High Country Adventures Cures the Covid-19 Blues
I love planning other people’s vacations. Some planning takes weeks, and other trips take years of preparation. But when it comes to my travel, I tend to be spontaneous.
Last weekend was no exception. My daughter, Adelynn, was invited to go whitewater rafting with a friend and her family, and all of a sudden, rafting sounded like an excellent idea. The weather was hot, and we needed something active to do in the summer heat. Nadia is too young to raft, so Mark said he would stay home with her. That left me, Ethan (17) and Clarissa (14).
Choosing High Country Adventures
I called High Country Adventures, a whitewater rafting company on US 64 in Ocoee, Tennessee. I had never used this company before, but they had high online ratings. I spoke to Marie on the phone, and she said they had availability at 4:30 p.m. on Sunday.
A whitewater raft seats six people, so who else could go with us to fill our raft? I called my sister, Jessica, and asked her if she and baby Asher could use a day to themselves. In a matter of moments, my brother-in-law, Peter, and my nephew Ryan and my niece Lauryn decided they’d join us. It was a win-win. My kids could spend time with their cousins, and we wouldn’t have to worry about social distancing in the raft.
Full-Day or Half-Day Adventure?
When you raft the Ocoee, you can choose a middle Ocoee adventure, or you can combine the Middle with the Upper part of the river. The Upper Ocoee contains the Ocoee Whitewater Center, which was used for the canoe slalom in the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. It has several Class V rapids and is the only in-river course ever used for Olympic slalom competition.
Three of the six in our party were rookies, so we decided the middle Ocoee was a good place to start for the landlubbers. Peter and the cousins arrived around 10:30 a.m. at our house, and we left before 11:00 a.m. Our reporting time was 4:00 p.m., but we would lose an hour when we crossed into the Eastern time zone and we also wanted to have time for lunch.
The trip from Franklin to Ocoee was a little less than three hours without stops. We arrived well before our 4:00 p.m check-in time, so we had plenty of time to sign waivers and get changed. High Country Adventures advises you to lock your car and leave your keys at the desk during your rafting adventure, so I dropped my keys in the basket and we headed down for the short orientation.
After the meeting, we picked up a helmet, paddle and life vest from the guides and we boarded the buses. Some people brought their own life vests, but our guides said everyone must wear the same floatation device on the Ocoee. All life jackets must have the “pillow” in the back.
Our bus ride to the launching pad was about 20 minutes. We waited on the bus while the guides took down the rafts, and they instructed us to stand next to a boat. Our guide was Stewie, a 21-year-old college student at the University of Chattanooga. This is his third year as a guide on the Middle Ocoee, and he was energetic, friendly and experienced. He was a good storyteller, and he told us he had just finished his first Upper/Middle Ocoee combo trip that morning.
While our raft was still on land, Stewie had us practice some forward and backward strokes so we could sync together. He likened our raft to a car. “You provide the power, and I’ll be the steering wheel.” Stewie was an excellent guide and steered us straight for the next two hours.
Snow White, the Seven Dwarfs and Grumpy
We were ready to hit the water! Stewie instructed us to lift the raft, and we walked down to the put-in. The Middle Ocoee is unique in that you encounter a class III rapid as soon as you enter. The first rapid is called Grumpy’s. I guess Snow White is the whitewater, and several rocks resemble the seven dwarfs.
For each rapid, Stewie told us exactly what to expect. When we entered Grumpy, we’d slip past Whiteface Rock and go between two holes at Grumpy’s ledge. Then, we’ll cascade down to Staging Eddy and wait for the rest of the rafts.
I was glad Stewie suggested we wade in and get our feet wet before launching because Grumpy bombarded us with cold river water. There’s nothing like getting soaked right away! In the 90-degree heat, the chilly water felt fantastic.
I’ve been whitewater rafting several times, and what veterans know (and rookies don’t know) is that the folks in the front get the most soaked. Clarissa (14) and Lauryn (15), weren’t prepared to have thousands of gallons of water splashing in their faces, but they get used to it pretty quickly.
Ryan, the Hortator
Peter and Ryan (16) were our middlemen. Peter was good and steady, but Ryan kept our boat afloat. He assumed the role of hortator. Sounds like a dirty word, doesn’t it? Let me explain. Have you ever seen Ben Hur? A hortator is the guy who gives the rowing beat in the galley ships of Old Rome. He gets to yell a lot and his voice is hoarse from screaming commands like, “Battle Speed! Attack Speed! Ramming Speed!” If you haven’t seen the movie, stop reading this and go watch it right now, or at least watch this clip. The hortator never lets up and he keeps increasing the rowing tempo until the exhausted rowers start collapsing on each other in glorious paroxysms of madness and fatigue. But the sweat-soaked Charleton Heston keeps rowing like a machine and gives the hortator the evil stare-down like, “Is that all you got?”
Yes, Ryan was our hortator. And no one ever asked him to do it. He just took the reins from the beginning. When Stewie gave us a command like, “Forward three,” Ryan shouted “ONE….TWO…THREE!” and we all obeyed. He kept us perfectly in sync. No one fell out, and our raft didn’t even come close to tipping over, even when we saw the snake in the tree (it was fake, but Stewie didn’t tell us it was fake until we passed it).
