OCOEE, Tenn. — The economic lifeblood for much of Polk County flows through the canyon of the Cherokee National Forest here where America's most popular whitewater rafting river usually attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors a year.
But the COVID-19 virus shut down the commercial rafting industry for two months and has delayed — and will likely limit — the number of persons booking such rafting trips down the Ocoee River this summer.
But as the Memorial Day weekend kicks off the traditional start of the busy summer rafting season here, tourist industry leaders here are hoping that Americans tired of being cooped up at home will seek the outdoor adventures offered along the TVA-controlled Ocoee River and its class III and class IV rapids.
"People are tired of being in the house and eager to get outside and we're taking the right steps to be safe and have fun," said Alex Storgion, owner of Ocoee Paddleboarding & Watersports. "I think we can still have a good season — at least I hope so. We're getting calls from people in Chicago, New York, Georgia, North Carolina, Indiana — they're calling from all over asking if we are open again."
Last weekend, Storgion said he rented out all of his available paddle boards. But the commercial rater had only a couple of trips down the 5-mile middle section of the Ocoee River on Sunday. Among the 23 licensed commercial rafters operating on the Ocoee, there were fewer than 700 passengers last weekend on the first two days after federal authorities authorized the return of commercial rafting on the Ocoee earlier in the week.
Over 1,500 boaters were on the water over the weekend, but less than half of those boats were commercial rafts. The entire first weekend had only about 10% of the daily peaks of more than 7,000 commercial rafts that run the river during the highest days in August.
Due to concerns about the coronavirus, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the National Parks Service and Tennessee State Parks kept the river closed to commercial rafting until last Saturday and only decided early last week to allow commercial rafter back on the river. Rafting companies are sanitizing equipment and keeping passengers apart or wearing masks on bus trips to and from the river rafting put in and take out sites.
Some campground, cabin and beach facilities in the area remain closed until next month, but most recreational facilities, marinas, hotels and restaurants in the area are open and planning for a busy weekend, albeit with more social distancing and cleansing of equipment and vehicles than in the past.
The Ocoee River, which was the site for the whitewater canoe and kayak events for the 1996 Summer Olympics, is the most visited whitewater river in the United States and visitors who took whitewater rafting excursions on the Ocoee River pump more than $43 million into the economies of the 30 counties that surround the river, according to a 2013 study by the University of Tennessee.
"I'm very hopeful that we're going to bounce back," Polk County Executive Robby M Hatcher said Wednesday. "We have what everyone else wants and we have all the beauty that God has to offer. We really rely upon our natural resources and the visitors who come to our area. It's been tough this spring and my heart goes out to all of those struggling businesses, but we'll recover."'
Lamar Davis, owner of Outland Expeditions which has river rafting operations in Tennessee, Georgia and North Carolina, has been running commercial rafts on the Ocoee River since 1981, just five years after a break in a TVA flume line in 1976 returned whitewater flow to the Ocoee and helped birth the commercial rafting industry here.
"It's been an up and down year so far with a lot of unknowns about when we could get back on the water," Davis said. "We're having to come up with a whole new game plan and it seems to change all the time."
Davis said his staff is wearing masks, except on the river, and is practicing social distancing as much as possible. In the rafts, patrons sit closer than 6 feet from each other, so many riders are renting an entire 6-passenger boat.
Davis has relied a lot upon youth camps, schools and church groups in the past, but many of those have been delayed or scrapped this year. Last weekend, Outland Expeditions had 67 customers over the weekend, or only a fraction of the 450 passengers the rafting company has had on some busy days.
"Our peak season is still ahead of us so we're still hoping we can have a good season," Davis said.
Top five most visited whitewater rivers in the U.S.
1. Ocoee River — 229,542
2. Arkansas River in Colorado — 208,329
3. Pigeon River in Tennessee — 169,060
4. Nantahala River in North Carolina — 165,906
5. Lehigh River in Pennsylvania — 110,422
Source: Steve Morse, University of Tennessee. 2013 figures
Whitewater’s economic impact:
* 622 full time jobs
* $43.83 million in economic activity
* $14.12 million in worker incomes and paychecks
* $26.83 million in direct visitor spending
* $3.57 million in taxes (federal, state and local)
Source: Steve Morse, University of Tennessee. 2013 figures
Ben Collins, a rafting guide for the past 14 years who friends call "Toast," said "people were super excited to get back on the river" after stay-at-home orders kept many indoors for months.
"It reminded me of being an 8-year-old on Christmas morning," Collins said.
Bianco Brown, 24, drove up to the Ocoee Sunday from Macon, Georgia along with five of her friends to run the river for the first time last Sunday.
"I've never done it before, but some of the rest of our group has and it seemed like it would be a lot of fun," Brown said before she boarded her raft for the 5-mile trip through the middle section of the Ocoee. "We pretty much walk by faith, so we're not that concerned (about any risk of catching the coronavirus during the venture)."
Last weekend's opening of the Ocoee River for commercial whitewater rafting comes two months after the river is normally opened for such business in the third Saturday in March.
The Tennessee Valley Authority controls the flow of the Ocoee River and uses the stream flow at night and during much of the year for hydroelectricity generation through its flume line.
TVA uses the Ocoee River, along with other Tennessee River tributaries and streams, to generate hydroelectric power at some of the cheapest power costs in the country. But when a TVA flume that carried the Ocoee River water into a TVA hydro dam broke apart four decades ago, the whitewater rapids in the riverbed of the Ocoee quickly proved popular with kayakers, canoeists and rafters who developed an industry around the free-flowing river.
When TVA rebuilt the flume and resumed hydro generation on the Ocoee, an agreement was struck in 1984 to allow the river to flow freely during daylight hours for 116 days a year for rafters to use the river. TVA uses the water the rest of the time for power generation.
Last year, commercial rafters took 168,213 customers down the Ocoee. The best year ever for rafters was in 2010 when 243,331 customers.
Ryan Cooke, president of the Ocoee Rivers Outfitters Association who owns both Ocoee and Rafting and Lake Ocoee Inn and Marina, said the Ocoee River is within a day's drive of millions of Americans. With fewer people flying and taking foreign trips, more Americans eager to get outside may choose to take a rafting trip on the Ocoee.
"At least we hope so," he said.
Contact Dave Flessner at email@example.com or at 757-6340