By Julia Merchant • Staff writer
One day last October, Bud Dills, a longtime Nantahala Gorge resident, headed down to his favorite fishing spot. The area, located where the Nantahala River empties into Fontana Lake just past Wesser Falls, had long been popular with fishermen and paddlers. Dills, 63, had been fishing there since he was six years old.
But when he arrived, he was surprised to see a large, metal gate blocking the dirt road that was the only means of accessing the river shore.
The gate was erected by the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad. Railroad representatives said people were camping there, trashing the site with beer cans and shooting off guns, forcing the railroad to restrict access.
“We’re not trying to keep the locals out to access the river or to go fishing or hiking,” said Kim Albritten, general manager of the railroad. “That’s not the purpose of the gate. The gate is to deter overnight camping. My concern is that the railroad owns the property, and if we continue to allow camping and gunfire there, what risk does that pus us at the liability level?”
The railroad’s reasoning hasn’t stopped locals from mourning the loss of a beloved fishing and paddling spot. Dills described the area as “extremely popular,” attracting thousands of visitors each year to fish, boat or simply hike. The dirt road allowed vehicles to tow larger boats down to the water. The spot was also popular with the elderly, handicapped, or families with kids, since they could ride down to the water rather than attempting the nearly one-mile trek.
Ken Kastorff, owner of Endless River Adventures, said he’s irked that most people didn’t know the gate was going up.
“The thing that bothers me the most about this is that after the usage for 60 odd years, they all of a sudden close it off, and not even talk to any of the community,” Kastorff said. “If there was a problem down there, the local community, as well as the rafting companies, would have all been more than happy to work with the train to do whatever is necessary to keep that area open.”
Some people, such as Dills, don’t buy the railroad’s explanation that people were trashing the area and shooting firearms.
“The railroad said people were down there dumping garbage,” Dills said. “That’s not true. It’s a very clean area. They said people were shooting, but anyone could have been down there hunting during October.”
Kastorff said regardless of the reasons the gate was put up, it wasn’t the best way to address the problem.
“The problem is that putting a gate up there isn’t going to solve any of that,” Kastorff said. “There are still people that are down there that are camping.”
Indeed that is the case. Just a couple of weeks ago, the sheriff’s department got a call about three men with a beer keg shooting their guns, Albritten said.
“This is an ongoing problem. There’s a lot of trash being left behind by campers — not just a beer can or two, but kegs of beer are being taken down there.”
Albirtten said people are still welcome to walk past the gate to fish or access the area during the day.
The railroad’s attempts to prevent access to the area have created another dilemma that has only emerged with the start of rafting season. The popular fishing and camping spot also served as a key location for rafting companies to retrieve boats and paddles that had been swept past the commercial boat takeout.
“If we lose a boat or a paddle, or if a boat flips at the falls and goes over Wesser, we used to be able to drive down there and recover it,” said Steve Augustine, manager of Endless River Adventures. “Now, you can’t do that.”
The loss of that access point could present a potential safety issue, since boats that travel over Class V Wesser Falls need to be reached as soon as possible.
“If our boats go over the falls, especially if there’s people in them, we have to get down there immediately,” said Dills.
The railroad has given Nantahala Outdoor Center a key to the gate to be shared by the rafting companies, said Albritten.
Albritten said she told Brenda Dills, president of the Gorge Outfitters Association, about the key’s location at the NOC retail store. Albritten said Dills wasn’t happy that she and other outfitters will have to rely on NOC to open the gate.
“That wasn’t the ideal situation for them,” said Albritten. “They’d like to go down the road and grab rafts or paddles, but I can’t make 19 keys available to all the rafting companies. There has to be some level of control. However, I’m not against having several keys for some of the larger outfitters who may need more access.”