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Beyond the forested banks of the Pigeon River, the Smoky Mountains rise from either side of a steep gorge that leads to the town of Hartford, Tennessee. The river runs through the gorge from North Carolina, parallel to Interstate 40, before widening into a series of shallow, shining, and swift ripples and runs. Lining the shores on both sides are about a dozen rafting companies, one right after the other. The guides weren’t very busy on this April day early in the rafting season, so they had taken to the rapids in bright blue boats to enjoy the afternoon. When Jamie Brown was younger, back in the 1980s and ’90s, she never would have dreamed of doing such a thing.
“The smell was horrendous,” she says of the river. “And it was black.”