Cheoah River Whitewater Study

July 2000

The Cheoah River is located in the extreme southwestern corner of NC, near Robbinsville. It is about 1.5 hours from Knoxville, TN and 2 hours from Asheville, NC. Normally the nine-mile section between the Santeetlah Dam and Calderwood Reservoir is dewatered. However, as part of a multi-dam relicensing project, four whitewater flow tests were conducted last week. I ran it at all four flows and at three of them it was a hoot!

We put in at the little store about six miles upstream of the Tapoco Lodge (the distance is a guess but it is the only store in the area) and took out on the Little Tennessee's Calderwood Reservoir.

Though I haven't confirmed it on a topo map, the rumor is that the Cheoah averages 100 fpm. The gradient is fairly steady. This means that with the exception of 2 or 3 half mile or so sections, the river is unusually continuous, more so than anything else with a similar volume of water in the Southeast. Some were calling it "warm western-style paddling."

At flows of about 1000 cfs or under, the top 2/3rd's and lower 1/3 are about a grade different in difficulty, with the top similar in difficulty to the Ocoee. The risks are greater, however, as much of the channel is heavily lined with trees and brush, giving the run a nature akin to paddling during a flood. The main technical challenge is presented by the frequent series of offset holes. Because of the trees and brush, it is not a good place to paddle if you don't have a rock solid roll and the ability to read water well on the fly (bank scouting would not be fun). The lower 1/3 is better defined, with a number of classic drops. My favorites were the sequence of four drops with the biggest single drop on the river (a ledge about 8 feet high) being the third and the drop beginning at the bridge downstream of the Tapoco Lodge. There were many, many waves to surf and a number of very playable holes, including two potential rodeo sites: one at Tapoco Lodge and one at the end of the drop beginning at the bridge downstream of the Lodge.

At the highest level we paddled (1,130 cfs), the top and bottom sections were much closer in difficulty as the offset holes were beginning to get sticky. The bottom didn't change much, so the result was a run that was a lot more fun but not any scarier (assuming strong class IV skills, and keeping in mind that the Ocoee only requires strong class III skills). If more of the trees and brush were removed, the upper run would almost certainly get easier at every level as paddlers wouldn't be forced to run through the meat of the holes and the entrapment danger would be lower.

This is definitely a river to get on if you have the chance! Unfortunately, it may be three years, if ever, before regularly scheduled releases begin. However, as part of the relicensing process, the USGS has installed two online gauges. This will make it possible to catch one of the infrequent unscheduled releases that occur after particularly heavy storms.

The gauge I paid most attention to is located at Bearpen Gap, just downstream of the bridge dividing the upper and lower sections of the river. Its name and URL are:

Cheoah River near Bearpen Gap near Tapoco, NC --

Rod Baird (one of the prime movers behind the test) did a good job summarizing the flows:

  • Flow 1 - 950 CFS = 4.50 feet on the Bearpen Gap gauge - bony for rafts, quality river running for hard boats.
  • Flow 2 - 670 CFS = 4.15 feet - unacceptable for rafts, undesirable for hard boats.
  • Flow 3 - 1130 CFS = 4.70 feet - thrilling for rafts, unique for hard boats. Reminiscent of the Upper Gauley in terms of push.
  • Flow 4 - 1010 CFS = 4.55 feet - excellent for rafts, high quality for hard boats.

My guess is that this river could be run MUCH higher; there are reports of it being run as high as 3,000 cfs.

What can you do to help make scheduled releases a reality?


John is leading the negotiations on the releases and needs your input. The more folks who have run this river and the greater the number of levels at which they have run it the better! John's address is [email protected]. You should also be able to link to his address from the AWA page: .


The greater the number of people in an organization, the greater its negotiating power. Being able to say, "I represent 250 people" rather than 200 makes a big difference because the "powers that be" know most people are not "joiners" and frequently increase membership numbers by a factor of 10 (or more!) to get an idea of the true interest.

Groups involved in the relicensing project include: American Whitewater, American Rivers, Trout Unlimited, Tennessee Clean Water Network, Western North Carolina Alliance, Chota Canoe Club, Western Carolina Paddlers, Sierra Club (WENOCA Chapter).

This is a great resource; do your part to insure future releases!

-- Chris Bell, Asheville, NC

Paddlers below Bearpen Gap bridge

Chuck Estes

Below Tapoco Lodge

Jason Darby on the wave at Tapoco Lodge

Paddlers give feedback after the run

Photos below are courtesy of Chris Smith Photography.


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