Our Tapoco Dam Quest

We finally got around to bagging the rest of "Tapoco Group", the four dams in western North Carolina and Eastern Tennessee owned and operated by Alcoa Power Generation, Inc. (we already had Cheoah). We had a few problems and disappointments, but overall it was a very successful quest. We even added two more TVA dams to our list. So here is the "Quest Report".

Friday, April 27, 2001

We took off from work Friday and Monday, and booked a cabin at Fontana Village, located right at Fontana Dam, a good starting point. We didn't leave until about 2:30 PM because we didn't pack the night before, but we figured it would take no more than 4 hours to get there: we didn't have to traverse I-285 to get to the other side of Atlanta, which is usually a traumatic experience. Instead we headed up I-985 by Gainseville, up to Clayton and Mountain City (Blackrock Mountain State Park), right through the middle of the North Georgia Hydro Group, the target of a previous quest. We were going to take NC 28 from Franklin to Fontana Village, but after stopping at a Welcome Center to pick up some maps and other goodies, we got some very good advice to avoid NC 28 and instead take US 441, 19, and 74 in a round-about route, 4 lane almost all the way. NC 28 is a narrow, winding 2 lane, as we later discovered, so we probably saved 30 minutes or more by adding a few extra miles. Besides, we got our chance to drive a winding 2 lane before it was over. We got to Fontana Village about 6:30 PM. Somewhere on the way up we suffered our first equipment failure: the 12 volt multi tapped socket feeding the inverter running the laptop crapped out, the inverter quit inverting, and the laptop battery died. So we lost the last part of the GPS log of the trip up, but the trip up is no big deal, so we weren't concerned.

Many of the cabins at Fontana Village were constructed to house the workers building the dam, hence dating back to the early 1940's. The exteriors look it, but the insides have been completely refurbished and are very livable. There was only a full size bed, as the rooms were pretty small, and two twin beds, if you needed them. The original cabins have no fireplace or screened porch, and two chairs would have been crowded on the little open porch. They also have some newer cabins, and what looked to be a very nice motel. There looked to be three restaurants, but only the one at the motel was actually open, since it was still the off season. Food was good, but a bit pricey if you didn't get the special. The one really strange thing we encountered was a checklist of all the kitchenware and linens in the cabin, and it was suggested that we take an inventory before we left. Apparently they have a real problem with stuff disappearing...we saw a fork stuck in a log next to an outdoor fire ring at the adjacent cabin.

The only table available was the dining table, so we immediately buried it with our "essentials". We soon suffered our second equipment failure: the boom box we take with us wouldn't play CDs. We knew it was having trouble with some CDs, but now it refused to play any of them. We had a backup though: a little personal player with a car kit. We put the tape adapter in the cassette player of the boom box and were back in business. We dug out the maps and fired up Topo 3.0 to begin to plan the next day's adventure. We were pretty sure that we would drive to Cheoah Dam and start from there, but three years (since the Fontana Dam quest) can make the memories a little fuzzy.

