LEGEND HAS IT that our very own Tallulah Falls, located on the county line between Rabun and Habersham counties, was long known as the “Niagara of the South.” Locals and tourists would flock to see the falls, comprised of six waterfalls cascading through the nearly thousand-foot-deep Tallulah Gorge. The roar caused by the sheer force of the flow was an awe-inspiring sound and, in 1882, the Tallulah Falls Railway was completed to keep up with an ever-growing demand that showed no signs of slowing.
This continued until the early 20th Century when Georgia Power—known as Georgia Railway and Power Company began constructing a dam along the Tallulah River to create hydroelectric power. Conservationists hoped to stop construction but lost their battle in court, and the dam was completed in 1913. The water that was once rushing down the gorge was now being dammed and directed into a 6,666-foot pipe to an electricity generation station downstream. The river became the first entirely controlled river in the country and, for many, a sight no longer worth seeing. The years slipped past, and the hope that we might be be able to again lay our eyes on the raw and rugged beauty of water rushing through the gorge was dwindling.
Hope was lost until the mid-nineties when the licenses for those dams built decades before were nearing expiration. Georgia Power Company Hydroelectric Projects began the relicensing process, requiring that The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) consider other purposes that the river could serve aside from hydroelectric power. Conservationists and whitewater enthusiasts seized this opportunity and petitioned for Georgia Power Company Hydroelectric Projects to vary the amount of water released over the dam. An agreement was reached, and though the flow down the gorge is almost always limited from what it once was, there are ten days each year where the flow is restored to its natural state, and onlookers can get a glimpse at what daily life at the falls entailed before the dam was built.
A Sight to See
The force of the water flow over the dam is measured in cubic feet per second (CFS). While conservationists were able to lobby that the daily flow be increased successfully, the difference is hardly noticeable on most days. The daily flow has increased from 0-15 CFS to 35-50 CFS, and while the steady stream of trickling water is still worth seeing, the true sight comes with the aesthetic and whitewater releases held on select days each year.
The water flow over the dam during aesthetic releases is roughly 200 CFS and can be viewed from dawn until dusk. The aesthetic releases occur on most Saturdays and Sundays in April, May, and September and on most Wednesdays and Fridays in October. But it’s the whitewater releases are less frequent, occurring only 10 days each year on the first two full weekends each April and the first three full weekends each November, where the flow over the dam during whitewater releases reaches 500 CFS on Saturdays and 700 CFS on Sundays. While the sheer force of the water is a sight to see in and of itself, perhaps even more impressive is the paddlers who take on the run during whitewater releases. I had the opportunity to speak with four of these kayakers to better understand their initial interest in the sport, the camaraderie of the whitewater community, the coordinated effort required of volunteers to make whitewater releases a reality, and what taking on Tallulah truly entails.
Josh Ford had been interested in kayaking since he was a young boy, when he watched his father’s cousin, Horace Holden, paddle along the Ocoee River in the Atlanta Olympics of 1996. It wasn’t until 18 years later that he acted on this desire and began kayaking himself. Ford had been paddling for only a year before he felt equipped to take on Tallulah and has been running the river ever since.
For Logan Kendricks, however, kayaking has been a lifelong endeavor. He first began kayaking in high school and, after enjoying a leisurely float down the local river with friends one day, decided to buy his own kayak. He transitioned into whitewater boating after joining the University Whitewater Club at the University of Georgia in the spring of 2018. The first Tallulah release he participated in was that fall, and he’s only missed two release days ever since.
Kerrie Barloga has a similar story. She was first introduced to whitewater in 1975 when she was a teenager. She and her family visited the Nantahala River and took turns trying out rafts, aluminum canoes, Royalex canoes, and eventually kayaks. In 1982, just seven years later, she purchased her own kayak and gear and began taking classes at the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC).
“For five years, every vacation was a class at NOC,” she recalls. Barloga paddled the Tallulah Gorge several times in the 2000s and has participated in every fall and spring release since 2016.
For Barloga, her initial interest in the sport is almost indescribable.
“That’s a little hard to explain,” she says when asked why she began paddling. “In the beginning, there is an enormous gratification in learning the physical skills, mastering the logistics, and reading the water,” she explains. But even with years of experience, paddlers never seem to tire of the thrill of whitewater boating.
“What we used to tell rafting guests is to imagine 500 basketballs per second flowing downstream,” Kendricks says, referring to the force of the flow on Saturdays when water is flowing over the dam at a rate of around 500 cubic feet per second.
Kendricks also cited how all-consuming the scenery can be. “The gorge is one of the most impressively scenic places in Georgia, hands-down. Pair that with the fact that the whitewater in Tallulah Gorge is of the highest quality in the Southeast, and it becomes no surprise why people from all around are willing to make the trek to northeast Georgia.”
Preparing to Paddle
Because the rush of the water gains momentum from Saturday into Sunday, each of the days presents difficulties of its own. “On the low flow day [Saturday], more rocks are exposed, making the rapids a little more technical, but on Sundays, the water is a little more pushy and the hydraulics are a bit stronger, especially on Oceana falls,” Ford says. Paddlers sometimes relieve themselves of making this choice and put in both days; paddlers are able to take on the run as many days and as many times each day as their bodies can handle. Repeat runs in a single day are rare, given the nearly 600 stair descent prior to the run that tends to tire paddlers the most.
