Whitewater Wayfinders

A Conversation with 6 Local Raft Guides

 

By Rachel Studebaker

Located an hour east of Chattanooga, the Ocoee River is a renowned whitewater rafting site featuring an Olympic-level course and naturally occurring rapids. For many visitors, completing a trip down the river is a courageous feat; for raft guides, navigating Class IV rapids is all in a day’s work. We spoke with six raft guides who know the Ocoee River like the back of their hand. Read on to meet these adventure aficionados and learn what it takes to brave the waves and give guests an unforgettable whitewater experience.

Grant Fowler, Wildwater

 

How long have you been a raft guide?

16 years; 14 on the Ocoee.

What led you to become a raft guide?

I was 20 years old, and it seemed like a fun way to spend the summer.

Tell us about the training process.

Every company that I have seen on the Ocoee does a great job with their training, and everyone does it differently … When training new folks, I look for a can-do attitude – someone who can rise to whatever weirdness they’re faced with.

What do you love about whitewater rafting?

When you’re on the water going into a big rapid, your focus narrows and all the “noise” from life – bills, e-mails, deadlines – fades. To be able to share that with 15 to 20 random people per day is amazing.

What’s special about rafting the Ocoee?

It is one of the most consistent rivers in the country. The water is dam-controlled, so the level is the same in March, in July, and in October. That’s rare. And that helps with your confidence, doing multiple trips in a day. I bagged 1,040 commercial river miles in 2022. When you consider that every five miles of that was done with a different crew of random humans, that’s a big deal. That’s what makes the Ocoee so special: the human interaction and being able to show anybody my favorite place on the planet.

What’s your favorite rapid?

Godzilla/Humongous. It’s a roll of the dice. I have had crews that I would have sworn were going to eat it, and they float right through. I have had incredible crews with plenty of experience that have gotten swallowed in that thing.

What advice would you give a first-time rafter?

To a first-time guest, I would say: trust your guide implicitly, especially if you’re worried about falling out. We want everybody to have a great time, and that is what we work toward.

To a first-time guide:

listen. People in general will tell you exactly what they expect, so work with them.

Anything else you’d like to add?

We guides are a grateful bunch. We know how lucky we are to work where we do and with hardcore competent people the way we do.

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Benji Boyer, High Country Adventures

 

How long have you been a raft guide?

11 years.

What led you to become a raft guide?

I spoke with some of my friends who had been guiding … The ability to travel to new places, meet new people, and show others our wild and scenic rivers was all I needed to hear.

Tell us about the training process.

Becoming a raft guide requires one to participate in a training course, obtain a Basic Life Support/First Aid certification, CPR certification, and for many, a Wilderness First Responder or Swift Water Rescue certification. The trainers taught us how to read water, control the boat, navigate the rapids safely, entertain our guests, and the history that surrounds us in the Cherokee National Forest.

What do you love about whitewater rafting?

Whitewater rafting presents people with an opportunity to try something new that can push them to the edge of their comfort zone.

What’s special about rafting the Ocoee?

The Ocoee provides a little bit of everything. From tubing trips down the Lower Ocoee to Class III rafting in the middle to the Olympic course on the upper, there is something for every experience level.

What’s your favorite rapid?

Hungry Mother on the Upper Ocoee. Three of the biggest whitewater hits the Ocoee has to offer are in this rapid.

Tell us a memorable story from the river.

My crew was a bachelorette party who had traveled from Orlando to Tennessee to celebrate. The ladies were excited but hesitant because it was quite cold that day … When we arrived at the put-in and unloaded the boats, it began to snow! None of my crew had experienced snow before, so it was a unique way to start off the trip. We proceeded down the river navigating rapids, cracking jokes, and having a fantastic time all while the snow fell around us. Did we get cold? Oh yeah! Was it a blast and a fantastic way to start the year? You bet! When asked if they were coming back next year, it was a resounding yes! But, maybe when it’s a bit warmer outside.

What advice would you give a first-time rafter?

Leave your phones in the car! Rafting is an opportunity for us to be outside and forget all those attention-grabbing devices and enjoy the company of those around us.

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Kyle VanOflen, Outland Expeditions

 

How long have you been a raft guide?

10 years.

What led you to become a raft guide?

My love for the outdoors started toward junior year of high school. My parents bought a cabin in Copperfield, Tennessee, and the river was close by. After a while of being too nervous for the water, it just drew me in. I was training my last semester of senior year, I graduated, and a few days later, I was an official guide. I have been doing it ever since.

Tell us about the training process.

The best part of rafting is you just have to show up and go through the process to get started. The first few trips you are just a guest in the raft while a senior guide brings you down to show you the lines. Next step is hopping in the back and learning on the fly. Toward the start of full-time season, you get put into rafts with guests and a senior guide, so you get the feel of having inexperienced people in the boat.

What do you love about whitewater rafting?

You get to do something super fun and share it with so many people; you also get to show a lot of people a side of nature some of them have never seen before.

What’s special about  rafting the Ocoee?

You can make the river as easy or as hard as you want to. It’s a pretty low-consequence river as well, so you do have some margin of error. The river community is different here too … at the end of the day, we all hang out and talk about how the day went. It’s just one giant family.

Kyle Vanoflen in a kayak next to a white retriever.What’s your favorite rapid?

