Forty years later, deliverance still haunts the backwaters of appalachia . But the mythic river chattooga carries on, delivering class iv and class v rapids to thrill-seekers and cinephiles alike.
Photographs By Brent Clark
After five hours on the Chattooga River, the line between fun and fear is beginning to blur.
The South's wildest whitewater stream has treated our raft like a leaf on its surface, spinning us around granite boulders and suck holes, carrying us over four-foot waterfalls and into waves that throw themselves over the bow and slap us in the face. We've fallen out of the raft, fallen into the raft, been dragged through cold darkness at the bottom of the river and then pushed back to the surface—breathless and grasping for handholds.
That was the easy part.
Squinting into a mist on a raw drizzly early summer day, we see another mid-stream boulder rushing toward us; after that, the Chattooga drops over a ledge and nearly out of site.
I took comfort in the following: I've come here to float in Burt Reynolds' wake, four decades after Hollywood arrived to film Deliverance, the Southern backwoods classic that bred fear in generations of Americans. An adaptation of a James Dickey novel that was nominated for three 1972 Academy Awards, Deliverance tells the harrowing story of four suburban Atlanta businessmen who set offon a canoe trip in search of adventure and self-discovery.
By the time they stumble out of the deep woods, one of the group is dead, one has been attacked and the other two have each killed a man with a bow and arrow.Deliverance confirmed every city dweller's paranoia about the people who live in the woods. It also turned Clayton into a trendy vacation spot, whitewater rafting into a mainstream activity and the mountain people of southern Appalachia into cinematic clichés.
Today, you can't float down an American river without someone whistling a few bars from dueling banjos, the haunting tune from the opening scene, which set the tone for the film's degrading depiction of mountain people as ignorant, violent inbreeds. "It's been 40 years and you still see the impact, and it ain't funny," says Barbara Taylor Woodall, an eighth-generation resident and the author of It's Not My Mountain Anymore, a compilation of first-hand accounts of vanishing Appalachian lifestyles. "Tourists used to peer from the safety of their RVs and SUVs with their eyes peeled hoping to see an honest-to-God Appalachian hillbilly walking around."
At the same time, thousands of weekend warriors flocked to the Chattooga, driven by the same impulse the movie suggested was foolhardy, even deadly. "It's called the Deliverance Syndrome," says Buzz Williams, a former river guide who is now executive director of the Chattooga Conservancy, which tries to fend off threats to the river. "Prior to the movie, not many people were paddling the Chattooga. After the movie everyone came rushing in from all quarters to experience the Chattooga in any craft— inner tubes, roped-up rafts, ill-suited canoes made out of aluminum. Seventeen people died in the first three years."
The fatalities dropped with the introduction of safety measures like helmets, and rafters can now opt for family-friendly runs. With a sense of fascinated dread, however, I sign on for a daylong trip down Section IV, a series of five consecutive Class IV-V (dangerous, very dangerous) rapids that crash through boulder alleys. "What makes the Chattooga very dangerous is geology," Williams explains. "It's small but technical, with undercut rocks, woody debris and ledges where hydraulics form. It's also very steep—like water flowing down stair steps."
The drive to the river from Clayton was a journey back in time, to an era when southern Appalachians lived in isolated hollows that preserved the region's lifestyle, keeping it closer to its pioneer roots than almost any other place in the country. Boor-man came here to film the dueling-banjos encounter between Ronny Cox's character and Billy Redden, an 11-year-old who was plucked out of Clayton Elementary School to play the role of the mute albino banjo boy. Redden's thin-lidded eyes and odd grin are haunting on film. Cox strums his guitar; Redden, sitting on a porch, echoes him on his banjo; and the five-minute showdown is on. Redden doesn't play the banjo and couldn't fake it, so another boy, squatting behind the seat, did the finger work, his arm threaded through Redden's sleeve.
Redden remains a compelling, enigmatic figure for fans that come from far and wide for his autograph and to be photographed next to him. He currently works at the Clayton Wal-Mart; PADDLE FASTER... I HEAR BANJO MUSIC is printed on T-shirts in local souvenir shops.
"Tourists used to peer from the safety of their RVs and SUVs with their eyes peeled hoping to see an honest to God Appalachian hillbilly walking around."
The 57-mile, free-flowing Chattooga begins as a trickle in North Carolina and then plunges south along the Georgia-South Carolina border. At the put-in spot, we climb into the rafts—big, bouncy inflatable-rubber boats—and push off into the water, four people and a guide. Everyone wears a life jacket and a padded helmet. There are guides on all three rafts in the flotilla and escorts in canoes with yellow rescue ropes. The current catches the raft and pulls us away, into mythic landscape flanked by national forestland and protected from development by its Wild and Scenic status. There are no roads. No buildings. No conspicuous sign of human touch whatsoever. Just the indigenous beauty that greeted prehistoric North Americans and Native Americans thousands of years prior to the arrival of European settlers: gorges, waterfalls, cliffs, impenetrable forest.
