Broken flume leads to extra paddling season on Ocoee River
By MARK PACE
Jan. 15, 2018
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) — While people across the U.S. take shelter during a bitterly cold winter, paddlers in drysuits are flocking to the Ocoee River to enjoy an unusual paddling season.
Tens of thousands of people tuned in to a Facebook Live video posted Nov. 8 by paddler Barry Semak about a rock slide that damaged a flume — a wooden shaft that transfers water from the river for power generation. For paddlers, it meant one thing.
"It gives us something to paddle all winter," paddler Brandon Beaty said.
A boulder fell on the flume late that morning, breaking the structure and leaving water gushing for hours. For the Tennessee Valley Authority, it meant months of lost power generation, but for paddlers it meant one of America's most famous rafting rivers would be running for prime paddling season.
"This is our season," river paddler Mark Armistead said. "It's been a little cold, but this is the wet season."
With the flume broken, there's little reason for TVA to divert water from the Ocoee — a process that leaves the river mostly barren. The river has been forcefully flowing for much of the last two months, and it will continue to flow until the structure is fixed. And it's not an easy fix.
The flume runs high above the river along a mountainside. Repairmen can't simply park a tower crane or lift below the structure and fix it because of the riverbed. They must stabilize the mountainside, ensuring another rock slide doesn't occur. Once the area is deemed safe, an old trolley system used to build and maintain the flume will be used. The process takes months, and paddlers have flocked to the river despite the cold weather.
Many paddlers don't mind the winter as long as it brings rain and a running river. They incessantly want to paddle. It's their recreation, workout and often their livelihood.
However, during most winters when the flume isn't broken, local paddlers are stuck waiting for rainfall or driving several hours to other whitewater locations.
"During dry winters, we don't get a whole lot of (paddling) in," Beaty said. "We have to drive two to three hours to find it."
But not this winter.
Beaty, who works a flex schedule at Volkswagen that leaves him plenty of time to paddle, estimates he's been down the Ocoee 20-25 times since the flume broke.
Other paddlers, like Armistead and his friend Brent Tucker, have been sure to take advantage of the prime paddling during the repairs.
Despite last week's cold snap, the two paddled the Ocoee on the warmest day of the week, when it was a measly 31 degrees. Icicles hung from rock formations and the edge of the river had turned to ice, but their heads poked above the rapids as the friends stroked through the water.
"It's not bad as long as you have the right gear. It's better than having to go to the gym," Tucker said.
The day the flume broke, Tucker grabbed his kayak and hurried to the river. The news had spread rapidly in the paddling community, and he wasn't going to miss a day of prime paddling. The river was flowing, and that meant he needed to paddle.
The two have paddled about three times a week this winter, and they're not alone. They usually pass several groups of paddlers during their trips.
Repair on the flume is scheduled to start in mid-January, and TVA engineers expect the work to take five months. By then, commercial paddling season will have begun, and the river will run most of the week.
The news means the river will mostly freely flow until next fall, unless another rock falls from above.
Information from: Chattanooga Times Free Press, http://www.timesfreepress.com