Water to Tread
Kayaking and Water Control on the Cumberland Plateau
Tennessee is considered by some to be the home of some of the best kayaking in the eastern United States. The Ocoee river alone brings around 300,000 kayakers, boaters, and rafters to Tennessee and the businesses that sink or swim depending upon their currents.
Tennessee is also home to one of the biggest brand names in kayaking, Jackson Kayak. Jackson Kayak was co-founded by three-time world champion, Rock Island native Eric Jackson and business partner Tony Lunt in an 800 square foot laundry facility in Rock Island, TN. The company has since expanded into a 100,000 square foot factory space in Sparta, TN, where they now employ around 120 people.
Keeping with its small town origins Jackson Kayak has chosen to do business in a way that keeps small businesses in mind.
“We sell only to small businesses,” Ian Stewart, Customer Services representative, and occasional tour guide for Jackson Kayak, said. “We don’t distribute to any of the large outfitters, because, if we did, these other stores couldn’t compete,” Stewart said. “We also have territories for the people who we deal with, one person in each territory can sell our kayaks. That way nobody is driven out of business by their neighbor.”
World Kayaking Championships at Rock Island
In 2006 the company helped work to bring the World Championship Kayaking competition to Rock Island. Over 150 people attended, bringing their families and friends with them. They rented out the majority of available lodging space in the county and brought a great deal of business along with them.
The company has partnered with American White Water and World of Kayak to try and host the 2012 World Championships at Rock Island but they are currently working for confirmation that the dams will be running, and the water flowing, before anything is decided. In order to do this the company must work with the Tennessee Valley Authority.
“I don’t think they mean to be, but the TVA can be an issue because of the dams,” Stewart said. “I don’t know anything about hydro-electric power, but controlled water releases from the dams determine the economic value of the river, and sometimes they release the water at 2 a.m. You can’t do anything with that, so we’re trying to ensure that the water will be running before we schedule the competition here.”
Great Falls Dam, which serves the river at Rock Island, publishes forecast predictions of releases up to two or three days in advance on the TVA website, however; dams can do what is called a recreational release, or spill, in order to accommodate rafters, boaters and fishers. One of the rivers that enjoys this arrangement is the Ocoee river in Polk county. The dam has a recreational calendar that shows pre-arranged water spillage from the dam specifically for recreational purposes, and as a result the river attracts over 300,000 users every year.
Linda Caldwell, Director of the Tennessee Overhill Heritage Association, commented.
“The Ocoee is a major attractor for business,” she explained. “I don’t have any specific numbers, the rafting companies don’t charge a sales tax so we can’t really keep track of how much money is moving through there. They used to pay a rafting tax which we used to keep track of it, but they have stopped doing that. What I can say is that the river makes a significant difference to us, all that is a huge help.”
Carrie Mays, Senior Forecaster for the TVA, touched on the Ocoee/TVA contract.
“We have a contract with the rafting companies on the Ocoee to provide special flows and hours during the day. We don’t have any agreement like that with anyone on Great Falls,” Mays said. “An agreement like this can limit power generation, and sometimes, if we have a lot of rain, we have to let the water go off schedule or we would overflow. For something like that we would notify the rafting companies about what is going on and what we’re going to be doing. The rafters are a priority, unless there is something, like an overflow, where we have to take other things into consideration.”
Mays was unsure about the availability of an arrangement like this between the TVA and people on Great Falls.
“Each dam is different,” she said. “We operate them differently throughout the year. We lower the water levels during the winter so that if there is a storm we have space for water in the reservoir. Great Falls Dam reservoir is small and it fills quickly so we have to keep an eye on it or it will spill.”
Janice Pinkson, TVA Information Representative, further explained the contract.
“After the Worlds Fair we helped these companies get a low interest loan. The companies pay us for the power we give up in order to provide the spills, and use the business generated from that to pay back on the loan.”
Arranging this sort of contract with other groups would take a great deal of consideration, but according to these TVA representatives the TVA is willing to accommodate citizens. No dams on the Cumberland Plateau are currently operating under a contract like this. Excepting Great Falls, all dams on the plateau are operated by the Army Core of Engineers.
Randy Kerr, Civil Engineer for the USACE, commented.
“We are willing to work with the public,” Kerr said. “We, of course, want to maximize the benefits for the communities involved, but I’m not aware of any rafting below our dams.”
The economic impact of this sort of contract is substantial, but difficult to track. Exact numbers aren’t readily available for the Ocoee, but if you subtract the number of private paddlers, estimated to be around 40,000, from the 300,000 people per year using the river that leaves 260,000 people renting kayaks, boats, canoes, and equipment.
Jackson Kayak has reported 50 percent growth for the last three years in a row. Despite being relatively new, the company is renowned for making some of the best white water kayaks in the world. The company is firmly rooted in Sparta and has “no plans, and no desires” to leave.