Swamping and Swimming on the Hiawassee – Jack Wright Series #4

TVCC – The Early Years.

The Mighty Hiwassee River.

by Jack Wright.

Reprinted from the July 2000 TVCC Newsletter, contributed by John Hubbard.


Don Bodley came to Chattanooga from New York in 1960 with 3 beat-up Grumman aluminum canoes expertly patched by off-duty Grumman workers from the main plant in Marathon, NY.  At TVA, he haunted the map sales office, then close by in the Pound Building, looking for nearby wet gorges on the topo maps.  He found one and persuaded a co-worker to accompany him one Saturday in 1961 on part of a river known as the Hiwassee, starting at Appalachia Powerhouse.



Well, it happened there was no water flow that day, and back then there was no public info about water releases, and nobody cared or knew the difference.  Don thought all those rocks were always exposed on that river.  You can imagine the ordeal of dragging an aluminum canoe all 6 miles down to Reliance.  Well, Don never went back to the Hiwassee for many years.  And then he saw the water.  His poor friend never wanted to see a canoe again.



When the club formed in 1967, several of us had been on the Hiwassee, but mostly putting on at Reliance and doing the ‘Lower’ section.  We’d heard rumors of big rapids up above, but remember, we didn’t even have the sense to kneel in a canoe, didn’t wear life jackets much, and we thought the Lower Section was pretty darned challenging and scary anyway. You almost needed a jeep to travel to the Powerhouse, so why drown yourself on that unseen (deep echo) ‘Devil’s Shoals?’



The first few times I went down the Upper Section we always lost cameras and lunches because we never tied anything in or kneeled down, thus turning over several times in the 6-mile run.  No such thing as a rubber ‘dry bag.’  We weren’t smart enough to invent them either.  Borrowed aluminum canoes stuck on every rock big time.  I remember real cold sweat just thinking about the ‘Devil’ at the bottom, where I swamped and swam about 50% of the time.  I wouldn’t even tell new people about it because they would sense my fear, and not come along.  That’s how badly some of us needed safety and skills training when the club formed.



Gee Creek wasn’t built yet, and there was no put in or take out ramps or parking lots.  We put in at the ‘Upper’ at the small turn around near the swinging bridge to the powerhouse, which was (is) fairly rapid water.  We took out at the only grassy spot on the whole river behind the old Hiwassee Union church house just upstream from Webb’s store.  I remember thinking when the Powerhouse ramp and parking lot were built, how huge it was and how on earth would we ever fill up a lot that large with canoeing vehicles.



We approached Reliance and ‘our church grassy spot’ one Sunday afternoon after an early club trip and it looked like there was a crowd of people having fun swimming there. As we floated closer we saw they were all wearing their Sunday best clothes in the water.  The reason for ‘our’ nice grassy spot down at the water was all the local churches did their baptisms in ‘our’ Hiwassee behind the church there!  Sure enough, the preacher was in full swing, but there was no other take out within miles and we didn’t know how to ferry upstream well enough to stay off-shore until he finished and he had a big crowd!  We actually silently floated with sheepish looks, heads hunkered down into our horse-collar life jackets, right through the people up to the river bank, grabbed our stuff on the run, and hastened our getaway.



I learned for sure that day exactly what the ‘Evil Eye’ was: boy did they ever put ’em on us.  If it hadn’t been a church group, I think guns might have appeared.  That was the fastest take out I can ever remember.  Looking back now, we were certainly the classic Enemy Intruders, for it would be many more years before any of the local residents got in a raft, inner tube, or canoe.  I’ve heard many more such priceless stories from the Hiwassee.  We may have to re-visit and chronicle some of them in a future column.



Next month we’ll dip a toe in the freezing Nantahala, the way we first learned about it in 1969.  Then we will cast our fearful eyes to the dreaded Chattooga where 18 people drowned in the three years after ‘Deliverance’ was filmed there in 1972.