Tim Chitwood: Whitewater, wipe out

August 18, 2013 

This sounds like a good time to go down on the river and get trashed.

But it’s dangerous.

Getting trashed is what whitewater guides call being ragdolled by a river so high it’s unnavigable. Go in and you’d be better off in a barrel like daredevils run Niagara Falls in, because you’re not going to see much anyway, and you could use the padding.

The Chattahoochee at historic flood stage has reached impressive heights, taking out dams, bridges, steamboats, etc. Even youngsters like me recall the flood of 2003. I recall it because a charity tried to float a rubber-duck race fundraiser on the river, and the ducks shot off like they’d come to life and were fleeing to Eufaula, and some did.

If you’ve been out of control in a current, you know it’s no fun if you don’t surface long enough to take a breath.

Chattahoochee outfitter Whitewater Express posted a Facebook notice Thursday telling customers rain doesn’t stop excursions, but lightning may delay them. And a flood can take all the fun out of them — though they still can run when the river tops its typical flow.

So with the 40 days and nights of rain we’re having, I called Whitewater Express owner Dan Gilbert to ask how fast he can build an ark out of inflatable rafts, and how many coolers it could hold. And how his business is handling this Biblical rain.

Whitewater Express’ low-water trips have a flow range of 800 to 4,800 cubic feet per second; a high-water trip goes up to 13,000 cfs. Over that’s flood stage. “We do have some routes we can take there, but once we get at 13,000, we’re probably going to be off the river,” Gilbert said. Off the main channel, anyway. The waveshaper at the Eagle & Phenix powerhouse, you can run over and over again: “We did that with a Fort Benning group once, and they just had a blast,” Gilbert said.

Just north and west of the waveshaper, flood water creates monsters — no mythical Scylla, but something of a Charybdis, over by the Cutbait rapid.

“There are some dangerous holes that form at high water right in the center of the river above Cutbait and then Cutbait itself, that would be treacherous to go through,” Gilbert said.

The risk is not just being ragdolled by Hydrozilla, but sucked down and held there, he said: “We haven’t had anyone swim through there at those levels, and it wouldn’t be fun to do.”

It would be the kind of flood-bludgeoning that leaves you “trashed.”

Another danger in getting trashed is trash: Floods sneak debris downriver and plant snags you can’t see. After a deluge, Gilbert’s crew removes tree limbs and other hazards the receding river deposits along the course.

If the river hits 22,000 cfs, it floods the waveshaper and starts to submerge an adjacent rock island, and then that option’s out, Gilbert said.

It’s possible to run the river here at 30,000 cfs, but it would not be fun, he said: The rapids wash out, and all you have left to enjoy is the lethal danger. Go overboard, and you get trashed.

Also you might need a ride back from Eufaula.

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