Our Tapoco Dam Quest, Second Edition

We enjoyed the first Quest and sightseeing in the area so much, we decided to pursue getting permission from APGI for access to Calderwood and Santeetlah Dams and make a followup Quest. There was an Open House that Tapoco had scheduled at the Robbinsville Library for June 1, so we thought that would be a good time to go, even though we were there only a month earlier. We sent email to Mr. Norm Pierson of APGI, who was a contact listed on the Tapoco Web Page. We were very pleased to get a positive response, although we would have to be escorted to Calderwood Dam (there was a very good reason for that, as we discovered). So we called Ms. Sue Fugate of APGI, and set up an appointment to meet Mr. Bill Dixon, also of APGI, at the Calderwood Service Building on Friday, June 1 at 2 PM.

We wanted to check out the Tapoco Lodge as well, so we booked a cottage there for Friday and Saturday nights. As a result, we have a new favorite place, and Pat (at least) has a new favorite dam! So, without further ado, here is the report.

Thursday, May 31, 2001

We debated the best way to go to make sure we got there on time. Atlanta traffic being what it is (awful!), we decided to stage somewhere north of Atlanta on Thursday night, so as not to have to deal with Friday morning rush hour (which is more like two or three hours!). So, after Pat got home from work, we loaded up and headed over to I-75. We found a non-descript motel room in Calhoun, between Cartersville and Dalton, and got there right as a severe thunderstorm opened up. As it turned out, the weather would dog us this whole trip. We got the valuables out of the van after most of the rain had let up, and settled in for the night. Pat had taken his laptop from work (a Dell with a 15 inch screen and 1400 x 1050 resolution, great for Topo USA!), so we spent the evening installing software and preparing for the next day.

Friday, June 1, 2001

We awoke to a drenching rain Friday morning. We haven't had any decent rain in months, and it has to be remedied today! We loaded up and headed north up I-75, hoping to drive out of it, but the Weather Channel did not leave us much hope. It soon became apparent we were going to get to Calderwood way early, so we opted to get off of I-75 and go bag the Watts Bar Dam. The rain was starting to let up north of Chattanooga, and the clouds sort of looked like they might be trying to break. We got off I-75 on to TN 305, intersected with TN 65, and turned west toward the development. The rain had stopped by the time we got there.

Watts Bar is a very interesting TVA development. There is a dam, a nuke plant, and a retired coal plant, all right next to each other. The dam has the original 60 x 300 foot navigation lock, and there was a 15 barge "tow" (as we now know they are called) locking through. They have to do it one barge at a time! It was too painful to watch (not to mention it was going to take all day), so we got pictures of the dam and the other plants and moved on. We were close enough to our destination that we did not get back on I-75, instead going east on TN 65 to Madisonville, Tennessee to hit US 411 north. We soon found TN 72, and turned towards Chilhowee Dam. We took the opportunity to take a few more pix of it, since we weren't real happy with what we got last time. We got to the Calderwood office at 1:20, a bit early.

Since the weather was iffy and it wasn't raining when got there, we went in to see if they could accomodate us a little earlier than planned. We only had to wait a couple of minutes, then we met Bill Dixon, a 35 year Alcoa employee, and a 22 year veteran of Tapoco. He was to be our escort and guide. We piled in a company truck, and struck out for the dam, enjoying a very pleasant and informative conversation as we went. We very soon saw why you have to be escorted in: you have to drive right through the powerhouse to get there! As you can see in the pictures, the terrain here is very steep, and there is not much of a place to spread out. A little farther upstream there was enough room to put up a small maintenance facility, and we continued on upstream, working our way around the end of the ridge that abutts the left side of the dam. We finally rounded a turn and there she was! We had seen some other pictures of the dam, but the sheer magnificence of the real thing left us speechless (momentarily, anyway). Pat has decided that Calderwood is now his favorite dam, replacing Cheoah (at least it is still in the family). We got pictures from several angles, but were again hampered by the fact we were too close! Aerial shots are probably the only way to adequately photograph something as big as a dam in this type of terrain, but that is beyond our budget! In fact, the usual chartered Cessna probably wouldn't do; in this terrain you would really need a helicopter! We have decided a 20mm lens is a necessity instead of a toy, so it has been moved up on the list.

