The Nantahala River gorge, in Bryson City, North Carolina, winds its way through the most beautiful scenery one can possibly view during a whitewater paddle. Despite the roadside access during the entire 8 miles of this run, boaters enjoy breathtaking views of the stately Nantahala National Forrest alternating with beautiful homes inhabited by genial home owners who share a friendly wave from their covered porches as you float by. October throws in some fiery reds, deep oranges, and bright yellows, giving you a recipe for visual paradise. The trees come close to forming a canopy over the river, throwing shade across the water for the majority of the day, with the exception of 12:00 PM. Nantahala is actually a Cherokee word which means “land of the noonday sun.” Anyone who has made the mistake of wearing a tee shirt and shorts down this river can testify that the sun only makes a brief appearance through the trees and onto the 50 degree water. While that 50 degree splash on bare skin is highly unpleasant, dressing out for the cool temps gives river users the opportunity to visit a riot of fall colors exploding all around you while a family of mallards may sit in an eddy beside you or a school of trout swim under your boat. I’m not sure we could have found a more beautiful area to spend our second weekend of October.
We eagerly waited over a month for this trip because Amy and Charlie were going to be able to go rafting with us. Many other friends had hoped to go as well, but unfortunately due to unexpected work assignments, illnesses, injuries, and scheduling conflicts, we weren’t able to go down with anyone else. While we missed these dear friends, we still managed to enjoy ourselves immensely. Charlie is only two months older than Ian, so they’re right there together on all the same phases that little boys go through. From the time we all arrived at the campground Friday night, until we left Sunday afternoon, those little boys were constantly in cahoots with one another. Together they launched Rocket Copters, explored the trails and creeks in our campground, found a small playground, roasted marshmallows, tried on new wetsuits, jumped in a raft, enjoyed a rousing game of hide and seek, built a block house, played life sized jenga, watched their first slalom racers, and braved some big cold rapids. There were a few time-outs, as there inevitably will be when little boys get too wound up, but by and large they were exceptionally well behaved men during this trip and were big helpers when it came time to pack and load gear. What really surprised me is how tough these guys have become. At one point, an NRS strap wrapped around Charlie’s ankle while the boys weren’t paying attention. Ian grabbed the end of the strap and gave it a big yank (I’m sure this was part of whatever game they were currently playing), and managed to yank both of Charlie’s feet right out from under him! I would’ve been fighting mad had someone yanked my feet out from under me, and probably cried a bit over my bruised bum. After I yelled at Ian, he quickly reassured me that it was okay because Charlie was okay. “Right, are you okay Charlie?” he frantically asked his friend. Charlie popped up like a cork in water and was already up and running again as he called out over his shoulder that he was fine.
Saturday morning we enjoyed a big camp side breakfast of bacon eggs and took our time making our way to the river. While Brinn and Amy set shuttle, the boys and I played at the put-in. There were more falls and spills as the boys tumbled around inside the raft together, effectively scattering all of the paddling gear we had spread out and organized for each person on the raft tubes. No blood was shed, and the gear was easy enough to sort back out once Amy and Brinn had returned. The hardest part of the whole weekend was getting the wiggly little boys to stand still long enough to layer up over the wetsuits before we hit the water. Eventually we were all dressed and outfitted with helmets and PFDs and off we went to the water.
To date, our dogs have only been down two whitewater runs –the Hiwassee River and upper Spring Creek. While waiting on Brinn and Amy to set shuttle, Mogwai sat dejectedly. He really resented having his leash clipped onto the raft while I worked on getting dressed in all my dry gear. Before picking the raft up to head to the water, I unlicpped both dogs so they could stretch before heading downriver. They were good furbabies and walked beside us, but once we turned the corner and the river came into view, Mogwai’s ears shot up and his flat-footed walk became a tip of his toes trot all the way down the ramp. While Brinn had to help Chaco into the raft, Mogwai flew down and dove from the edge of the concrete ramp into the raft. Then he spent the entire trip perched on the raft tubes while his tail wagged the whole way down the river. Chaco didn’t express the same level of enthusiasm for the trip, but she also didn’t protest, so I think she was [mostly] happy to enjoy the float down with her family.
