“If you hustle, you’ll catch it," a thin, tattooed kayaker advised as he tugged on form-fitting gear. The gravel parking lot bustled with activity as paddlers of all shapes and sizes gathered the kit they’d need to run a normally un-runnable river, giving each other a healthy dose of ribbing along the way.
The “it” was the dam release which transforms the normally placid High Falls at Lake Glenville into its thundering cataract alter ego. The “hustle” is a three-quarter-mile trail from the gravel lot to the base of the falls.
For only eight days each year, Duke Power opens "the taps” of Thorpe Dam, quickly transforming both the High Falls and the West Fork of the Tuckaseegee River. Hikers make the trek on release days to view the spectacle of the changing falls and kayakers take advantage of a now runnable section of river. That the flow rate of this section of the Tuckaseegee is perfect for kayaking on release days is no accident: The American Whitewater Association worked closely with North Carolina’s predominant power company to set the standard.
On a recent visit to High Falls to witness the dam release, it was 9:45 am, with the release scheduled for 10. Normally, hiking less than a mile in 15 minutes is no problem. But this is no normal stroll. The pathway, with its rough-cut stone and steep steps, descends nearly 600 feet over its short distance.
Fringed with towering trees and overhanging rock cliffs, the High Falls Trail is a thing of beauty in itself. It was constructed in 2013 at the request of the AWA to give paddlers easier access to the river on runnable days like this. (Duke Power built the trail as part of a recent relicensing agreement.) With only a few exceptions, trail construction used materials harvested along the path. Railings and bridges were hewn from nearby trees; large stones were made into steps.
At times, the trail becomes narrow, and slowing down to respectfully pass a kayaker is a necessity. Clad in spray skirt and shoes more suitable for river running than trail hiking, they negotiate the path carrying everything they’ll need to battle class IV rapids. An offer to help tote their boat is usually met with a smile and an affable “no, thank you”. This trek to the river is a rite of passage for these adventurous souls, and schlepping their own gear is part of the deal.
Locating the best spot involves a learning curve for first-time spectators. Savvy kayakers watch from up high, as hikers settle on one of the many huge boulders strewn at the base before moving to higher ground. When the water “turns on”, it happens quickly, and no one wants to get caught. A few lucky hikers think about where they are and scramble back to this side of the rocky chasm; when the water starts flowing, they would otherwise be trapped on the wrong side of the river and cut off from the trailhead. Since the event lasts until 4 pm, that would make for a long day of waiting.
Arriving with time to spare has its benefits. On days of regular flow, when the narrow falls are fed only from a bit of run-off and small feeder streams, the scene is beautiful. Tree-covered, rocky cliffs surround the falls, rising hundreds of feet to create a total wilderness seclusion. Water falls a hundred feet before bouncing down several ledges and finally landing with a splash in rocky pools below.
On most days, this serene setting is worthy of the trip in itself. On dam release day, it’s the calm before the storm.
There’s little warning that things are about to change dramatically. No whistles or horns signal the rush of water; all of a sudden, the scene seems lifted from a natural disaster movie as a wave barrels over the cliff, overwhelms rock ledges on the way down, and begins to fill the low-lying basin with a crashing turbulence. A few moments later, swirling eddies rise where unknowing hikers once sat, unaware that their dry rock would soon be a rapid.
For some six hours, the flood continues, and so does the action. Paddlers launch from the bottom of the falls and shoot down 5-plus miles of class II, III, and IV rapids. Hikers who came to watch the falls transform stand near the base and marvel at the first hardy souls who brave the rapids. Nearly 2,000 gallons of water per second falling hundreds of feet engulfs the canyon in an echoing thunder, covering everyone and everything in a cooling mist.
Somehow, the hike up seems shorter than the trip down. It’s a challenge, but after the mad rush to get to the bottom, the more leisurely walk up allows for time to appreciate just how stunning the trail really is.
For pre- and post-trek fuel, the nearby town of Cashiers has everything you need. On the way to the falls, Bucks Coffee Café —with its mountain town coffeehouse aura—provides the caffeine and light breakfast. After cresting the steep trail, The Ugly Dog Public House is the place to go for large burgers, craft beer, and a chat about how you’re possibly going to explain the falls and the drama of the dam release to friends.
The remaining High Falls release days (officially noted as West Fork Tuckasegee River Bypass Releases) for 2016 are set for June 18, July 2, July 30, and August 30.
If You Go
There are two significant parking lots on either side of Route 107 near the northern end of Lake Glenville. Hiking poles aren’t a bad idea; both for the steep hike down and for navigating the rocky bed at the base of the falls. Get there early for premier positioning and to soak in the subtle falls before the raging version soaks you. Even though they seem awfully friendly, don’t stand under falls before the release. That wave of water happens fast and there’s little chance of dodging it.