While at the dam we learned that Cheoah is not the only movie star of the group: the movie "In Dreams" had a scene shot at Calderwood. Most of the folks we have talked to since didn't like the movie. No matter, we bought it anyway. The scene was at the very end of the movie, but the dam was obviously Calderwood. We were jealous, because Annette Benning and Robert Downey, Jr. were running all over the top of the dam and around the cranes. Wish we could get access like that! (Maybe if we had the insurance coverage a typical movie must have...). Cheoah also had a bit part in the movie. The only credit given, however, was a one liner to "Tapoco, Inc." (before they became part of APGI). No fair!

After shooting a whole roll of film, we reluctantly left the dam, and headed back to the power house. There Bill stopped at a safe distance from the house and let us get out to get a couple of shots. We drove back to the office, and talked with Bill a while longer before we thanked him and APGI for their time, and headed for Tapoco Lodge. From there, of course, it meant we had to drive "The Dragon"... again (that made our third time). The Dragon might be fun on a motorcycle or in a Miata, but it is a pain in the butt in a Caravan! Not to mention the elbows. But we survived and got to the Lodge about 3:30.

Our Cottage was the Hillcrest 1, and about the time we got there, the bottom fell out. So we waited to unpack the van, and enjoyed the view. The cottage was overlooking the Cheoah River as it broke over rocks and made its way to Calderwood Lake, just a few hundred yards downstream. The room was like a detached motel room, and there were two of them in the cottage, but fortunately we had the place to ourselves... I guess it is still early enough in the season that the place was not crowded. We would have preferred to have a kitchenette, but the view from the screened front porch more than made up for it. We had two full size beds, so one was pressed into service as the requisite "chart table". The rain finally let up enough to let us unpack the van. We then freshened up a bit and headed for Robbinsville, to attend the open house.

Once we found the Library in Robbinsville, we met Mr. Norm Pierson of APGI, who had gotten us into Calderwood. We talked for a while, and Norm gave us permission to walk in on the access road at the base of Santeetlah Dam. This open house was part of the re-licensing effort, concentrating on the "visual aspects" of the project. There we were shown a series of pictures, and were asked to mark our reponses. It soon became apparent that we were mostly being asked about our feelings about the Santeetlah development, being shown the lake at various levels of drawdown (at least one had several boats left high and dry), and several views of power lines, dams, the Santeetlah pipeline, and the Santeetlah powerhouse. This is supposed to be a trip report, so we'll put the soap box on a different page! We grabbed something to eat while at Robbinsville, and headed back to the lodge to plan and rest.

Saturday, June 2, 2001

We got started about 11:00 Saturday morning. We didn't have any real definite plans beyond Calderwood when we started this quest, but since we had permission to go in to the base of Santeetlah, we headed for the dam. Once we got there, the weather was threatening rain, so Pat grabbed a rain coat and headed in while Jan stayed with the van. We were going to keep in contact via radio, but the battery on the only HT we had with us died, and we didn't have a backup...shame on us! It was about a quarter of a mile or so to the dam, and the vegetation was so thick there was no good place for a shot until Pat was right the base of the dam. "I was so close if they had opened the flood gates, I would have been in trouble! There were some workers doing something on top of the dam, so I grabbed the shots as quick as I could, and beat it back to higher ground." Back at the van, Jan opted not to go in because of the weather, so we headed to the top of the dam to pay it a visit. We got a few more shots there, getting some better views of the lake side of the dam. The lake was much higher this time, looking to be at full pool.