Charlie spent almost the entire rafting trip in the front of the raft leaning over the bow. This crazy kid is going to be just as awesome at boating as his grandparents. Ian rotated from standing in the front with Charlie to sitting in between Brinn and Amy while they R2-ed, and occasionally sat in the back so he could “guide” with his cane pole he acquired at the put-in. Chaco stayed in the back while Mogwai would try to sneak and creep to the bow every time Brinn’s focus diverted to the boys. A few rain sprinkles fell on us, but the drops were lighter than the spray off the rapids. We wove down the rapids with me in the lead sometimes, and sometimes with the raft in the lead. We wound around fly fisherman anchored in the river bed, and slid down beside the bank when one of the boys would spot a different colored leaf he just had to have. We had a pretty decent leaf collection going on. Unfortunately we forget to leave some cash in the drybag, so we didn’t get to stop for a hot slice at Pizza by the River, but we definitely enjoyed the smells as we got out to stretch and shared the homemade lunchables Amy packed.
When we made the last bend in the river before Nantahala Falls, aka Lesser Wesser, the slalom gates for the ongoing race came in to view. My last comment consisted of, “ah crap. I’m really going to mess up someone’s run.” I’m not sure if the racers were released at an exact time, or if the race coordinators tried to stagger the racers around upstream traffic. Either way, no one was trying to complete their course while I came barging through. As I came up on the first gate, Brinn yelled, “try to go through them!” At that time, he and the raft dropped Wesser sideways and I watched Amy launch forward. My eyes bugged out of my head as they disappeared and I couldn’t see where the boys, adults, or dogs were. Then I proceeded to smash into the rails of two gate, drop into the top hole, stick for a second, frantically paddle, drop the ledge and spot the whole raft crew, all safely still in the raft sitting in an eddy, pointing and laughing at my face and the leaf that somehow attached itself to my helmet. I even had to defend my paddling as Brinn insisted I must have flipped to pick up a helmet decoration. I still have no idea where the leaf came from or how it managed to catch a ride on my helmet. Once they quit making fun of me, Ian excitedly told me all about how the big rapid was so much fun and the whole raft went under water. Wesser may have tried to hold the raft for a second or two, but I’m fairly certain that had the raft gone under water, Ian wouldn’t have still had dry hair.
While I enjoy the Nantahala for its continuous current and stunning views, I’ve relearned to appre
ciate it appreciate it differently as a mother. The NOC, Nantahala Outdoor Center, conveniently owns the take-out, and hands down runs the best take-out I’ve ever had the pleasure to paddle up to. The giant hand dryers in the restrooms are so handy for drying off little boys before they get cold, private changing stalls make it easier to avoid little boys flashing little girls that come into the restroom, and the real toilets cut the smell down so much more efficiently than the outhouse style restrooms at the Ocoee and Hiwassee. The giant pile of blocks keeps the boys entertained while we load gear, and the abundant shade over picnic tables keep the dogs cool and comfortable while we take turns watching boys and canines. After we took a quick jaunt over to the NOC store to pick up an animal flashlight for each boy, we were ready to head back to our campground.
Brookside Rafting has a decently sized campground just a mile down the road from the put-in. Its location proved convenient for getting to and from the river, and the price couldn’t be beat. We only paid $7 per adult per night, and had access to real, indoor restrooms with hot water. The campground was situated right off of highway 19, so traffic could be a bit loud at times, but we enjoyed the otherwise quite nature of the family run business. The game-room with old arcade style games impressed the boys and occupied them while adults brushed teeth, and the small playground gave us a chance to cook breakfast over open flames without little hands getting burned. The couple who ran the place were extremely kind, helping us blow up our raft before we headed to the put-in, and checking in on us during our stay.
Amy recommended that we make walking tacos for our Saturday dinner. She brought all the fixings and Brinn made a batch of chili earlier in the week which he froze in ziploc bags for easy transport. All we had to do at the campground was reheat the chili over the campstove, then spoon it over our corn chips, smother in cheese, top with tomatoes and onions (and sour cream for people who like that kind of gross stuff) and we were stuffing our faces in no time at all. Good suggestion, Amy! That turned out to be exactly the quick, but warm and belly-filling kind of meal we needed for the chilly evening around the fire.
