Middle Ocoee Description

From American Whitewater

Surfing at Staging Eddy after Grumpys
Originally managed by the Eastern Tennessee Power Company, the Ocoee River was dammed to build hydroelectric plants. The Ocoee No. 1 and Ocoee No. 2 Dams were built between 1910 and 1913 featuring wooden flumes that divert the waters of the Upper and Middle Ocoee along an elevated path before they drop into the hydroelectric powerhouses. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) purchased the power system in 1939. In September 1976, the wooden flume diverting water on the Middle Ocoee was shut down for reconstruction and the river ran unabated. The river attracted lots of attention, as boaters flocked to the Middle Ocoee to run its five miles of continuous whitewater rapids. Rafting companies sprang up while the TVA hurried to repair the flume to again divert water from the Ocoee. After much resistance and a Congressional Act, TVA agreed to schedule 116 days of recreational whitewater releases per year on the Middle Ocoee. Whitewater racing events have been held on the Ocoee since 1978, bringing the river to the attention of the world. The Ocoee has also been called the birthplace of freestyle kayaking, hosting the first-ever Ocoee Rodeo at Second Helping in 1983. The Ocoee has become one of the most popular whitewater rivers in the world, attracting over 250,000 visitors annually.

"Grumpy's Ledge" (with dam in the background) photo by Dan Lyke
Launching from the put-in at the base of the dam, you immediately begin the first major rapid on the Ocoee, Grumpy. Grumpy is a long and pushy Class III that offers no chance for a warm-up. Eddies abound on both sides of the river, and paddlers will want to pick their way down the rapid using the eddies on river left. About one hundred yards down from the put-in is an obvious ledge with a large hole behind it. Whether you paddle hard over it or take the tongue on river left to avoid it, keep your guard up for the fast-moving Class III that continues on below. About 100 yards from Grumpy's Ledge is the first classic surfing wave on the Ocoee. Eddy out on river left to surf.

The current then slows for a while, dropping into Staging Eddy. Run Staging Eddy conscientiously to avoid the playboaters in the holes below. You will want to make your way into the large river left eddy to get in line for a surf. The top hole is a great place for 360 spins and low-angle cartwheels. After Staging Eddy, there is a large pool before the next rapid, Gonzo Shoals. The river broadens and drops over a long section of shallow ledges. In this rapid, be sure that you are far away from rafts because they tend to get stuck often here. Below Gonzo Shoals, the river starts to bend to the right, signaling that the Ocoee's toughest rapid, Broken Nose, is coming up.

Broken Nose is a benchmark Class III+ rapid and cannot be seen from the road, making scouting difficult. The rapid is located on far river right, separated from the rest of the river by a small island. Broken Nose consists of three drops, with a powerful hole at the bottom. There is a great eddy on river right immediately before the first drop. Try to catch it, but note that it is only big enough for two boats. From this eddy, you can boat scout the rapid. Ferry from this eddy into the main current, quickly changing directions in preparation for the first drop -- a strong left-to-right curler that can slam unsuspecting paddlers into the low-hanging trees on river right. There is another small eddy at the base of this first drop, and I highly recommend catching it. Although you can just bomb down Broken Nose, catching these eddies makes life a little easier. From this eddy, peel out into the swift current and get some speed for the final two drops immediately downstream. After the second drop, plant a good stroke to pull you past the hole at the bottom of the third drop.

After Broken Nose, there is a long Class II-III rapid with some nice waves leading into Second Helping. You will notice a large ledge, and be sure to run this to the left or right to avoid the pinning spot in the middle. Continue down until you see a large slanting rock on river right. Catch the eddy on the right and ferry into the hole in the middle of the river for some great play. Moonshoot is next, and provides a great place for spins. After Moonshoot, the river continues with some II-III until the next big rapid -- Double Suck.

A kayaker caught in the second hole at "Double Suck" photo by Dan Lyke
The river will bend to the right and you will notice a large rock outcropping in the middle of the river. A metal plate is affixed to the boulder at the right side of the outcropping. This is Double Suck -- and on this rock outcropping is found a nearly-extinct plant, Ruth's Golden Aster. The metal plate notifies you of a prohibition against walking on the island. Double Suck is a Class III ledge, and gets its name from two closely spaced holes, the second of which is very strong and advisable to avoid. Run this four-foot drop with a strong angle pointing river left in order to eddy out behind the large rock and avoid the second hole. Many thrashings have occurred from paddling right down the middle and thinking the worst is over, before being sucked back into the second hole.

After about 1/3 mile of continuous Class II-III, the next big rapid is Double Trouble, a Class III a double set of holes and some of the biggest waves on the river. Work your way up the river left eddy in order to play in the bottom hole, and watch out for rafts and other river traffic as you surf.

After Double Trouble, Class II-III continues for about 3/4 mile until you get to Flipper, another of the Ocoee's classic playspots. You can tell you are at Flipper because of all of the helmets in the river left eddy. Be sure to use the courtesy eddy on river right above the drop as to not disrupt any epic surfs. Plan to spend some time here. After Flipper, there are a few more rapids until you reach the Doldrums.

Boater entering "Flipper" a popular playspot photo by Barry Grimes
The Doldrums lasts about a half-mile, and contains shallow Class I-II shoals. There is one drop of about three feet near the bottom of the Doldrums called Surprise Ledge. Watch out here, because pins have happened here.

