While much of Chattanooga spent Friday the 13th without water due to a main break in the city, the whitewater rapids of Polk County, Tennessee, were flowing for more than 150 competitors taking part in the second annual Ocoee River Championships.
The event was launched last year by longtime local paddler Jeremy Adkins to bring competition back to America's most-paddled whitewater river. The river went without competition for the better part of two decades after the events of 9/11 canceled that year's competition due to travel and logistical problems. The event never resumed, and nothing took its place until last year's competition. Now, Ocoee River Championships organizers are working to slowly grow the event from year to year and gain experience before making a bid in 2020 for a future world championship competition.
The competition will continue Saturday and Sunday. It is free to the public with the exception of a $3 parking fee.
"More than anything, this is about getting another year under our belts to be prepared for growth," Adkins said.
The upper, man-made section of the Ocoee River was built for the 1996 Olympics. It's considered a premiere paddling location due to its design, fast-flowing water and proximity to both major cities and U.S. Highway 64, which allows for easy access.
Year two's first day saw some minor changes and more organization. Last year, the opening day brought some chaos that comes with the beginning of a new event. Organizers felt they had tried to take on too much with some of the events, but they adapted for this weekend. They brought in the Alabama Cup Racing Association and other management groups to help run individual events. The change opened up the opportunity to add two new categories — downriver freestyle and an extra slalom event — allowed for growth, and freed up organizers to oversee operations.
"We brought in other people to help run the individual events. That will make things run smoother, faster, more efficient," Adkins said.
There are more than 150 paddlers expected this weekend — in line with last year's total that also brought about 3,000 spectators. This year's event will feature paddlers from the Czech Republic and Central America, as well as locally from the Chattanooga area.
Paddler Carlos Aranda is competing in a majority of the weekend's 11 events. Aranda moved to Chattanooga from Mexico about seven years ago.
IF YOU GO
What: Ocoee River Championships
When: Saturday, 10:30 a.m.-3 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
Where: Upper Ocoee
Ocoee Whitewater Center
4400 US-64, Copperhill, TN 37317
Cost: Free admission; $3 parking
What brought him to the area? "Paddling," he said with a big grin.
"I think the Southeast has everything. The [paddling] community is really big. It's an amazing place to live and kayak," he said. "It's amazing to have this area that was designed for the Olympics back [for competition]. We can compete on the same course and practice our slalom. It's a great way to come practice, build skills and get better."
Paddlers participated in the event to gain experience, have fun, gain bragging rights and raise money to improve the area. Last year's competition had about $2,500 in prize money, but paddlers and organizers decided to do away with it to improve the event. Keeping the money in the event allowed organizers to move it from August to September to avoid the heavy commercial rafting traffic that disrupted the 2018 event. Organizers needed the money to help cover an extra day of water release that they didn't need to pay for last year since the river was already flowing for commercial traffic.
The event last year brought in about $10,000. Most of it went to pay for one day of water release. Money left over after costs was donated to the Ocoee River Basin Foundation — a new nonprofit formed in partnership with the event. Those funds were used to add security lockers at the Middle Ocoee put-in and take-out. The lockers were installed this week and are now open for use. This year's funding will help the U.S. Forest Service manage plants along the Upper Ocoee. Also, they'll work to improve accessibility at the Upper Ocoee put-in.
"We're still a new nonprofit," Ocoee River Basin Foundation President Jen Maxwell said. "It is our primary fundraiser, and we use it to support the local area. We're slowly working toward bigger and bigger projects."