By Suzanne Welander
The upper Conasauga River is one of the most remote whitewater wilderness runs in Georgia. The river was recently named Georgia’s first “Outstanding National Resource Water,” the highest level of protection identified in the Clean Water Act.
The Conasauga leaps to life deep in the pristine slopes of the Cohutta Wilderness of northwest Georgia. With the favor of the rain gods smiling upon them, paddlers can experience the upper section—a steep Class III–IV+ descent through an exceptionally isolated wilderness. After meeting up with the Jacks River, the difficulty level of the Conasauga ratchets down a notch. The river veers north and takes a serpentine course along the Tennessee– Georgia border before turning south into Georgia for good. Reentering Georgia, the Conasauga is transformed into a meandering valley river that becomes increasingly burdened with the by-products of large-scale agriculture and industry as it approaches its confluence with the Coosawattee River near Calhoun.
Hickory Gap to Alaculsy Valley
Class III–IV (IV+)
Length 8.4 mi
Time 6 hr
Level 12 ft
Gradient 90 (125) fpm
Boaters usually begin this run at Chicken Coop Gap (B) off of FS 17 at the edge of the Cohutta Wilderness Area. Look for a few spots to park on the shoulder as the road widens on the top of Chicken Coop Gap, and listen for the river below the left side of the road. There is no established trail to the put-in. Accessing the river here requires determination, as you must belay your boat and equipment approximately one-quarter mile down the steep slope into the gorge.
Another 3-mile section of river with 375 feet gradient is above Chicken Coop Gap. To drive to this put-in (A), continue on FS 17 to a left-hand turn at to the Hickory Creek trailhead and get ready to hike 1.5 miles to the river. Using this put-in commits you to an 8.7- mile run to the valley.
A high skill level is required to successfully navigate the river down to the Alaculsy Valley. This is rugged and wild terrain—not a place for beginners. The river drops more than 100 feet per mile in some areas, creating intense, lengthy rapids of Class IV difficulty. It can be run only in high water, and when the water is high, all conditions combine to create a potentially lethal situation.
For those with the above-mentioned qualities, however, the rewards are great. The scenery is pristine and stunningly beautiful. The crystal-clear water contains native trout. After 2 miles of Class II warm-up rapids, difficulty crescendos to Class IV with Room of Doom (aka Boof or Consequences or Undercut) and Whale Tail. Scouting is frequently necessary around blind drops and turns. All rapids on this section have been run, but portages may be prudent under some circumstances. The last big rapid, Class IV Pinball, is recognizable as a house-sized boulder appears on river left. Stay away from the top of this boulder to avoid a funnel into a bad sieve under the undercut boulder.
The near-pass of Old GA 2 (C), also known as East Cow Gap Road, is the most common take-out for this section. Here, the river enters the Alaculsy Valley, where it remains until the Jacks River junction. The valley is pretty, to be sure, but compared with the upper section, it might produce either ennui or welcome relief to the paddlers using the take-out at the Old GA 2 bridge (D) 1.9 miles farther downstream.
On US 411 in Cisco, turn east onto Old GA 2, which turns into East Cow Pen Gap Road. A convenience store selling Cohutta Wilderness information is located on the west side of US 411 at the turn. The usual take-out is found at the first near pass of the river after the Alaculsy Valley opens up. The trip to the put-in is 8.6 miles from this point. To get there, backtrack 2 miles to West Cow Pen Gap Road (FS 17) that dead-ends into East Cow Pen Gap Road at a Forest Service information station (which you passed on the way in). Turn left and follow the road up the hill. Continue, veering right where the road forks. The put-in is ahead—listen for water and look for a steep incline on the left.
A staff gauge is located in the stream at access point (C) and another gauge is painted on the river-left side of the Old GA 2 bridge 2 miles farther downstream. A level of 12 inches on the gauge at the takeout and 4 inches on the Old GA 2 bridge is ample. The USGS gauge for Holly Creek near Chatsworth is commonly used to estimate rainfall in the upper Conasauga watershed.
Suzanne Welander is the co-author, with Bob Sehlinger, of the definitive Georgia guidebook, Canoeing and Kayaking Georgia published by Menasha Ridge Press. New for 2015, the completely updated 2nd edition adds five new waterways, including the new urban whitewater course in Columbus, with all new maps and data for all 771 access points. Canoeing and Kayaking Georgia is available from Menasha Ridge Press.
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The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak
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