Saturday, April 28, 2001

Jan made sandwiches while Pat got the van loaded and the equipment ready. We ended up having to plug the inverter directly into the van's lighter socket, but the GPS had a fresh set of batteries, so we were good to go. We got underway about 9:30, uncharacteristically early for us. We soon found ourselves at Deal's Gap, and discovered that that was where we turned toward Tennessee, not at Cheoah Dam. So much for memory. There we were introduced to "The Dragon", a stretch of US 129 advertised as "11 Miles, 318 Curves". No wonder there was a motorcycle resort located at Deal's Gap. We saw many more motorcycles than cars on this trip: big ones, little ones, three wheelers, cycles pulling trailers, etc. Also a very diverse group of people. We classified them in three groups: the Kamikazes, the Hell's Angels, and the Mom and Pops. You can pretty much figure it out. They all seemed to be nice folks. Soon we crossed into Tennessee, and the twisting and turning began. We don't think there was a straight place anywhere on that road. It was so bad that Jan almost got car sick; Pat was too busy spinning the steering wheel to think about anything else. When we played back the GPS track the arrow looked like it was spinning in circles! After about 7 miles of this, we were wondering if we picked the wrong road, but the map showed only one road more or less paralleling the Little Tennessee River (which we still hadn't seen yet). About a mile or so later, we came to a clearing and an area to park. So we stopped to rest and look, and there was Calderwood Dam. This was a breathtaking view of the river and the back side of the dam, but soon we realized this was the biggest disappointment of the trip: we got this one view of the back side of the dam. and that was it. There was a private access road to the top of the dam, and it was barricaded. It looked to be a pretty decent hike to the dam, and we didn't have permission from APGI, so we didn't. As we proceeded we found another road to the Calderwood Development that was not barricaded, so we went down aways, eventually coming to a sign that said "Hard Hats and Safety Glasses required beyond this Point", so we stopped there and took a picture of what turned out to be the Calderwood Development office. We didn't even get to see the Powerhouse. So we are now trying to figure out who at APGI to contact to see if we can get permission to go in, or be escorted in, to take some pictures. Oh, well. Still, the one view we got was fantastic, reminiscent of the view of Tugalo Dam.

A couple of miles later we got to the end of The Dragon, and were able to relax a little and make better time. A few miles later we came across Chilhowee Dam. It was out in the open, so we got some good pix of it. At this point it was still fairly early, so we took the option of driving on toward Lenoir City, Tennessee, to bag the Fort Loudoun and Tellico Dams. These two dams have an interesting relationship. Tellico is the last dam on the Little Tennessee, and is almost right on the channel of the Tennessee River, just downstream from Fort Loudoun Dam. So they dug a canal between Tellico Lake and Fort Loudoun Lake, boosted the hydroelectric capacity of Fort Loudoun, and did not have to put a Powerhouse at Tellico. Fort Loudoun also has the most upstream navigation lock on the Tennessee River, so Fort Loudoun Lake is the terminus of the big commercial barge navigation on the river. It was here that we suffered our most serious equipment failure: the Pentax ME, our main camera, died. We were taking a picture of the back side of Fort Loudoun dam: pushed the shutter button, the mirror flipped up, the shutter opened, and that was it. And it was only twenty years old! We think we eventually got the shutter closed before we unloaded the film, so hopefully everything up to that point is OK. We had the MX with us, and Jan's point and shoot, but the batteries for the meter in the MX were dead. So we went into Lenoir City to hunt down a Radio Shack or some other place where we could score some batteries (we also needed batteries for our altimeter, and to replace the multi-tap adapter). Eventually we got the MX meter functional, but it turned out to be intermittent, so we had to guesstimate a lot of the exposures. Here's hoping we were close enough. It goes without saying that we are moving a new camera up on the priority list...the MX is about 23 years old!

We got plenty of pictures of Fort Loudoun, but Tellico was a little harder: there was no place to park. After we drove by it the first time and were looking for a place to turn around, we came across a sizable concrete structure. After studying it a while we decided it was an emergency overflow for Tellico Lake. We didn't drive far enough down to see of the road was elevated, or if it would just be sacrificed and rebuilt in the event of the emergency occurring. More stuff to research! We ended up pulling off the side of the road in front of the dam, and Pat ran back far enough to get a decent shot of the concrete portion of the dam, with the spillways and floodgates. The rest of the dam is earthen and rock. There was a little water moving through a tube in the middle floodgate, presumably to keep the water in the channel from there to the river from stagnating. The rest of the flow is diverted into Fort Loudoun Lake

While at the Fort Loudoun lock, we had a good place to relax and try to find an alternate route back to Fontana Village. There ain't one! So we ended up driving The Dragon again. At least we knew what to expect this time. When we got to Deal's Gap, we continued on toward Cheoah Dam, just to see what made us think that the road was there. Turns out there is an access road back to an APGI maintained campground. There was a sign identifying it as part of the Calderwood Project (it was on Calderwood Lake) so that was what confused us. Oh well, mission accomplished, we headed back to the Village to get supper and plan the next day.

