Summer Heat Wave Sends Thousands to Smoky Mountains Streams


By Ken Mink

TOWNSEND, Tn. –The summer of 2020 has been a torrid one for much of America, particularly the Southeast, resulting in a torrent of people seeking relief in rivers and streams – especially in Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia.

Leading the way is several waterways in East Tennessee, with hundreds of thousands donning life jackets, helmets and safety shoes to take spins down rivers such as Ocoee, Pigeon and Little River.

Little towns such as Townsend, population about 375, has experienced an influx of tens of thousands of visitors cooling their heels in the Little River, setting 2020 visitation records as the mercury steadily remained in the 90s for weeks on end.

The water-cooling season has recently reached its seasonal peak, but most river tubing and rafting operations will continue until Labor Day.

The River Rat firm of Townsend, perhaps the biggest tube-raft operation in the region, operates tubing runs on the upper (tougher) and lower areas of the Little River and raft operations, with its colorful huge yellow truck tubes often creating miles-long slivers of color.

Indeed, on some weekends the Little River has so many floaters traffic jams momentarily clog some river sections.

People in their 70s and 80s and children as young as 2 find solace in the cooling streams.

Float trips usually last about two hours covering about 6 miles in the clear mountain waters.

Depending on rainfall frequency the Little water depths can vary from about a foot to about 6 feet. Floaters often run into lower water depths where they have to maneuver through rock whitewater sections, resulting in difficult moments trying to overcome jutting riverbed rocks.   Occasionally, a rock will tear a hole in a tube, creating an aggravating situation. River Rats operates a rescue service for such rare events.

River Rats provides tubers about 3-feet long wooden jam-up sticks to help floaters free themselves from difficult logjams (for a small rental fee).

After the ride ends at a designated stone bridge, customers are shuttled back for free to their starting point by a series of constantly moving yellow Toober Oober buses.

River Rats provides a building where tubers can change clothes and a food snack shack called Toobers. Most  customers keep their valuables in their locked cars in a spacious parking area (River Rats provides customers a secure vehicle key storage). Tubing is $15 per adult for day passes, but you can save money by buying your tickets online in advance (only $13 per pass), or by buying a Season Splash Pass, good for unlimited tubing all summer plus one White Water Rafting trip. River Rat also offers white water rafting on the Pigeon River, a short drive away from Townsend. The Pigeon features Class IV rapids and some of the most beautiful scenery this side of the Mississippi.

River Rats is operated by a husband-wife team (Shannon and Shannan Skidmore) for over 21 years.

Townsend is located about 15 miles south of Maryville and 45 minutes from Knoxville on Highway 129.

You may reach River Rats online or 865-488-8888 (you can download a free brochure online.  The town is also less than an hour’s drive to the Gatlinburg-Pigeon Forge area via a beautiful river road.)

For more information about River Rat and other regional river sports Google “Smoky Mountains Top 10 Tubing and Rafting”.


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