Raven Fork of the Oconaluftee River (Raven Fork Gorge)
|Stretch:||Anaconda to Big Cove Road|
|Distance:||1.65 miles (long options exist)|
|Flows:||7” to 18” are “low to normal/high” but folks run it into the 20s. Look for the Oconaluftee River to be 100 cfs for every inch on Raven Fork i.e. 1,100 cfs = 11”). American Whitewater's flow page.|
|Gradient:||587 fpm for 0.7 miles through Caveman, then 302 fpm|
|Put-in:||Via the Enloe Creek Trail, put in either at the landslide for Anaconda or just past the landslide for Lord of the Rings|
|Take-out:||Manuel Watty’s house at the bridge on Big Cove Rd.|
|Shuttle:||1 mi of steep driving + either 4-wheel drive and clearance required for 0.7 miles plus 1.2 miles of hiking or start the hike from prior to the rough part for a total of 1.9 miles of hiking.|
|Season:||Winter and Spring, Rain. (Will also rain off the occasional Summer thunderstorm)|
|Featured in A Wet State #98,in Nick Murphy's video which features many commonly portaged rapids, and in A Wet State's contribution to World Kayak's Video Guide|
I somehow doubt that you are finding out about “The Raven Fork” for the first time, here, on this site. I am guessing that you have grown up in the paddling community hearing about it, seeing the videos pop up after each rain etc. Or perhaps you have been around for a while and saw this river grace numerous LVM videos. Whatever it is, I doubt that you are learning of this river for the first time… so that leaves me with, what can I saw about this run that you likely have not already heard.
It is a great creek. What’s not to love? Extremely high quality bedrock? Extremely high quality boulder gardens? Non-stop Action? No mandatory portages? Though most will make ~6). Easy shuttle? Easy hike? And a long window after rains…? It all makes for a classic that is not only a classic by its physical virtues but by the regularity in which it runs. Unlike Bear Creek in Georgia which is a spring early in the morning to drive South when word gets out that it rained enough the previous night… with Raven you can predict a nice 3-4 inch a day decrease, and with an accurate correlation to an online gauge even that is not really a guess. And because of these virtues, on any given weekend day you will find hordes of boaters heading to the Raven Fork.
If you want to aim for a more secluded feel, a good rule of thumb is to be at take-out by 10 am. Many of the hordes are coming from Asheville… and not to stenotype a city, but a lot of the boaters located there are not the early rising type. Our day we had 60 degree weather after a very cold winter, blue bird sky, perfect 10” flow, and we didn’t see anyone on the river… though ~25 people were behind us we found out at take-out. This allowed for us to appreciate the gorge in our own way, and be assured that some of the small eddies were going to be empty as we approached. Not knocking the large groups that roll in, I am just saying I prefer a more internal and isolated experience on the river most days.
So the logistics described here are relating to the hike into Anaconda. Some folks choose to hike over the ridge to add a mile of class IV and one or two class V to warm up on. This hike is ~2.5 miles and goes up around 1,500 ft elevation change. The more common access is via an old railroad grade that has 100 yards of uphill and then flat for its length of 1.9 miles. This can even be shortened to 1.2 miles if you bring a high clearance 4WD truck with you. With either option though, make sure you leave some energy reserves in place for portaging as you will almost certainly portage Hail Mary, Big Boy, Super Collider, Atomic Elbow Crusher, and Mangler. Big Boy is the most commonly run out of those… none of the portaging is hard, but it can be time consuming.
Ideal first time flows are between 8 and 11 inches. But I know at our 10 to 11” inches I didn’t feel it was too pushy at all. So if you are not pushing yourself on a creek of this difficulty, a little higher should feel fine. Similarly I have heard 8” is a cutoff for most folks… who won’t drive out if they expect 8” and won’t put in much lower than 7” if they are surprised by low flow.
So with that, I will just end by saying that this run is one of the runs that I had heard about via LVM for the past 10 years… and last year when we found out that we were moving to Knoxville, was one of the runs that I immediately put at the top of my list to run while here. And although I passed on the first two opportunities I had to run it this winter, due to nerves, sleep deprivation, or higher than desired flow, I am glad I finally got the first run behind me… now I can approach the run with less nerves and just enjoy it for the special place that it is!
- Lord of the Rings (V). In 2015 Lord of the Rings had wood in two of the drops, for that reason we did not continue up the trail to run this rapid. Supposed to be a great sequence of boofs though!
Some of those that are putting in at Anaconda may choose to carry up just a smidge more to get the class IV directly above Anaconda... some warm up strokes!
