Jerry Bear in front of a map of the Ocoee River

By Shawn Ryan  |  Photos by Angela Foster

Gushing waterfalls, leftovers from a day of rain, cascade down the rocky sides of the Ocoee River Gorge and overwhelm all other sounds.

It’s a familiar melody to Jerry Bear, who has worked at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) Ocoee Powerhouse No. 3 for the past five years. Along with generating electricity through its enormous turbine system, the powerhouse is responsible for the water flow of about 20 miles of the Ocoee River, including sections ridden by thousands of whitewater rafters every summer.

“It really makes the rapids for rafters and kayakers, as long as there’s water flowing, but I wouldn’t want to be out in the middle of it when the water stops,” says Bear, who graduated from UT Chattanooga in 1993 with a bachelor’s degree in engineering.

And Bear, who grew up in the Ocoee area and has a lifelong love of its deep woods and rocky ridges, has a key role to play in this year’s whitewater season.

In November, part of the 100-year old wooden flume, which runs alongside the Ocoee, collapsed. That flume diverted excess water away from the river and sent it downstream to other powerhouses. Until the flume is repaired, all excess water must go straight down the river, so its rapids will be in rare form.

Although plans were for the flume to be fixed by the end of March, those expectations may change.

At the powerhouse, Bear is responsible for, among other duties, making sure all the safety mechanisms work properly, from the ones that protect the equipment in case of catastrophic failure to the steps taken to protect technicians when repairs and general maintenance are performed on the equipment.

a man with a hard hat in a powerhouse safety room
Jerry Bear tags valves that have been turned off.

On this particular day, the fire-containment system needs maintenance, so he’s tagging several valves that control the water that sprays into a device if a fire breaks out. The red tags are a sign that the valves are turned off and it’s safe to go inside the machine.

After graduating from UTC, Bear worked at a power plant in Tennga, Georgia, and an iron foundry in Etowah, Tennessee. He joined TVA in 2008, spent five years at Watts Bar, then came to the Ocoee River basin.

What he learned at UTC comes up frequently in his job, especially concepts about electricity, water flow and other engineering subjects. In his daily work, he sees those concepts in real-world applications.