Murky Waters: Rafting the Pigeon River

What do whitewater-rafting tourists see when they take a guided tour of the paper-mill-polluted river?

Water from Walters dam (completed in 1930) is funneled about 6 miles through a concrete-lined tunnel to the powerhouse, where releases of water create the rapids that attract tourists.  To the left enters the diminished flow of the Pigeon River itself.

Water from Walters dam (completed in 1930) is funneled about 6 miles through a concrete-lined tunnel to the powerhouse, where releases of water create the rapids that attract tourists. To the left enters the diminished flow of the Pigeon River itself.

Driving east of Knoxville on I-40, I always creep in the slow lane to get glimpses of the wild river in the gorge far below, an enticing vision of purity and danger like so many of the cold, pristine streams that roar out of the mountains of East Tennessee and Western North Carolina.

This is the Pigeon River, its headwaters descending from Sam Knob, on Black Mountain, at an altitude of about 6,100 feet. The section I admire from the interstate near the North Carolina state line depends upon releases from Waterville Lake for its rapidity and flow. Aside from its whitewater, the Pigeon is also known for the controversy that rises from it like vapor on a hot summer morning. The pulp and paper industry in Canton, N. C., in existence for over 100 years, and the downriver tourism industry in Cocke County, centered on rafting, disagree about the river’s use and its optimal condition.

I wondered: Would the river be restored as a result of the stricter regulations and improved industry practices of the last 20 years, or would it run foul and murky, permanently cursed by misuse?

To see for myself, up close, I booked a rafting trip on the upper Pigeon, and on Sept. 11 headed to Hartford, Tenn., where 13 outfitters make a couple of six-mile runs a day from the powerhouse.

A steady rain fell on the hour-long drive from Maryville, the clouds puffy white rags against the dark mountains. At Smoky Mountain Outdoors (SMO) there were enough clients for three rafts, four passengers in each, a guide in the stern. The guides gave us water-resistant rain suits in bright blue, along with red plastic helmets (“brain buckets”) cinched tightly under the chin. They also trussed us up in tiny life jackets.

We put in about a mile below the powerhouse under the Tobes Creek Road bridge.

We put in about a mile below the powerhouse under the Tobes Creek Road bridge.

“It feels like a girdle!” said one of the three of our crew from Indiana. Bob, her husband, would not be able to paddle because he was having trouble with his shoulder, said his daughter, Deborah, a nurse. Our guide, Heather McCoy, who had worked with SMO for five years, checked Bob’s life jacket and suggested he take a paddle for balance. When she walked away to help load the gear, Bob leaned over and whispered, “We got lucky getting her.”

The SMO cashier had told us that the powerhouse wouldn’t be generating much, that we’d be running on what she called “natural flow,” which meant no class IV rapids, as advertised. Nobody in our little group seemed disappointed, though we didn’t know what this would mean for Heather, who would be steering us through mazes of boulders normally underwater. Progress Energy, which owns and operates the powerhouse, stops regularly scheduled releases after Labor Day.

On the bus ride to the put-in, one of the guides, Dustin, stood in the aisle and gave us a stand-up comic routine on how to comport ourselves so that we didn’t suffer from the most common rafting injury: “summer teeth” (Some are here, some are not). He struck the dented metal ceiling of the bus three times to indicate the damage a wayward paddle stroke could inflict on fellow rafters.

For the men in the audience, he suggested that if we fell out, to face downstream but not with our legs spread apart, as this could lead to an uncomfortable event known as “romancing the stone.” There was also the requisite Deliverance joke and the one about the three rings of marriage: engagement, wedding, and suffer-ring.

At the put-in near a section of the Appalachian Trail, we sat in the bus as the guides unloaded the rafts from the roof and escorted us through the falling rain over slick black rocks to our boats.

For me, embarking on a river I’ve never paddled always creates crazy moths in the gut, that mix of fear and exhilaration that rises from challenging something powerful, and the Pigeon, even at this low level, churned up white water and waves that swirled against the concrete piers of the bridge at the put-in.

Heather’s job was to navigate us through narrow passages with the minimum of “bumps!” She constantly scanned the waters ahead and managed to keep smiling the entire time, even when she had to get out of the boat into the cold rushing water and free us from a jam. She called us all “hon,” as in “Gimme two forward, HON! Two backward! Now! Hon!”

We went through a few passages backwards and others we bounced through like a pinball striking bumpers, back and forth in the powerful current. We wedged our feet between the floor and the walls of the raft and leaned inward to keep from being ejected when we rammed a rock.

The Pigeon widens and deepens at a stretch next to the Smoky Mountain Outdoors base, just outside Hartford.

