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County’s outfitters say training, planning keys to steering clear of danger on the Nolichucky

By Kayla Carter
Staff Writer
[email protected]
With water-related fatalities all too common during summer months in the Tri-Cities region, it’s important to know how to stay safe near the water. For Unicoi County, the biggest natural waterway is the Nolichucky River, which draws many who yearn for the adventure of enjoying the rapids each year.
“Whether you’re fishing, wading, kayaking, canoeing, rivers can be dangerous,” said Stevin Westcott, public affairs officer for the National Forests in North Carolina.
“In general we urge people to tell others where you’re going, when you expect to return and where to call if you don’t return. People should not raft or kayak alone.”
Two Unicoi County rafting outfitters offer guided trips down the river; representatives of USA Raft, located in the Chestoa area, and Cherokee Adventures, located along the Jonesborough Highway, said they take safety very seriously.
“It basically all starts with training and knowledge,” said Sue Carney, manager of Cherokee Adventures. “Most of our guides have been with us for a number of years and do very intensive training with us.”
Carney said the irregularity of the river makes it hard to learn as quickly as some would like. “You don’t really ever know what to expect and it changes pretty much daily,” she said. “It’s a good thing because it creates more variety, but it can also have some unexpected results.”
Both companies agreed one of the most basic necessities a person needs on the river is a personal floatation device. Helmets are also important because of the protruding rocks that line the bottom of the river.
For the upper Nolichucky they are required, Carney said.
Carney said that her personal opinion is that because of the rocky river bed, rafts are the most appropriate way to go down the Nolichucky River. She also said that there are some counter-intuitive ways people need to sometimes react if they are on the river, like floating instead of trying to stand up when knocked off of a floating device.
“It’s all about knowing how to do it,” she said. “Without experience people aren’t going to know these things.”
She said another counter-intuitive rafting tip is to lean toward rocks that are being maneuvered around. “It’s a natural reaction to lean away from the rock but because the river comes from a certain way, if you put a lot of weight on one side it will stick the craft against rock,” Carney said. “It’s things like this that have come about over the years that people who do whitewater know about and we try to inform our guests but other people just may not know.”
Kathy Bogdanescu, manager at USA Raft, said the Forest Service regulates every outfitter as to how they conduct their safety-related procedures and documentation. The outfitters are also required to have a special use permit on file at the Forest Service office in North Carolina, where they sometimes begin the upper Nolichucky rafting trips.
Bogdanescu said guides are trained extensively to ensure they can provide the best assistance to the customers they take on the river.
“Every guest that goes on the river gets a safety talk,” she said. “We talk about things like undercut rocks and not to swim toward them because you could get stuck beneath them. We also talk about foot entrapment and how you shouldn’t put your foot down in the river so that it doesn’t get trapped.”
Places along the river sometimes offer a pit stop for tired rafters to enjoy a waterfall or even camp overnight.
Bogdanescu said she recommends that individuals who are not with guides stick to the calm water pools around the waterfalls in the area because swimmers can become trapped underneath the falls. She also said that camping below the waterline is a bad idea.
Bogdanescu said customers are asked to sign a release form after the safety talk explaining the risks involved. “Anytime you’re doing anything with the water, it can be unpredictable,” she said. “It can be very dangerous.”
The county outfitters respect the classification system given to the Nolichucky.
Carney said there is a “healthy respect” for the upper Nolichucky. Also, Bogdanescu said that classifications for the river vary but the most difficult is the upper area.
The age of a person wanting to go down the river and where on the river matters to the outfitters as well. The age in which a child can go down the river is at the outfitters’ discretion. Each outfitter in the county has an age requirement.
“We encourage people to always be within arm’s reach of children even if they are playing on the bank or wading,” Westcott said. “There may be dropoffs and swift currents.”
Although outfitters’ mission is generally to increase the fun and eliminate the hassle of planning a trip down the river, people still often choose to ride the river on their own. Westcott said this is allowed, but he urges those individuals to be aware of their abilities.
“We encourage people to be honest with themselves and evaluate their skill levels before they go on to the water,” he said. “They’ll have a safer and more enjoyable trip if they choose sections of the river that match their abilities. If folks are uncertain about their skill levels then start out with a short trip.”
He said if someone is planning their own trip, they need to be dressed properly, have a first aid kit handy and know how to perform CPR.
Westcott said that about 60 percent of drownings are witnessed. “That means that someone is nearby,” he said. “It’s obviously a good thing for folks to look out for each other. If you have that many people witnessing drownings, that means there are that many people nearby that can help prevent it.”
He urges people to say something if they see a potential problem.
Also, individuals rafting the river may come across another group of rafters, Westcott said. “We encourage folks to always let the craft in front of them to pass through the rapid before entering it,” he said. “This can help to avoid a double disaster.”
Westcott said one of the most crucial safety tips is to check water levels the day of a scheduled trip on the river.
“Difficulty levels of the river in certain sections can change as water levels change,” he said. “Even though some sections appear to be gentle, they can become dangerous with high water levels. At extremely low levels, folks may find themselves paddling through puddles or dragging canoes over rocks.”
Weather is also important to consider.
During the summer, Westcott said heat exhaustion is something to watch for and knowing how to read symptoms. In the colder months, he said, hypothermia is the biggest life-threatening condition seen on the river.
“You definitely need to know what the signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion and dehydration are,” he said.
Westcott cautioned against the use of alcohol on the river.
“This is very important,” he said. “We want people to really avoid using alcohol. In the National Forest, alcohol is prohibited anyway, but we really encourage people to not drink alcohol before engaging in recreational activities. It impairs judgment and can lead to serious injury and even fatalities.”
Westcott also reminded river enthusiasts to be courteous of landownership when they get in and out of the river.
“We encourage people to take time to find out which lands belong to private landowners along the river also,” he said. “The USGS website has that information as well. They have maps that show the National Forest’s boundaries.”
To check water levels in real time and check landownership along the Nolichucky River visit For more information about classification systems for white water rafting and reference information for rafting, visit the Nantahala Outdoor Center’s website