We headed back to the lodge, grabbed some sandwich makings, and headed up to Fontana Dam for an impromptu picnic. The visitors center should have been open at that time, and we wanted to ride the tram down to the power house again. In this day and time, nobody in their right mind would ever pick up a hitchhiker, but when we saw a guy with a backpack and his thumb out at Fontana Village, we stopped and offered him a ride. This time of year is the busiest for the Fontana Dam Post Office, located at the village, due to hikers of the Appalachian Trail coming to pick up supplies mailed to them. For experienced hikers, Fontana Dam is roughly two weeks or so from the beginning at Springer Mountain in Georgia, and the Post Office is reasonably close to the trail, so it makes a good resupply point, and a good chance that this hitchhiker was benign. Turned out he was from Quebec, and his English not too good. Our French is non-existent, but we finally got him where he needed to go...he hadn't made it to the dam yet, and he understandibly did not want to bypass an inch of the Trail. We wished him well (never did get his name) and went on to the dam for our picnic. After eating under the hatch of the van (it had started raining again), we headed for the visitors center. There we discovered the tram is down for the season, possibly for ever! Seems there were some safety concerns, and it requires some half a million bucks worth of re-work. We expressed an interest in contributing to a fund, but so far there isn't one that we know of. We left a suggestion in the box that maybe someone should start one. We suppose that we could, although we've never done anything like that, and since TVA is a quasi government organization, we ain't sure that would be the place to start! On the way up to the dam, we saw that "Authorized Vehicles Only" are allowed beyond the first parking space on the road to the base of the dam at this time, so basically the bottom of the dam is off limits. From the top, it looked like there was some kind of construction going on in the switchyard. So, this is not the best year to visit Fontana, although it is still an impressive sight. We got some updated literature, and bought a map and book. Then we headed back to the Lodge.

The Lodge restaurant has a fixed menu, so thay can better concentrate on serving a very good meal, although on Friday you do have a choice of catfish, trout, or steak. We opted not to eat there on Friday night... BIG mistake! We got the steak there Saturday night (the only choice on Saturday, although the web page says that hamburgers are available at dinner), and it was quite possibly the best steak we have ever had! Every thing that was served was top notch, and the service was great, even though there were more people there than we expected. We waddled out of there back to the cottage to settle in, and to enjoy the view of the river one more night.

Sunday, June 3, 2001

All things come to an end, so we reluctanly loaded up and headed for home. Desoto State Park now has some serious competition! Although we doubt we will ever find anything to surpass the cabins at Desoto, the Tapoco Lodge restaurant blows the park restaurant away (sorry, guys, we call it like we taste it!).

We had planned to drive the Cherohala Skyway back, so we headed towards Robinsville. We debated about going around Santeetlah Lake again, which might have gotten us to the Skyway a little quicker (the folks at the lodge thought so), but we decided to see if the Cheoah Ranger Station was open... we were still looking for a Santeetlah brochure we have been unable to find. The Ranger Station was open, but they think the brochure is out of print now. We had decided we did want some of the printed USGS Quads of the area, so we picked up a few there, and headed for the Skyway. At the beginning of the Skyway, we calibrated the altimeter at 2660 feet, and we were on our way.

The Cherohala Skyway was some 30 plus years and 100 million bucks in the making. It was a very pretty drive, but, annoyingly, at most of the "overlooks" you couldn't see anything because of the trees. We know and accept that the road is completly located within two different national forests (Cherokee and Nantahala, hence the name), but you would think that since they have already paved a road through there, they could at least top the trees at the overlooks! Also, apparently the signs identifying the overlooks, with the corresponding altitude, are attractive targets for vandals. After the first few stops in North Carolina, there were no more signs. Still, the altimeter was tracking very well, and we had the altitudes and sequence of overlooks listed in a brochure, so we were pretty sure where we were most of the time. We peaked at 5390 feet, over a mile above sea level. We stopped, took what pictures we could, and marveled at the temperature, in the low 60s, possibly even the 50s. The trees were starting to get pretty "runty" here also. By the time we got to Tellico Plains, Tennessee, the altimeter was reading about 50-75 feet high. But we had driven 50 miles so it's quite possible that the barometric pressure had changed enough to affect it.

It was still before noon, so we began to seriously consider some additional questing that we had in the back of our mind. We were on Tennessee 68, only about 30 miles or so from TVA's Appalachia Dam. So we grabbed a burger, bought some more film (and got reamed, as expected!) and headed south. In this area the terrain is still pretty hilly, so it was a winding drive. Eventually we crossed the "Scenic" Hiwasee River, which was pretty dry at that point (Appalachia is a diversion dam). We stopped to consult the map, then continued on to the town of Farner where we found Appalachia Dam Road. We hung a left and proceeded to a simple metal sign advertising "TVA Appalachia Dam Development" instead of the nice pedestal markers they have at their other dams. And of course, it was shot full of holes.