Sunday, April 29, 2001

Santeetlah Dam was the only one we hadn't bagged, and it was fairly close, so we got started around 11:30. We had stopped and looked at the Santeetlah Powerhouse from across the river briefly, and it looked like there was a road up to the Switchyard. Studying the maps, we found a road going from Fontana Village to Tapoco, which is basically where Cheoah Dam is, that ran down the other side of the river. So off we go, passing a subdivision right after we get out of the Village proper (we were wondering where some of the traffic we were seeing came from... the road from the Village is basically the only good way to get to the Fontana Heights subdivision). Soon after the subdivision the pavement ended, but the road seemed well graded and maintained, so we pressed on. After several miles, we were rewarded with a view of the pipeline, where it exited a tunnel, ran a couple of hundred yards, then entered another tunnel. (Remember Santeetlah diverts the Cheoah River to the Santeetlah Powerhouse on the Little Tennessee River.) There were no barricades on the driveway, so we pulled off and got some nice close-ups of the pipeline. We are guessing this might have been the highest part of the line where it came over the ridge, so this was exposed so that air could be purged when necessary. There was a contraption of some kind right where it exited the first tunnel, with a service catwalk attached (which was gated, so we respected that). The driveway was gated at that point, so we assume this continued on to the surge tank above the power house, where the flow from the single pipe is split into two penstocks to feed the two turbines. That would have been an interesting picture.

We continued on, and soon intersected with a paved road. We turned back to the right, and started seeing signs for a boat ramp that was part of the Cheoah Development (we were on Cheoah Lake at this point). Sure enough, we round a bend, and there is the Santeetlah Switchyard. Access was gated at that point so we couldn't get any closer to the Powerhouse, but we were happy to get better pictures than from across the river. We could have continued on to hit the road we had been on earlier. Instead we doubled back, and shortly intersected NC 28 at Tapoco, about a half mile up from Cheoah Dam. So we hung a left and continued on to look for the Santeetlah Dam.

We weren't real sure how to get there...most of our maps were pretty vague. We passed a road that went into the Joyce Kilmer/Slickrock Wilderness area, and soon encountered another to Cheoah Point. We turned there and found a place to park where we could study our progress and position on Topo 3.0, and this road looked promising. We pressed on and in less than a mile saw the back of the dam. Carrying on, we found a picnic area right at the dam. This was a good place to eat lunch! The road to access the dam is gated, but the foot path is not. So we were able to get right up to the dam...unfortunately too close to get a real good picture. But we got what we could, and did get a shot of the pipeline exiting the dam and a couple of other interesting things. So we went back to eat.

p align="center">One of the things we encountered there makes you understand why an outfit like APGI is cautious about allowing access to some of their areas. Besides the vandalism thing, which fortunately we didn't see any off, there was litter, especially beer cans, all over the place. Evidently one or more knuckleheads had been there recently to polish off a case of Bud Light, and left the case and cans wherever they finished them. There wasn't a trash can there (which would probably just get shot full of holes, or tossed in the lake, or...you get the picture), but you should at least cart your own trash out of an area. But some people either think they are above that, or that the planet is their own personal landfill, or, more likely, are incapable of thinking, period.