Ethan and I were in the back of the raft. We didn’t get as soaked initially, but the second half of the trip barraged us with waves. Each rapid has a name, and Stewie walked us through navigating every rapid from Slice and Dice to Double Suck, the tallest ledge you go over on the Middle Ocoee. We tried to surf on Hollywood Hole, but if you don’t catch the rapid just right, you miss the opportunity.
Man Overboard! Our Heroic Rescue
Even though no one fell out of our boat, we had to rescue someone from another boat when a man popped out into a rapid. It was kind of exciting! We saw a bobbing white helmet in the water, and we extended our oar until he could grab the chicken strap (the rope on the side of the boat). Ryan paused his stroke counting momentarily to give our castaway a “Welcome Aboard!” before resuming his horator duties. When we could reach calm waters, we pulled alongside the other boat and safely transferred our castaway to his vessel.
Rollin’ On the River
The rapids slow down in the middle of the trip, and Stewie asked if we wanted to jump in for a while. All six of us went to the edge of the raft, and like little birds flying the nest, we said a prayer and jumped in. The water was so refreshing and it felt absolutely freeing to put our helmeted heads back and go where the river took us.
One important safety tip to remember is you must put your feet up immediately when you get into a whitewater river. Your feet can get pinned between two rocks, and people have drowned in just two feet of water. Keeping your feet up ensures you won’t get caught and you can keep moving in a forward direction
After about fifteen minutes, it was time to get back in the boat. Stewie grasped our life jacket by the shoulders and pulled us out of the water. Let me tell you, it was not a pretty sight when he had to pull me in. There’s no way to be pulled into a boat gracefully when you’re water-logged, and you have to put all etiquette and decorum aside. You find yourself with your face smashed against the bottom of the raft and your butt straight up in the air, and you have to figure out how to get upright again.
Our High Country Adventure Comes to an End
Next up was Tablesaw and Diamond Splitter, and some smaller rapids. We finished the adventure with Hell Hole and Powerhouse Ledge. Again, Stewie steered us safely through, but he always advised us which direction to swim if we fell out of the raft.
We exited the water, carried our raft the bus and got ready for the 20-minute ride back to High Country Adventures home base. I couldn’t wait to get the kids’ reactions to how they enjoyed the trip. They had huge smiles on their faces and the newbies said it was so much more fun and exciting than they thought it would be.
After we got back to basecamp, we changed into dry clothes and went to look at our photos. High Country Adventures sends out a team of photographers to photograph each raft through the major rapids. There were so many good photos that I ended up purchasing the photo package for $60. They immediately sent all photos through WhatsApp, which made sharing with Peter and the kids extremely easy.
Do you need a cure for the Covid-19 blues? I highly recommend High Country Adventures. They were very well-organized, and the guides kept us safe while helping us all have a thrilling afternoon. Stewie was a wonderful guide, and I suggest you ask for him when you call to reserve your space. Please tell him you heard about him on my blog! Once the University of Tennessee classes resume, he’ll only guide on Saturdays and Sundays. Reserve your whitewater trip with High Country Adventure here.
Helpful Hacks and Hints for Whitewater Rafting
For every blog post, I try to give helpful hacks and hints. I travel so I can give my clients the most updated information to enhance their experience.
Here are a few tips that might be helpful:
- Assemble a group of six. You don’t need six people to go whitewater rafting, but if you have fewer than six people in your party, the company may pair you with people you don’t know. Because I suggest, while social distancing mandates are still in place, to try to create your own group of six people.
- Be ready to get wet. Whitewater rafting is a “rain or shine” sport. Your adventure will proceed as scheduled, even in hard rain. You’re going to get wet anyway, so don’t worry about the rain. The rafting company may cancel your trip in the case of thunder or lightning.
- Wear closed-toe shoes. Some of the guides wear hiking sandals, but they’re experts and you’re not. I suggest wearing old tennis shoes and socks so if you fall out of the raft, your feet will be protected.
- Don’t bother with sunglasses. You’ll lose them right away. If you need sunglasses, make sure you bring a strap. My eyes are blue, which make them extra sensitive to light, and I was fine with wearing just my helmet. You can wear a baseball cap or a visor under your helmet if you prefer.
- Start easy. If you’ve never rafted the Ocoee before, start with the Middle Ocoee half-day adventure before committing to the full-day. My first rafting trip was on the Lower Gauley River in West Virginia. It was a full day of rafting and the rapids were much more intense. There were moments when I was terrified. Looking back, I should have tried a half-day trip first.
- Tip your guide. Your guide works hard. I know I give Ryan all the praise for keeping our paddles in sync, but Stewie did all the work. Bring cash for a tip. There is a box near the photos where you can write your guide a note and leave a cash tip in an envelope. They appreciate anything you give them. We tipped Stewie $20.
Where will I go next? Keep reading to find out. I’ve wanted to start a blog for years, so I have many stories to tell. Now that I’m current, I’ll begin working backward before Covid-19 and tell you about my adventures pre-pandemic.
Have you read any of my other posts? If so, please leave a comment. Do you have any requests for a trip or destination I should review? Leave it in the comments. Who knows? Maybe I’ll go!
Here are some of my most recent adventures: