Chattooga River – Unexpected Adventure

We strap on our helmets and sign the waivers. Two pages of fine print list the ways in which we can be hurt, crippled or drowned while whitewater rafting on the world class rapids of the Chattooga River.

Three friends, Amy, Celeste, and Yasmin, have joined me for this adventure. We’re here because the Chattooga made the bucket list of 35 Georgia Natural Wonders I’m painting on a three-year project. The manager of the rafting outfitter has been kind enough to arrange one of his best guides for us. He’ll pull us aside for photos at the river’s most scenic spots.

We line up for the “Safety Talk.” Our guide, Brandon, appears to be approximately the age of my youngest son. He instructs us how to float – feet first – if we fall out of the raft. That way, he explains,  we won’t smash our heads on a rock.

I wonder if the others are thinking what I am: “WHY did I think this was a good idea?”

“With all the rains we’ve had,” Brandon continues, “we’re in for a treat. The water is very high in Section III, and we’ll see some world class rapids and beautiful waterfalls. It ends with an amazing run, Bull Sluice. We won’t know if we can take it until we get closer. Normally we only take more experienced rafters.”

The girls and I look at each other and raise our eyebrows.

“It’s cloudy today,” says Brandon, “but I think this is when the river is at its best, when it’s all gray and misty like this morning. Then you can see why the Chattooga is special – why it’s called a temperate rainforest.”

We climb into the raft. Brandon pushes off and jumps in. The waters are turbulent, swollen with recent rains, and we are swept away on its powerful current.

Designated a “National Wild and Scenic River,” the Chattooga is protected from human development for miles and miles.

For the next six hours we are transported into untouched wilderness. Giant rocks loom out of the water, evoking fallen monuments, or the remains of ancient civilizations. Birds cry unseen from trees that line the river like a wall of green. Turning one bend, we are surprised by a high waterfall tumbling down the right bank, its lacy fingers running down to the river. Everywhere around us, the voice of the river, wild and tumultuous, follows us on our journey.

Periodically, the peace is broken by runs of rapids. These moments are exciting, tense. “Get down,” Brandon says, and we slide to the bottom of the raft. This minimizes the chances of flipping. If we fall out, we know to keep our feet from dangling down as we swim. The chance of getting a foot entrapped in a rock and being submerged by the current is real.

As we approach Bull Sluice, Brandon steers our raft to shore and confers with other guides gathered there with their groups.

“We won’t be taking Bull Sluice today, “ he announces. “It’s too wild. But we can watch a more advanced group take it.”

I am both relieved and strangely disappointed.

We climb out of the raft and scramble to the highest rock to watch the more experienced rafters take Bull Sluice. The river explodes in white spray, crashing into a narrow gap between large rocks, thrusting the boat like a toy into the churning waters below.

The rainclouds open up. We are soaked and exhilarated, filled with wonder at Chattooga’s power and the beauty of this wild rainforest.  And watching the explosion that is Bull Sluice, we agree that we are already feeling the loss of this wild and beautiful place –

And we vow to come back, to meet Bull Sluice another day.

 

Resources:

Rafting the Chattooga – WildwaterRafting.com

Full list of 35 Georgia Natural Wonders