Charlie’s goal for Saturday was to stay up until midnight. Ian gave up around 8:30, and I don’t think Charlie made it much past 9:00 before he too felt the effects of playing hard all day. Brinn and Amy managed to stay up around the fire for a while, but I conked out early with Ian. What a cold night it was! The temps dropped down into the low 40s, and we felt it! While we packed plenty of warm clothes and appropriate sleeping equipment, we managed to leave a lot of our warm clothes packed in the jeep, and started the night under blankets instead of in sleeping bags. Ian somehow wiggled out of his sleeping bag, and around midnight woke me up because he was cold. I asked if he needed me to cover him, and after an ecstatic “Yes!” he dove under my covers before I had a chance to get up and zip him back into his bag and add more layers on top. Brinn and I let him sleep between us for about an hour before his constant wiggling made us crazy. After this, Ian was evicted back to his own sleeping bag, and I gave up on the covers and climbed inside a mummy bag. I passed the rest of the night in relative comfort while Brinn and the dogs apparantly shivered. I’m not sure why Brinn didn’t climb inside a sleeping bag…or put on the fleece pants that he packed. I managed to
sleep through everyone shivering until six…when I woke up with puppy butt in my face. Mogwai had crawled into my mummy bag with me, but didn’t turn around and bring his head out. He fell asleep with his top half in the bag with his back half hanging out. This was enough for me, so I drug myself out of my warm bag and into the cold to find extra sweaters and wool socks to start my day. Two hours later and everyone else finally managed to wake up and join me around the campfire to start some breakfast before tearing down camp.
Mogwai was not quite ready to be up yet. He kept going back in the tent to lay down in our sleeping bags, but would come back out to stare at us periodically and try to telepathically convince us we should go back to bed with him. He can be a bit of a princess. Chaco sat by the fire with me and shiverred. I finally pulled out her dog bed so she could lay by the fire, and draped Ian’s sleeping bag over her. Typically Chaco hates to be covered up, but for once she seemed okay with the arrangment, and remained this way until we finished packing up camp.
Brinn toasted up some bread with cheese for breakfast and scrambled a pan of eggs. We all enjoyed a hot beverage around the fire (cocoa for the boys, coffee for Brinn and Amy, but cider for me), but all too soon it was time to make a plan for the day and pack up before check-out time. A study of the weather report showed that the combined air and water temperature would be 120 degrees at the warmest part of the day. On top of that, there was a wind advisory out for the area, so Brinn’s final decision was that it was too cold to risk either of boys falling into the water, so he suggested we do a bit of hiking. We loosely planned to park at the NOC and hike just a brief stretch of the AT that passes through that area. But once we arrived at the NOC, the boys settled in and seemed content to stay. For more than 10 years, I’ve wanted to have a day to just hang out there, but we’ve always been in such a hurry to get home when we get off the river that we’ve never had the chance. The boys finally gave us that chance, and we seriously did nothing all afternoon except loaf around the NOC. The sun came out and kept the air temps around 70 degrees. This proved to be the perfect temp for wading, but would’ve been a bit cool for submersion. The boys waded in the gravel area of the takeout with Mogwai and Chaco while Brinn, Amy, and I enjoyed a giant tray of barbecue nachos. Later, they resumed their building with the giant blocks made of cut 2×4’s. We hiked up stream and sat at Wesser for a little while, and later we hiked down stream to view Worser Wesser. Basically, we didn’t really do anything at all. And it was fantastic! Ian and Charlie had each other to play with, so they really didn’t even have that many demands for the adults. We were able to enjoy the sunshine and cool breeze.
My only regret from this weekend is that we waited until so late in the year to spend an entire weekend at the Nantahala. While we’ve taken a couple of day trips there this summer, the overnight trip broke the travel up for more manageable driving. Ian has decided the Nantahala is his new favorite river and he can’t wait to go back and run the big rapid under water again. Unfortunately we probably won’t make it back again until next year, but maybe then he and Charlie will be ready to battle Wesser in funyaks. They’ll be a little bigger, a little stronger, and have had several months of swimming lessons to help them get ready for any spills. Lookout for 2017 river reports –they’ll be coming to you from the land of the noonday sun.