[flowing water bubbling] [gentle music] - Paddling in this area is incredible, because every time you go, you can always do something different and you can always push yourself and improve on your skills because you're not doing the same thing.
You're not paddling the same river every time.
The Cheoah is, it's kind of a hidden gem.
Being a dam-released river, it's a great gateway or stepping stone for those that are looking to advance in their kayaking career.
My name is Ty Caldwell.
I am an avid kayaker, grew up in Robbinsville been paddling the rivers around here for as long as I can remember.
It has changed my life for sure.
I have traveled the world paddling different rivers, you know, from Chile to Africa, and it started right here in Graham County.
It's an incredible experience to have this river in our backyard.
[flowing water bubbling] So, made it to the put-in here at the start of the river.
It's about a nine mile stretch.
Today, the river kind of starts off at the top and progressively gets harder.
Towards the bottom you have Bear Creek Falls, which is the largest drop.
And from there, the last bit of whitewater in the last 15 minutes is kind of the hardest and the most technical.
So we consider that the most fun for us.
And sun's coming out.
Water level's gonna be a little bit higher from the rain today, so gonna be a good day out there for sure.
Have a lot of fun.
[flowing water bubbling] [gentle music] Growing up, the first Cheoah release that I recall, my mother, she was a school teacher, had the summers off, and worked as a raft guide in the summer.
She dragged my brothers and I along with her, and we hung out on the, one of the swinging bridges across the river pretty much all day just watching kayaks come through and people running the drops there.
And I remember it wasn't too long between watching people go down and a couple years later that I was out here paddling for my first time.
[water roaring] [upbeat music] - The evolution of the Cheoah has been interesting.
When I first had the opportunity to get on the Cheoah, we were the only people in town that had a kayak on our car.
You hear the term river hippie and everything, you know, and now it's known in the United States, in the Southeast, people come from near and far to paddle the Cheoah.
When there is a Cheoah release, you can feel the energy and the happiness and the fun that the Cheoah creates for all people.
From rafts to kayaks, to people sitting on the bank watching 'em come through.
The stoke is high, as people would say.
And that just makes me wanna laugh, you know, out loud cause it makes me so happy.
People are discovering that there is value in ecotourism, there's value in being outside.
- The Cheoah releases 20 times per year.
It was de-watered for around 77 years, and starting around 2005, they started doing releases originally for the wildlife habitat to mimic floods.
The Cheoah in Cherokee means where the otters play, and one of the unique features that you'll see when you're out there is so many otters hanging out and at ease.
And if you pay attention during those high water runs, you'll swing into a calm spot in the river and one will pop up beside you, and sometimes it'll scare you, but you know, they're out there having fun, enjoying the higher water as well.
[bird squawking] - The Cheoah is such a unique river, and if you are a whitewater enthusiast, you understand the difference between it and some of the other whitewater in this area.
One reason it's very special is it is a mixture of big water from like out west, but yet creeky with a southeast twist.
And it's constantly rapid after rapid, after rapid, after rapid.
And people love that.
- Paul, how are you vibing today?
- Vibing pretty good.
- Just gonna try to keep it going that way.
- Paul's got himself a new kayak trying that out.
A little difference.
These are a little bit more playful to have the smaller sterns, so, and they come in all different shapes and sizes like people.
You know, growing up in Graham County kayaking, there was not a lot of individuals that kayaked.
My family and a few others would go out there and kayak, and they'd, you know, think that we're crazy and shooting the rapids.
And back then they really didn't have kids gear.
So we were all paddling boats that were three times longer than us, as tall as we were, and oversized paddles, oversized life jackets.
But we got into it, we loved it, and still doing it today - You know, all my boys have a background in whitewater, and to this day, they all still paddle.
But Ty, you know, he seems to be the one that likes the more high adventure end of it.
You know, he and his friends, they love big water, so that took him a lot more places all over the world because of whitewater.
When you're in whitewater, you're in the moment.
You're not thinking of anything but just what you're doing at that particular moment.
You know, I believe it's physical, spiritual, mental.
You're one with the river, especially on the Cheoah.
I don't know.
Something about the outdoors is just healing.
[water roaring] - A lot of the time when you're in your kayak, the focus is on the whitewater or the rapids that you're paddling, but you've gotta remember to stop and look up and see how beautiful the surroundings are around you.
I invite everyone to try kayaking, to try rafting, to get outdoors in whatever way they see fit.
Check out the Cheoah, check out, check out your local river, and, you know, just get outside and experience nature in a different way.
It's always such a great time to come out here and to get to experience the river.
Always come home with a new story of excitement and a memory that I get to keep, and it keeps me coming back.