TVCC – The Early Years – The Dreaded Chattooga River

by Jack Wright.  Articles compiled/provided by John Hubbard.

Republished from the September 1990 TVCC newsletter

This story is part 7 of the series.


In 1970, we were a leading original paddling club, 3 years old, having mastered the Great Hiwassee, premiered the weekend safety training courses, ventured on to the freezing Nantahala, and now were looking for other worlds to conquer.  That’s when the hardiest souls started going to the Chattooga.  My notes show our first club trip in ’70, led by Mike Conley.  In ’71 there were 4 joint GCA/TSRA trips, with some TVCCers going, since many of us were also members of those other “sister” clubs, as well.  Don Bodley led trips in ’72 and ’73.  Most of these weekends involved Sections II and III, with only the most capable (crazy) few teaming up to run Section IV.


The major movie “Deliverance” was filmed in that area in the summer of ’72, with most river footage shot right on the Chattooga.  Stuntman Claude Terry was Burt Reynolds’ double, and was in charge of outfitting and guiding the movie company on rafts down the wild river gorges.  The following year, Claude founded Southeastern Expeditions to do the same for the public.


By ’73, the movie had really grabbed everybody’s attention, plus we’d heard snatches of horror stories on some of the big rapids from the club trips between ’70 and ’73.  Our non-paddling friends now saw all of us as crazy as Burt Reynolds and his 3 friends in the movie, and were demanding to know if we’d been on that river, and expecting to hear first-hand paddling horror stories.  So now everybody just HAD to do that river for themselves, like it or not.  The mood at put-in was often quiet and apprehensive.  Rabun County was very rural, where the “Foxfire” books were written, the river area was very remote, and it was all too easy to imagine a “mountain man” with a musket behind every rock and tree.


The next 2 years, ’74 and ’75, my friend Bill Dickert from Atlanta and myself in Chattanooga led joint GCA/TVCC trips.  We were inundated with everybody wanting to go.  We looked into it carefully, and felt the duty to paint a serious hazard picture of Sections III and IV, to scare off beginners.  I called the Forest Service and got all the gloomy ammunition I needed.  Their records showed 18 people had drowned between the movie in ’72 ad August of ’74 before our trip in September.  We still had 44 people in 41 boats in ’74 and 49 people in 42 boats in ’75.  We had to split into 4 or 5 groups.  Those numbers were the largest ever heard of back then, for organized canoe trips.


One trip stands out because John Pickett and Bill Miller pulled a stunt typical of their attitudes.  We’d all nervously laughed about meeting a couple of “mountain men” from “Deliverance” on the river.  On a Section 3 trip John and Bill paddled tandem, held back and were the last to run the Bull at the bottom.  They had hidden long black overcoats, tall black felt hats, beards, and long mustaches under their flotation all day, and put them on, over their PFDs, out of sight in the last eddy above Bull Sluice.  People were screaming on both banks, rolling on the rocks with laughter, as we watched 2 old mountain men, Bill in the bow, John in the stern, neither cracking a smile, and they made it upright down through the Bull.  You had to be there to appreciate how real and ridiculous it looked.  We laughed about that for many years.  We’re looking for pictures of it; they’ll be classic.


We can’t tell of our Chattanooga experiences without the local color of the “Dillard Motor Lodge.”  It was an old hotel on Main St in downtown Clayton.  (Don’t confuse it with the “Dillard House”, a large restaurant several miles north, near Dillard, GA on US 441.)  There were large rocking chairs on the wide front porch.  On every weekend trip, it was virtually required to meet there in Clayton for the Saturday evening meal, all you could eat “country” cookin’, served buffet style in the large dining room.  Boy, that was great food after a long day on the river.


Proprietor and chef, big Louise Dillard Coldren, was a classic character.  She bellowed orders to everyone, but if you got near her, she’d give you a big bear hug!  After the meal, we’d get Louise out of the kitchen, and show our latest paddling slides and super-8 home movies on a blank wall of her dining room.  Then she’d tell colorful stories of how Burt Reynolds and all the movie gang had stayed with her during filming in ’72.  When’s the last time you ate or stayed anywhere and got to know the proprietor and chef on a first name basis, plus a big bear hug?  Priceless memories.


Next month I’ll recount how many families literally raised their children, paddling on the river.  Those experiences are worth noting and emulating today.