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The Chattooga River (also spelled Chatooga, Chatuga, and Chautaga, variant name Guinekelokee River) is the main tributary of the Tugaloo River. Its headwaters are located southwest of Cashiers, North Carolina, and it stretches 57 miles (92 km) to where it has its confluence with the Tallulah River within Lake Tugalo, held back by the Tugalo Dam. The Chattooga and the Tallulah combine to make the Tugaloo River starting at the outlet of Lake Tugalo. The Chattooga begins in southern Jackson County, North Carolina, then flows southwestward between northwestern Oconee County, South Carolina, and eastern Rabun County, Georgia. The "Chattooga" spelling was approved by the US Board on Geographic Names in 1897.
The river was used as a setting for the fictional Cahulawassee River in the book and film Deliverance.
The Chattooga River flows into Tugalo Lake where it joins the Tallulah River. After flowing through Tugalo Dam the combined rivers become the Tugaloo River which, along with the Seneca River, becomes the Savannah River below Lake Hartwell. Downstream from that point, the water flows into the Atlantic Ocean near Savannah, Georgia.
The Chattooga River serves as part of the boundary between Georgia and South Carolina after leaving North Carolina near latitude 35°N. The Chattooga River was not the original boundary line between South Carolina and Georgia. A treaty of 1816 extended the South Carolina boundary to its current location. Prior to 1816, the Chattooga was on the lands of the Cherokee Indian Nation.
The Blue Ridge Mountains, where the Chattooga starts, are considered to be ancient, even by geological standards. The rock is mostly granite. Geologists believe that the Chattooga may have made one direction change during its life. Originally, it probably flowed southwesterly into the Chattahoochee riverbed and on to the Gulf of Mexico, but at some point, the Savannah River eroded its northern headland until it intersected the Chattooga and diverted it to the Atlantic.
The rocks in the riverbed probably fell from the ridge above, but those rocks do not necessarily remain where they fall. In times of great downpours, high water, and fast currents, rocks can become dislodged and move downstream, taking other rocks and debris with them. During Hurricane Ivan in 2004, the wind force and waters knocked down big boulders off the sides. The hurricane released enough water in the Chattooga watershed to bring the river to its highest recorded flow rate, around 26,000 cu ft/s (740 m3/s) to 28,000 cu ft/s (790 m3/s), rivaling the typical flow of the Grand Canyon.
Since May 10, 1974, the Chattooga River has been protected along a 15,432-acre (6,245 ha) corridor as a national Wild and Scenic River. 39.8 miles (64.1 km) of the river have been designated “wild”, about 2.5 miles (4.0 km) “scenic”, and 14.6 miles (23.5 km) “recreational” for a total of about 57 miles (92 km). On the commercially rafted sections (III and IV) there is a 1/4 to 1/2 mile buffer zone of National Forest on both sides of the river, allowing no roads or development of any kind within that distance. The Chattooga also bisects the Ellicott Rock Wilderness which straddles three states (Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina) and three National Forests (the Chattahoochee, Nantahala and Sumter National Forests). Much of the Georgia portion of the river is within the Chattooga River Ranger District of the Chattahoochee National Forest. One of the many factors that contribute to this virtually unchanged river is its inaccessibility. In the 50-60 miles that is the Chattooga, only four bridges exist to cross, the most heavily-used being the Highway 76 bridge, which had to be reconstructed after the flood-stage water level brought on by Hurricane Ivan in 2004.
The river is split into three forks. The Chattooga River is the main fork, running along the state line. The East Fork Chattooga River (sometimes East Prong Chattooga River) runs in from Jackson County, North Carolina and then Oconee County, South Carolina, and is 7.4 miles (11.9 km) long. The West Fork Chattooga River (variant name Gumekoloke Creek) runs 6.0 miles (9.7 km) in from Rabun County, Georgia, and is also a variant name for that county's Holcomb Creek, one of its own tributaries.
One of the largest tributaries in the Chattooga basin that flows mainly through private lands is Stekoa Creek, which flows primarily southeast for approximately 18 miles (29 km) from its headwaters in Mountain City, Georgia, through Clayton, Georgia, to its mouth at the Chattooga River. The Stekoa Creek Basin is approximately 45 square miles (120 km2) in size.
In the late spring, the river is lined with blooming pink and white mountain laurel. Early spring is also a great time to go rafting, kayaking, or canoeing because of the higher flows and cooler temperatures. The Chattooga is a free-flowing river (no upstream dam to control the flow) which quickly responds to rainfall or drought conditions. As a drop-pool style river, rapids are followed by calm pools for swimming.
The Chattooga headwaters start near Cashiers as a small stream, but Green Creek is the start of the boatable section. Section I is the West Fork and is ideal for tubing and class II float trips. Section II starting at Highway 28 is a class II float. Section III has Class II-IV rapids which rafters and kayakers frequent. The final rapid in Section III is Bull Sluice. Section IV includes Class II-V rapids, including the famous Five Falls (five class III-V rapids in roughly a 1/4 mile stretch). The minimum age requirement to raft Section IV is 13. A number of signature rapids on this river were featured in the motion picture Deliverance.
The Forest Plan, issued in 1976 and revised in January 2004, restricted motorized craft, closed many roads to the river and prohibited floating on the upper 21 miles (34 km) of river. This plan was challenged by several boating advocacy groups, causing the United States Forest Service to withdraw the plan of 2004 and ordering a Visitor Use Capacity Analysis. The USFS issued its final decision in January of 2012. The decision expanded boating onto some sections of the upper Chattooga with a number of restrictions based on season, section of river, property ownership, time of day, and water level. This section is difficult, flows infrequently, and will likely see limited whitewater use; however, when it does flow the weather will likely be bad and other river users are unlikely to be out.