After the Doldrums, get ready for Tablesaw. The entire river is channeled into a narrow chute on the left, creating the most turbulent spot on the entire river and a large Class III+ rapid. Tablesaw was named for a large rock situated in the middle of the chute, splitting the current and sending up an impressive roostertail. Unfortunately, past floods have removed the rock and roostertail, but the name remains. The direct route down Tablesaw is left of center, paddling through large diagonal waves and holes until you reach the bottom. At the bottom on the right is a dangerous rock with a pothole in its upstream face. Although the pothole is largely underwater, it has been the site of a drowning and is not a recommended boof spot. There are eddies on both sides of the chute that make for some epic eddy hopping.

Tandem canoeists in "Tablesaw" Rapid photo by Julie Keller
Immediately downstream is the Class III Diamond Splitter. This rapid is easy to recognize because of the monolithic rock, the Diamond Splitter, which is situated in the middle of the rapid. The conventional run is right of the rock through some Class III waves and holes, though it is possible to run down the river left side and catch the micro-eddy behind Diamond Splitter Rock. Witches Hole, at the bottom of the river left side of the drop, is a great sidesurf spot, and former home of the Ocoee Rodeo.

From here, fun Class II-III rapids continue for another half mile before Accelerator and Cat's Pajamas. At the bottom of Cat's Pajamas is a very popular squirt spot. From here, a deep pool separates Cat's Pajamas from Hell Hole. You will know you are at Hell Hole when you see the Powerhouse and bridge, along with more kayakers than you can count in the eddies on both sides of the river. Hell Hole is perhaps the Ocoee's most famous rapid, as it was the site of the 1993 World Rodeo Championships. There are always lots of different types of paddlers there -- some are pro-boaters who spend all day at Hell Hole, while others are weekend warriors just there for a few rides. Make sure to skirt the hole while coming downstream, entering the river left eddy. After Hell Hole is Powerhouse - the last rapid on the Ocoee. Run Powerhouse on river right because of the large hole at the bottom on the left, and paddle about 3/4 mile to the new takeout.

Put-in/Take-out: US 64 closely follows the entire length of the Middle Ocoee, making access and road scouting very easy. Put-in at the base of the Ocoee #2 dam. If you don't know where this is, you can't possibly miss it. It is a river-wide, 30 foot-tall earthen dam that carries the entire Ocoee River down its face. There is a large parking area at the top.

A kayaker shreds "Hell Hole" photo by Dan Lyke
River Levels: A normal summertime release on the Lower Ocoee is 1250 cfs. Very, very rarely does this level drop lower than 1000, even in times of severe drought. Occasionally, the flow will be higher, up to 1400-1500 cfs, especially when the Upper Ocoee is also running. This additional flow has little affect on the bigger rapids, though some of the famed (and finicky) playspots get better or worse depending on a few hundred cfs. The highest recommended flow for a safe run down the Ocoee is 4000 cfs, although the crazies have run the river up to at least 12,000 cfs.

Camping: Thunder Rock is the closest campground to the Ocoee, located behind the powerhouse a few miles above the put-in. It is incredibly convenient to both sections of the Ocoee, offers nice amenities, and is $10 per site per night. If you stay there, remember that alcohol is prohibited in state parks, so don't complain if you get a ticket. There are lots of other state, national, and commercial campgrounds around the Ocoee (including a very nice one at High Country).

Food: As with most places in Eastern Tennessee, you are forever surrounded by fast food options.There are quite a few restaurants in the Gorge, including Ocoee Inn, Wildwater, and Grumpy's near the Ocoee #1 Dam. If you have any recommendations, feel free to add your comments.

Likelihood to get hassled by a park ranger: Very High

Here are some tips.
  1. Even if crowds are scarce, don't try to sneak a quick shuttle at the old takeout unless you are parked on the shoulder there.
  2. Alcohol and state parks don't mix. If you want to camp and drink, go to one of the rafting company's grounds, but don't complain when you get a ticket at Thunder Rock.
  3. Be discrete when changing. Use the changing rooms.
  4. Watch your speed driving in the river corridor -- for your safety and mine, especially at the nearly hairpin turns at Tablesaw and Double Trouble.

Hazards/Rescue: Hazards include: hydraulics at Grumpy's, final drop of Broken Nose, second hole at Double Suck; overly-aggressive rafts; shallow water in places. The sheer number of boater-days on this river (in addition to these known hazards of geology and hydrology) make for an unfortunate number of tragic mishaps. We recommend clicking on the "News & Accidents" tab to see the list of accidents and fatalities on this reach. Fortunately rescue opportunities abound with US 64 closely following the entire section, and the sheer number of highly experienced boaters often available and willing to assist.

Nearest Hospital: Copper Basin Medical Center, Ducktown, TN

Local Information/Attractions: Stop by the Ocoee Whitewater Center, which is the home of the 1996 Olympic Whitewater Slalom Course, although it is unfortunately dewatered for most of the year. In addition to the visitor's center (which chronicles the creation of the slalom course and the Ocoee's role in the '96 games) there are hiking and biking trails, and swimming holes. This is located a few miles above the Lower Ocoee put-in. At the base of Ocoee #1 Dam, a few miles below the Lower Ocoee takeout, is a 1:10 replica of the Upper Ocoee, which was used by river engineers to estimate the effects of rechanneling the Upper into a world-class slalom course. Also in the area is the Hiwassee River. Found directly north and running almost parallel to the Ocoee, the Hiwassee is a popular innertubing and beginning kayaking river. The water is frigid, but it provides for a relaxing afternoon float. Parksville Lake has several swimming areas, and provides lots of space for waterskiing. Across from Parksville Lake is the Cherokee National Forest and the Chilhowee recreation area. If you take the road past the ranger station, there is camping, some great trails, and some even better views from the top of the gorge.

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