Chattooga River Paddling Guide by Claude Terry
Editors Note: The story below by Claude Terry was written for Brown's Guides in 1972 after his experience as a consultant and double on the movie "Deliverance," and before the Chattooga was named a Wild and Scenic River. Read it in conjunction with the essay by Doug Woodward about his, Claude's and Payson Kennedy's experiences filming the movie "Deliverance" and Suzanne Welander's guide to canoeing the Chattooga here in the Streams, Rivers and Lakes blog. Though the canoeing action Claude describes is as fresh as the Chattooga headwaters, the story is over 30 years old, so when following specific directions to put-ins and take-outs, use Suzanne Welander's guide. Be sure and see the interactive Chattooga River map that includes the locations of most of the rapids described in both Claude's and Suzanne's guides. Read together, Claude's 1972 story, Doug Woodward's essay about his and Claude's experience filming "Deliverance," and Suzanne Welander's guide provide a detailed guide to the Chattooga and some personal insights by indivuduals who have had unique relationships with this special Georgia river. VIEW THE INTERACTIVE MAP showing the locations of the rapids in Claude's guide and photographs for most of them.
The canoe bucks, twitches, and lurches up and over above a series of heart-stopping cascades, down which the spilled canoeists bounce and scrub, to lie exhausted in the eddy at the bottom, accessing their losses in skin and equipment. A scene from "Deliverance?" It could be, for the hit movie was filmed on Georgia's wild, scenic Chattooga River. More likely, the spill is one of many that day for novice canoeists who have come to test their skill against this acknowledged king of the Southeast's whitewater rivers. The ranks of canoeists and rafters on the river have been swelled by those eager to see and run rapids made known by the movie.
Of all of the sources of recreation available, running water probably offers the most exciting variety of experiences. Fishermen, sinners, tubers, rafters, canoeists and kayakers find pleasure in streams. These streams range form backwater, pastoral streams in the Deep South to clear mountain creeks and turbulent, cascading torrents like the Chattooga.
Here's how to try your luck on this stream, soon to be protected forever by the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.
SECTION III FROM EARLS FORD TO HWY 76
The Chattooga is entrapped in the mountains about 120 miles northeast of Atlanta and forms Georgia's eastern boundary with South Carolina. To reach the river, drive east from Clayton on US 76 for approximately eight miles. The section of the Chattooga, which we will describe here, ends at the crossing of US 76 and the Chattooga. This is shown on the accompanying map. Most parties of rafters or canoeists drop one car here to shuttle drivers back to the top for other vehicles after the trip. (It is not a bad idea to walk upstream on the SC side at this point for about a quarter mile, to see Bull Sluice, so you will recognize this dangerous fall when coming down the river.)
After dropping a car, continue on highway 76 into South Carolina for about two miles. This brings you to the first paved road turning left, which leads to the put-in. After turning left, travel approximately seven miles to the first four-way stop. Turn left again and follow this road to Earl's Ford. As the name implies, there is no bridge over the river at Earl's Ford, and in fact there is only a jeep trail on the other side. The road into the Ford is paved at first, but changes to gravel about three miles from the river. Parking may be a problem on Saturdays and Sundays during the summer months, gut there is parking down a track turning left a hundred yards before the ford. You will generally have fewer difficulties getting on and particularly off the river if you arrive by nine-thirty to ten o'clock.
Check the water level at the Earl's Ford gauge that is about 200 yards downstream on the S.C. Side of the river. A reading of 0.7 or below is low for rafts, and will be draggy for canoes and kayaks as well. From 0.7 to 1.3 to 2.0 feet is okay for rafts and kayakists who can do the Eskimo roll reliably, but heavy for open canoes. If the river is above 2.0 feet at Earl's Ford gauge, approach it only with a strong party of experienced people, and then with all possible safety precautions.
Assuming a safe water level, put your boat raft in here for one of the most memorable adventures in the Southeast.
From Earls Ford you will paddle only 500 yards or so before you encounter a simple, single ledge and soon thereafter a complex ledge best entered on the left (SC side) and requiring a good left turn farther down. There are only a few multiple drops here, but they provide enough action to keep you busy.
