EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a four-part series recounting the backstories and process of getting the Ocoee River ready for the Atlanta Olympic Games and the Olympic whitewater races. The first part of this ran in the Sept. 15 edition of The Advocate & Democrat.
Not everybody was thrilled about Olympic whitewater races taking place on the Middle Ocoee River.
The lack of physical space in the Ocoee Gorge was a problem. After a realistic assessment, it became clear the Upper Ocoee was better suited. Commercial river outfitters were relieved at the decision because they foresaw negative impacts on their businesses from an event staged on the Middle Ocoee.
It was decided to build a new race course in the mostly dry Upper Ocoee riverbed and the Cherokee National Forest (CNF) was told to make it happen. Fortunately, CNF Supervisor John Ramey was energetic, effective and up for the challenge.
Two options were considered — a temporary race channel or a permanent facility. The projected cost for a permanent facility was more expensive but CNF believed the investment would benefit the local economy so it moved forward with that choice.
Paul Wright, US Forest Service landscape architect, was tapped to manage the project and arrived on the scene in late 1992. Unlike many construction projects, this one provided zero wiggle room for delays. It had to be ready in 3 ½ years.
An environmental impact study was required. Understanding it would take time, the CNF conducted ad-hoc studies in advance so it could begin work. The Upper Ocoee was virtually a dead river and the formal study concluded the project would not cause environmental damage.
One challenge after another reared its head. The CNF learned it could not build a structure on a floodway in a county that did not participate in the National Flood Insurance Program.
That meant Polk County Executive Hoyt Firestone had to take on the politically charged issue. The Polk County Commission eventually agreed to join the national program. That allowed the project to move forward, but it took local political courage to make it happen.
Permitting requirements presented a hurdle too. The federal government owned the land but the State of Tennessee would manage the event on behalf of the Atlanta Committee. Federal regulations required a special use permit for the state to use federal land.
Lewis Kearney, USFS staff officer, was charged with figuring out the permit issues. He was told to seek guidance from the Washington office but the DC staff struggled with the legal questions posed. They basically wished CNF good luck.
The CNF team literally created a new model for the permit. Lewis told me, “Somehow, it all worked out and no one went to jail.”
Paul settled on a design team that included an acclaimed hydrologist and a whitewater architect. The goal was to create a world class race course that would look good, work well and stay put in the face of large floods.
Each water feature had to produce a challenging rapid. The eddy pools had to be exact.
Construction would have to take place on both sides of the river, but there was no way to move equipment to the left bank. A retired Army general located a Bailey Bridge at Fort Pueblo, Colorado for the project (Bailey bridges are used by the US Military when troops need to quickly cross a stream). The 41st Bridge Company from Fort Campbell, Kentucky installed it.
The CNF asked TVA to create a scale model so the builders could experiment with options as they crafted the course. TVA wanted CNF to pay for the model to compensate for its loss of revenue from power generation.
A quick cost analysis revealed that a “trial and error” approach would inflict greater financial cost to TVA, so they agreed to donate the model.
First, the riverbed had to be scraped down to bedrock. Engineers designed a system that captured water that trickled into the riverbed from feeder streams and returned it to the river below the construction area.
The crew that scrubbed the riverbed worked tirelessly, sometimes under lights late at night. During the winter of ’94, they worked in snow.
After the riverbed was scrubbed, workers started shaping the race channel. The TVA model worked like a charm. After testing modifications on the model, workers would artfully move sandbags around to duplicate what the model indicated should happen.
Truckloads of rock were hauled in. In some cases, artificial rock was used. In the end, the new channel looked like it had always been there.
Former Olympians were recruited to test the course. They advised against using slalom gates like the ones used in the 1992 Olympics. Those had rounded bottoms.
At least one American did not medal in 1992 because his boat brushed against a rounded lip while paddling through a gate. The Ocoee gates, manufactured in France, were redesigned to have flat bottoms.
There are countless stories of remarkable actions that brought the Ocoee Whitewater Center into existence, but there is not enough space in this piece to share them. In the end, the CNF gave us more than a race course.
The new center included a suspension bridge, administration building, parking lots, walking trails, native plant gardens — even a memorial to the Israeli Olympic athletes who were murdered in Munich in 1972.
In response to local citizen input, CNF restored the Historic Old Copper Road and iconic Blue Holes. And — plans were put in place to add hiking and mountain biking trails after 1996.
I call the CNF project a success by any measure.