As soon as raft outfitter Carlo Smith heard that a Wednesday rock slide on U.S. Highway 64 might shut down access to the Ocoee River during one of the busiest rafting weekends of the year, he and other commercial rafters started brainstorming work-arounds.
Maybe they could use pontoon boats to make a flotilla around the rock slide. Maybe they could launch from a different place on the river. Smith expected to put 1,500 rafters on the river during the Labor Day weekend. Cut off, he'd lose around $50,000.
But Friday, Smith breathed a sigh of relief. The Tennessee Department of Transportation opened one lane of U.S. 64 and is allowing traffic through the key corridor during Labor Day weekend.
"I'm loading up a bus of rafters right now," Smith said minutes after the road opened Friday. "We lost yesterday and our morning trip but we'll have probably 80 people rafting this afternoon."
It's just a temporary fix, TDOT spokeswoman Jennifer Flynn said. The road could close again next week.
"We realize that Labor Day is the last holiday of the summer, and it's a big deal out there for Polk County," she said. "So we worked as hard as we could to get this roadway open and passable for the folks who want to raft or go to the Ocoee Fest. We didn't want to adversely affect Polk's economy more than necessary."
After the holiday weekend, TDOT geotechnical engineers and staff members will reconvene to figure out a permanent solution, Flynn said. They're not sure yet what that solution will be.
The highway is consistently hit with crippling rock slides. A slide in 2009 shut down the highway for five months, sending drivers on a two-hour detour. Another slide in 2010 destroyed 70 feet of the Ocoee River's flume, used to divert water from the river to generate electricity.
Flynn said there will be a TDOT employee on site around the clock to monitor the road during Labor Day weekend, and that there are several barriers, like trucks, between the rock face and the open lane.
"In the entire gorge, a rock slide could happen any time. It's just the nature of the geography," she said. "But we have made it as safe as we can, and we feel it will make it through the weekend. We wouldn't open it if we didn't feel it was safe."
This weekend, the inaugural Ocoee Fest is expected to draw around 1,000 people for beer, bands, rafting, kayaking and camping. The two-day event kicks off at 2 p.m. today.
Raft outfitters are hoping to make up ground after a poor Fourth of July weekend and the deaths of two women while rafting on Aug. 24 and 25.
Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6525.