What Paddlers Know About Our Creeks and Rivers

What Paddlers Know About our Creeks and Rivers

Pat Stone on the Chattooga. Photo by Burt Kornegay

By Pat Stone

Everybody loves the Western North Carolina mountains. Many of us cherish hiking, biking, camping and driving in them. But between every two mountains sprouts a spring, which becomes a run, then a creek, and then a river. Who really knows much about them?

Paddlers do! Whitewater kayakers and canoeists—those weird people who cheer when it rains—have intimate relationships with our mountain waterways. (By the way, as the photos show, some people do canoe, rather than kayak, whitewater.) And while you may have no desire to actually boat a whitewater river, there are things paddlers learn about our streams that will interest anyone who loves our beautiful outdoors.

Creeks and rivers run higher in winter.

Normally after a hard rain, a creek runs at a high level for only a few hours, at best a day. (A bigger river downstream may stay up for two or three days.) But, in winter, creeks hold water well. Why is that? It’s because the leaves are gone. A big tree sucks 250–500 gallons of water a day out of the ground, sending much of it on a one-way trip to the sky. Multiply that by the thousands of trees in a watershed, and you’ll see how little water makes it into rivers during the growing season.

Paddlers can tell the week in November that the leaves quit pulling water and the week in April they pull water again by how much longer rivers and creeks stay high. (We do this, in part, by poring over the many, constantly updating internet stream gauges.)

There is no bad weather, only bad gear.

Of course, your immediate thought after reading my first point was, “Brrr! Who’d want to paddle in winter?” I sure wouldn’t—if I didn’t own a drysuit, a full-body vinyl covering with neoprene gaskets that keeps everything but my head completely dry even if I (cough, cough) end up swimming through several rapids. I can stay warm when ice is forming on my paddle!

There’s a corollary for hikers: Wear the right gear and you can enjoy beautiful hikes in the rain—and have the woods to yourself when you do.

Water level changes make for big paddling changes.

Heraclitus famously said, “No man steps in the same river twice.” To which paddlers would add, “Especially if it’s rained!” Obviously, a high river is more forceful and, potentially, more hazardous. But every change in water level makes a difference. Some rapids get harder at higher levels, but others get easier. The route (“line”) you take may change. Even as little as one-tenth of a foot makes a difference on some creeks. So, really, any river is many rivers—it just depends on the level.

Rivers change geologically—all the time.

The power of water to carry objects squares as the current doubles. So if the water is running four times faster than normal, it can carry objects 16 times the size it normally can. Floods can give rivers surprising rocky makeovers, making some rapids better and (rats!) others worse. A classic example: According to historical drawings, the Rocky Broad in Chimney Rock used to be placid and smooth. That all changed with the famous 1916 flood. Now it’s such a boulder-choked jumble you need a local boater to guide you down.

Clean creeks run clear even after rain.

Most of us think of high water as brown water. That’s due to all the soil we humans have disturbed. Check out Big Creek or some other run that comes down from the Smokies and you’ll see it runs clear and white even after a heavy rain. That’s what’s natural.

Going down a river is a unique and beautiful experience.

Not only do you ride through a canyon of canopy and see a gorgeous and ever-changing landscape, you get to exist in and cooperate with a unique medium: water. It’s the chance to dance with the Earth’s most life-giving substance, to flow with its flow, to ride cooperatively on stallions of current. While paddlers, sure, love the adrenaline rush of a challenging rapid, we get joy from gliding downstream on any moving water.

I myself can’t get enough of it. But then I’ve only been paddling for 60 years.

Want To Go?

Want to learn to kayak or canoe? Find a mentor, or contact places like the Nantahala Outdoor Center or Nolichucky Outdoor Learning Institute.

If you want to commercially raft a river, I have one key tip: Check its level first. It won’t matter on dam-controlled rivers like (ranked from mildest to wildest) the Tuckaseegee, Nantahala, Pigeon and Ocoee. But it will on free-flowing ones like (again, mildest to wildest) the French Broad, Nolichucky or Chattooga. How do you find out? Go to the Stream Flow page at and follow its color-coded recommendations. Don’t get on the Nolichucky at that red 500 cfs (cubic feet per second), for example. Do at green 2,000!

Pat Stone is the editor of GreenPrints, “The Weeder’s Digest.” He wrote this article with input from Viki Austin, Golder Goldstein, Burt Kornegay and Harrison Metzger, fine boaters all.

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