The gorge through which the Watauga flows is a delight. It
is deep and steep, with few access points and no litter. The
water runs clear except after a heavy rain.* And there's rock
everywhere -- on shore, up the canyon walls, and in the river.
Especially the river! I've paddled the Watauga on a freak 80
degree day in early March and in a light snowfall a week later.
I've seen it when the trees were bare and covered with frost and at
the peak of the dogwood, service berry, and redbud bloom. I've
had a ball playing in the justly infamous hole at the bottom at
Hydro while doing low water warm weather runs mid-summer.
Every visit has been enchanting. The Watauga is a special
When I first started paddling in the mid-eighties the Watuaga was
considered cutting edge. It is no longer, but it is still to
be respected. The steepest 3.6 miles of this 4.9 mile run
average 123 fpm. To get an idea how steep this is, the
Nantahala has a 33 fpm gradient, Big Laurel Creek 50 fpm (with the
steepest 1/2 mile at 80 fpm) and Wilson Creek 92 fpm. The
Watauga's bed is cluttered with rocks ranging in size from those
pesky little "tips of the iceberg" on which it is easy for
an inattentive boater to broach to house-sized boulders. The
clutter makes the rapids complex, with precise lines to be run.
While many of the rapids are unforgettable, one jumbled boulder
garden can look like many other jumbled boulder gardens, which makes
it easy to get lost. If you're weak on a particular boating
skill, be it precise maneuvering in boulder gardens, eddy-hopping in
powerful water, boofing ledges, or running waterfalls, this is not
the river to learn on! It has drops to test all these skills
Just downstream of the put-in is a nice series of small surfable
waves and a hole. While not the only playspot on the river, it
is the only one I have seen get consistent use. The first
rapid of any consequence is named Cabin. The cabin after which
the rapid is named was a popular apré-paddle party spot until it
burned down back in the mists of early Watauga history. A few
minutes past Cabin comes the first fairly continuous stretch of
major rapids: Bump-and-Grind, S-Kicker, and Hydro.
B&G and S-K'er are powerful boulder gardens. The standard
line through both is from extreme right to extreme left, with the
diagonal crossing initiated a few feet above prominent boulders.
You'll know you've come to the first of these bad boyz by the broken
wall of rock extending most of the way across the river.
Hydro is identified by the horizon line and the clusters of boats
and boaters scattered along the left bank. It consists of
three ledges, the first of which requires a boof into the river-left
eddy to avoid being piled into a Volkswagen Bus-sized boulder along
with most of the current. The second ledge is run from right
to further right to avoid the worst of the assorted hydrological
delights just below, all of which appear to have been placed to
leave your boat stalled out and sideways as you drop into the keeper
hole at the bottom of the third ledge. The third ledge can be
run on either the extreme left or the extreme right. It is
most often run on the extreme right, but the left line might be a
little easier at higher water. No matter which side you run,
the hole is unavoidable. Get up enough speed heading into it
that you backender out of it rather than back into it. If
running the left line, keep paddling past the base of the drop as
the current on the left creates a huge whirlpool that feeds back
into the hole. If you decide to walk the drop, you'll be
putting on in one corner of this whirlpool. Paddle
The Watauga mellows for quite a while after Hydro. Multiple
routes are possible through the many class III-IV ledges and boulder
gardens leading to the next rapid of consequence, Edge of the World.
Edge of the World is consequential not because of its difficulty but
because of its fun factor. It is split in two parts.
Upper Edge of the World is an easily read river wide class III+
ledge. A couple hundred feet below the upper section a large
boulder perches less than a boat length above a five foot high river
wide ledge. Micro eddies permit the intrepid traveler to
circumnavigate the boulder with some of their boat dangling off the
ledge. Mess up and you fall off the Edge of the World into a
sticky hole. Great fun. If circumnavigation isn't your
thing, their is a good boof line just to the right of the boulder on
the edge of the drop.
A couple hundred feet below Edge of the World is a rapid that can
be eddy-hopped on the left or run on a super cool line on the right.
All I'll reveal about the second line is that you'll get a fantastic
rush the first time you run it and that I want to be in the eddy
below so that I can see the look on your face!
The Watauga continues in its mostly-mellow ways for another
lengthy stretch. Bear in mind, however, that mellow is a
relative term. For the Watauga mellow means it can be boat
read by anyone who has any business on it. There are plenty of
pinning spots, undercut rocks, strainers, and sticky holes to avoid.
The routes, while boat readable, require lots of maneuvering.
Two of the most congested spots are run on the extreme right side of
the river, one consisting of a cool set of small vertical drops in a
very pretty tight little side channel and another past a side-cut
boulder hanging over the current at head-smacking level (the Blarney
Stone). A hundred feet or so below the Blarney Stone the
channel begins to wall out and one must scrape, slide and duck under
trees to get through a shallow passage back to the main channel.
When the gradient begins to steepen and the river begins to get
more congested you'll know you've arrived at the start of the second
stretch of fairly continuous major rapids: Heavy Water,
Knuckles, Diana's Ledge, Watauga Falls, and Boof Falls. The
river narrows at Heavy Water to snake around a massive rock pile on
river right. This concentrates the current and gives Heavy
Water a big-water feel. I like to eddy hop through this rapid,
taking care to hit the virtually must-catch eddy just above the
nasty hole 4/5ths of the way down this long, complex rapid.
The trick to catching this river left eddy is to avoid the small,
almost unseen gatekeeper rock about 2 feet below the eddy's top.
Exit this eddy very high and ferry hard across the powerful current
to avoid the hole below. The current makes an interesting
S-turn off unseen boulders just below the hole, which makes for a
Knuckles is one of those rapids that is easy to run but would
exact a significant penalty if run wrong: a vertical pin in
swift current in what is probably an inaccessible spot in the middle
of the river. Run Knuckles far left, but not so far left that
you do as Charlie Walbridge once did and pin against the left bank.
Next up is Diana's Ledge. Diana's Ledge is named after
Diana Holder. In the spring of 1987, Diana ran the low to
moderate level route (a boof off the ledge's right corner) on a high
water day. According to eyewitness Sherwood Horine, Diana was
trapped and unconscious in the hole below the ledge for 10 minutes.
By the time she floated free she was completely blue from lack of
oxygen and her windpipe had spasmed shut. Sherwood -- a
medical student at the time -- was able to create an air passage by
stretching Diana out. Two breaths of air and she began to
breath on her own. Diana's first words were, "By the
looks on your faces it must have been pretty bad!" I'll
say. Fortunately for Diana she recovered completely.
If you visit American
Whitewater's Watauga River Page you will learn that the AW
take-out is named in Sherwood's honor. Sadly, this is because
this fine, generous, hard-working and kind boater died in a mountain
biking accident in 1998, shortly before the river access he helped
create was dedicated. The Sherwood Horine Watauga River Access
cost American Whitewater almost $30,000 to purchase and develop, and
continues to cost AW about $500 a year to maintain. Please consider
making a tax-deductible donation to the Sherwood Horine Memorial
Access Fund to help defray these expenses. Send donations to:
The Sherwood Horine Memorial Access Fund, American Whitewater, P.O.
Box 636, Margaretville, NY 12455. If you can't afford to send
a donation but you are using the AW access, you sure as heck should
make it a priority to at least be an AW member. Here's the
link to join online
(please include my name -- Chris Bell -- in the comments box at the
bottom of the form!).
Diana's story provides three lessons. First, blocked
windpipes are common in cold-water immersion victims. If you
paddle on cold days, learn how to free air passages. Second,
cold water dramatically extends the length of time a person can
survive without breathing. Don't immediately give up hope if
someone has been trapped in cold water a length of time that would
kill or turn into a vegetable someone trapped in warm water.
And third, run the Watuaga with someone who knows what routes are
appropriate at what water levels. This person will explain to
you that Diana's Ledge doesn't even have to be run: the ledge
forms on the right side of a large boulder midway across the river.
There is a wide, clear, safe class II passage on the boulder's left
Prepare to scout Watauga Falls from the left bank soon after you
run or sneak Diana's Ledge. There are three keys to
successfully running this 18 foot waterfall. First, catch the
eddy behind the boulder 20 feet above the lip of the falls.
Watch for the barely submerged gatekeeping rock located about where
your stern will swing as you pivot into this eddy. This is
easiest to do if you first catch the slack water on river left just
above the set up eddy and then ferry over to where you want to be.
Second, get up enough speed to as drop over the brink that you won't
get stuck in the hole at the base of the falls. Third, angle
right as you head off the drop, and make your last stroke a strong
left sweep. Doing this will save you from breaking an ankle on
the submerged boulder at the base of the waterfall.
Watauga Falls is easiest to run at moderate water levels.
As the level drops making the right angle boof becomes more
difficult, and more of the ankle breaking boulder becomes exposed.
Should you break an ankle, or should you wish to enjoy the
festivities at the falls without the inconvenience of paddling the
entire river, it is good to know that one of the few few access
points into the Gorge is located just upstream. The trail down
to the falls starts at a pullout off route 321 at the
Tennessee-North Carolina state line.
One of the Watauga's last significant rapids is located just
downstream of Watauga Falls: Boof Falls. You'll scrape
over the right side of a shallow shoal to reach the pool above this
smooth, steep 12 foot sliding drop. Angle left as you head
over the edge just to the right of a large boulder. You'll pop
into the eddy at the bottom and avoid pitoning on a submerged rock
rumored to lurk somewhere right of center. The rest of the run
to the takeout is straightforward, with three drops of note.
They include a five foot ledge followed a hundred yards later by a
six foot ledge. The later ledge is Rewind, which tradition
dictates must be run backwards for the rest of the run to count.
Run forwards it has a nice boof.
A bit further downstream you'll come to an inland. Most of
the river runs around its right side, but you want the narrow
channel on its left. Look for the stairs leading to the AW
parking area on your left near the far end of the island.
So there you have it, the Watauga, a special river with several
of the most memorable drops in the southeast. While
challenging, it is not impossibly difficult. The two toughest
drops -- Hydro and Watauga Falls -- are easily portaged. If
you're comfortable on Wilson Creek at +6 inches, and you don't mind
that you'll be at the bottom of a nearly inaccessible gorge, you're
ready for the Watauga. It is complex enough, however, that
unless you frequently run rivers as difficult or more difficult than
it that you run the Watauga for the first time in the company of
boaters familiar with its traps and charms.
* Well, the water used to run clear, even after a heavy
rain. The description above was written in the late
80's. Since then second home development in the Watauga's
watershed has led to muddier waters. Click here to return to the text.