The Pigeon widens and deepens at a stretch next to the Smoky Mountain Outdoors base, just outside Hartford.

The biggest trouble came at “Lost Guide,” a rock garden that required Heather to ferry diagonally across the 40-foot wide river to reach a narrow passage between two big boulders. We got stuck sideways there, and a raft from another company complicated our predicament when it slammed into us from behind. Water poured over the sides of our raft and would have sunk us had we not been in a self-bailing boat. The guide in the raft behind us broke his paddle trying to free us from the wedgie, and Heather had to get out of the boat in waist-deep rapids to push and rock the raft until we broke free. She jumped back into the stern, and we plummeted down the 6-foot drop and continued on our way.

Each time we scooted and shifted and bounced the raft through difficult passages, Heather would shake her head and say, “I’m sorry guys,” and Bob’s wife would say, “Stop apologizing. It’s us lard-asses slowing you down!”

Twenty-five years earlier, the paper mill in Canton, owned by Champion at the time, was discharging enough effluent to turn the river dark and murky as coffee. On this trip, I didn’t notice what I would call discoloration; but sitting in the bow, trying to scout ahead, I noted that the water (though not muddied from the light rain) lacked the clarity of, say, the Hiwassee and made it difficult to spot strainers, those boulders that lurk 2 feet or less beneath the surface.

I sniffed the whole time but smelled mostly rain, sometimes a bit of a fishy aroma. Orbs of amber foam, some the size of softballs, circulated in eddies throughout the trip.

We paralleled I-40 for most of the run, sometimes far below it, other times within plain sight of the traffic, the sound of diesels and whining tires drowned out by the river’s rushing roar. The left bank, steep and densely forested with hemlock, maple, sweetgum, and poplar, was mostly part of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

We took out in Hartford, soaked but happy, and were transported in the bus back to SMO headquarters. The sky cleared, and I lay out my polyester shirt to dry on the hood of my car. When I put it back on, something more than body odor emanated from the shirt, a smell that I couldn’t quite pinpoint but seemed vaguely familiar.

Later, talking to SMO river guides John Bowers and Iris Bahr-Winslow, I confirmed the source of the smell: effluent from the paper mill, now Evergreen Packaging Group. Bowers and Bahr-Winslow, members of an organization called Clean Water Expected in East Tennessee (CWEET.org) tell me that the outfitters’ life jackets and rain gear were saturated with the smell and that despite using products called “Sink-a-Stink,” they could not eliminate it from their clothes.

Tennessee Congressman Phil Roe, who rafted down the same section as I did back in mid-August, said, “I don’t have a good sense of smell, but even I could detect the odor of the river. It smelled like a paper plant.”

Roe, who said he would raft the Pigeon again, acknowledged improvement in the river’s condition over the last 20 years but asserted that more progress is needed.

The paper mill smell is stronger when the weather is hot, Bowers says, and the standards for measuring discoloration are “narrative,” lacking an exact numerical system. Each guide stressed the importance of what they called “aesthetic” issues.

Bahr-Winslow, who grew up in Hartford, sums up the effects of the industry on the river downstream: “The river snakes through the entire county, so… color quality, foam, smell, all that stuff affects [our] tourist economy.”

Having paddled hundreds of rivers and creeks across the country, Bowers says that the Pigeon is “by far” the most polluted recreational whitewater he’s seen.

Bowers and Bahr-Winslow are part of a coalition of groups who have filed an administrative injunction to stop a recent permit that would allow Evergreen Packaging Group to continue to pollute the river at a rate they see as unacceptable.

Bahr-Winslow’s hopes are simple: “Make the river as clean here as it is upstream of the paper mill.”

Bowers says he’d like to see the permit revised so that after a five-year period, it limits by more than 50 percent what the paper mill can discharge into the Pigeon.

While both guides acknowledge that there’s room for much improvement in the river’s condition, they encourage people to raft the Pigeon. “I wouldn’t work here if I thought there was a significant health risk,” Bowers says. “I wouldn’t want to take customers down the river…. But it’s an aesthetic thing and a responsibility. It’s irresponsible for a county next to us to use the river for financial gain.”

Heather kept telling me to come back in the spring when higher water levels would create the big rocking waves characteristic of Class IV rapids. I will go back. The Pigeon is a sacred place, not just for people who make their living from it, but for those who visit and pull a paddle through its slashing current, bracing against its power, letting it carry them through some of the most beautiful scenery in the country. Though industry, dams, and the construction of I-40 have altered it, it has endured, and it deserves to be as clean as we can make it.

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