heading back to camp and a few others heading into Bryson City for lunch.  We had Mexican for lunch before making our way back to the campsite.  But on the way, we stopped to see a few smaller waterfalls on the way.  Right where Old River Road turns off from Wayah Road, is a pulloff to park and see Whiteoak Creek Falls.  The waterfall is visible from the bridge on Old River Road, but a small trail leads to a better view of the falls.  Unlike many waterfalls in the area where the rocks are smooth from the force of the water, the rock around this waterfall is much more jagged.  There was also a nice pool at the base of the falls that would make a great swim hole when the weather is warmer and even a rope swing into the pool.  After this waterfall, we also stopped to see two other small, unnamed waterfalls along Nantahala River.  Pulloffs along Old River Road for roadside camping spots provided access to these smaller waterfalls.  Back at the campsite, I went on a short hike along the Bartram Trail.  The total trail is over 70 miles long with a section running through the Appletree Group Campground.  This section of the trail runs right along the Nantahala River on the opposite side as Old River Road.  I went out about 2 miles to where the trail heads away from the river and then turned around.  Back at the campsite, we had a potluck with everyone cooking their favorite campfire meals.  Sandy and I made chicken shish-kabobs and shared some corn, burgers, and other food our friends.  Once a big campfire was built, we enjoyed some drinks and stories around the fire before going to bed.


Sunday was our big paddling day - the Nantahala River.  This is a much more challenging river with mostly Class II rapids and Natahala Falls, a Class III rapid at the end.  Al and a few others had done this the day before instead of Tuckaseegee and he had fallen out a few times.  The water is extremely cold because it flows from the bottom of Nantahala Lake when the dam is open and never gets above 50°F.  When everybody was ready, we headed out to Adventurous Fast River Outfitters, a few miles upstream of the NOC.  Since the river is so cold, in addition to a PFD and funyak, we also rented a wetsuit, splash jacket, and booties.  Besides the very cold water, the skies were overcast and cloudy and it looked like was going to rain.  So the extra gear was a good investment.  After a quick overview, we headed out to the Nantahala River launch site near the power plant.  After getting in the water, we almost immediately got to the first rapid - Patton's Run.  Besides splashing some water in the boat, though, we all managed to stay pretty dry for this one.  The river was fairly calm for a bit, although it started to rain.  But the rain was actually warmer than the river water.  We paddled past a few islands in the river and made a brief stop at the put-in at Ferebee Memorial Park.  Linda was having trouble and decided to call it quits.  We called the outfitter and they picked her up at Ferebee while the rest of us continued on.  Right past Ferebee Park were several more Class II rapids - Delebar's Rock, The Quarry, and The Whirlpool, then a little stretch of calmer water.  So far, everyone was doing well.  We also stopped next to a big rock on the side of the river and Al and Mel climbed up on the rock and jumped into the water.  Well, Mel needed a little push for encouragement to "jump" in.  But either way, I was quite content to stay in the funyak and stay as dry and warm as possible.  After passing The Ledges and Surfing Rapid, we stopped briefly back at the outfitters.  This gave them the opportunity to discuss the final leg of our trip and let them know that we would be finished soon so they could pick us up by the NOC.  There were two big rapids along the final stretch of our journey.  The Bump, which is well advertised with a highway "Bump" sign hanging from a tree over the rapid, and finally Nantahala Falls.  The sun had finally come out, but the water was still freezing.  But we got back in the water and continued on.  After The Bump, we stopped briefly at a takeout before Nantahala Falls.  Charles had fallen out on this one and bumped his head; hard enough to be bleeding from his eyebrow.  There were EMT personnel on hand, who stopped and looked it over and gave him some bandages to put on it.  So, one of our group was out, but the rest continued on to conquer Nantahala Falls.  But it would not be defeated without some victims.  Somehow, I was not one of them.  As I paddled towards the falls, I was sure I was going to flip, but I paddled furiously and flew down the falls.  Although I didn't fall out, I sure did get wet from the splash.  I made my way over to the take-out and watched the carnage of those who had flipped.  Sandy had quite a spill and went nearly down to the bridge before being rescued.  She had spent quite some time and was very cold.  She took off her wet suit and sat in the sun to try and warm up.  But it wasn't too warm and so we decided not to do a second run.  But we would be available to film those who did.  So while the others started a second run down Nanty, we hung out at the NOC and waited.  Al texted me when they arrived at the Outfitters and we headed over to Nantahala Falls with the cameras.  We got photos and videos of everyone paddling the falls, but no one fell out!  That was kind of a disappointment; maybe not for them, but certainly for us filming.  When everyone was ready we headed back to the campsite, for one last night of campfires, drinking, and fun.


Monday morning, we packed up camp and started making our way back to the Triangle area.  It's a pretty long drive, so we broke up the trip by making a stop at Catawba Falls along the way.  Catawba Falls is located near the town of Old Fort at exit 73 on I-40, right after coming down the Blue Ridge Escarpment along the highway.  The falls are located in Pisgah National Forest, but until recently, there was no public access to the falls, which were surrounded on three sides by private property and by I-40 on the fourth.  Fortunately, land providing public access had been given to the Forest Service in 2010.  But the bridge leading to the public parking area was closed and we had to park along the side of the road.  And we weren't the only people who were visiting Catawba Falls on Memorial Day.  Many parked cars were lined up on both sides of the street before the closed bridge.  We hiked in, almost immediately crossing a stream as the trail and then following the river upstream.  There were quite a few cascades and small waterfalls along the trail as it got steeper and steeper.  But there was no doubt when we reached the real Catawba Falls.  It's an impressive series of cascades falling hundreds of feet, impossible to see the entire thing from only one place.  I took off my boots and socks and got in the water to get shots at different angles.  But there's no way to get the whole thing.  Next to the falls is a steep trail that leads up to Upper Catawba Falls.  There are a few views of the upper portion of the lower falls and then a particularly steep section with an old piece of rope to assist with the climb.  The rope helped, but I wouldn't put all my weight on it.  A little ways further there was another rope for assistance and then the trail flattened off as it approached Upper Catawba Falls.  This is another really beautiful waterfall, with a large freefall, followed by some cascades.  I sat here for a few moments enjoying the view while another hiker was swimming in the pool below the falls.  He was probably as hot as I was making that steep climb up.  But I didn't want to get completely wet, so I just dipped my head in the chilly water.  When we were finished, we made our way back to the car and started heading home.  We stopped in Morganton for dinner at Las Salsas, my favorite Mexican restaurant.