Two vastly different celebrations. 100 miles apart. One common theme: a love, a passion and a reverence for the Southeast's whitewater and the paddling lifestyle that has evolved around it.
The Nantahala and Ocoee rivers are two of the biggest names in the region for anything kayak related, so it's fitting that each will be the backdrop for an upcoming larger-than-life paddling event- one a festival, the other a world-class competition. The whitewater gods are smiling down upon Chattanooga, as it's within an easy drive of both Ocoee Fest and this year's ICF Freestyle World Championships.
So if you're in the area next month, grab your gear, grab your friends and get ready to experience the water like never before.
That is indeed an accurate summary of the upcoming Ocoee Fest, put on by a group of paddlers who live by their mantra, "BBB" (you guessed it-boats, bands and beer, although Budweiser, babes, boofing and brothers are also valid options). The extravaganza is posed to be a merry yet sincere salute to the river, giving attendees an entire summer's worth of the whitewater culture we know and love in the span of a single weekend.
"The vibe is going to be very laidback," says Ford Quarterman, the unofficial chief marketing officer for the group. "It's going to be a lot of people in the paddling community and the microbrewing community enjoying being outdoors and listening to some good music and reliving war stories around the campfire."
This will be the inaugural Ocoee Fest, but paddling and parties are two things with which the group has been very familiar for a while. "It kind of got started in college," says BBB member Franklin Johnson. "We all grew up around Toccoa near the Chattooga River, and we got interested in paddling. We learned how to kayak and started buying our own gear."
If You Go
What: Ocoee Fest
When: August 31 to September 1
Where: Adventures Unlimited, Ocoee, Tennessee
How Much: $15 for an all-weekend festival pass; $20 at the door (includes primitive campsite)
"BBB is a band of adventurers, Southern by birth, outlaw by nature and hippie by association-or at least that's what our Twitter says," Quarterman explains. "We'd travel for certain river releases and festivals-Gaully Fest, Nawfest-and realized that right up the street, literally 15 minutes from where we grew up, is the Tallulah Gorge, and it's absolutely beautiful, and they release the water a couple times a year. And we realized, you know, why isn't there a festival around this?"
Thus was born Tallulah Fest, which the BBB guys have organized annually since 2011. The revelry has doubled in size every year: this past spring 550 attendees enjoyed 14 vendors and six bands along with paddling activities and movie screenings.
Recognizing the growing interest, the BBB organizers decided to expand. "We started looking for another river in the area to showcase," Johnson says. "The Ocoee didn't already have an annual festival, so it was perfect. Plus, there's a big captive audience, you know-thousands of people float down it all summer long."
Kalob Griffin Band
The Whistle Pigs
The McNifficent 7
And don't think it'll play out as a mere sequel to Tallulah Fest: the organizers are confident it will stand on its own, drawing on the atmosphere that makes the Ocoee unique. But Ocoee Fest's freshest take on paddling festival culture is definitely its home brew tasting and competition. More than 20 home brewers and microbreweries will compete in several categories on Saturday, and attendees can sign up for Sunday's Beer Olympics.
"We have a number of people in our group who brew beer, so it just made sense," Johnson says. "We're getting a lot of brewers coming up from Chattanooga, so you'll get a good taste of the local beers."
Quarterman says the group wants to bring attention to the area's increased interest in craft beverages. "We love beer," he says. "We think it's not just something to elevate your state of mind-it's an art, a craft, like wine, and more people are coming to realize that."
The BBB Beer Fest at Ocoee Fest is still accepting entrants. Homebrewers should visit www.ocoeefest.com/#!beer/c9xi or email email@example.com for more information.
Proceeds from the festival will go to American Whitewater, specifically to support its efforts to win access to the Upper Chattooga River and to relicense the Nantahala and Tuck rivers. "They make sure a lot of our natural resources and waterfalls and rivers and whatnot are being preserved, so we've always donated the majority of the proceeds back to them," says Quarterman.
"People can feel good knowing that they're supporting a good cause." Another good cause attendees will be supporting is the continued development of Chattanooga's outdoors culture. "I want to give back to Chattanooga," says Quarterman, who attended Covenant College before returning to northeast Georgia. "I think for me it's more personal because I'm the only one in BBB who's spent a lot of time there, and I love all the music festivals and the revitalization and the hiking and hang gliding and whitewater.
"But there's not really something like what Ocoee Fest will be. I think a lot of people are craving an event like Ocoee Fest."
