Today we drifted by the confluence of the Hiwassee River, one of the largest tributaries feeding the Tennessee. This river has its origins to the east, high in the mountains of the Blue Ridge. As it spills out of the mountains it is joined by the equally large Ocoee River, but maintains the name Hiwassee. Both the Ocoee and Hiwassee have cut deep, scenic gorges into the ancient rocks of the Blue Ridge. This is the state’s premier whitewater rafting area. The Ocoee has a deep, troubled environmental history that began in the 19th Century. This history is largely unknown to the tens of thousands of tourists that enjoy the river’s whitewater and scenic beauty and the easy access afforded by highway 64, which runs like a ribbon alongside the river. High on the Ocoee’s watershed is the bowl-shaped valley called the Copper Basin, where copper and other metals were discovered in the 1840’s. Soon the region became the largest copper mining district in the eastern United States. The copper occurred in ore, meaning the metal was disseminated through the rocks and difficult to extract. The process of getting the copper out of the ore was done on site, using large volumes of firewood harvested from the local forests to roast the ore. Aside from denuding the local forests, this roasting process had a more sinister side effect. The ore also contained large amounts of elemental sulphur which, when released into the air during the roasting process, formed sulphuric acid in the sky above the Copper Basin. Rains brought this acid down as a caustic mist over the basin and lead to the annihilation of all existing vegetation. Soon the Copper Basin became a moonscape, made famous by several photographs as the one below.
The soil became sterile and lacking any vegetative cover succumbed to massive erosion. Local streams transported the sediment load to the Ocoee, which by 1912 had already been dammed in several locations. These dams pre-dated the Tennessee Valley Authority and provided electricity to eastern portions of the state. One dam location was chosen at the entrance to the Ocoee River gorge, a narrow spot where the river exits the Blue Ridge between two high knobs of rock. This dam forms the extensive Parksville Lake. Sediment from the denuded lands upstream soon became trapped behind the dam, replacing much of the water with solid grains of weathered rock and soil. If the lake level drops just a foot or two today, the lake waters in the upper reaches suddenly disappear and a vast mud flat appears. In these areas Cypress trees have been planted and are a testament to the shallow nature of the lake. It wasn’t until the 1970’s that suitable pines became available to revegetate the Copper Basin. Now the basin is green and lush again, with place names like “Bura-Bura” and “Copper Hill”, the occasional mine tailings pile, and the lake sediment the only visible evidence of these former times.
The booming whitewater industry is relatively new, having begun in the mid-1970’s when the damaged flume which carries water to one of the power stations was closed for repairs. This meant that water that was usually carried from the river and caused the Ocoee to be in an almost constant state of dryness found itself flowing free again in the river bed. Boaters quickly discovered the possibilities and after much back and forth with TVA, commercial boating on the river became a big business, permanent fixture. In 1996 the Ocoee River was chosen as the site for Atlanta’s Olympic whitewater events. A portion of the river bed was completely re-engineered to produce the proper rapids needed for an olympic event. The Olympic whitewater center remains a major tourist attraction for swimmers at low water and boaters at high water.