About one and a quarter miles later, you will encounter the Rock Gardens, great blades of rock whose bedding plane is angled to the river's surface, creating a memorable maze, with some rapids thrown in. Several scenes in "Deliverance" were shot here.
Another half mile of mild water brings you to Dick's Creek, which cascades in from Georgia down Five Finger Falls. Here, the ledge in the river should be scouted! Don't just wash over this one, particularly in high water. The best portage is at right center. Open canoes and kayaks can run the rapid by entering the current over the ledge with the bow angled right and dropping into the first slot.
Below Dick's Creek, there are two good sets of multiple rapids before Sandy Ford. Run right of the island in each case. If you have an emergency or find the river more than you can handle, the Sandy Ford road on the GA side is usually negotiable by rough country vehicles.
Below the ford, the river bends right through mild rapids, then left into a calm pool. This is the warning for the Narrows, where more canoes swamp than any other place on the river. If you have water, bail it out before entering the Narrows. The Narrows consist of a constricted canyon wit three sharp drops in rapid succession, followed by two more drops with weird cross currents and very narrow passages. Go solo if possible, backwater, and be prepared to bail out open boats in any eddy you can get into. Looking back from the bottom of the Narrows is one of my favorite views in the world, with a mossy, spring-studded cliff overhanging the river.
At the bend in the river below the Narrows is a rapid commonly called Second Ledge. (Dick's Creek Ledge is the first). Again, scout or portage from right center. The best canoe or kayak run is at the left side, down a slide across the face of the waterfall. Daring and fun if you make it!
Below Second Ledge, there is a torturous, shallow mile and one-half down to Eye of the Needle. This is a chute, entered on the extreme left side of the river, dropping and twisting to the right. It can be recognized from above by the beautiful waterfall on the creek on the left, just above the drop. There are probably more turn-overs in Eye than any other rapid, due to the large rock which juts from the left bank at the bottom of the chute. The current turns away just before the rock, but many people lean away so far that they overturn.
Following the Eye, there are about four miles of easy rapids down to Fall Creek Falls. This stream falls over several five-foot drops directly into the river and is a good marker for the two rapids, which follow. This is Roller Coaster, a series of large waves that can readily swamp an incautious open canoe, but it's the best ride on the river.
Keyhole is a large ledge just below Roller Coaster. Be sure to bail before going on down. There are two drops in the keyhole, and the collected waters then flush against a house-sized boulder at the bottom. The best entry to Keyhole is in the right center moving right, since an overturn here does not necessarily bring you against the boulder.
Below Keyhole, three miles of moderate rapids bring you to a view of a large gray boulder on the right, with a nice rapid bending around left out of sight. Don’t go down this rapid blindly! This is Bull Sluice, which you should check very carefully before putting your body into its cauldron. Rafts can run Bulls Sluice, but helmets and life vests should be worn. The Forest Service says rafters have been killed in Bull Sluice from hitting their heads. Kayaks also can run the Sluice, and an occasional solo open canoe makes it down. The only successful tandem run of the Sluice I have seen was (then) Governor Carter and yours truly. (Luck). Don't try to run the Sluice tandem unless you place no value on your boat and legs. A swamping is almost sure to occur in the first drop, and if you stay in the canoe, you will be thrown suddenly forward when the canoe encounters the submerged rock halfway down the second drop. If you are out of the canoe, your sitting area will contact the rock, with unhappy results. After these dire warnings, if you insist on attempting the Sluice, come over the first diagonal drop headed directly toward the right side. The roller at the bottom of this first drop is a "keeper" at some levels and may hold you in for some time. A real bad scene.
Below Bull Sluice, a quarter-mile of mild rapids brings you to a sand beach upstream of the bridge, which is the take-out for the trip.