And more than an appreciation of Chattanooga, the festival will represent the ever-growing respect for the Southeast's outdoors movement. "People really talk up the West and the outdoors scene there, how everything is bigger and better out there," says Quarterman. "They're right in a lot of aspects, you know: the mountains are incredible and the Colorado River is massive and everything, but I think the Southeast can hold its own, and the whitewater movement is really getting started.
People are starting to figure that out and explore the rivers here, and I think it's going to happen more and more."
Ultimately, BBB has big plans for Ocoee Fest. "I'd like to turn it into the Gauley Fest of the South," says Johnson, referring to American Whitewater's massive paddling extravaganza in Summersville, West Virginia. For now, he and his fellow BBB paddlers are content knowing that celebrations like Ocoee Fest will always provide a reason to reunite for a paddle and a cold beer. "BBB is a group of friends," he says. "It's a lifestyle. Anyone who wants to have a good time can be a part."
The event's website touts the Freestyle World Championships as the "X-Games of whitewater," and this might as well be an official title. The only elements missing are the snow and Shaun White's shock of tomato-colored hair.
Over 300 of the world's best trick kayakers will be competing, strutting their stuff with loops and helixes most mere mortals can only dream of performing. The Nantahala Outdoor Center anticipates up to 10,000 spectators per day-about seven times the population of Bryson City, the closest town to the venue.
And then there's the Wave.
The underwater concrete feature made its debut in December 2012, and it's going to make all the difference in the World Championships. "I like to describe it as a huge concrete lego block that can change the flow of the water," says Nantahala Outdoor Center Public Relations Coordinator Anna Burns. "It forms a massive hole. They can change the depth of the hole, the retention ... it really makes the water pretty much perfect for the competitors."
World-class competition and feats of underwater engineering aside, however, the atmosphere surrounding the World Championships could become as big of a party as Ocoee Fest is guaranteed to be. Appalachian music, crafts and activities fill the week's schedule, from traditional Cherokee dances to free concerts to a raft race. Rock climbing, paddling of all kinds and some of the best hiking in the Southeast are just a short drive away. Put it this way-even if it were possible for spectators to get bored with the kayaking, they'd still have a blast checking out everything else the area has to offer. "What I think is cool is that it's going to be open to everyone," Burns says. "It's not just catering to whitewater enthusiasts. We're going to have events going on, live music ... it's kind of neat to draw the whole community in and not just kayakers."
This mix of competition and recreation is what will hopefully entice out-of-towners new to the area. "This can be kind of a stage for the area for people who are trying to learn about these sports and find new places to come out and play in the outdoors," says Zuzana Vanha, event director for the Nantahala Gorge Organizing Committee.
While freestyle kayaking has existed since the 1980s, the sport wasn't officially sanctioned by the International Canoe Federation until 2006. Since then, the World Championships have taken place in Plattling, Germany; Thun, Switzerland; and on the Ottawa River in Canada. That makes it pretty impressive that this year's event is within a three-hour drive of Chattanooga.
"It's a really big deal," says Burns. "Part of it is because of the Wave feature we put in. The Nantahala is also one of the top outdoor tourism sites in the Southeast, which I think is another reason we were chosen."
What: ICF Canoe Freestyle World Championships
When: September 2-8
Where: Nantahala Gorge near Bryson City, North Carolina
How much: Free
For more information: freestylekayaking2013.com
Organizers hope that the World Championships will not only positively affect the area's economy, but also draw attention to the Nantahala as a world-class venue for whitewater. And one group they hope to reach has been in the area all along. "I'm hoping that this will introduce our youth to paddling," says Vanha. "A lot of kids grow up in this area who don't have access to paddling and don't realize they have this in their backyard. I hope that a lot of local middle and high schoolers will attend and see where outdoor sports can take them."
Equally significant is the opportunity to showcase the region to the rest of the world. "I think it's really going to bring the NONOC to the forefront in the paddling industry," says Burns. "I mean, we've got several Olympic medal winners on our staff and some of the best whitewater in the country, and I think this will really highlight that and draw attention to how reputable our kayaking program is."
Vanha agrees. "For people coming in from the outside, what I hope is that this will introduce the Nantahala Gorge and this area of western North Carolina, which many people already know for mountain biking and hiking and the beauty, as a draw for paddlers as well," she says. "We're really hoping the World Championships will be kind of a debut of the Nantahala to the world."