COVID-19 is not throwing cold water on the 2020 Ocoee whitewater rafting season.
Commercial rafting on the Ocoee River in southeast Tennessee opened on May 16, two months later than normal. Guests now will see increased cleaning protocols and social distancing guidelines enforced to help keep them safe. Tennessee State Parks are also open to guests.
"As soon as we saw the scope of COVID, we contacted government agencies to help develop guidelines to keep our guests safe and save the rafting season," said Keith Jenkins, vice president of the Ocoee River Recreation and Economic Development Fund Board and Quest Expeditions owner.
Tennessee State Parks, Tennessee Department of Health, Tennessee Valley Authority, U.S. Forest Service and outfitters worked together to develop guidelines to reopen the river to commercial rafters.
According to Angelo Giansante, Manager of the Hiwassee/Ocoee Scenic River State Park, outfitters will sanitize gear and buses with approved cleaning solutions, limit capacity on buses to keep people physically distanced, and do guest check-ins outdoors or online in advance. Park Rangers will help aid in whatever safety needs should arise.
“There’s nothing more important than the physical safety and health of our visitors,” said Giansante. “It’s exciting to see the public/private partnership come together to find creative solutions to get us back on the water.”
Rafts hold six passengers and a guide. Rafters and outfitters are adapting to support social distancing when they head down the river.
“Folks are acting responsibly to make social distancing work on a raft,” said Jenkins. “We are seeing families buying full rafts or getting close friends together to go on a trip together. It’s all about keeping the community safe.”
Outfitters work to keep groups together and avoid mixing them together, Jenkins adds.
"Once we get going, and word gets out about the strong [Ocoee] health safety procedures, the public will be confident about getting out on the water," said Ryan Cooke, president of the Ocoee Rivers Outfitters Association and Ocoee Rafting and Lake Ocoee Inn and Marina owner.
For those concerned about COVID-19, Cooke said their data shows that the Ocoee does not draw rafters from hot-spot states and guests do not generally have preexisting health conditions.
The Ocoee River is America’s premier whitewater adventure. Last year, commercial rafters took 168,213 customers down the Ocoee River. The best year ever for rafters was in 2010 when 243,331 customers went on commercial raft trips. During 2012, the Ocoee River became the most visited whitewater river in the U.S. with 229,542 visitors.
TVA spokesperson Scott Fiedler said, "Recreation on TVA lakes is valued at about $12 billion annually. Reopening the season is important because it drives $43 million into the Polk County, Tennessee, economy and provides about 600 jobs."
Want to get the most out of any rafting, kayaking or canoeing adventure? Be prepared before you go. We make it easy with our 13-part checklist, which covers everything from safety basics to relevant U.S. Coastguard law. Check out our paddle pointers.
Everyone knows that the Ocoee River is one of the most popular whitewater rafting adventures in America. But a little-known secret is that the southeastern Tennessee destination is also an epicenter for many other forms of world-class recreation. Find out what else you can do before or after your rafting experience.