The word Nantahala comes from the Cherokee word nundayeli, meaning "midday sun." The river twists down North Carolina, embraced on either side by beautiful forested banks. At put in, just below the Nantahala Hydroelectric Project, the banks are rocky, shallow, and flat. They let the water out from the deepest part of the lake. It slips, icy cold, across the stones, speeding along the rocky riverbed. Before long, great hills rise on either side, looming far into the sky, with a narrow slice of water between.
The Nantahala River is a very popular river for whitewater rafting, canoeing, and kayaking. The section most often travelled is about 8.5 miles long. If you have your own water vehicle, you can use the Forest Service's put in for a very modest fee. Most people will want to work with a commercial outfitter, however. Rafting down the river is exciting but not terribly dangerous if you are prepared. Guides are available, but not necessary if you have some rafting experience and listen carefully to the guide who describes the river and its major rapids. Also, as always with going down a river, having a group or two ahead of you is very informative. Watch what they do and see if it works.
There are numerous rapids up and down the river, but the two most interesting are probably The Whirlpool and The Nantahala Falls. The Whirlpool, a class II rapid, is about halfway through the 2.5-3 hour trip. A large slab of slanted, flat rock towards the left bank marks it. The whirlpool itself is just behind this rock. Rafts have fewer problems than kayaks and canoes on this stretch, but it can still be dangerous if you are unprepared or unlucky. A far more interesting ride is the last rapid of the run, a class III rapid called Nantahala Falls. You'll snake back and forth down a long stretch of fast and tricky water, then spill out just before the put out. This is a great end to the ride - instead of being fed up, tired, and bored, you'll finish out wanting more.
The river near the put out is broad, shallow, and fairly calm. This would be a good time to look around a bit or chat with your fellow travellers. I met a kayaker once who had a really cool helmet. When we commented on it, he told us why he had that helmet. It's pretty standard equipment for kayakers, but he didn't have a helmet until one particularly interesting run. Just before hitting the final part of Nantahala Falls, a very fast and exciting part, his kayak flipped. He ran down the entire section submerged.
On a raft, you're able see and avoid most of the rocks, but we all knew there were plenty more just below the surface. If you fall off, you're supposed to point your feet downstream and just ride. If you try to stand, you'll probably get swept over or have your foot caught in a crack. And most people would probably rather have their feet smashed against all the sharp pointy rocks than their head.
The man got lucky and made it through with his brains intact, and those brains promptly informed him that he should get a damn helmet.
The Nantahala is a fairly safe and family-friendly river, but whitewater rafting can still be very, very dangerous. Be safe. A PFD would be wise for children and poor swimmers. Rafts are unlikely to flip, so a helmet isn't necessary, but you might want to wear a hat, sunglasses, and wool socks. Remember that cold water? It's freezing, even in summer. It'll be all over your feet, and cotton won't help you a bit.
Whether you're compeltely new to rafting or quite good at it, rafting the Nantahala is a very enjoyable experience, exciting and fun without being terribly dangerous. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in having a little outdoor fun.