There are no official skill-level requirements for prospective paddlers—they are only required to sign waivers before putting in. American Whitewater has devised a scale of river difficulty, ranging from I (moving water with no obstructions) to V (difficult with very violent rapids), that can be immensely helpful for first-time kayakers who haven’t had the opportunity to personally assess the run. The Tallulah River has been classified as a class IV-V river and thus should be reserved only for the savviest and most skillful paddlers.
Still, the expert classification of the river doesn’t prevent ill-equipped paddlers from putting in, and thankfully there are measures in place to avoid catastrophe.
“Boaters who paddle Class III to Class V whitewater are typically trained in whitewater rescue and first aid—either by classes, experience or both,” Barloga explains. “The boaters carry safety equipment like throw ropes, knives, first aid kits, carabiners, and prussiks. There is what you may consider a social contract that we will watch after each other. I am responsible for my safety, for the safety of my crew and the safety of the boaters on the river with me.”
This sense of camaraderie amongst members of the whitewater community makes the experience even more enticing for inexperienced paddlers. “It is common for kayakers looking to make their first run down the Tallulah to ask more experienced boaters for help introducing them to the run. We call these first runs ‘PFDs’, or personal first descents,” Kendricks says. “It is typically the implied duty of the veteran boater to make a judgment call based on the new boater’s skillset.”
The Woman Behind the Whitewater
Laura Dillon, who not only runs the river but has been coordinating the releases since 2010, can guarantee paddlers from eight states for every release. “I think there are only five states I haven’t seen waivers from,” she says. There are paddlers that come from outside of the country as well, most predominantly from Canada, South America and the United Kingdom.
The releases couldn’t take place, however, without the generosity of volunteers like Dillon. She began volunteering during release days in 2009 after she’d just begun paddling herself. When the previous coordinator decided to step down and suggested she take his place the following year, Dillon agreed. She has been integral in coordinating the whitewater releases ever since, which is no insignificant endeavor. There have been as many as 447 paddlers taking on the run during a single whitewater release day. If you throw into the mix of impatient park visitors and the potential safety concerns of whitewater boating, it comes as no surprise that chaos can quickly ensue.
Volunteers enjoy free access to the park on release days and also have access to the south rim stairs, which boast some of the best views of boaters during release days. But if you’d simply like to watch the kayakers navigate the many twists and turns as they take on the run, feel free to observe from Inspiration Point, the highest point in the state park, for some of the best views of Oceana on the north side. If visitors would like to observe from the south side, follow the walking path along the highway, get onto the trail on the south side, and continue past the registration desk to additional overlooks. The suspension bridge that sways nearly a hundred feet above the base of the gorge is accessible on release days but paddlers put in further down the river so you’ll miss the action.
FAMILY-FRIENDLY KAYAKING SPOTS
If you’re looking for a more leisurely paddling experience, fear not; there are plenty of places to put in that are better suited to the everyday paddler. Check out our list of five family-friendly kayaking spots in North Georgia and soak up those warm Southern days while they last!
CHATTAHOOCHEE RIVER, Buford
To access 48 miles of mostly smooth-sailing water, head down to the Chattahoochee River National Water Trail just below Buford Dam and let the current carry you for as long (or as little) as you’d like. Paddlers can expect class I-II rapids when the dam is not releasing and should exercise extreme caution on release days as rapids become much more challenging to navigate. Buford Dam, 3600 Buford Dam Road, Cumming
LAKE BURTON, Clarkesville
Envelop yourself in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains scenery and paddle along Lake Burton for an unforgettable experience. Put in at Moccasin Creek State Park, and if your arms tire from paddling, feel free to camp out and cast a line to enjoy one of the best fishing lakes in the state. Don’t forget to bring your fishing license! Moccasin Creek State Park, 3655 GA-197, Clarkesville
LAKE RABUN, Lakemont
If you are seeking a genuinely family-friendly adventure, look no further, as Lake Rabun is often recognized as having some of the most mellow water in the state. Put in at Lake Rabun Beach Recreation Area and float along the 25-mile stretch of shoreline as you soak up the sun and marvel at the lakefront properties dotted along the way. Lake Rabun Beach Recreation Area, 5315 Lake Rabun Road, Lakemont
LAKE LANIER, Gainesville
There are many spots from which you can kayak in Lake Lanier, but the 14-mile stretch that is the Gainesville Upper Lanier Water Trail is perhaps one of the best-suited sections for families as waters tend to be tranquil. A popular launch site is Clarks Bridge Park, where the 1996 Olympic Rowing competition took place, but note there are other launch sites available to paddlers as well. Clarks Bridge Park, 3105 Clarks Bridge Road, Gainesville
TOCCOA RIVER, Blue Ridge
If you’re looking for a leisurely ride with just the right number of rapids to keep you from snoozing in the sun, drive down to the put-in platform at Deep Hole Recreation Area. Float along the river for 13.8 miles until you reach Sandy Bottoms. Deep Hole Recreation Area, Deep Hole Campground Road US F South, Suches
*Please note that many of these rivers can have unpredictable rapids; paddlers are encouraged to ensure they are well-equipped to take on the river before putting in any unforeseen circumstances.