Ocoee Whitewater Center closure no impact on rafting season as officials plan reopening of grounds

DUCKTOWN, Tenn. - While authorities continue to seek the cause of the April fire that burned Polk County, Tennessee's iconic Ocoee Whitewater Center to the ground, officials with the Ocoee River's rafting industry want outdoor enthusiasts to know the river is ready for thrill-seekers.

"It's a go," Raft One outfitter employee Nic Garber said Thursday as he unloaded lumber from his vehicle along U.S. Highway 64 on the upper end of the Ocoee River near Ducktown. The lumber was to update Raft One's guest cabins as the season kicks off, he said.

Garber, from Lafayette, Louisiana, said it was understandable that some people might have the wrong impression the fire at the center affected the river's outfitters, but paddlers shouldn't change any plans for whitewater fun.

The fire that destroyed the Whitewater Center's administration building was reported by a passerby at 11:53 p.m. April 25.

By the time a full firefighting response was able to get to the remote river gorge scene, 90% of the building was in flames, Polk County Emergency Management Director Steve Lofty said the day of the fire. Twelve area fire departments responded to battle the blaze but by morning only smoking rubble remained. There were no injuries.

Rafting business as usual

Ocoee Outfitters Association president Ryan Cooke said phone calls from people asking if outfitters will be rafting and whether the river is open have slowed since the fire.

"People have seen the reports that the center burned, and they're asking if rafting's open in general," Cooke said Thursday as he sat on a porch at the Lake Ocoee Inn & Marina, which he owns, overlooking Lake Ocoee.

Ocoee's commercial outfitters are open and ready for business as the season gets started.

"I think this weekend it sounded like business is not going to be really busy," Cooke said of what he's hearing from his fellow outfitters. "Of course, we are kind of competing with a lot of graduations coming up at the end of the school year. But bookings look good for the summer."

(READ MORE: Ocoee rafting industry sees rising stream of business as pandemic eases)

There will be some temporary rules for paddlers to know for the next couple of weekends.

"The memorandum we received from the Forest Service for this weekend said we can raft, and we can get out on the river bank up there for any safety reason, but there can be no photography from the center property," Cooke said of commercial photographers who earn money taking photos of rafters as they pass by.

He said that could financially hurt commercial photographers but maybe not for too long.

"My understanding is once the Forest Service erects a fence to secure the site to keep people out of it, the trails will open back up, [commercial] photographers can get in up there, and it'll be business as normal except for the [now destroyed] administration building," he said.

U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives spokesperson Bridgette Mason said Friday in a telephone interview the investigation into the cause of the fire is ongoing but the site has been turned back over to the U.S. Forest Service.

"The determination on the scene is inconclusive as to what actually happened," Mason said. "The investigation is ongoing."

If any evidence turns up leading to suspicions of foul play, investigators can also get back into the secured scene, she said.

Burn site to be secured, grounds reopened

"We don't anticipate the investigation delaying our efforts to secure the site," Forest Service spokesperson Ashley Miller said Friday in an email. "We are working to install a fence around the building, but there are several other safety measures that also need to be instituted. The tailwater warning system, which warns of sudden rises in the water, is no longer operational, which is a major hazard for the public. TVA is working on developing and implementing a solution. The site will partially reopen once it has been fully secured for public safety."

(READ MORE: Ocoee: A river runs through it)

The Tennessee Valley Authority is ready to pitch in.

TVA President Jeff Lyash told Chattanooga Rotarians April 28 that the federal utility is willing to help in rebuilding a facility to help draw visitors to the Ocoee River and its whitewater rafting.

"It's a tragedy that that Whitewater Center burned down like it did," Lyash said in response to a question at the Chattanooga Rotary Club in late April. "It's been an important part of the economy in that region as a resource that has brought national attention. TVA will help in any way that we can. We need to do something there."

Forest Service officials are hopeful a return to normal access will be coming soon.

"We anticipate it taking a few weeks for us to be able to safely partially open the site, but we'll have to wait and see," Miller said. "Currently, the entire site and associated trails are closed for public safety."

Federal officials see no reason the closure should significantly affect rafting operations, she said.

Polk County Chamber of Commerce Director Lynne McClary said she's glad federal officials are attempting to act quickly but she's also certain whitewater enthusiasts won't know the difference if they're coming to paddle the river made famous as an event venue for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.

"The loss of the Whitewater Center was a devastating blow. It was an icon in the community, but it was a place. It's not what you come here to experience," McClary said Thursday at the chamber office near Ocoee Dam No. 1.

Nature isn't closed, she said.

"Our rivers are still open, our hiking trails are still open with the exception of only a few [near the center] but we are not in any way closed for business, and we're not tied to that center to greet our visitors," she said.

Dennis and Michelle Anderson operate the Ocoee Dam Deli & Diner on Highway 64. Visitors coming from Cleveland, Tenn., and Chattanooga pass by the deli and diner just before their first glimpse of the Ocoee River.

The Andersons said Thursday in a telephone interview some social media comments the day of the fire may have misled some people about the status of rafting operations.

"We know better," Dennis Anderson said.

They said rafting shouldn't be hampered and trails around the center that have attracted visitors throughout the pandemic should draw people again once reopened.

What's still closed

Forest Service efforts should not affect the status of the river, which is open for commercial and private boaters, Miller said, but some trails around the center are affected.

The Ocoee Whitewater Center and surrounding area is closed, as are associated trails:

- Rhododendron Trail #332.

- Bear Paw Loop Trail #334.

- Old Copper Road Trail #333.

- Connector trail from Chestnut Loop #335 to Bear Paw Loop Trail #334.

Olympic history and a look ahead

The Ocoee Whitewater Center opened to serve as a venue for the 1996 Olympics and was a key recreation site in the National Forest for about 300,000 visitors a year, according to the Forest Service.

The Ocoee Whitewater Center was built to host the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics. For two days in 1996, the world's premier whitewater paddlers astonished crowds that exceeded the total population of Polk County in the culmination of a yearslong process that brought the Olympics to the remote hills of the Cherokee National Forest, the Chattanooga Times Free Press previously reported.

The International Olympic Committee announced the Ocoee River as the host site of the 1996 Olympic canoe/kayak slalom competition in December 1992, according to archives.

The Ocoee River lost none of its appeal and excitement in last month's fire, Cooke said.

"We're excited for a great rafting season, school's about to get out and tourists will start flowing in shortly," he said.

Recreational releases of water on the upper portion of the river happened the past two Saturdays, and another is scheduled for May 14, he said.

Starting May 21 releases will resume a typical summer schedule of Saturdays and Sundays until the end of the rafting season Sept. 10, he said.

Staff writer Dave Flessner contributed to this report.

Contact Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton.