Hey there, I believe Chota Canoe Club in Knoxville has lined up a pool for this winter. I've been out of touch with them for a while, but you can try their facebook page or email some officers. paddlechota.org good luck, SYOTR.
In short, I would recommend paddling specific gear over rain gear. The paddling gear is going to have a much better neoprene or even latex cuff that will keep water out when submerged in water. You want the layer to leave you completely dry inside when submerged in water. Most rain gear I've seen has only had an elastic cuff that doesn't seal tight against the skin to prevent water from coming in. Also, the paddling gear will be more durable to allow repetitive movement like paddling and rubbing as well as tough impacts like bushed against rocks and logs.
If budget is a concern, I would look to buy some used gear maybe a season or two old. The gearswap on this forum is a good place, as well as facebook groups such as WNC Gear Swap or your local paddling club.
There are a lot of great companies making paddling gear. NRS, Kokatat, Immersion Research, and Sweet Protection come to mind. I personally use and recommend Immersion Research (IR). They make some top of the line gear, are made locally in PA, and always give back to the paddling community.
For rafting, and stretching the season at the beginning and end of summer, I love using their neoprene lined guide shorts and a short sleeved (shorty) splash top. This does a great job of keeping my core warm, but still being able to breathe and cool myself with cool water.
One piece of advice I will give you that cannnot be stressed enough, is to ALWAYS DRESS FOR THE SWIM. By saying that, if you are paddling on a rare 60-70 degree day in the spring, but the water is still a frigid 35-45 degrees, you need to dress to be swimming in the 35-45 degree water. For many of us paddling year round, that means a very expensive dry suit. What some folks who only paddle a little over the winter, they can normally make do with a neoprene pants layer like a farmer john wetsuit, with some spalsh pants over the top, and then a splash top. The coldest part with rafting is your feet, so make sure you get some neoprene booties, and even then you'll probably still have cold feet.
I personally have never tried one. However a friend I paddle with has one and doesn't have any issue with comfort or paddling. Her issue is it is tricky to get the zipper started. So she usually needs help from her boyfriend to get zipped in.
I know that the Aire Puma and Super Puma are very popular rafts. I don't think that either one would give you issue for what you are looking to do and Aire rafts have a great reputation. I personally have a Hyside Mini-Max and love it for R2 and R3 with a cooler. I prefer Hyside over Aire becuase I like the Hypalon material that can roll tighter and be stored rolled. It is also lighter because you don't have the bladder/shell system. Mostly my bias comes from my time guiding for a company that used Hyside exclusively and that's what I'm used to. Whatever you go with, enjoy it! SYORT!
As a kayaker, former raft guide, and rafter, I'll share some of my opinions. First, I'm partial to Hypalon boats (Hyside and NRS). I think many of the rivers in the southeast (including Chattooga) are too sandy for the Aire and Star bladder system. I've used a star 13' before, and the floor had so much sand inside the shell, and it takes FOREVER to clean out. Plus, the Chattooga and several other local rivers invlove hiking in and out, so weight should be considered.
For boat sizing, I'm going to talk using Hyside models, that's what i guided on, and is what I own. My ideal set up is actually 2 rafts. First is a Hyside mini-max. The mini max is in my mind the perfect boat to R-2. Two people can pack lunch and a cooler, float down, paddle a light, responsive boat, get it up to speed, and a have a great day. Plus, it can handle additional load. I have R-3'd my Mini Max with great success (one person front, one middle, and one guiding). I have friends who actually R5'd a Mini Max down the Upper Gauley, but from what I heard, it was rowdy! The second raft I would want would be a 14 ft (three thwart) Hyside. This would be for taking friends and family down the river beyond an R-3. Great for loading up and having a party on the river!
I first tried to do what you are looking for, one raft to both R-2 as well as take a group down the river. I used the Hyside 12 ft (two thwart). I enjoyed the 12 ft. It did well taking up to 5 people down the Ocoee (4 plus guide). However, it was a bit sluggish to R-2. I think the slugishness is just a fact that it is wider than the Mini-Max. The Mini-Max just felt so much more responsive as an R-2.
Again, those are just my opinions, and obviously budget will influence what your fleet looks like. If you're interested, I still have the Hyside 12ft and am thinking about selling it. Let me check, but shoot me a PM if you're interested.
I'm a huge fan of local clubs. Some of them develop cliques within the club, but in general they are all open and inviting to new paddlers. I would suggest joining the club closest to your home. Where do you live?
Also, I would note that clubs are not exclusive. I'm a member of 3 different clubs. Chota based in Knoxville, TVCC based in Chattanooga, and Foothills based in Greenville. (I've moevd around a bit and have made friends in all three cities). I will also note that most of the rivers are located central to the clubs you've mentioned, so I am always running into old friends.
Since you mentioned ACA, all of the clubs I'm a member of use ACA to provide insurance for events. So you'll likely need to join ACA as well as your local club.
My current fleet:
Antix L, Zen L, Newmad L, Greenboat, Jitsu 6.0 for my whitewater boats.
a small Zen because I'm optimistic I'll meet a girl who will want to learn to paddle.
Hyside Mini-Max and Hyside 12.0 so i can take family and friends down the rivers
Novacraft Pal for flatwater canoeing
There are a few others I would consider getting, but I'm honestly very happy with my current fleet.
One thing to look at if you're in the market for a boat is that different manufacturers have boats centered around different weights. For river runners, the Mamba, Zen, Remix, Karma, and Diesel all have different weight ranges. I would consider finding the one that puts your weight close to the middle of the range and go for that one.
The Mamba will take you as far as you want to go in WW, the Katana will really start to show its deficiences in Class III and above. Get the Mamba and start saving for a touring boat, the Katana also shows its deficiences on flatwater if you put it up against a touring boat. Then you're gonna want to start saving for a play boat, and a slice boat, and a long boat, and a creeker, and...........
I've been lucky enough to get on Bee Creek a few times in the past week. Last Wednesday I biked shuttle for Caney, ran Caney, hiked up and ran Bee, then hiked out, drove home, had lunch, and picked the boy up from school! Now that's a father's day out.
Here's a video from a week before that, when John Lindsay, Raymond Brugger and I tested Bee with a head full of water. We were uncertain what it would look like, but it turns out there's room to move around in there and the rapids are awesome at high water.