The Etowah River in Northern Georgia has been on my paddling wish list for a long time. This past weekend I finally joined some friends to run the river, which includes a quarter mile through an old mine tunnel with rapids. It was a challenge, and I found that I had been away from whitewater for far too long.
I went back and forth on which boat I wanted to take. I’ve used my Dagger Axis in whitewater and it’s done great. It’s comfortable and I can carry what I need. However, my old Perception Torrent is more maneuverable, has better flotation, and generally performs better in rough water. I dug it out, cleaned it up, and got it loaded on the Subaru.
I would be meeting with several of my friends who have joined us on Lowcountry Unfiltered outings. They also put together their own trips, this being one of them. Since they were coming from the Savannah-Bluffton-Beaufort area they would be driving up on Friday and camping. The group’s plan was to paddle the “Tunneling for Gold” section of the Etowah on Saturday, then do the section just above that on Sunday, which has a bit more whitewater. Since I was only a couple of hours away I decided not to camp but just drive up for Saturday’s trip.
The Etowah River runs through the heart of the Northern Georgia gold mining region. Dahlonega is recognized as the capital of Georgia gold, but it was the surrounding rivers and hills that actually provided the precious metal. As I crossed Lake Lanier and drove through Gainesville and communities along the way I couldn’t remember if I had ever visited this part of the state. It was new to me.
I reached the put-in on Castleberry Bridge, just west of the ghost town of Auraria. There was rough gravel parking on either side of the bridge and lots of trash cans, but the actual launch site was rather rough. As I checked out the river my friends soon arrived from their campsite. There would be seven of us on this trip, which is a good number for an outing like this. We unloaded our boats and hauled them down to the river for launch.
The action starts right away with a small rapid just beyond the bridge. It was a chance for me to whet my whitewater chops before things got more exciting.
There are quite a few small shoals along this section. The rapids aren’t too bad, but I made a couple of discoveries. First, I’d forgotten that this boat DOES NOT like to track straight. When I hit calmer water and stopped paddling it would invariably do a Crazy Ivan. Secondly, I seem to have gained a lot of weight since I last used this boat. I was bouncing off and getting stuck on more rocks than I like. I was not my usual graceful self while paddling. Thirdly, I was also terribly out of shape. When I got stuck on a rock I was getting quite winded and exhausted trying to get unstuck without spilling. I was quite embarrassed by my failings.
I had my usual complement of cameras. However, the constant action and that nature of my boat made photography nigh impossible. Even when I didn’t have to pay close attention to the river and tried to take a photo, my boat would spin, either blurring the shot or taking my subject out of frame. Fortunately I had my GoPro mounted on the front of the boat. I had to rely on it for most of my documentation. There was some beautiful scenery on the rock-lined river, but it was hard to appreciate it under these conditions. I was thankful for the few calm spaces where I could look around and enjoy, even if I couldn’t capture the image like I might have wanted.
I had been invited to run this section with this group last year but was unable to join them. On that trip there were many deadfalls and strainers which made the trip even more difficult. I was thankful that the route was clear this time.
About two miles into the trip we camp upon the mine tunnel. George, our leader, apparently missed it because he paddled right on past. Several of us lingered a bit, wondering if we should attempt it, wait for the others, or follow them. We decided to follow them.
One more shoal later and George realized his error. We decided to backtrack and run the tunnel, since that was one of the main attractions on this trip. On that last shoal I had gotten stuck and really, really winded trying to get free. Our other leader, Tim, was worried about me and my blood pressure, and had me sit and rest as we were making the portage. From that point on he kept an eye on me, for which I was grateful.
The Etowah Mine Tunnel was a diversion tunnel. Miners built it to reroute water from a loop in the river where they thought there was gold. They built a dam across the river just below the tunnel so that all of the water would flow that way instead, leaving a dry river bed for mining. According to news reports it didn’t work and the miners didn’t find gold, but the river tunnel remains.
To run the tunnel conditions have to be just right. If the river is too high you might not make it through. With the rough weather and Hurricane Ida on the way we had been keeping a close eye on river levels. If it’s too low, you could get stuck on rocks in the middle of the tunnel. There’s also the possibility that debris could get washed in and block the route.
Fortunately, conditions were right for us and we could see the opening at the end of the quarter mile long tunnel. Even so, we let Tim go first and stationed him at the end. George was and the entrance. We were all equipped with helmets and headlamps. One by one we entered the tunnel.
I thought I had it all worked out. I was going to have my mounted GoPro taking video. I had my old GoPro so that I could mount it on my PFD and take more video. I had a very bright lamp attached to the front of my boat in addition to my headlamp. None of that worked out right. I didn’t get to the second GoPro and the front-mounted light quit working moments after I turned it on. I was able to get the other GoPro to do video, for what it was worth.
When I entered the tunnel I found I was not in control at all. First of all, I’d set my headlamp to red instead of turning it on properly. I might as well have been blind. Then this crazy boat was spinning out of control. At one point I wasn’t sure if I was facing downstream or up. All I knew was that water was pushing me downstream and I was trying my best not to flip over. The strong current was constant. I went over one rapid blind, but managed to get my headlamp turned on correctly just before I hit the second and biggest drop. That one went better and I managed the rest of the tunnel and the exit rapid with no problem.
Was I scared? In the midst of the action I didn’t really have time to be scared. I did get video, though. Mostly it’s black. You can see the end of the tunnel bouncing around along with my boat. The roaring of the water, though, was amazing.
These are a few screen captures from the above video that I enhanced.
Yeah, obviously I like the splashy images. After the exit rapid there is a small set of shoals. I managed, once again, to get stuck on a rock in the middle of the shoals. This time I got off the boat and just walked it down. I was tired after my battle with the tunnel.
Fortunately, the river calmed down considerably after the tunnel. We had a few more rapids, but I handled them much better. I don’t know if my whitewater chops were coming back to me or if it was just easier. I still didn’t have time to take photos.
I only had to get out of my boat one other time. A tree had fallen over the river and the only way past was to either portage or limbo under. Those with sit-in kayaks were able to limbo under the limb. One of our group in a sit-on-top climbed over the limb while pushing her boat under. In my SOT I was sitting far too high to limbo, and I didn’t feel like climbing. I just hopped out and pulled my boat through.
I pulled it to a shallow point where I thought I’d be able to get back in. Of course, I slipped and landed right in the water next to my boat. Oh well. I needed to cool off anyway.
The rest of the trip passed without incident. The scenery continued to be spectacular. There were several neat swimming holes and beaches where I would have loved to pull up and spend some time, but my fellow paddlers seemed intent on getting to the end of the run.
We passed an old abandoned house that looked like it was going to be swallowed by the river. It was bordered by some of the most massive canes that I had ever seen. If I had been with my regular group we would have stopped to explore. At the very least I insisted on catching an eddy so that I could at least take a couple of photos. Beyond this were old bridge abutments. Obviously this had been a historical crossing and I made a mental note to do some research.
Soon we were at the bridge where we would be taking out. The east bank was rocky with riprap, the west bank at least had a sandy area where we could pull the boats. As with the put-in, the route to haul out our boats was steep and challenging, especially after a draining run like this.
We loaded up our boats and I said goodbye to the rest of the group as they headed back to their camp and I back to Greenville. I really wanted to explore the Dahlonega area a bit more, but I was exhausted. I think another trip back this way is in order.
With our backtracking, the trip came in just under 9 miles.
My thanks to George Hancock and Tim Daley for inviting me and coordinating the trip. Even with the challenges it was a blast. At the very least it encouraged me to lose some weight and get back into paddling shape.