Photo by Dan Cook Rafting action hits stride on the Ocoee River.
A stagnant economy has affected whitewater rafting nationwide, as with other businesses.
But the Ocoee River, where many outfitters will open their seasons Saturday, is the most popular stream for guided rafting in the United States, according to David Brown, executive director of Knoxville-based Outdoors America.
The reopening this week of U.S. Highway 64 along the Ocoee is adding to rafters' and outfitters' excitement. The highway has been closed for several months because of rock slides.
Brown based his assertion about the river on an Outdoors America spreadsheet that includes data from 38 of about 200 rafting outfitters. They are among about 500 companies the organization serves in a variety of outdoors activities.
"While (guided rafting) participation was down last year, it was up on the Ocoee and the Pigeon rivers," Brown said.
"What we've seen is that demand has remained strong for value-priced day trips near metro areas or near strong destination attractions like the Great Smoky Mountains National Park."
The Pigeon, which flows out of North Carolina into Tennessee on the east side of the Smokies, has benefited from heavy visitation in the park, Brown pointed out.
"The Pigeon is convenient for a lot of visitors, and it's a nice family experience for those who have never before experienced whitewater rafting," he said.
"And last year 225,164 went down the Ocoee."
That figure relates only to rafting trip sales. It does not account for the abundance of river rides made by individual raft owners.
The fact that the Ocoee is within easy driving distance of major population centers such as Atlanta, Chattanooga, Nashville and Knoxville adds greatly to its popularity, Brown noted. Another river with such an advantage, he added, is the Lehigh, which runs through the Poconos of Pennsylvania.
"They benefited from the stay-at-home trips last year -- those taking shorter weekend trips rather than longer vacations," Brown said.
The Southeast remains one of the most popular regions in the nation for whitewater rafting, but Colorado is still the No. 1 state, he said. More than 500,000 take raft trips there every year.
Ocoee Outdoors, entering its 33rd year on the southeastern Tennessee river, has added a new recreational option -- a zip-line attraction. Participants in special gear roll underneath strong wires stretched between sites on a course nearly 5,000 feet long.
"There are five sites on the river," said J.T. Lemons of Ocoee Outdoors, adding that reservations for the season have kept his staff busy.
"Lots of people are apparently just wanting to get outside after being indoors so much during the cold winter. Most of (our clients) have been from word of mouth -- friends telling friends."
While the Lower Ocoee is used the most for rafting, about a third of Lemons' company's clients last year included the Upper Ocoee as well. That includes the section where the whitewater portion of the 1996 Olympics was held.