Ocoee rafting industry sees rising stream of business as pandemic eases

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / A raft emerges from the "Hell Hole" rapid at the end of their Ocoee River run. Tennessee Governor Bill Lee visited the Ocoee River, on June 4, 2021, to celebrate the impact of tourism and also in celebration of the state's 225th birthday.

OCOEE, Tenn. - More than 100 teenagers from the Atlantic coast in Florida traveled over 700 miles last week for a church camp in East Tennessee that included a day rafting on America's most-visited whitewater rapids that flow through the canyon of the Cherokee National Forest.

"Last year with COVID-19, we missed the chance to do this, which is always one of the highlights of this trip that our church has been doing for more than 20 years," Jay Holland, executive pastor of Covenant Fellowship Baptist Church in Stuart, Florida, said as the middle school and high school students prepared Friday to take a guided raft tour through the class III and Class IV rapids of the Ocoee River. "Being on this river is just about the most alive you can be, and it teaches you a lot about teamwork and working together. We live on about 5 feet of elevation above sea level in Florida and the only hills we have are garbage dumps, so this is a great chance to experience another part of God's creation."

The experience of whitewater rafting on the Ocoee has drawn millions of rafters, kayakers and canoeists to Polk County over the past 45 years since a flume line broke in 1976 and the water from upstream reservoirs flowed through the riverbed on the Ocoee rather than to generate hydroelectric power for the Tennessee Valley Authority. The whitewater rapids caused by the broken flume line quickly gave birth to what has grown into Polk County's biggest industry, drawing whitewater enthusiasts from around the globe.

Last year, the coronavirus pandemic shut down commercial rafting for two months and discouraged travel to the Ocoee River for many others during the remainder of the year. That cut the number of people who took a guided raft ride on the river in 2020 by 13.2% from the previous year.

The 146,039 rafters who paid one of the river's 24 commercial outfitters to take either a half day or all-day ride on the whitewater portion of the Ocoee last year was the fewest number since before the river was popularized as host of the whitewater slalom competition at the 1996 Summer Olympics.

With a full season of rafting this year, the flow of business is quickening this summer compared with a year ago.

"Everybody is eager to get out after being cooped up last year, and even though May was a bit cool we're having a strong year," said Justin Cullars, a raft guide for Ocoee Adventure Center who has been working on the river for more than two decades.

Ryan Cooke, president of the Ocoee Rivers Outfitters Association and owner of both Ocoee Rafting and the Lake Ocoee Inn and Marina, said bookings are up this year. His marina has a waiting list for boat slips, and his hotel was completely full over the Memorial Day weekend, he said.

"We're looking for a strong year in 2021," Cooke said.

Natural attraction

Located within a day's drive of more than half the U.S. population and with the top-rated river rapids east of the Mississippi River, the Ocoee's 24 commercial rafting companies collectively have carried an average of nearly 200,000 paying passengers a year over the past decade.

TVA repaired its broken flume line on the river, and the agency still generates hydroelectric at the Ocoee dam during the winter, overnight and two days a week during the summer. But the water that flows through the canyon here also is used to feed a rafting business that a 2013 University of Tennessee study estimates generates more than $43 million a year in economic activity for the surrounding 30-county region. The UT study authors said the economic impact from the river could double within a decade.

"I've probably been down these rivers 30 or 40 times in my life, and I knew since the time that I was a kid that this is one of the most beautiful places in all of America," Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said during a visit to the Ocoee last week as part of a yearlong celebration of the state's 225th birthday. "It's important that all of America knows what a special place this is and the important economic lifeblood it has become for this area. I want more of America to experience what is here."

Bookings at Tennessee campgrounds and cabins in 2020 were at record highs as more people tried to practice social distancing while getting away for their vacations. Last year, the number of fishing and hunting licenses issued in Tennessee jumped by nearly 20%, or more than four times the growth nationwide, according to a study by Southwick Associates.

"The silver lining coming out of the pandemic is that people have rediscovered nature and the outdoors, and last year our camping and cabin reservations were through the roof," said David Salyers, commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation that oversees Tennessee's state parks. "We're seeing the same thing this year."

Sharing liquid assets

The Ocoee River is now used both to provide thrilling raft, canoe and kayak rides for visitors and to generate 23,100 kilowatts of power at the Ocoee No. 2 dam for TVA when the flume line diverts water out of the riverbed.

In 2018, TVA, the National Park Service, the state and the commercial whitewater rafting operators reached an agreement for the power utility and the rafting industry to share their relative costs of doing business and the benefits generated by the river.

The typical rafter pays an outfitter anywhere from $35 to $100, depending upon the length of the river voyage, and the outfitters pay 10% of those charges into the Ocoee River Recreational Economic Development Fund. From that fund, $140,000 a year is paid to Tennessee State Parks to help manage the river and extra funds are used for rafting promotions, river improvements and other spending projects approved by a joint government and private sector board that oversees the money.

In 2017, the state of Tennessee appropriated $12 million to TVA to pay for 15 years of the value of the lost hydroelectricity generation for the utility when the water is diverted from power generation to allow whitewater rafting. The river flows five days a week for about six months a year to allow for the whitewater rafting and boating industry to thrive.

"This [rafting] industry is so important to the economy of Tennessee that then-Gov. Bill Haslam stepped up and treated it just like he would any other industry and offered the financial incentives to help ensure its future," said state Rep. Dan Howell, who represents Bradley and Polk counties in the Tennessee Legislature. "This is the crown jewel of whitewater rafting in America, and in Polk County the river is the lifeblood of our tourism industry. There is no other place like this anywhere in America."

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6340.

The flow of rafters on the river

The number of rafters paying to ride the rapids of the Ocoee River fell by 13.2% last year to the lowest level in nearly two decades after TVA and the National Park Service shut down commercial rafting for two months due to the coronavirus pandemic. Commercial raft operators expect a rebound in business this year, although it may remain below the peak reached in 2010 when 243,331 people paid to take whitewater rafting trips on the Oocee River. The counts for each year do not include thousands of trips made by individual kayakers and canoeists on the Ocoee who do not pay to use the river. 2020 - 146,039 2019 - 168,213 2018 - 191,157 2017 - 194,763 2016 - 214,376 2015 - 209,009 Source: Ocoee River Outfitters Association