Off the soapbox now. We continued on the road, hoping to find a place to get a good shot of the entire dam. Eventually we encountered a turnoff to the left, crossing the little bit of a river at that point. Had we continued straight, we would have very shortly intersected NC 28, which was the turnoff to the Joyce Kilmer area that we had seen earlier. So we were going in the right direction. Unfortunately, while we saw some tantalizing glimpses through the trees, we never found a place for a clean shot. There was an access road to the base of the dam that was gated, and at that point you couldn't even see the dam. Maybe if we can get permission for access from APGI we can include this area and get some better shots. Even if we had had permission, here we encountered the first and only bad weather of this trip. A rogue thunderstorm had come up. and it started raining. And we don't like hiking in the lightning! So we pressed on, mildly disappointed that we couldn't get a better shot, but happy that the situation was better than Calderwood! We were not quite sure where we were headed (we didn't take the time to stop and study Topo) but soon it became evident we were circling Santeetlah Lake. We encountered a very nice US Forest Service Campground (Horse Cove) with public restrooms, which we took advantage of., and a Forest Service map, which filled us in on where we were and what to expect. Now, where could we get one of these maps? There is a District Rangers Office shown on the map in the area, and we were going to go right by it, but it was Sunday, so we figured we were out of luck. The campground was on a very pretty stretch of rapids that we assumed was the Cheoah River coming into the lake (WRONG!).

We took a detour to the Maple Springs Observation Point, a 4 1/2 mile (one-way) journey (it was kind of weird to see a "no outlet" sign here!), climbing about 2000 feet as you go. It was worth it, and we got a pretty good view of the valley, Santeetlah Lake, and even saw a glimpse of the pipeline as it crossed a road. The clouds were up a little higher, and obstructed very little. As we got back down to lake level and continued on, we encountered the heaviest part of the storm. It was a mild one, just some pretty decent rain. We drove out of most of the rain, and were soon running parallel to a another pretty mountain creek. Maybe this was the Cheoah River (NOT!). All of a sudden we drive up on a small dam, with an opening on one side that at one time probably fed an aqueduct to a mill wheel or something similar. Big, little, we bag 'em all, so we found a safe place to pull off the road, and Pat ran back to grab a picture or two. Pretty soon we found the Cheoah Ranger Station, and it was open! So we scored some maps and brochures, and a book of Hiking Trails in North Carolina. Of course, by now the maps just told us where we had been, as we were almost back to NC 28 where we would backtrack to Fontana Village. We drove completely out of the rain, and passed a bridge across the Cheoah River to a Forest Service road, and there was a gauging station there. We wondered why there would be a gauging station on a river that is dry most of the time, but then quickly realized that during heavy rains the river is going to collect the runoff. Besides, there was more water than we expected running in the river as it was. From what we have been reading, APGI will probably release a certain minimum flow to the river to allow sport fishing, and occasionally a much larger release to allow rafting/kayaking, ala TVA and the Ocoees, and Georgia Power and Tallulah Gorge. After leaving there we decided to go on up to Fontana Dam. The road across the top of the dam was open, and we were able to get a couple of shots from a different vantage point (the road was closed the first time we were there). The lake was down almost twenty feet, it looked like (so was Santeetlah, but we expected that). The Drought has taken its toll even here. We headed back to the cabin, got something to eat (we hit the restaurant again, like we did the night before), and settled in for the night. After studying the GPS log and zooming in to the point where Topo started showing the creek/river names, we found that the Horse Cove Campground was on Santeetlah Creek, and the little dam we saw was on Snowbird Creek. We did cross the Cheoah River channel, but the lake had it covered at the point where we crossed.

Monday, April 30, 2001

Well, this is always the worst part of any trip: packing up and going home. We did the inventory of the silverware (no forks stuck in a tree!) and stuff, and went to check out. We checked out the General Store, Jan bought stamps at the Fontana Dam Post Office, and we reluctantly headed home. The closer we got to Atlanta, the more cars we saw. Eventually we exited I-85 at Lawrenceville-Suwanee Road to head back to Lawrenceville, and the traffic really slapped us in the face to bring us back to reality. Yesterday we drove 80 or more miles and never saw a single traffic light, and very few other vehicles. Makes you wonder if all this madness is worth it. We try to console ourselves by telling ourselves that there is no work "out there", we would not be able to buy the toys we enjoy playing with on these trips, or even to take the trips in the first place, but when you're sitting there at a traffic light, sniffing exhaust fumes, and all you can see in every direction is more cars... you ask yourself again. "Is it worth it?"

Pix are here.