Travel: Whitewater Rafting on the Nolichucky River

Posted on June 13, 2016


Some years ago, when my grandmother was in her 80s, she began checking things off her unwritten “bucket list.”  It all started innocently enough, with an ocean cruise, and we saw her off from the docks.  But months later, relatives sent a picture of her doing her first (and only) parachute jump.  And then it was the whitewater rafting.  My grandmother was a small woman, just five feet tall, and while she was spry, there was no mistaking her for a youngster.  People would patronize her with that slow, reasonable voice normally reserved for intractable four-year-olds:  “Now, don’t you think this might be a little dangerous for someone your age?”  they would ask, pursing their lips.  “Who cares?”  she would snap back.  “I’m gonna die soon anyway!”  And off she would go on her next adventure.  The whitewater rafting was particularly exciting, as she actually fell out of the raft at one point.  The family was all over the map in their descriptions of exactly what happened.  It was either no big deal, or a near-catastrophe.  She either fell out, or jumped out.  Who really knows?  But at any rate, she was in the rapids in her ninth decade, which is pretty awesome, when you think about it.

Eventually, I got my chance to see what the excitement was all about.  One of my aunts organized another family whitewater rafting trip, and by the time the date rolled around, there were 16 aunts, cousins, and spouses standing in a parking lot getting handed helmets, paddles and flotation vests.  We ranged in age from 10 to 79.  Can’t say we aren’t an adventurous bunch.  Or crazy.  One of those.

We started off with a quick orientation on how to brace ourselves in the raft and safety tips on what to do in case of various scenarios, then we put the raft in the water and practiced executing our guide’s commands.  Our group was large, but we weren’t the only folks there, so everyone was split up among four rafts.

We rode that part of the Nolichucky which crosses the North Carolina – Tennessee border, and includes Class 3 and Class 4 rapids.  This meant nothing to my inexperienced brain, but I soon found out what it was like.  Fun, actually!  The raft was a smoother ride than I expected, even when we ended up sliding down the river backward, or plopping over a ledge and getting everyone soaked.  Our guide, Jayce, talked about the river, history, and points of interest.  He also talked about what was coming ahead of us, how to handle it, and what to do should something go wrong.  It was one long safety briefing, and rightly so.  The rapids are fun, but they demand your attention, and even if you are paying attention, things can go wrong.

And go wrong they did.  Just after Jayce had briefed us about the dangers of getting hung up on a particular rock, what did we witness but one of the other rafts getting hung up on that rock, and all of its occupants being dumped into the rapids, including one of my aunts in her 60s.  If the water were not shallow and rocky, there wouldn’t be rapids, so this could not have been comfortable.  The guide quickly recovered the raft with the help of some of his crew (this is a very hands-on activity), and all but two of the occupants were soon back in the raft; but to our alarm, the two others were being quickly swept downriver in very rough water (which also meant lots of rocks).  Jayce pressed us into service as a rescue boat and  we soon caught up to the two in the water and pulled them aboard.  I think it all took less than a minute, but it was one of those minutes that stretches out forever as you watch your relatives bumping down the rocky rapids and being sucked under before popping back to the surface.  How little control we have against such forces of nature.

After a break to check everyone over for cuts and bruises and get them back in their own rafts, our group continued on and soon were all smiles again, but you can imagine how the story of the “disaster” was replayed again and again at the end of the day, and the next day.  I think it was mutating even before we were off the river, and I thought of my grandmother and the wildly varying stories about her own misadventure.  The exact truth was no longer important.  After personally seeing people carried away by the rapids, I had a newfound respect for a woman who had experienced the same thing in her 80s!

For anyone curious about which company we went with, it was USA Raft. A great experience all around.