Today’s episode will be all about water. Today’s guest Olwen Claiborne comes to us from Smoky Mountain Outdoors Rafting. Before discussing rafting, Joseph and Olwen discuss headwaters. The headwaters of the Smokies start in the mountains and Haywood County. In the past 20 years, Maggie Valley has started bottling the water that flows through it. Jonathan Creek flows through the back of the Meadowlark Motel property, which Joseph owns. There are many waterfalls and streams throughout the mountains, with great places to swim. Sliding Rock, about 20 miles south of Maggie Valley, is essentially a natural waterslide, with tons of water pushing you down a rock. Joseph goes on to discuss a variety of other places to swim in the Smokies. Olwen discusses her first experience with whitewater rafting. From her first experience rafting, Olwen fell in love with rivers, from tubing to rafting, becoming a river guide back in ‘92.
Smoky Mountains Outdoors Rafting rafts on the Big Pigeon River. Years ago, pollutants from a paper processing plant flowed downstream in the pigeon river. This went on into the 70’s, when a grassroots organization started a movement to lobby for cleaner water downstream. Around that time, there was a whitewater rafting team in the olympics and recreational rafting was getting started. As the clean water act was published, Tennessee sued North Carolina as the water from the paper plant was going downstream into Tennessee from North Carolina. The paper processing plant found another way to process their paper, and the water has improved greatly as a result. With the growth of commercial rafting came regulation. The pigeon river is primarily a class 3 to 4 rapid river. Smoky Mountain Outdoor Rafting is the largest rafting company on the Pigeon River.
Olwen discusses her time as a rafting guide, noting that the Pigeon River is warmer than a river she used to guide on. Rafting is truly authentic to the mountain experience, being one of the most up close and personal perspectives you can get. In the spring, you can see the wildflowers blooming in the mountains while rafting. The water is unpredictable in the spring, with some days not having whitewater. From memorial day to labor day, the water levels are regulated and the trips are scheduled as such. As with before memorial day, after labor day the water levels are unregulated, but the scenery is beautiful as the colors are changing. The upper pigeon river trip was named a top ten experience in the United States. The extreme version is a smaller boat, seating a maximum of 4 guests, compared to the usual 7. The smaller boats have larger impacts. On the lower pigeon river, trips are provided for families with younger children as the rapids are smaller, and might not be whitewater. Instead of rafting, groups can also rent kayaks. There is also a full river trip that stops for lunch in the middle.
Olwen discusses Smoky Mountain Outdoor Rafting’s partners, such as a company that offers ziplining. Olwen talks about other things to do in the park and her relationships with her guides. Surprisingly, during the days of COVID, outdoor adventures have been incredibly popular.