Adventures Unlimited celebrates 30 years of whitewater excursions, camping, live music and more in Polk County

Photography / EDGE archives / Adventures Unlimited has been guiding visitors down the Ocoee River since it first opened 30 years ago.
Photography / EDGE archives / Adventures Unlimited has been guiding visitors down the Ocoee River since it first opened 30 years ago.

Carlo Smith's connection to the rivers of this region began as a child, growing up along the Hiwassee River.

His father was the owner of Hiwassee Outfitters, a business that continues to this day. And from an early age, Smith knew his calling in life -- he belonged on the river.

Today, Carlo and his wife, Julie are the owners of Adventures Unlimited (AU), a whitewater outfitter in Polk County. Their business, which first began its operations out of a barn, has grown to 30 acres of whitewater rafting, camping, food, music and outdoor fun.

Julie "Jules" Johnson (yes, there are two Julies in the mix) holds one of the most cherished titles at AU: She is known as the "Steward of Sunshine" -- or in more mundane terms, she is "in charge of all things guest relations."

Since its beginnings in 1993, AU's grounds have grown to include 15 acres of primitive camping, rustic cabin and bungalow rentals, several RV sites (with more in the works), recreational amenities like a volleyball and basketball court, picnic pavilions, and a spacious bathhouse with a wrap-around porch. To sweeten the experience, The Bus Bar & Grill joined the scene in 2013, giving guests even more reasons to stay and play.

"We're a laid-back, hidden gem," Johnson says of the campgrounds and music venue. "We have amazing guides, great food, live entertainment, a place to get a craft beer or cocktail -- or just a big ol' glass of Southern sweet tea, if that's what you want."

Back in 1996, when the Olympics were held in Atlanta, the Ocoee River was named the official location for canoe and kayak slaloms. The attention led to whitewater becoming a top tourism attraction in the region.

Set in a region with lush mountains, and incredible hiking, biking and rafting, the Ocoee is unparalleled for beauty and adventure in this area, Johnson says. And with each new year, with more regulars and loyal customers, AU pushes to stay open a bit longer.

"The Ocoee put Polk County on the map. After the Olympics ... we were a magnet for tourism," Johnson says. "And I don't see any other industry coming in that will be able to touch it.

"The biggest challenge is that we are seasonal. During the summer, the highway looks like a major city. But in the winter -- the roads are empty. And that's why we're trying to stay open longer. ... We would like for it to be 'Endless Summer' around here."

In 2022, Steve Morse, an economist and associate professor at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville (UTK) conducted a study through the school's Department of Retail, Hospitality & Tourism Management that revealed that whitewater rafting is a major source of revenue for the 30 counties along the Ocoee.

 

According to the study, more than 229, 540 visitors signed up for commercial rafting trips in the last year, pumping about $43.8 million into the 30 counties along the Ocoee, supporing more than 620 jobs.

When The Bus Bar was first added to the AU campus, Johnson remembers, musical acts often found themselves playing to audiences of zero. But a lot has changed since then. Bands now enjoy vivacious crowds who dance and celebrate late into the night, many of whom stay to camp -- sometimes for multiple nights.

"We use retired school busses to get rafters to and from the river," she says. "Once a bus has been used so much, it just dies. We had a dead bus, so we turned it into a craft beer hub."

In 2018, The Bus Bar became the first business in Polk County to get a liquor permit, she says -- paving the way for other businesses in the area to enjoy that source of revenue. At the time, there were no liquor-by-the-drink options for local eateries. But ultimately, after a lot of hard work, the liquor permit was put to a vote before the county commission and was approved.

"That increased our revenue hand over fist, and created opportunities for other businesses, as well," Johnson recalls. "Now there are four or five businesses in the county with permits."

In 2019, another school bus used for transporting rafters broke down -- creating new opportunities. That vehicle was converted into customer restrooms by the outdoor bar and music stage.

"We currently have a third bus parked in the field," says Johnson. "We can't say what at this time, but we've got big plans for that one, as well."

The trickiest part about managing AU and The Bus, she says, isn't finding employees -- it's keeping them. Mostly, guides recruit other guides. The good part is, once employees have "drank the AU Kool-Aid," they're eager to return.

"We're a great place," Johnson says. "We're the fun facilitators -- a wholesome, awesome memory. ... Having like-minded employees who enjoy things like being on the trails and camping -- all working together -- you can put out a great product."

AU will begin hiring for the 2024 season in late February. Find out more here.

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