The three rivers of Cocke County are destinations for exciting recreational adventures on the Adventure Side of the Smokies. The history of these rivers shaped the past and are now shaping the future of recreation in Cocke County.
The Pigeon River is synonymous with some of the best white water rafting in the southeast. The river extends 70 miles, beginning in the mountains of North Carolina, flowing northwest into Tennessee. The river is impounded at Walter’s Dam in Waterville. It is the scheduled dam releases that create the exciting white water rafting between Waterville and the take-out in Hartford TN. The lower end of the Pigeon continues to the confluence of the French Broad in Newport, TN.
The 216 mile French Broad River also begins in North Carolina and serves as a drainage basin for the both the Pisgah and Cherokee National Forests. When the river enters Cocke County, it flows along the East Tennessee Crossing National Scenic Byway before entering the Holston River. The river is known for spring time rafting and kayaking when the water is running high, and both fishermen who bank and float fish. All thirty three (33 miles) of the river flowing in Cocke County were designated as a state scenic river. Read more about the scenic portion of the river from local paddler and birder, Michael S, here. ling
The Nolichucky River runs 115 miles from the highest mountains in eastern North Carolina and Tennessee until it reaches Cocke County creating the upper basin of Douglas Lake. The river serves to create a county border with Hamblen County. This area and the adjacent Rankin Bottom WMA is known for birdwatching, and when the lake begins to fill in the spring, locals know that the fishing is excellent.
The mud from the crudely cut road flew into the air on either side of the SUV. We were slowly making our way parallel to the French Broad River on a prime piece of property being developed into a campground. The goal was to get on the river close to the Tennessee/North Carolina border but the road was presenting an early and unexpected challenge. The last thing we wanted was to get stuck and have to walk all our gear to the put-in. Luckily, the road was just cooperative enough to allow us through.
The owner of the land was gracious to let us access the river for what was to be a two-day pack rafting trip. We crept down the road for two miles, passing old fishing shacks that may or may not still be in use. Finally, the road abruptly ended at a small beach on the water. We quickly unloaded and began inflating our rafts.
For this mini adventure, I’d brought along my friend and expert paddler, Bobby Johnson. Bobby is one of the best endurance paddlers in the world, having won numerous long-distance races. This trip would be both of our first times in a packraft though, so we both went into the experience with plenty of unknowns.
As we began the process of inflating our rafts and compiling our gear, I found myself staring out across the river to the mountains partially shrouded in fog. Even before getting on the water, we were already in a beautiful setting that would be tough to beat. Instantly, it felt like we were the only people around for miles and miles, and this adventure was going to be special.
We pushed our rafts off the beach and within less than a minute we were bouncing over small shoals. Other than the river in front of us, all we could see were the misty mountains rising sharply on either side. It felt both otherworldly and uniquely East Tennessee.
The plan was to divide the 21-mile trip into two days, giving ourselves the opportunity to enjoy our surroundings at a pace barely faster than the river would carry us. The end destination was a take-out spot near Newport, a town built on moonshine distilling and ripe as a potential hub for outdoor recreation.
The beauty of packrafting this section of the French Broad is that every bump and ripple is magnified. You don’t need Class 2 and 3 rapids to feel like you’re having a whitewater adventure in these boats. We were treated to some easy rapids throughout the first day, which gave us plenty of time to get used to how the rafts operated in the water.
High above us, a variety of birds made the trees lining the river their home. I counted no less than 20 bald eagles during the entire trip and each sighting was as special as the last. When the river would flatten out, I would grab my phone from its dry case and attempt to get video of the eagles in flight overhead. The river would spin the boat around in slow circles as I focused on these majestic creatures.
We had a predetermined stop about halfway through the trip at the Bobarosa Saloon. This gritty bar and restaurant next to the river is a biker’s paradise. We had heard that the food was really good and that was enough to convince us to stop. Less than 200 yards from our destination though was a rather large rapid, easily the largest so far of the trip. The roar ahead of us from the water crashing against itself was slightly anxiety-inducing but the thought of a burger and opportunity to dry off was enough to push us through. Steering to the right side, Bobby hit the rapid at a perfect angle, showing me the way through. The packraft easily absorbed the impact from the rapid and he was quickly through and paddling up to the restaurant. It was the perfect final exciting moment for our first day of paddling.
Day 2 began with temperatures in the low 50s and darker skies. After staying overnight next to the saloon, we slowly pulled on still-wet clothing and walked to the river’s edge. Less than 20 yards from the put-in we could see the first rapid of the day. It didn’t appear to be too challenging from a distance as we pushed our rafts off the shore. Immediately, our initial assessment of the rapid was proven wrong. What we hadn’t seen was a second set of rapids around a slight bend that were much bigger. Before we knew it, we hit them head on, water shooting over the front of the raft and completely soaking both of us. It was the perfect way to immediately wake up and prepare us for what was ahead that day.
After a quick stop to dump out the water in our rafts, we restarted our adventure. The first day had been a fairly easy, relaxed paddle. Today was going to be a bit more action-packed. The rapids were more frequent and slightly bigger now. The rafts handled each one quite well but it took some skill to keep them going straight with each encounter. The river current seemed to always want to pull us somewhere we didn’t want to go, forcing us to paddle harder and faster in order to hit the right line.
Sometime after an hour or so of continuous bumping over shoals, the river flattened out and we were treated to high cliff walls on one side and farmland on the other. It was a stark contrast between shores. With calmer waters, the silence all around was suddenly more obvious. It would only be a brief quiet though.
Throughout this area of the country, cryptozoology is all the rage. If you’re not familiar, this is the study of the legendary creatures that have graced the covers of tabloids for decades—the Loch Ness Monster and Sasquatch, likely the most famous. Bigfoot stickers cling to countless cars and every gift shop offers t-shirts and trinkets in honor to these creatures. Sightings have been reported for years and years in the area. It’s easy to dismiss these things as just another tourist item and an attempt to make it something uniquely Appalachian.
Our tranquil moment in this section was abruptly broken by a sound that can only be described as something between a shout and a growl. We had just floated past a small section of trees between two high cliff walls. Though we had joked about a potential run-in with Sasquatch a couple of times earlier, this suddenly felt less humorous. As is the nature of a flowing river, we were well beyond the source of the sound before we could fully digest what we had heard. Could it have been the legendary creature? We would never know.
The current was progressively slowing as the area around us became more flat and houses became more abundant. Before we knew it, we were at our takeout next to a historic bridge and the journey was over. Soaked to the bone, we pulled the rafts from the water and began the process of deflating and finding our dry clothing. We retrieved the car we had dropped off a few days before near the takeout spot and began driving back to my SUV deep in the woods.
Twenty-one miles down the French Broad River had been the ideal introduction into packrafting. But more importantly, it was the perfect way to see Cocke County, TN in a way that few others have. From the natural to the supernatural, this water adventure had everything you could want in a weekend in the outdoors.
Greg Wingo is the owner of ROAM Projects, an outdoor recreation consulting company. He is the race director for Great Alabama 650, the longest annual paddle race in the world.