SECTION IV, HWY 76 BRIDGE TO TUGALOO LAKE
Nostalgia is a funny thing. Writing this I realize this fact most strongly. There are at least two types of nostalgia, which I feel just now. The longing and reminiscence for childhood days and friends and the desire to renew acquaintances is one type of nostalgia. I also feel, looking at winter pines and watching rain douse the landscape, a nostalgia for past springs and a longing anticipation for springs to come. When these longings take the form of mental pictures, I realize they are largely vistas of one stretch of river, the lower Chattooga.
We first began to run the lower Chattooga in the summer of 1968. At that time, we knew of only one or two people who had dried that fast-dropping river in open canoes. On topographical maps, the gorges appeared deep and inaccessible. We had heard names such as "Sock-'Em Dog, "Shoulder Bone, "Jawbone," and 'Woodall Shoals" applied to the rapids. Our first trips left us convinced that many of these rapids could not be run.
These early trips led us to label other rapids, and some of the names have stuck. We talk of "Corkscrew," "Jumble," "Raven Rock," "Seven-Foot Falls," and "Surfing Rapid." So much of the movie "Deliverance" was filmed at one house sized boulder that Doug Woodward and I began calling it "Deliverance Rock" and that name also stuck. What I'm getting at is my mind conjures up scenic vistas from the loser Chattooga at the drop of a hat, smell of a white pine, or sound of rain rivuleting off my roof. The river has not changed in four years, but the number and capabilities of users certainly has. Any warm summer weekend will see several rafting parties on the river, and several groups of canoeists and kayakers playing in the rapids.
Kayaks have proven ideal for this river. When I got my first kayak in 1969, it was the first in the Georgia Canoeing Association. When I attempted Sock 'Em Dog" in that kayak it was, so far as we knew, the first successful run on that rapid. Once before, Claude Grizzard and I had attempted the rapid in a 16-foot Old Town Canoe, but that is another story and another cracked canoe! Now, there are hundreds of kayaks in this area. As to the capabilities of paddlers, kids (including my 11-year-old son Michael) now occasionally run Sock 'Em Dog and most other rapids backwards for variety.
Though it may sound as though we have lost respect for the river's difficulties, that's not the case. We still travel in strong parties and are careful about the water level at which we attempt the trip. We and other paddlers have simply extended our capabilities, and the younger paddlers seem to start in at our level. I'm not sure what this means for the future of boating, but the next Olympic team may be quite young.
Before deciding to run the Chattooga yourself, get with a group of other paddlers or rafters who have experience on this river. If you don't know such paddlers, join the Georgia Canoeing Association and go on one of our several annual trips on this great stream. If you are a rafter, at least follow the white water code, and read this article before running the river.
Let me give you some idea of the beauty and hazards of this trip. Starting from US 76 Bridge, you are quickly involved in action. At "normal" water levels) from 1.5 to 2 ft. on the gauge 100 yards below the bridge (on the S.C. side) you will want to stay left down to the first curve, where "Surfing Rapid" is entered from the right.
Several easy ledges follow, and then the main current flows to the far right, behind several boulders. This is the entrance to Screaming Left Turn, which was the location (shot from several different angles) for several scenes from "Deliverance." The careless canoeist finds himself driven straight at a rock, with a cross-current left move needed, but difficult. Below the left turn is a pool, where recovery of gear, bruised bodies and egos is possible.
The next rapid follows immediately and is best run on the right. Several chutes follow through a small gorge ending in a slanting left side run into a short pool. This pool and the large sandbar on the Georgia side are good indicators for a large single drop about 200 yards downstream. This rapid called Jumble fits its name by being an apparent pile of rock with no clear passages. You should scout Jumble from the bank your first time down.
Below Jumble, there is about one-third-of-a-mile of shallow, mile rapids, then a widening and deepening of the stream. This is called Suttons Hole. It is used by local residents as a swimming place and is a good place to camp overnight.
