TVCC – The Early Years – The Nantahala river

by Jack Wright. Series compiled/provided by John Hubbard

Originally published in the August 2000 TVCC newsletter

This is a series that started with the March 2000 issue.  We do not have an archive of the June 2000 issue wherein Jack discussed early club safety training.  This story is part 6 of the series.



In 1958 I was in a shuttle van full of people on some river around here, and someone in the van asked another lady if she and her husband hadn’t recently run a river most of us had never heard of, called the Nantahala, way over in NC.  With a pained expression on her face, she admitted, “Yes, we almost died, it was the worst experience thus far I our whole lives.”  We listened as she recounted how they had driven all day to the end of the earth, put in, and then in the first horrible turn (now “Patton’s Run”), with huge waves, had overturned, and barely escaped with their lives.  Frozen stiff, they walked along the road back to their car.  They did recover their canoe, hours later, but lost paddles and everything else.  Remember, in those dark ages most of us were still sitting on seats of aluminum and maybe fiberglass canoes.


That was my introduction to the Nanny.  The next year, in 1969, Lowell Bennington called me one day from the Red Cross, and said there was going to be something called a ‘canoe race’ on that Nantahala River, way up there in NC.  The Atlanta and Washington DC canoe clubs were teaming up to stage it!  Good grief, we’d never heard of such.  Maybe we ought to just drive up for the day and see what a “canoe race” is, anyway.  I told him I’d heard that river was certain death, but I liked to take all-day trips to the Smokey Mountains, so I was game to go, but certainly never taking any canoes.


So, we loaded up wives and picnic lunches and went.  Sure enough, crazy people had driven all the way from DC and Atlanta just to brave this monstrous river!  We were in another world.  There were cars and trucks from many states, with multiple canoes on top and something we’d rarely seen, kayaks too!  They set up gate poles on a short stretch off the main highway, around what’s now Ferebee Park and Delebar’s Rock rapid.  We took 8mm film of the action, which we’ve since converted to VHS video.  Horace Holden, of Camp Chattahoochie, Roswell, GA was Race Chairman.  Three years later he partnered with the Kennedys in the founding of NOC.


After our picnic lunch, Lowell and I decided to take a swim, because the water looked so clear and inviting.  Dipping a toe in, we knew it was a little cool, so we challenged each other to dive right in.  My wife Birdie very wisely picked up the camera and we still have the scene of 2 dumb guys jumping in and then clawing our way out of the water as fast as we could!  That 2 seconds was all the recreational swimming we ever did in the Nanny.  I charge high admission to see that video today.


Cars were not as fast and roads not as good back then, before there were 4-lane highways and freeways.  It took 4 or 5 hours to get there from Chattanooga and it was now quite late in the day.  We decided to stay overnight, and asked at the Wesser Esso station (today – the NOC store) if we could use the phone and pay them for it, to call home and tell our family.  “No, no one can use the phone.”  Canoes and kayaks were straight from the moon, remember, and everybody knows moon people would certainly contaminate a person’s telephone.  I’ve heard Payson and Aurelia Kennedy got the same no-phone treatment at Wesser that year.


Looking for lodging in Bryson City, we stumbled into the Fryemont Inn.  We now cherish wonderful July 4th weekend memories there, with its 6′ tall ‘walk-in’ lobby fireplace.  No air conditioning in the place, they didn’t need it in the mountains.  Meals included 12” diameter, ½” thick roast beef dinners served family style b the huge roaring fireplace, unbelievable!


John Alden led the first TVCC trip on the Nanny in the summer of 1970.  The same weekend we also ran a nearby section of the Little T above Fontana Lake.  In a 1969 TVCC newsletter, the Nanny was described as “It is all an open canoe can manage and many times on this run the canoe will have to be emptied of water from the high waves.  Difficulty rating is Class III through V.”  And to think now everybody does it with his or her grandmother in the boat.


Next month we’ll see how dreadful the Chattooga was, where 18 people drowned in 3 years after “Deliverance” was filmed in 1972.