- Anaconda (V to V+). Unless you hiked over the mountain to get the extra mile, this is the likely put-in for you… no warm up here. And this is the hardest of the commonly run rapids on the river. You can run the lead in right and then boof the main entry drop pointing a little right to avoid the undercut left, but note that the landing is shallow! Then stay right to avoid the large sieve left of the rock splitting the river. Exit down the middle. Or… walk at river level (wading across one small inlet) and seal launch in just below the ledge with the sieve to the left.
Headless Horseman (V). A fun but intimidating rapid that is one fast moving pool downstream from Anaconda. The entry hole is mean and gets meaner at higher flows. Some choose gutter ball the slot and punch the hole, but most choose the classic right wall boof which then sends you across the tight slot to the left side where an accurate edge transition is needed along with a solid forward stroke to pull you through the hole. Below, the river begins sliding and slopping left under a overhanging shelf and lots of the water connects with the left wall buried beneath. Work right as soon as you clear the top hole and you will slide down and avoid the wall and have a huge smile on your face! Scout this rapid using the eddy at the very top of the pool.
Class IV with Wood (IV). On the other side of the pool, be aware that this easy rapid has some wood at the exit on the right. Work left and go to the other side of the rock.
Right Right (V-). This rapid is blind and has a cave. On Jim’s suggestion I hoped out to try to spot the crux but due to the walled out nature I wasn’t able to easily get a peak, so we just ran it. We entered far far right in a small slot, the rapid than slides down and hits a nob kicker on the right wall, the key is to keep your momentum and bow pointing right. The nob wants to throw you left into a cave. Apparently there is an air pocket in there if you end up back in it.
Razorback (V-). The exit of the next pool is Razorback. Easy to scout on the left, or easy to follow someone down if so inclined. A rib of rock runs down the center of the river. DO NOT melt off the left side of it. Start right of center and keep right as the water flows off to the left. You can overachieve too hard right so it is a razor thin line… Below, the river lands on a long slide.
Log Slot (IV). This small 3 foot ledge use to have a log in it to mess with you, when thrown with the undercut on the right and the recirc a lot of swims have occurred here. The log is gone (2015) and the ledge was best run driving left but straightening for the boof. It is pool to pool.
Boogie (IV). A few small boogie rapids lead to Hail Mary. The eddy to the left of Hail Mary at the lip is after a tight little corridor with a class II. Do not miss this eddy!
- Hail Mary (V++). This rapid has been run… but is oh so ugly. The walk on river right is easy enough, some choose to stay in their boat and sneak down the right which is really a lot of mank to deal with for a rather easy walk…
Boogie (IV). One or two small rapids leads to an eddy on the left above Jedi Training.
Jedi Training (V-). A slide starts and hits a curler on the right before banking down to the left into a beefy hole and then finishing going off a steep right angle slide to the right. The idea is that you stay right through the first curler so you can avoid the meet of the main hole but use the backwash of it to drive left for the final steep slide that banks to the right. If you fall off the right too early you get a lot of the wall as the slide lands in a boat wide channel against the wall.
Mortal Combat (V to V+). It is starting to get steep! Eddy out on the right to scout from above and potentially portage the spout. The old entrance on river left is full of wood now and the new entrance requires enough water to soften the landing. If the water is ~10” or higher you can boof the left side of the right channel for a fun 8-10’ boof. Others choose to portage on the right and put in at an eddy just below. Below the spout, the river starts sliding, start left of center. This slides into a fold and then up and over a hump… you want to be on top of (erroring left) of the big hump. Below, the river slides and hits a small hole with momentary deep water to grab to pull yourself as far right as you can get. There are two small fans of water, you want to go between the two erroring to going over the top of the right fan. This will set you up for the final slide and lands you clear you of the hole. If for some reason you get pushed far left on the final slide it finishes by landing in crack that then lands you in an undercut and bad backed up hole. Lots of swims happen by that error.
Wet Willy (V-). The goods just keep coming! A mellow slide leads to a big intimidating but really rather easy drop. Go off right of center and land turning left to drop into a tight slot that then plummets which being only a boat width wide… elbows in!
Boogie (III). Two small drops lead to the eddy above Big Boy. Eddy out on the right!
- Big Boy (V+). Occasionally run although it has also broken 2 or 3 backs that I know of. The danger is a rock in the landing on the right and landing too flat to the left. It is tricky… scout and set safety and the outflow goes into the stoutest section of the river, and is most commonly portaged, even by those running Big Boy. Portage on the right and most likely put in below Atomic Elbow Crusher.
Super Collider (V). I honestly didn’t look hard, I was already walking. But a big table shelf boof needs to be run far left.
Atomic Elbow Crusher (V+). A tight move needs to be handled with car less you break your elbows on the rock that is very much in the middle of the landing. Again, I was continuing my walk on the right.
