River Adventure

Raft in Olympic glory down the Ocoee in southeast Tennessee. You'll even have a cheering section.
Cindy Riegle

My sister had decided a girls' rafting trip would be our next great summer adventure. I, however, prefer to appreciate nature from afar. So when our guide said, "You two--up front!" I knew we were in for one memorable ride down the Ocoee River.

The site of the 1996 Olympic paddling competitions, the Ocoee boasts spectacular rapids with names such as Humongous, Hell's Hole, and Double Trouble. Daunting as it sounds, guides escort thousands of people down the river every summer season. And most of the rafters are novices like us.

Olympic White Water
Our adventure began with orientation in what our guide called a "rubber taco." The directions were simple: Paddle forward. Back-paddle. Stop paddling. Still, we managed to mix those up for the first few embarrassing moments. I tried channeling Meryl Streep's steely resolution in The River Wild, but I was pretty certain we wouldn't come out of the river with movie-star hair.

Soon we began to hit our stride, though, as our team deftly dodged huge rocks put in the river to create more intense rapids for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.

As we approached the Ocoee Whitewater Center, located toward the end of the course, my newfound confidence started to fade. I wondered if our boat would be the one in 10 that wipes out amid the huge waves and "hidden" drops, as guides (ready with safety ropes to pluck us out) and spectators look on.

Thankfully, we were one of the lucky nine. I found myself laughing unstoppably as we rode through the roller-coaster rapids. The exhilaration was even greater with visitors at the center heartily cheering for us.

With helmets askew and broad smiles on our faces, my sister and I helped drag the raft out of the water. She was already talking about next summer's adventure--hang gliding off Lookout Mountain, maybe? On the other hand, another trip down the Ocoee sounds good to me.

Best Seat in the House
Even if you have no interest in rafting, it's worth stopping by the Ocoee Whitewater Center in the Cherokee National Forest for the best front-row seat of any river in the South. A handicap-accessible sidewalk was poured a few feet from the river's edge, so anyone can observe the commercial rafts fight their way through the gnarly chain of rapids. It's like watching a combination of NASCAR, professional wrestling, and America's Funniest Home Videos, but it's okay to laugh when you see a wipeout because dozens of guides are standing by onshore to make sure everyone gets out safely.

Looking on from the sidelines is almost as fun as running the rapids with a river guide. More than 20 companies offer commercial trips--some with lunch. For more information on the Ocoee Whitewater Center and a list of rafting outfitters, visit www.fs.fed.us/r8/ocoee, or call 1-877-692-6050.

"River Adventure" is from the June 2007 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.