The river curves left here, and about 300 yards downstream, a large granite ledge extends from the left and forces the boater to the right. This is Woodall Shoals, which is dangerous, particularly in higher water (over 1.7 feet on the gauge) and tends to keep rafts, often ripping out the bottoms. The problem here is a wide, nearly perfectly shaped hydraulic or "souse" hole at the bottom of the first drop. This drop can be sounded or portaged by landing on the ledge at the left side. Let me emphasize – I have seen several rafts kept in this hole for 5 minutes to a half hour. If you insist on trying the drop, stay far left, in the strong tongue dropping into the "notch" in the rapid, and paddle like hell at the bottom. The hydraulic will pull boats (and people) back into the hole from 10 to 15 feet downstream. Don't play with this first hole in high water. The shoal after the initial drop is twisting, exciting and a good natural slalom course.
The beauty of Woodall shoals has attracted visitors, and a forest service road comes to the pool at the bottom of the rapid. If you have had trouble to here, get out. It is going to get better (or worse, depending on your view).
Below Woodall Shoals, the banks begin to form a gorge, and the water gets heavy. A series of three drops down the boulder-studded gorges brings you to the top of Seven-Foot Falls, which is mighty impressive if seen unexpectedly from the brink. Let the first drop in this gorge warn you to stop and scout this fall. There is a cheat route on the right behind the boulder, which is pretty hairy itself, but which looks much better once you've seen one boat go over the fall. It is wise to have someone below with a rope before running either Woodall Shoals or this fall, as either can readily flip boat or raft, and lead to a long, seat-bruising ride.
Several good rapids follow in the next quarter mile, then the river opens up, and a large, fast-dropping creek flows in from the right. This is Stekoa Creek, and the rapid just below is one-third mile of beautiful moderate slalom-type twisting and turning. No single large drops, just constant excitement. At 2 feet on the gauge, this is great water.
At the bottom of Steloa Creek Rapids is a pool, and to your left is a truly beautiful waterfall, Long Creek Falls. This falls was in "Deliverance" and also on the cover of the Atlanta Journal Magazine last summer. Below Long Creek, the river cascades over several drops, with the last cascade in the series piling against a whale-sized boulder, which served as the location for some of the post-wreck scenes in "Deliverance." The wise paddler will stay left away from this monster rock, moving left in the rapid above the rock.
Just below "Deliverance Rock," you can catch your first view of a cliff, which I believe to be the most beautiful on, any Georgia river. This is Raven Rock, a 200-foot granite precipice, with beautiful mosses and ferns festooning its surfaces.
Just above the cliff is Raven Rock Rapid, which is entered from the extreme left side. This apparently formidable rapid, which one guide book says cannot be run, is actually a simple open canoe run if approached from the left. The boat or raft is squirted out to the right with tremendous speed, making this one of the best rides on the river.
Below Raven Rock there is about a mile of fairly constant, but not spectacular, water. Eventually, you come to a low bank on the right with signs of use where a 4-wheel vehicle road comes near the river. The small creek below this camping site is called, naturally enough, Camp Creek. The mountaineer with the arrow hole in his chest was "buried" up this creek during the making of "Deliverance."
The creek and the small rounded mountain beside it are good indications that about 500 yards downstream are the Five Falls Rapids. The pool just above Five Falls is a good place to land to scout the next quarter-mile or to start the portage (difficult) or to say a prayer (easy at this point). The first rapid, inanely named "First Fall" by us but labeled "Devil's Chute" by the Forest Service (who should know), is entered on the left and is best run by moving right as you descend the first two drops. A small pool at the right bank offers a place to bail and look around the large boulder at the best chute down the 4-to-5-foot drop. Doug Woodward and I ran this rapid for one of the exciting scenes in the film "Deliverance."
If you swamp or dump in First Fall, get to shore because about 100 feet downstream is Corkscrew, and you don't want to swim this one. Murray Evans once swam this rapid and sat out some good canoeing months with broken ribs. Corkscrew may be the toughest single rapid on the Chattooga. It is best run by entering at left center, moving left and quickly correcting for the tremendous right, left, right surges which give the rapid its name. There is a decent recovery pool below Corkscrew but again get out quickly if swamped.
Crack in the Rock (really three cracks) follows in short order and should be scouted very carefully. We formerly ran the center crack, which is so narrow a canoe must go through tilted (the drop of 5 feet is in the cracked boulder), until broken paddles, broken noses and badly scrubbed elbows convinced us to use the more open right side crack, which is, however, treacherous. Trees often wedge in this crack, and a broached boat could be disastrous here. Below Crack there is a good pool, so bail out water or stop and scout from here.
