All photos by Hannah-Marie Wayne

This time last year, I published an article about a conservation project along the Chattooga River, in which I described the river as peaceful and secluded. Close to the river’s headwaters in North Carolina, it was easy to imagine I was the only person to have explored a segment of the river all week. 

But conservationist Buzz Williams told me in a phone interview earlier that year that the Chattooga was going to be “loved to death.” He cited concerns about overcrowding and rapid development in rural recreation communities along the river. 

This year, I returned further downstream at Bull Sluice, one of the river’s iconic spots. Instead of pulling up to a gravel road tucked in the woods like I did last year, this paved parking lot had space for at least 100 vehicles, restrooms, and a well-worn path leading to a popular put-in spot for white water boaters.

“Generally people just don’t know how to use an area without really leaving an impact,” said South Carolina resident Amanda Gladys. Gladys is a recreation enthusiast and has been an adventure photographer for over a decade. But as a biology teacher at a local high school, she is also aware of the damaging impact people can have on the environment. 

“This is a user-created trail,” Gladys said, pointing to a gulley down the side of the mountain created by visitors who venture off the designated path. “People want to get to the river. This is a really steep bank, high erosion. This is against Leave No Trace… you’re just supposed to stay on the path… There’s so many of these that have just recently popped up in the past two years.” 

Gladys said the forest service is ill-equipped to enforce trail usage. A sign warns visitors not to use the path, but it seems to be ignored. 

Chattooga River corridor in Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina (Chattooga Conservancy)

From the top of the trailhead, the air already feels cooler from the water rushing a quarter of a mile away in class IV rapids. But the natural beauty of this stretch of the river is not the only reason for its popularity. What any journalist writing about the Chattooga River seems obligated to mention is the 1972 Golden Globe Award winning movie Deliverance. In the acclaimed thriller film, four Atlanta men canoe the Cahulawassee River, a fictional river based on the Chattooga, where they are assaulted and stalked by mountain men. The movie made the Chattooga River famous, but the national attention was a double-edged sword. 

Deliverance received criticism for its depiction of Appalachian people. Deliverance didn’t invent hillbilly stereotypes, but it certainly exacerbated existing conceptions about the people who call Appalachia home. And it attracted adventure-hungry crowds in droves. The year after the movie was released, 31 people died by drowning on the once relatively unknown and remote river. The Forest Service has since enforced safety regulations.

But the movie popularized white water recreation in Southern Appalachia, bringing  jobs in recreation to locals

The Wilderness Experience

People coming to the river today crave a wilderness experience, says Nicole Hayler, director of the Chattooga Conservancy. Hayler discussed how the Chattooga Conservancy aims to preserve that wilderness experience for locals and visitors alike. 

“The Wild and Scenic River and its protective corridor have been set aside for a specific experience. And when you’re talking about the Chattooga, that experience is supposed to emphasize the wild sections of the river,” said Hayler. “The opportunity for solitude and the absence of human influences … are associated with a wilderness-type experience.”

Congress passed the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1968, aiming to protect certain American rivers with “outstanding natural, cultural, and recreational values” from impoundment and overdevelopment. The document explains in greater detail:

Certain selected rivers of the Nation which, with their immediate environments, possess outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural, or other similar values, shall be preserved in free-flowing condition, and that they and their immediate environments shall be protected for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations.

The Chattooga River was protected  under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1974. The river’s management plan limits the number of boaters who are allowed down the river each day.

“There are three commercial outfitters on the river,” Hayler said. “Each outfitter is capped on the number of people that they can take down the river and what time they can put people on the river so they don’t bump into each other as they go down. So the people on the raft trip can sort of feel like they have the river to themselves and have their wild and scenic experience.”

Woodall Shoals is downstream of Bull Sluice on the Georgia / South Carolina border.

Environmental Concerns

But not all spots on the Chattooga River feel wild, at least not anymore. 

“One time I showed up at Long Creek Falls,” Gladys said of a popular hiking spot on the South Carolina side of the river. “There were 30 people at the waterfall that were all part of a hiking group. I had never seen that before.”

Increased foot traffic often means more user created trails, litter, and improper campsites and fire rings. 