Mike Tyson’s Punch-out (V to V+). Put in just below Atomic Elbow Crusher after scouting from above. The line is to enter the small ledges center-ish and then work right through the pinch to hit the great shoulder boof. Too far right though lands on a shallow slab. Below, work right into the shallow slide that then leads you to the corner. Round the corner hugging the inside to stay right on the slide below. Getting too far left leads to a rib of rock to piton or flip on. Staying right also lets you keep you momentum to then drive left across the hole at the lip of the exit 15 foot falls. For the falls, you just don’t want to be far right as there are nobs on the wall during the falls and the landing is a little undercut. This rapid really does boat much easier than it looks like it will!
Harjes’ Rapid (V-). One small rapid (which is basically the lead in) to a tricky boof that then flushes directly into Caveman. The latter inspires some to sneak it far left. The main line is a little misleading as it looks like you want to drive left, but this can cause you to get rejected and land on your head… how Harjes hurt his shoulder and got the rapid named after him. The ideal line is just left of the hump in the middle which then allows you to boof clear. Scout from the left.
Caveman (V). One of the best rapids around… great sequence of moves full boofs and consequence! The entry is the crux in my mind and is tricker than it looks. I hoped out to quickly scout it. It is steep and rock and sends you straight into the wall on the left, forcing you to carry slow speed for the second tier as you want left momentum for that tier. The entrance should be run just left of center with a little right angle. The second tier is a small but sticky hole that you want to exit as far left as you can so you get on the left slab and slide off into a nice boof. Too far right is rocky. Now you are above the classic third tier which is a big wall smearing boof of the left. The cave is in the landing to the right. As long as you don’t let you bow deflect right big time you are clear of the cave.
- Boogie (IV). A couple of class IV rapids lead to the Mangler… You know you are close when you get to a river wide ledge, work immediately right and catch one of the two small eddies. They are small, so DO NOT bunch up coming into this area.
Mangler (V++). An entry boof leads to a tight and tall slot boof… that then lands up in the worst placed rock around. In 2015 wood has this rapid unrunnable. But without wood it has been run. Most choose to portage around on the right which involves some boat passing and a cave to climb down through. Others choose to seal launch in just below… but it is a bit sketchy.
- Hazard Rapid (IV+). Not far downstream the river gets noticeably woody, the right channel is 100% no go. The left channel needs to be hit driving far left, it is manky and in 2015 there was also wood in the landing. Overall an ugly rapid.
Boogie (IV). Boogie continues, there are a few tight shallow rapids with sieves in play so stay on your toes and look for wood!
- Little Headless Horsehead (IV+). A cool rapid that is a lot like the Headless Horseman at the top of the run. Get some momentum and stay right through the pinch and small slide below.
- Two Boofs (IV+). The last really fun rapid that I remember is a fun two boof sequence on the right. Below, the river turns into class II and you start to see civilization.
For more details on the run, see the AW write-up...
Take-out: From Cherokee NC, take 441 north for 2.2 miles and turn right onto BIA Hwy 441 and quickly turn left onto Big Cove Rd. Follow this for 8.7 miles until you cross the Raven Fork. The river left upstream side of this bridge has the painted gauge. At the fork, stay on Big Cove Rd by going left. Continue to follow this for 1.7 miles, just before Big Cove Rd crosses the river, the house on your left is Manuel’s. He has been kind enough to let kayakers access the river and park on his property. Typically kayakers show their thanks by bringing him a gift, like a 6-pack each.
Put-in: Head back downriver for 0.4 miles on Big Cove Rd and look for Calhoun Rd, turn left and climb steeply. Drive slowly as several homes own animals that are often found on the street. After a sharp left bend the road turns one lane, continue straight. A bigger looking rd goes off to the right but this is a driveway, stay straight on the very small one lane rd. Now 100 ft later a small paved road goes off to the right, stay straight on what turns into a dirt road. Climb this steeply up to the first hard right hand bend. There is a turn out here or in 100 feet that you can park at if you did not bring your 4WD High Clearance truck. If you did, look to your left as you make the bend and spot the rough road climbing steeply. This first 100 yards is the worst of it. After that you will be on a railroad grade though it is rutted at times. Continue to the end of the road and park, this is the upper parking area. If you are parking at the lower spot… you walk the same road. From the upper parking area, take the trail upriver… there are a lot of trees down to duck or climb after so the hike goes slowly. From the lower parking expect 40-50 minutes. Hike until you can see the river less than 100 feet below you, you will come to a spot where the trail disappears in a landslide scree field. To put in at Anaconda, descend the scree field to the pool above Anaconda. If you want Lord of the Rings, cross the scree field before descending.
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