Appalachia was awarded the THX "WOW" effect for this trip. The approach is such that you can't see any of the dam at all until, after you drive under the HUGE pipeline (it was at least twice the diameter of Santeetlah, maybe bigger!) and round a dike that protects the upper supports of the pipeline, it slaps you in the face! It is not a small dam, yet all of a sudden it is just right there in front of you! Jan let out an audible gasp as we rounded the dike, and Pat stopped the van long enough to make sure we weren't going to hit the dam! After giving our senses a chance to acclimate, we drove to the base of the dam and parked. There is no switchyard, but there was a small "substation" there... since there is no power generated locally power has to brought in to operate the floodgates, and for maintenance purposes. We got pictures of the dam and pipeline, and while we saw a truck parked next to the top of the dam on the far side, Topo didn't show any roads into there. And we were starting to hear thunder, so we paid our respects and left, heading to interesect with US 64 to get back to I-75 at Cleveland (and drive right by the Ocoees, coincidentally!).

Before we got there, we passed a sign at an intersection that showed Hiwassee Dam was only 11 miles from there. Too close to pass up! Hoping the weather would hold, off we went. We ran in and out of showers as we approached the dam. Finally we get to an intersection directing us to either the power house, or the top of the dam. We went to the low side first, parked at the picnic area, and started walking to the base of the dam for pictures. It started raining slightly, so Pat ran for the dam while Jan ran back to get the van. Pat grabbed a shot or two, and jumped in the van that had just caught up. The rain stopped, so we got out and grabbed a few more shots, then drove to the top of the dam. There is a roadway incorporated into the top of the dam, so we crossed over and found a nice pavilion. We took advantage of the rest rooms and got a couple of shots of the back side of the dam, and were walking back to the van when the bottom fell out... again. We continued back to intersect with US 64. We passed a sign directing us the Appalachia powerhouse, 11 miles out of the way. We decided to save that one for later, consdering the time and the weather. The road did not look like one we would make good time on, and studying Topo later we decided that was a good choice!

Driving in and out of the rain, we finally got to US 64. Very soon we encountered the Ocoee River, and a very nice USFS facility. This is where the kayaking venue of the 1996 Olympics was located. We stopped and bought some maps, then moved on to the Ocoee #3 powerhouse. The dam was somewhere off the road (another diversion dam), so we saved it for another quest. Leaving there, we made our way to the Ocoee #2 dam. The last time either one of us was by there (many years ago), the place was deserted. This time the place was a zoo! TVA (we assume) has built a large parking area, and ramp down to the base of the dam for launching rafts. Ocoee #3 was in full production, and #2 was shut down, so there was a large amount of water coming over the dam into the rapids downstream, and a bazillion rafters taking advantage of it. Ocoee #2 is also a diversion dam, and is fairly unique in that it diverts the flow into an open wooden flume. Traffic was bad, so we had to watch the road instead of watching the progress of the flume, and there were so many cars parked at the powerhouse, there was no place for us to pull off and grab a shot. We decided that we need to do a proper quest to the Ocoees on a weekday in the winter! At that time we might be able to see #2 in production, and have a lot less traffic to deal with.

Pressing on, we soon encountered Ocoee #1. This one has an integral power house. There is a picnic and day use facility there, and a 1/10 scale model of the kayaking venue is located there. TVA built the model to study flow patterns and to determine how much water they would have to release from Ocoee #3 to maintain the course.

By now, we were pretty much dammed out and tired of driving, yet we were still two plus hours from home. We continued on US 64, eventually encountering a bypass around Cleveland, Tennessee, and hit I-75. We needed to gas up, but waited until we got to Georgia to save a buck or two (we are having to burn premium grade in the van now). Getting gas in Dalton, we headed south again, into skies that were more and more threatening. The weather radio was telling of several bands of severe thunderstorms, and we were driving right into one of them. We started picking up some rain in Calhoun, but not enough that we had to slow down. Finally, south of Cartersville, the bottom fell out one more time. We were in moderate to heavy rain all the way back home, so that was one hour of white-knuckled driving down I-75, around I-285, and back up I-85 to GA 316 and Lawrenceville.

Taking stock, we had visited ten dams, five of them new for us, one nuke plant, one retired coal plant, voiced our support for the Tapoco Project at the open house, got much better shots of Calderwood and Santeetlah Dams, made some new friends at APGI and Tapoco Lodge, and found a new favorite vacation spot. Not a bad three days!