“A lot of people are camping in areas where it’s not designated,” said Gladys. “So there’s a lot of creation of campsites… And this past month alone I have seen more fire rings on the river than I’ve ever seen before.” 

Gladys tells me that campfires are supposed to be 50 feet away from the banks of the river, but some visitors either seem to be unaware or apathetic about this rule. And instead of following Leave No Trace principles which requires campers to disperse ashes and fire rings, Gladys said they are “making a fire ring, burning wood, and then they’re leaving it there.” 

People can also disturb ecosystems by constructing rock cairns (carefully balanced rock sculptures) from stones they harvest from the river bottom. A scant cairn here and there might not do any noticeable damage to a river. But at a popular spot like the Chattooga, one rock cairn can encourage others to make more, disturbing the streambed in the process.

Photo of a rock cairn by the National Park Service. Though cairns may look harmless, they can disturb aquatic ecosystems.

“It’s a monkey see, monkey do thing,” Gladys said. “This river right here is home to an underwater food web that feeds fish.”

Aquatic organisms have adaptations that make them especially suited for life at a certain part of the river. Gladys explains that gaps in between river rocks provide a habitat for these organisms that are “breeding, feeding, preying on other macroinvertebrates, spawning, taking care of the young… and so on… So when people move those [rocks], they’re basically removing what could be two or three years of gestation.” 

Gladys mentions that this underwater food web is not only important for river health, but for the recreationists who come to the Chattooga River to fish. 

Rural Communities Face Increasing Development, Population Pressures

 “[The river] is not as protected as one might hope, especially in the face of population pressures,” said Hayler. “An Atlanta developer wanted to develop a 55 acre tract right in the middle of Cashiers. Some of the local folks… didn’t want to see that kind of development come into [town]. So we joined up with them and fought it and killed it.”

The headwaters of the Chattooga River are in Cashiers, North Carolina, a town often in the middle of heated land disputes.

A similar dynamic is happening in the growing town of Clayton, Georgia, the county seat of Rabun County. 

“The county commissioner was looking at zoning,” Hayler said. “They have no rules in Rabun County about anything. So all of a sudden they’re realizing, we have to get serious about some zoning here or else this place is going to get overrun with commercial development.”

Hayler said that the limited amount of private land puts even more pressure on real estate development. Over 60% of land in Rabun County is federal land, which is 10 times higher than the Georgia non-metropolitan average. Much of the remaining private land is for seasonal use, which can further squeeze the housing market, a recent Daily Yonder analysis reveals. 

“A lot of local people want to see those quality-of-life attributes preserved, and they want their lifestyle not to be radically changed by commercial development,” said Hayler. 

Hayler said that a Rabun County commercial developer tried to change agricultural land to commercial zoning. Residents called the Chattooga Conservancy for help. 

“A lot of locals were really concerned about it. And so we helped them mobilize and fanned the flame of their concerns because we were concerned as well,” Hayler said. “All of the local people showed up in front of the Rabun County zoning board where the issue was being presented to the county decision-makers.”

A long-time Rabun County resident who spoke to Hayler said that he used to dislike the amount of federal land in the county. But after the locals won the zoning issue against the commercial developer in Rabun, he was glad to have people fighting for preservation. Hayler said most people want their rural lifestyle preserved.

“Do you know the term right of the minority?” Hayler asked me. 

Hayler refers to the view that political minorities have rights even though they are outnumbered by the majority. But here she refers to a geographic minority. Rural communities are minorities fighting urban majorities, which some residents view as a disruption to their lifestyle, according to Hayler.

“That’s what it’s coming down to… it’s a place that’s supposed to be reserved for a wilderness experience.”

After leaving the river, I drove across the Georgia state line to the town of Clayton. An approaching thunderstorm hovered over the Blue Ridge Mountains, threatening to make the trip into town treacherous. The weekend traffic certainly didn’t help. People passed me with kayaks and mountain bikes strapped to their cars, searching for an adventure or getaway.

Lining both sides of the highway were chain restaurants, a few motels, a liquor store. Just a few miles west of one of the wildest rivers east of the Mississippi, a steady stream of commercial development flows on. 

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