Business is booming for Cocke County rafting companies. So much so that owners and the county are bracing for another record-breaking year.
Memorial Day weekend traditionally marks the beginning of the season's high point, but this year it's a different story.
Lots of rain during the winter and a mild, even warmer spring lured more people to the water earlier this year. That means more dollars flowing in to the county's general fund.
Water levels were down on Monday because there's no current coming from the Walters Powerhouse. It is not a guaranteed water day, but that didn't stop people from taking a ride. The water runs big four to five days per week when Progress Electric releases water.
"It's a beautiful river either way, but it's definitely a lot more fun when the water's running big," said Adam Sherridan, River Manager for Rafting in the Smokies.
In 2011 more than 169,000 people took a raft ride near Hartford. This year, rafting companies are already seeing a bump in business.
"We are 2,142 rafters ahead of where we were last year for the first three months of the year," said Janice Butler. She is the Cocke County Clerk and the county's Rafting Agent. She is charged with keeping tabs on revenue generated from white water recreation.
"It takes lots of pennies off the tax rate, which helps citizens and then we gain from hotel/motel tas and gas and all those things, so it's very important," said Butler.
Cocke County gets $2 of every ticket sold by the rafting companies. Each of the dozen companies have to buy a $500 annual permit to operate. Butler said the county has collected three point one million dollars from the industry since they started regulating it in 1995, "We're thrilled because if we don't have water we don't have rafters."
And like last year, the county said there will be plenty of water for the summer of 2012. That will keep the rapids flowing fast.
"We have 13 class 3's and three class 4's that's on a scale of 1 to 6. They consider 1 to be like bubbles in a bath tub and 6 is an automatic portage, get out and walk," explained Sheridan.
While the river is relatively smooth on this Memorial Day, it is likely the calm before the summer surge. Rafting season runs through Labor Day. Many of the companies in Cocke County will continue trips through the fall, weather permitting.