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The Conasauga

A cold, clear scenic river, a Tennessee State Scenic River, and Georgia claims it! The Conasauga River is born deep in Georgia's Cohutta Wilderness, where it falls off the slopes of those north Georgia mountains. The waters drain only national forestlands as they gather together as a streamway. The upper Conasauga, this little, crystal-clear gem of the woodlands, then flows north through steep, almost inaccessible terrain until the highland Alaculsy Valley is reached near the Georgia-Tennessee border. It is there that Jacks River joins the Conasauga and doubles its flow.

In high-water periods, experienced boaters may begin their trip as high as Chicken Coop Gap ("A" on the map below) off Forest Service Road 17 at the edge of the Cohutta Wilderness Area. Putting in at this point requires map-reading skills, determination, and a high skill level. Map-reading skills are required to locate Chicken Coop Gap. Determination is required to get your boat and equipment approximately one quarter mile straight down into the gorge. Above all, a high skill level is required to successfully navigate down to Alaculsy Valley ("B" on the map below). This is rugged and wild terrain. In some areas the river drops over 100 feet per mile, creating intense, lengthy rapids (Class IV+). It can only be run in high water, and when the water is high all conditions combine to create a potentially lethal situation. It is no place for beginners.

For those with the above-mentioned qualities, however, the rewards are great. The scenery is pristine and stunningly beautiful. The water is crystalline and contains native trout. Rapids range in difficulty to Class IV+ and the quick rate of descent keeps the adrenaline level high. Scouting is frequently necessary around blind drops and turns. All rapids on this section have been run, but portages are prudent at certain times.

Below the second access point the river remains in the Alaculsy Valley until the Jacks River junction. The valley is pretty, but in comparison to the upper section, it might produce either ennui or welcome relief to the paddler. At the Jacks River confluence ("D" on the map below) the stream becomes canoeable to mere mortals. Here, the newly combined flow enters Tennessee. But natural boundaries and political boundaries don't always agree. Twice in the next five miles of flow, the Conasauga, a Tennessee State Scenic River, leaves Tennessee and drops back into Georgia only to reenter soon after. Eventually it makes a permanent southern plunge into Georgia about 15 miles from where it first enters Tennessee. But your float will remain uninterrupted by those political boundaries. No matter where you are, your concern will be only with the rocks and rapids, the flowers, trees, and trout. This naturally flowing stream drains mostly forestlands in southeastern Polk County. The only sustained season of floatable water is during winter and early spring; during this time of year, however, the water is cold–cold enough, in fact, to support native trout. Even at the high levels needed for floating, the water remains clear and clean; even clean enough to drink.

This is an absolutely superb river run. As Don Hixson of Chattanooga once observed in a past newsletter of the Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association: "The Conasauga is among the most beautiful rivers you will ever paddle." Many of the rapids require intricate Class II maneuvering–excellent waters for skill sharpening. But the river isn't pushy or threatening. Put in near the Jacks River confluence for a 10-mile run. This gives you a half-mile warm-up for the Class II+ shoal, Taylor Branch Rapid. There's good primitive camping and river access just above the rapid if you think warm-ups are superfluous. A mile and a half downstream, you'll find The Falls, a Class III, three-foot drop following a difficult, technical approach. This is the most difficult rapid on the river, but there's a convenient recovery pool below. A fishing camp on the right is often used for lunch while dunked boaters drag their canoes back up to run this approach and drop over and over again until success smiles on their grim, wet, cold, and determined faces. This usually happens soon after the boater realizes that there is a tricky, strategic crosscurrent that has a tendency to push the bow of the otherwise perfectly aligned canoe to the right just before entering the drop.

About four miles downriver, in deceptively swift shoals stands the infamous Fiberglass Covered Rock. Beware this innocent, rounded menace. You're lulled to inattention by the scenery and your past rapid-running successes. You see the river valley opening up and know the whitewater is playing out. Yet this final kiss good-bye from the river has claimed more canoes than any of the upper rapids yet encountered. It's simple–all the recently accelerated river currents converge on this rock. By the time you realize your impending impact, the shallow, swift shoals allow no purchase no matter how hard you stab the slick rock riverbed with your paddle. You'll regain your normal river-running alertness at the sound of a crunching canoe and the feel of a chilling dunking. Beyond "Fiberglass Rock" (named in the days before Royalex canoes), the river settles into an agricultural valley and the float becomes more leisurely. The current remains helpful until the take-out on river right about a half mile upstream of the US 411 bridge ("F" on the map below).

It should be noted that an old logging road, now a 6.5-mile hiking trail, exists along the river from Taylor Branch Camp until the river leaves the mountains for the agricultural valley. The trail starts on river right and crosses the river twice. (Canoe assists for the hikers might be needed.) One crossing is near the Georgia-Tennessee border where the river again reenters Tennessee below Taylor Branch Camp, about two miles below The Falls. The second crossing is near where the trail terminates. It crosses back from the river's left to its right, then shortly heads away from the river to intersect the shuttle road 4.3 miles west of Taylor Branch Camp.

Whether canoeing the whitewater or hiking through the well-watered forest, the clean and clear Conasauga is a beautiful springtime expression of Mother Nature's bounty. From US 411 on down to the Coosawattee River junction near Calhoun, the Conasauga is definitely a pastoral stream. Rapids have disappeared and the presence of man becomes more prevalent. Some attractive wooded sections remain, but all pale in comparison to the delights of the mountainous region.

Mid Georgia Ambulance

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