Rafting . . . in the smokies
Trip Start May 25, 2013
4Trip End Jun 01, 2013
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After the resupply run we made the final decision to do the loop around the eastern side of the park after rafting in Hartford. We new it would be a long trip and that we wouldn't arrive back in Gatlinburg until around 6 o'clock so we decided to make a visit to the Sugerland Ranger station which was just west of town before we go Rafting. At the station we got more park passport stamps and as calculated luck would have it we found more stuffed black bears. Knowing there would be no contest, the boys dove right in checking each bear carefully for any flaws before making their selection of a new friend.
With a few minutes to get back to the hotel and head out for the rafting trip, during the car ride Joanne prepped the boys on all the steps we needed to take to quickly gather our stuff and get back on the road. With one minute before 11 AM we were on the road to our rafting adventure.
On the way Joanne and Justin worked through the return trip strategy. Joanne carefully scouted out each possible passage with careful consideration for time versus scenic value. The re were two primary goals in mind. The first was to obtain the passport stamps at the southern park entrance as well as at Clingman's dome before the stations close at six, and two, get back to Gatlinburg before we run out of snacks for the bear cubs.
The ride to Hartford was pleasant, but took a bit longer than expected at nearly an hour. This concerned Justin a bit as this was only one third of the trip all the way back around the park, not including the 7 mile run up to Clingman's Dome. Nevertheless we arrived at our rafting location with 40 minutes available to enjoy a leisurely picnic at the river side. The boys were quiet and watchful. To get to the picnic tables we crossed the river on a swinging bridge which was a fun treat. During lunch we enjoyed watching the zip line action around the islands well as scouted out for the incoming rafts. Afterwards we headed back across the bridge to drop of the cooler and go to the spot were we would meet our rafting guide.
At 1:10 PM our float trip was called to meet near the equipment shed. There we found ourselves among about 40 other eager rafters where one of the guides started calling off family names to be sure we we all present. Will was the leader of the rafting guides and we soon found that he was also going to be guide running our raft. We also had one other gentleman ride along with us, NAME who was from Phoenix and had just completed the upper float trip. Will was a good ol' Southern boy and quickly took notice of Camden's Missouri Tigers hat. He gave a ginger pat on the hat and said welcome to the SEC and made a comment on how "your going to see how its done in the South". After getting our gear Will quickly commissioned us in helping carry his supplies to the raft. Since he was the leader he would be the last boat out. Back across the swinging bridge we went over to the island were we would board our raft.
We were all suited in bulky life vests and helmets and each of the adults had a paddle. Justin and NAME were seated at the bow, Joanne in the middle and the boys were near the helm with Will. We watched as all the rafts floated off as Will gave us a quick overview of his "And One" command which singled that we needed to make a coordinated stroke with our paddles. The boys wore cautious smiles but they quickly became comfortable and settled in for the ride. We quickly found Will to be a very gristley character, full of tall tales and such rascally stories that made you feel as though you grew up with him right there in the mountains. Except for the quick "And One" commands as we rolled through the patchy rapids, Will never lost a beat rolling through one story after another. We learned that he moved up to Tennessee when his "5'4" 240lb mama" decided it was time to leave Mississippi and head back to where her family lived. Will said that has a kid he was "bouncy", never able to sit still long. All during college he took jobs of every and any kind to earn money. Growing up he had always loved kayaking and river rafting and it was shortly after he turned 19 that he discovered that he could make money doing it and hasn't stopped since. It was during college at Tennessee State where he met his "debutante wife". Her father was disapproving of Will while they were dating. The discontent grew so strong the one day after Will answered the the phone at her apartment when her father called, he became so angry that he stopped funding the rest of her college expenses. From that day one Will took care of paying for her continued education. Will said that he just "can't never think of a day when he didn't do some kind of work to earn some money."
Will's stories seemed as endless as the water pushing us down the river. He told us stories of how he and his 9 hunting dogs chased down a 800lb brown bear through the forests. From the truck while rolling along a wooded path one of the dogs picked up the scent and from there the 14 hour chase began. Twenty-seven miles through the wilderness, with a staple gun and fishing line he'd repair a ripped dogs belly or slashed ear, "you don't need no certificate to do dog surgery out here" he told us. The hunt finally ended with a round up of 20 boys to drag that bear back out of the woods.
Will pointed up to the mountains surrounding the river and asked us "how do you think those folks make a living up there?". He went on to explain how we were surrounded by some of poorest counties in the country. He told us how in his mid-20's he befriended an old fellow named Clyde who own several acres of land locked in the Cherokee forest. The government was looking to take over the land after Clyde's death and Will talked him into selling it to him. Will explained to Clyde how he would take care of his funeral and rework the land and care for his good riding mule. Clyde then agreed to sell the land to Will for $100k. Clyde continued to live for another 2 years. Clyde's died on a Tuesday, they had the funeral on Wednesday and the house was bulldozed on Thursday. Will went on to tell us how he tends to a 1 acre garden and hunts enough that he hasn't bought vegetables or meat for nine years.
As for the float trip, it did have some spots that got the boys attention but Will expertly maneuvered the raft so that it was lots of fun without any sense that we would be swallowed up by a rapid. There was one spot though where just as the raft bounced up it landed squarely on a huge rock. For about a minute we worked the oars and then freed the raft of the boulders grip. There were also many very calm areas of the river where will told us to hop in for a swim if we wished. Justin dangled his feet over the sides and the boys, sensing a little freedom to explore the opportunity splashed their hands in the river. Camden quickly became comfortable with the idea of leaving the boat and it was long before he was headed over the side into the cool rivers flow p, but never letting go of the side of the raft.
The trip ended with us floating under a beautiful highway bridge and then docking up to the shore to complete the 90 minute ride.