Float the Hiwassee
“Do it,” she says, a glimmer of devilment dancing in her eyes. “I dare you.”
Never one to ignore a challenge, especially from a sassy teenager, I saunter to the edge of the Hiwassee River and plunge my sandaled feet ankle-deep in the rushing water. Before I can edit my response, I jump back and squeal: “Brrrrr! That’s frigid!”
My friends laugh as I hop about trying to warm my blue toes. So does our driver, Jamie, as he unloads the rafts we rented at Webb Brothers Float Service and Country Store. “I can’t tell you why,” he says, “but the water here seems to be colder somehow. It’s clearer, too. Y’all have a good trip.”
With that, he waves goodbye. We stand forlornly by our rafts, trying to figure out how to launch our watercraft without getting wet.
Even on the hottest days of the summer, the Hiwassee’s chilly temperature comes as a bit of a shock. The water makes an 8.3-mile trek through a pipeline at the base of Appalachia Dam in North Carolina to a powerhouse just above Reliance, in the southeast corner of Tennessee. From here, the Tennessee Valley Authority releases the water back into the river after using it to generate hydroelectric power.
Most days, TVA irrigates this natural playground from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., delighting legions of rafters, kayakers and fishermen. In drought years, the flow can be less, but with normal rainfall, recreational floaters can count on having water. The boat launch at the base of the powerhouse enjoys a steady stream of traffic from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
“My friends over on the Ocoee say, ‘Why do you fool with that second-class river over there?’” says Harold Webb, whose family started the river’s first rafting service. “But they don’t know what they’re talking about. They’ve got the whitewater, but we’ve got a great outdoor experience here. It’s an easy paddling experience, great for families, church groups and beginning kayakers.”
Few people know this river valley better than Harold. He grew up in the back rooms of the old country store his father and uncle founded during the Depression. It was used for generations as a post office, supply center and general gathering spot for the community. While his parents tended the store, Harold got to know the river.
After his freshman year at the University of Tennessee, Harold returned home to find that he no longer had a boat to use for floating and fishing the river. His dad was renting it to strangers. His Uncle Oliver had even absconded with Harold’s old inner tubes and was renting those out too. The brothers would load folks up in the farm’s cattle truck, haul them up the winding Forest Service road and drop them off upriver.
Harold recalls how the Hiwassee has become more regulated over the years, since becoming a State Scenic River in 1972. “Alcohol was banned in 1975,” he says, “and life jackets became mandatory in 1976.”
A low, flat building with benches lining the covered porch, the Webb Brothers General Store still sits at the intersection of State Roads 30 and 315. Though the rafting experience has changed some, the store continues to serve as the launching point for many a trip down the Hiwassee. In addition to gasoline, Harold sells cold drinks and snacks, as well as sunscreen and basic supplies. Lots of people sport T-shirts they buy here after their trip.
Yet, it’s the Hiwassee River Valley’s natural beauty that continues to attract visitors. The peaks of the Blue Ridge press against the sky, painting the world with shades of emerald, indigo and violet. Black-eyed Susans, wild touch-me-nots, and Queen Anne’s lace flower the river’s banks, while both brown and rainbow trout slide through deep, rock-protected pools.
All along the way, Class II and III rapids punctuate long, wide stretches of placid water. “Every rapid on the river has a pool afterwards,” Harold says. “If you turn your boat over, you are not crashing into another rapid immediately.”
Know Before You Go
Rates: One-person duckies rent for $27; 2-person duckies, $54. Rafts cost $22 per person. Shuttle prices vary.
Address: 3708 Highway 30, Reliance, TN 37369
Phone: 1-877-932-7238, (423) 338-2373
Please call ahead before traveling long distances.
Still, Harold notes that tubing is for the young and athletic (minimum age 10) and requires some skill, as you have to navigate the rapids. “With tubing, you are actually sitting in the water and the water is quite cold,” he explains. “Rafting, on the other hand, is suitable for all ages because you are more protected from the water.”
The Hiwassee turns out to be the perfect hostess for my day of fun and family. It takes only minutes for our party to adjust to the water’s chill. Later in the day, when the sun chases the clouds away, a dip in the river becomes a welcome relief.
We swim, play and embrace the splashing rapids as we steadily tumble toward our journey’s end. We fondly remember old friends and family and share plans for the future. When at last we cross Devils Shoals, a series of rapids we hear long before we reach them, the bridge marking the end of our trip comes into view. We approach the takeout point with laughter and smiles, knowing we’ve already finalized plans for our next trip.