Broken Nose. It’s short, but there is a lot going on. It’s kind of technical, so it takes a little skill to get through. You can have some fun at the rapid or go straight through.

Tell us a memorable story from the river.

Maybe my third or fourth season we had to unpin a raft on a rock. The guide and all the guests were standing on the rock with the raft basically underwater. It took like eight people pulling a rope to unpin it, and then everyone jumped back into the raft and were on their way.

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Dan Nennstiel, Cherokee Rafting

 

How long have you been a raft guide?

Two years.

What led you to become a raft guide?

I am a retired schoolteacher/administrator, and my wife and I have always enjoyed the Ocoee area. We always took trips on the Ocoee as guests while on vacation, and being able to learn the river as well as the professionals was a desire of mine.

Tell us about the training process.

The training process comprised of completing 20 river runs with guide trainers and learning the various rapids. Once we became proficient in the skills necessary, we were able to do a checkout trip. It takes an adventurous spirit, love of being on the water, and the willingness to take responsibility for the safety of others while making it a fun and memorable experience.

Dan Nennstiel of Cherokee Rafting sitting by a stream.What do you love about whitewater rafting?

The excitement and adrenaline that the river experience provides.

What’s special about rafting the Ocoee?

The Ocoee is one of the most beautiful and scenic rivers that provides a continuous class III and IV rapid experience.

What’s your favorite rapid?

Tablesaw and Diamond Splitter – it has speed, splash, and looks a lot more intimidating than it really is. The huge granite face of the mountain with the flume above it makes me pause and take it in every time.

Tell us a memorable story from the river.

Last year on media day, I was doing a training run on the upper portion with the owner and manager in the raft. When we approached the Olympic section, the rapid Godzilla ate us up due to the lack of weight in the boat. I was the only one left in the boat, and I rode out a pretty radical surf alone for all of the media to see and capture.

What advice would you give a first-time rafter?

Keep learning. The river community out here is very supportive. Someone is always looking to help or give some advice. We all have each other’s backs.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I am so grateful each day that God has provided the opportunity for me to live out a dream in such a neat place. The river is awesome, the views are spectacular, and the people I get to work with every day are like family.

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Jake Trotter, Ace Ocoee Adventures

 

How long have you been a raft guide?

14 years.

What led you to become a raft guide?

A great friend pulled me out to the river and changed my life.

Tell us about the training process.

You start off on ride-alongs with seasoned guides. Then you slowly start to guide all the rapids on the river in a boat with the other trainees. Once they feel you are ready, you get to bring a boatload of friends and family and do your checkout run. You also get medical training and certifications. Every trip and every crew is different, so you are always learning how to give the best trip and keep everyone happy and safe.

What do you love about whitewater rafting?

Getting to meet new people and make new connections is a special part of rafting. You get to share a passion with people who may have never experienced it without you.

What’s special about rafting the Ocoee?

The Ocoee is unique because the flow is predictable, so we get to know it very well. The Ocoee is a very safe river with a lot of playful moves and tricks. This gives us the opportunity to customize the trip for our crew. You can make it as safe or as rowdy as they want.

What’s your favorite rapid?

I couldn’t pick a favorite on the Ocoee. My favorite rapid in general is Mike Tyson’s Punch Out on the Raven Fork River. It’s a big, dynamic rapid in a beautiful gorge that has always felt special to me and my paddling group.

Tell us a memorable story from the river.

Some of my favorite memories are overnight trips on the river. Our favorite trip was spending 21 days floating in the Grand Canyon. The rapids and scenery are incredible, and the bonds you make are never-ending.

What advice would you give a first-time rafter?

Tell your guide you want “the ride.”

Anything else you’d like to add?

Rafting is a special experience, and the Ocoee is a great place to have that experience for the first time or the hundredth time.

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Jimbo Kibler, Ocoee Inn Rafting

How long have you been a raft guide?

35 years.

What led you to become a raft guide?

A summer job in college.

Tell us about the training process.

Training consisted of one trip [learning] the angles and how to steer to get where you want to go. The rest of the trips, I was in the back of the boat learning from trial and error – and there were definitely some errors. Back then, it was way more difficult. There was no such thing as a self-bailing boat; the water came in and stayed until you got it out. My training ended abruptly when Mike, my trainer, walked in and said, “You’re up. We are packed today; just follow me.” That first trip went well, and I was a guide from there on.

What do you love about whitewater rafting?

I love meeting people from all over the world and sharing a fun experience with them. Some of my closest friends and relationships have come from a rafting trip. My son wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for rafting.

What’s special about rafting the Ocoee?

I love the Ocoee because it is a beautiful river in a beautiful part of the country. It’s a great whitewater river, but still very safe to do when compared to other rivers. Most of all, it’s fun.

What’s your favorite rapid?

I would have to say Hungry Mother on the upper. If you hit it right, there isn’t a larger hit on the river.

Tell us a memorable story from the river.

My third year, I was doing safety rope on the first rapid, and one of our boats lost its crew. We got everyone to the bank but one person was clinging to a rock and wouldn’t let go. When I got to him, he said, “Jimbo, what do I need to do?” in a panicked voice. I replied, “The first thing I need you to do is pull your shorts up from your knees.”

What advice would you give a first-time rafter?

Listen to your guide and have fun.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I never knew 35 years ago that my Ocoee Inn Rafting family and guiding would be such a long and wonderful part of my life.

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