Some people chase storms. Ken Kastorff chases the rain — well, he used to, anyway. “Back in the ’70s, Graham County’s Cheoah River was dry,” Ken remembers. “But we’d watch
Some people chase storms. Ken Kastorff chases the rain — well, he used to, anyway. “Back in the ’70s, Graham County’s Cheoah River was dry,” Ken remembers. “But we’d watch the weather patterns.” When the heavy rains came, the kind that drench the earth with plenty of water left over, Ken would grab his kayak and race to the river’s head for the ultimate adrenaline rush.
These days, when the scheduled water releases flood the Cheoah 17 days a year, Ken’s Endless River Adventures, an outfitter he owns with his partner, Juliet, is poised to guide adventure-seekers down their same path. “It’s one of the more difficult whitewater rafting rivers in the state — pretty much non-stop action,” Ken says.
Whether or not you’re an adrenaline junkie, Graham County is one of Western North Carolina’s best destinations for water sports. From creeks and streams packed with fish to lakes and rivers surrounded by lush protected scenery, you’re a stone’s throw away from refreshing mountain waters. Here’s how to hop in.
Explore the secret entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Experience the last remaining old growth forest this side of the Mississippi. Escape to a place where the night sky sparkles like diamonds. And that’s just the beginning …
The largest lake in western North Carolina, Fontana Lake is punctuated by its 480-foot-tall, 1.5-mile-long Fontana Dam. And you can walk right across it — in fact, the paved crosswalk is part of the Appalachian Trail. From the equivalent height of a 50-story skyscraper, you can see unobstructed views of the surrounding Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Nantahala National Forest.
After you’ve explored the view from the top, four marinas offer lake access. At Fontana Marina on the western end of the lake, “dock master” Brandon Jones will happily take a moment to dish out boating and fishing tips. “There are fishing areas you can walk to from the marina,” he says. “Or we can help you with a pontoon boat, canoe, kayak, or paddle board to get out on the water.”
Jones’s personal favorite? “The ‘big island,’ a quarter-mile-long island around mile three.” There, you can beach your boat and live the island life, fishing, exploring, sunbathing. But the fishing’s good just about anywhere you toss out your anchor. “At Fontana Lake, you can fish for everything. I mean everything,” Jones says. “Largemouth, smallmouth, spot, walleye, catfish, brim, bluegill — you name it, we fish for it.”
Jones also likes to explore the remote Hazel Creek. “That’s where everybody lived back in the logging days,” he says. What once were small logging communities before the Fontana Dam project was started in 1942 are now a part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. To learn more about the fascinating history of this area, ask Jones about joining the marina’s pontoon boat shuttle service, available for hikers and trout fishermen.
Fed from Cheoah Lake and the Cheoah River, Calderwood Lake is your ideal destination for kayaking and canoeing. “The setting is just gorgeous,” Juliet Jacobsen Kastorff says. Mostly in Tennessee, the last mile upstream is in Graham County — and that’s also the location of the lake’s only boat access.
If you like to fish, bring your pole along. Because the lake is stocked with fish from the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, you’re sure to land a trout.
When Calderwood Lake was built in 1930, the only way to get to the area was by rail. “Because the area was accessed with the railroad track, there’s a place in Calderwood Lake where, if the water is down just a few feet, there’s an old railroad tunnel you can paddle through,” Ken says. “You have to enter it from the downriver end and lean as far forward as you can to get under the lip of the tunnel. But then the tunnel opens up, and you can paddle probably 30 to 40 feet to the other end.”
Calderwood Lake may be remote, but there’s plenty of wildlife to keep you company. “When you’re out in the boonies, you have a chance to see a lot of winged feathered friends,” Ken says. “It’s not unusual to see a bald eagle, king fisher, or osprey.”
Throughout the state, North Carolina’s Wildlife Commission designated a number of highly coveted streams as “delayed harvest.” In other words, there’s a period of time when the streams are stocked and fishers are welcome to catch-and-release to their hearts’ content using artificial lures with a single hook. No bait can be possessed and no trout can be harvested while fishing delayed harvested waters between October 1 and the first Saturday in June. Snowbird Creek is one of these coveted designations.
For a truly pristine experience (imagine fly-fishing under a canopy of poplar trees and surrounded by lush rhododendron), Ken suggests hiking up-creek to a series of waterfalls. “A narrow-gage railroad bed runs the upper part of Snowbird Creek, and if you walk along it, you’ll come to a great fishing area with wild fish — rainbow and brown trout — that were stocked many years ago and are now reproducing on their own.” And if you walk above the falls, you’ll find brook trout. If you want to pitch your tent and spend the night, there’s some primitive camping sites along the creek, as well.
Ken also likes to fly-fish Santeetlah Creek, an area with easier access and plenty of trout. “If you’re concerned about getting too far from the beaten path, that’s a good one,” he says.
Back at the Cheoah River, Juliet explains why it’s so challenging to raft. “Whitewater rapids are rated on a class scale from 1 to 6. Class 6 would be like Niagara Falls, and even Class 5 is rarely done in whitewater rafting,” she says. “The Cheoah is a Class 4+ river.”
Whereas most of the more challenging whitewater courses have rapids followed by a period of calm, the Cheoah’s technical features include continuous drops. “With the Cheoah, we have a maximum of four people and a guide on each raft to keep them light. That way, you can really maneuver through tight slots,” says Juliet. “There’s a lot of teamwork that goes on, so we like rafters who go on this Cheoah trip to be really experienced.”
Judging by the 50 or so people who’ve stopped along Highway 129 to watch the rafters navigate the river’s steep Bear Creek Falls, it’s a thrilling event — and often inspires new adventures. “We’ve got repeat visitors who come back every year,” Juliet says. “Ever since it was discovered back in the ’70s, the Cheoah has been a darling of the Southeast. Once you’ve experienced it, you know what an incredible river it is.”
Named one of the 20 most beautiful lakes in America by the media company Insider Inc., Lake Santeetlah’s pristine waters feel like a movie set in another world. Two marinas, Santeetlah Marina and Santeetlah Boat Rentals, can help you get out on the water with paddleboard, kayak, canoe, and motorboat rentals. “There are 75 miles of shoreline — a lot to explore,” says Marcella Reeves, who owns Santeetlah Boat Rentals and lives on-site with her husband and 3-year-old daughter. “When you rent a boat with us, we’ll give you a detailed map of the whole lake, with campsites and the different coves. We’ll show you how to get to places you might like, depending on your interests. Some people like to kayak, which gets you up close and personal with nature, and other people like to rent a pontoon boat with their family or their friends and just relax.”
According to Reeves, the name Santeetlah is derived from an Indian word that means blue waters. “And it really lives up to its name,” she says. “People love to fish here because the water is so clean and they say the fish taste so good.”
Want to try your hand at kayak fishing? Smoky Mountain Kayak Fishing offers guided full-day, half-day, and even nighttime kayak fishing trips.