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Wilderness vs Whitewater Use

This road don't go to Aintry. You done taken a wrong turn.

The Chattooga River........


In the southeast, where I spent many years living and working on the rivers, there is a battle going on over a short section of the Chattooga River. I guided paddle rafts on sections III and IV of the Chattooga, and worked as a safety boater and a bus driver there. I almost quit my job when the company I was working for tried to make me go work on another river. It is a special place. I came to love this river....and still do.



The Chattooga is a steep and rocky creek that descends out of the mountains of North Carolina, and flows along the border of South Carolina and Georgia. Its headwaters are some of the wildest and most species-rich lands in the east.

The Chattooga was "discovered" (by the media and by recreational paddlers) in 1972 with the release of the Burt Reynolds movie Deliverance. The book by James Dickey is very different in tone from the movie, in that one of its major themes is the power of nature, and the necessity that we respect nature. That theme was lost in the movie. What most people remember about the movie is the retarded rednecks, and the homosexual rape scene that started Beatty's acting career in a challenging direction.

An organization that I used to support, American Whitewater, is suing the Forest Service to get permission for whitewater boaters to use a section of the Chattooga that has long been off limits to recreational boating. The boaters see the challenging class III, IV and V rapids, and salivate with desire to run that whitewater. But the other human users of that land are putting up a fight. They don't want boaters up there. They don't really have much to back them up legally, but they are not going to capitulate.

Here's a photo of the section that the boaters want access to. As you can see, there are paddlers on the river in this photo. To tell the truth, I ran this section of river on the sly, many years ago. On a dismal rainy day when the water is high, you aren't likely to get caught. The 52 miles of river above Highway 28 are known to most paddlers in the area as "Section Zero" and "Section Double Zero". Usually the water is too low for paddling.

And here's the AW's side of the story. AW works primarily for paddler's access to rivers, and their greatest and most consistent victories have come from intervening in the FERC relicensing process for dams. They have been able to obtain recreational releases into many river sections previously dry due to dams.

The main reason that I have stopped supporting AW is that I don't put all my energy and resources into recreation anymore. I used to, but I decided that other things are far more important to me. My funds are limited, so I put my money and energy toward what I value most. While spending time in nature helps me stay sane, paddling is not my highest value.

I also understand why the locals of the Chattooga area would like to keep this section of river free from whitewater boaters. Many whitewater paddlers these days have a self indulgent "me first" attitude. They are less interested in the preservation of the rivers than they are in having convenient places to play. There's a lot of show boating going on, and precious little concern for the resource itself.

To me, wilderness is of a much higher value than whitewater recreation.

If whitewater paddlers were permitted on this section of creek, the first thing that would happen is paddlers would start parking everywhere, along the sides of the road, wherever they could, to get to the access points. They would leave their dogs in their cars, or tied to their cars, and the dogs would run free when the paddlers were there. This wild and scenic river runs through a designated Wilderness Area, so this would be the first legal violation. If there were some assurance that paddlers would respect the "no pets" aspect of the wilderness, I would be less opposed to paddlers entering this area.

There is also the fact that paddlers would be dressing and undressing and hanging out in the parking areas. There would be nowhere for a hiker or fisherman to park. And some people are offended by paddler's nudity. Not to mention their language, and the music they blast from their cars while getting psyched for the run...

Next the fisherman's trails on both banks would be trampled by paddlers scouting. Multi-trailing would damage plant life and cause erosion wherever you can get a good view of the river, get easily to water, and all around the larger rapids. Paddlers would go to the bathroom wherever they could, and there would be more turds near to the large rapids because fear causes the elimination reflex. There would be groups of paddlers sitting around on rocks, smoking dope or eating lunch. People would camp in their vehicles wherever they could get away with it. There would be camp fires, and the associated chance of wildfire. Wildlife habitat would shrink.

So in short, I can completely understand why the local users don't "want to share" with the river runners. Those who assert that whitewater boating is a zero impact sport are not considering the full effect of having so many sports enthusiasts show up in a place that has been unknown and truly wild. Personally, I'd rather see this place be protected forever from any more "use" than it already sees.

There is a tradition of resistance in this region. Locals opposed making the Chattooga Wild & Scenic back in 1976. Part of the W&S designation involves a 1/4 mile roadless boundary along both sides of the river, except where a road crosses the river. When the W&S designation passed, and a lot of road access to the river was blocked, the locals bulldozed down barriers and refused to obey the restriction. To date some locals still drive down to the water in places that are legally supposed to be car-free. Enforcement is limited.

More recently the Fee Demonstration program came to the Chattooga. It now costs to park at the legitimate parking areas along the river, but there has been little improvement in the on-site management of the resource.

There is a local Chattooga-based organization out there that has landed at exactly the same position that I have: resource protection is of the utmost importance. Many of these people are paddlers, same as me. Here's what they say about the issue on their website. The Chattooga Conservancy is speaking for what I value. I will make a contribution to this organization.

I would be willing to strike a deal with regard to the current conflict. I would forgo paddling this section of river for the rest of my life, and help educate other paddlers about the reasons to leave it be, if those who fight against allowing paddlers would promise to protect this wilderness from all abuses for the rest of their lives. How about it?

I don't mean to say that boaters should be banned because they are so much worse than everybody else that's out there. That certainly is not true. I just think that you have to draw the line somewhere. Pushing the line back will impact the ecosystem, in incremental ways. The more we can limit human impacts to this area, the better. If the line is just in front of my toes, that's where it has to be. Something has to be sacred. I am willing to give something up. I am asking everyone to give something up. Make a sacrifice in the name of wilderness. Show the reserve to appreciate what you have. You can be happy without one more one more one more one more thing. Let the Chattooga headwaters live on as one of the secret miracles of this life.
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