"The river is still as it has been for probably a thousand years," Woodward says. "You could be in any period of time." Adds Williams: "There's a place in the headwaters so magical, it's something out of a Tolkien book. The mosses and ferns, the hemlocks and moisture—it's so beautiful, it's eerie."
But the serenity soon evaporates. "Here we go," our guide shouts as we paddle toward Screaming Left-Hand Turn, the first of several consecutive rapids where Deliverance's white-knuckle scenes took place. At the last instant, we cut left and drop into a thunderous sluice, bucking and bending with the river. Spray stings my face and cuts my vision. I hunch forward, feet braced against the side of the raft. A foaming wave devours the front of the raft, raising it perpendicular to the water and holding it there for a moment, before flipping us upside down and into bone-chilling rapids.
There are some very hair-raising areas," Woodward said. "Some very hair-raising things that happened in the movie." The reality of movie making on the Chattooga set in fast. When the four leads—Reynolds, Jon Voight, Ned Beatty, Ron Cox—climbed into a canoe for the first time, the boat flipped over, dumping them into a pond. None had ever paddled a canoe. Yet Reynolds was undaunted. Although Boorman hired local river runners like Woodward and Claude Terry to guide the cast through potentially bone cracking scenes, Reynolds ignored them. "They sent a dummy over the waterfall, and it looked like... a dummy. So I went over the waterfall and hit a rock about a quarter of the way down and cracked my hipbone," Reynolds wrote. In the climactic scene, Voight's character ascends a 200-foot cliff to ambush the remaining mountain man. In keeping with the macho vibe, the actor climbed halfway up the treacherous face, with the help of a safety cable. "There's a lot of mystique when it comes to the Chat-tooga. I think they got caught up in it," Williams said.
Rounding a bend, a rash of déja vu hits me head-on when I catch a glimpse of a house-sized boulder—the spot where Voight's character washes up after tumbling through white water. As I paddle through calmer waters, scanning a swath of lonely wilderness, another image comes to mind: an eye peering through a cluster of hemlock on the novel's dust jacket. "In much the same way as Jaws tapped into a primal fear of what lies under water, Deliverance tapped into a collective unconscious fear of the watcher in the woods that is as old as American literature itself," Dickey's daughter, Bronwen Dickey, has written. "A person is most afraid when he is the most vulnerable, and never is he more vulnerable than when he is at the mercy of the wild."
That was underscored in the film's most infamous scene, which Boorman shot on a riverbank clearing in Section IV. "A mountain man might steal your white lightning, and he might steal your woman, but not much more than that. I mean, really," says Mildred Keener, whose husband, Ken, played an assistant sheriff. "We don't have much excitement here in the mountains," said Sarah Rickman, who husband, Frank, oversaw locations, sets and local casting. "This was exciting. But it was a long time ago."
Soon Hollywood packed up and left, leaving the river to the people who had known it best for generations. For them, time just doesn't stand still on the Chat-tooga—it flows backward.
"There's a place in the headwaters so magical, it's something out of a Tolkien book. The mosses and ferns, the hemlocks and moisture— it's so beautiful, it's eerie."
IF YOU GO...
WHERE TO STAY:
OLD CLAYTON INN A historical inn at the foot of the North Georgia Mountains. www.oldclaytoninn.com
PINNACLE CONFERENCE & RETREAT CENTER Nestled in the foot of Pinnacle Mountain, this retreat is surrounded by national forest land. www.pinnacleretreatcenter.com
KINGWOOD COUNTRY CLUB AND RESORT Golf, lounge or use this resort in the majestic Blue Ridge mountains as a base camp for rafting. www.kingwoodresort.com
* The Chattooga River rises at the base of Whitesides Mountain in North Carolina and flows in a southwesterly direction to form the border between South Carolina and Georgia. The Chattooga originates at the base of a colossal 5,000 foot wall of granite.
* Most believe that the word Chattooga is related to a Cherokee word for crossing, tsatugi, meaning either "we have crossed here" or "he has crossed the river and come out upon the other side."
* The names of the river's rapids and other landmarks reflect the area's early inhabitants. Indian names translated into English have become Sock'em Dog, Shoulder Bone, and Cutting Bone Creek.
* Before his death in 1997, James Dickey, author of Deliverance, told a friend, "Say goodbye to the river for me."