Chattooga Quarterly, Chattooga Conservancy magazine, Summer 2006
Dark River of Deliverance
Wherever Waters Flow, A Lifelong Love Affair with Wild Rivers, by Doug Woodward, is a must-read for anyone interested in the history of whitewater boating in the Southeast. Doug’s book is a lively and engaging account of his lifelong travels to explore wild rivers, from Alaska to our own Chattooga River. Several chapters address the Chattooga, and are filled with insightful stories about first descents, revealing and oftentimes funny stories about the filming of Deliverance, and the real story behind the campaign to add the Chattooga to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. Reprinted below with kind permission from Doug is an excerpt from the chapter in his book entitled, Dark River of Deliverance. From the book:
James Dickey changed my life. He never knew that. And at the time I didn’t even know it myself. But as surely as Dickey could put swashbuckling thoughts to paper and then morph them into his own persona, his words also became a part of who I was.
I met him only once. It was on an intimate fall evening in Atlanta, at Lewis King’s Buckhead home. Dickey’s friend since their early twenties, King was, in many ways, the real life model for Lewis Medlock of Deliverance. He had the skills — canoeist, archer, guitarist, athlete of note during his years at Georgia Tech. He had already lived the role. But there were differences. With a tough, wiry body, piercing blue eyes and silver hair, King bears little resemblance to Burt Reynolds, who portrays Lewis in the film version of Deliverance. And where the movie character comes across as macho and flamboyant, dominating his companions, King is modest in the extreme, making little of his personal accomplishments.
There were six of us at the table that night — King and his wife Joan, Dickey, Payson Kennedy, Claude Terry and myself. Payson, Claude and I had been running whitewater rivers together for years, but it was Claude’s friendship with King that had brought us there.
That week Claude had asked me, “Have you read Deliverance?” I had of course. It had caught my eye earlier that year, while I was still living in Maryland, since it appeared to be a tale of wilderness canoeing. It wasn’t quite an uninhabited wilderness as it turned out, and the action wasn’t all of a whitewater nature. But I read it through, at the time not having the slightest inkling of how my life would be drawn into the tale.
“Well,” Claude continued, “Warner Brothers is going to film that story down here and they’re looking for a river. There’s a chance, too, that we might get involved in some way. Can you make it to dinner this Friday? Great! Bring your Colorado films and projector. Oh, by the way, James Dickey will be there.”
Around the King dinner table, with rising excitement, we discussed logistics, equipment and sets as if we were the filmmakers ourselves. The Chattooga was the river we all knew best — the rapids, the obscure access points, where to find the right scene (“down there that river climbs them walls like a monkey”) — but concluded that Alabama’s Little River would better fill the bill since it had both the rapids and the towering cliffs needed for a death defying climb out of the canyon. North Georgia’s precipitous Tallulah Gorge was briefly mentioned, but we considered it too difficult a venue for practical filming. Warner Brothers thought otherwise, and in the end, both the Chattooga and Tallulah would be chosen, each becoming a portion of Dickey’s fictitious Cahulawassee River.
Following dinner, I set up projector and screen to take the group a bit further west. Running the rapids of the Grand Canyon by kayak had been the highlight of my year and one by one, the Colorado’s big ones — Hance, Hermit, Crystal and Lava — lit up the screen. There were some oohs and aahs as angry brown water exploded in fifteen-foot haystacks and our tiny kayaks flitted here and there. But it was only an interlude to the hopes and feelings that were being given substance that night. The lights came on. Dickey and King passed a guitar back and forth, strumming a few tunes, each deferring to the other.
Dickey was an imposing figure of a man, and his presence filled the room. But it was much more than physical. There was a mystique about him — of things hidden, perhaps ominous — that he enjoyed perpetuating. There were references to the canoe trip which he and King had taken years before with another close friend, Al Braselton. The trip that had spawned the imaginings which would eventually become Deliverance. Dickey would not describe details of that canoe trip. With a knowing smile, he would simply say, “There’s a lot more truth in the story [Deliverance] than you might think.”
King was more candid. We knew that they had canoed the Coosawattee River in northwest Georgia. Truth now eerily imitating fiction, the Coosawattee was in the process of being dammed and the valley behind it would slowly fill over the next two years, drowning all traces of the history of those whose lives were once intertwined with the river.
King later supplied what we came to regard as the facts of that river trip, now long faded into the mists of time. First, he had emphasized, “You may think of the southern Appalachians as being wilderness now, but in the thirties and forties that country was really wild. A man that was perceived as a threat to the mountain folks might just disappear — permanently. Murder was always a viable option, because few outsiders were going to go snooping around those forests looking for the missing man.”
It seemed that the canoeing that day was actually done by Dickey and Braselton, while King went looking for a place downstream where he could meet the pair. Finding no road to the river, he parked and started down a path leading through the woods. Like yellow jacket sentries guarding their nest against danger, two armed men suddenly appeared and demanded to know his business. King’s tale of a canoe on its way through the rapids of this river seemed absurd to the mountain men, and they thought it was far more likely that he was a revenue officer looking for their moonshine still. The older of the pair told the younger to take King to the river and “stay with him, son,” words — along with their sinister undertone and unspoken meaning — that King has never forgotten.
Unsure of his armed companion’s patience, and almost overwhelmed by the thought that Dickey and Braselton might already have passed that point, King waited and sweated and prayed. The canoeists had run into serious difficulties themselves in the rapids upstream, but finally hove into sight as daylight was beginning to dim. At that point, the demeanor of the mountain men changed completely. Shotguns disappeared, and there were smiles and kind words as they helped carry the canoe and gear up the hill to the truck.
Deliverance had been a Book-of-the-Month Club selection early that year. Dickey had rewritten it into film a script that he dad just sold to Warner Brothers. Now, in King’s living room, he held a copy in his hand. He turned to me, motioning with the script, and asked, “It’s a good book, don’t you think? Do you really like it?” I was startled. How could such a powerful writer, so widely acclaimed and honored, need assurance from us? As he tossed down more alcohol and the evening wore on, the question was repeated, until it became embarrassing.
Nevertheless, we left in high spirits, hoping against hope that we could become part of the adventure to come — the actual filming of Deliverance. Dickey and King knew that we were competent canoeists, that we knew the Chattooga, Little and other area rivers as few others knew them and that we would be good technical advisors on equipment and scenes. But they were not Warner Brothers, even though they might be in touch with them. And so that night we left with a caution born of realism.