The next two rapids are almost continuous, so that the actual difficulty of Jawbone is magnified, since you know that a turnover may well leave you swimming in Sock 'Em Dog. Jawbone is entered from the right and is best run by catching the eddy pool against the left bank after crossing, then cutting back into the currents, which overlap each other to build up a distressing "ridge" down the center of a long chute with 6-to-8 feet of drop.
This chute "runs out" against the left bank, with good waves and currents constantly forcing you into the wall. The current then turns abruptly right behind a large boulder and leads over the right side into Sock'em Dog. There is an eddy on the left, which is a good place for some people to stop to portage, or potential suicides like myself to catch a breath before entering Sock'em Dog.
Sock'em Dog starts innocently with a quickening current moving right behind obscuring boulders. Two quick twists later, you are suddenly looking off an apparent cliff with the current moving you left. Resist the current and stay far right, trying for a "hump" in the center of the ledge, and you may experience a half second of free fall before disappearing, boat and all, into the froth at the bottom. This is worth, to some of us, all the tension of the approach.
The second pool at the bottom of Sock'em Dog is quite long, and any gear lost above usually can be picked up here.
The last excitement rapid left is Shoulder Bone, which is around the curve at the end of the pool. Run this one slowly in the left center, and you'll have no trouble. The last rapid to the lake are good but anticlimactic after the razor's edge upstream. Below Shoulder Bone Branch, the lake begins, and a slow 2-mile paddle brings you to the take out on the South Carolina side.
CLAUDE TERRY'S CHATTOOGA RIVER SAFETY RULES
On the Chattooga, I have seen canoeists lose their boats. I have seen rafts punctured and lost or dragged to the side; the rafters walked out after dark. I have seen kayaks broken in half. I have heard of drownings on the river. In essentially all cases, the canoeists and kayakers were breaking safety rules, and the rafters walked out due to being in a single raft. So please, for your own sake, read this set of rules now and re-read them before launching any trip on the Chattooga.
- Rule: Don't boat alone or take a single boat with two people. Three canoes or kayaks or two rafts are a minimum for the Chattooga.
- Rule: Allow for heavy water. Canoe with one person or, at the most, two persons per canoe. You will take on less water in the waves, and maneuvering is greatly simplified. When rafting, put two people in a four-man raft, three or four people in a six-man raft. The wear on the raft will be reduced, hang-ups will be cut down, and spills will be less frequent.
- Rule: Kayaks should have flotation bats in good condition. Canoes will survive better with added flotation in the form of Styrofoam or inflated inner tubes.
- Rule: Expert whitewater boaters increasingly urge that life jackets and helmets be worn by open canoeists and rafters when running big rapids. These items are already standard equipment with decked boaters who have more difficulty getting out of their craft while upside down. I personally dislike sun tans distinguished by a "horse collar' of white but after having helmets damaged and sustaining a "saber scar" on my nose while upside down, I believe totally in protective headgear and flotation vests.
- Rule: All boaters should be good swimmers and not psychologically hung up about water.
- Rule: Allow enough time. The section of the Chattooga described in the accompanying story is a four to six hour run in a canoe or kayak. If a raft, it will take longer. Don’t try to finish a raft run after dark. Sleeping on the river is a bad scene, but going over a dangerous falls in the dark is worse.
- Rule: Check water levels before getting on the river.
- Rule: Honor and personal esteem still matter more than legalities to many local residents. Don't make the mistake of incurring their displeasure by trying to correct their beliefs or apparent foibles.
Tagged with: Chattooga River Savannah River Watershed Paddling Guides
A raft gets caught in the hazardous Bull Sluice Rapids on the Wild and Scenic Chattooga River in Northeast Georgia and has to be dislodged with ropes from the rocks above the falls. (3:23)
The famed Chattooga is one of the nation's most renowned rivers. Its reputation is well deserved.