“40 Minute, 20 Drill, Flatwater Workout” Complete this workout twice per week and your river skills will improve!

40 Minute, 20 Drill, Flatwater Workout for Kayaking

Practice, Practice, Practice! Flatwater training is key for staying in shape and improving your paddling skills. With the days becoming longer, head to the lake after work for a good paddle!

1. Loosen hips by rocking kayak from side to side.

2. Rotate torso and hold paddle parallel to kayak while edging (raise knee on paddle side). Hold for twenty seconds each side, 3 sets.

3. Spin in a circle by taking repetitive forward sweeps on the same side. Spin in both directions.

4. Spin in a circle by alternating forward sweep / stern draw on the same side. Spin in both directions.

5. Spin in a circle alternating forward sweep / reverse sweep. Spin in both directions.

6. Stretch (crossbow for torso and forward lean for back) 3 sets of 20 seconds each.

7. Paddle in a straight line alternating forward strokes / forward sweeps, 100 yards.

8. Paddle in a straight line alternating forward strokes / stern draws 100, yards.

9. Paddle in a straight line alternating forward sweeps / stern draws 100, yards.

10. Paddle in a straight line alternating forward strokes / forward sweeps / stern draws, 100 yards.

11. Paddle in a straight line with constant edge held while forward stroking on the raised side and forward sweeping on the weighted side, 100 yards on each side.

12. Back paddle in a straight line alternating between reverse strokes / reverse sweeps, 20 yards.

13. Paddle in a straight line for five yards and then turn the kayak 90 degrees with a charc. Continue doing the same completing several laps in a square pattern, switch directions.

14. Paddle in a straight line for five yards and then turn the kayak 90 degrees with a bow draw. Continue doing the same completing several laps in a square pattern, switch directions.

15. Side draw the kayak 5 yards, 3 sets each side.

16. Paddle in a straight line and side slip the kayak, both directions.

17. Perform peelouts and eddyturns (C-turns) along the bank. Several laps each side.

18. Rolling.

19. Sprint in a straight line 100 yards. Complete four times.

20. Wind down by paddling in a straight line with the following pattern: forward stroke left, forward sweep right, stern draw left, forward stroke right, forward sweep left, stern draw right, 200 yards.

Try this workout 2-3 times per week and you’ll see results on the river! As the weather and water temperatures warm, look for my Flatwater Playboating Drill List coming soon!

Jeff

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“The Magic Mile on Bear Creek” Dave Levitt and I drop a vertical mile on the Bear

“The Magic Mile on Bear Creek”

A brief write-up about paddling a vertical mile on the amazing Bear Creek. 

Bear Creek has it all: a gigantic slide, multiple waterfalls and complex boulder gardens, packed into a 3 mile run dropping 859 feet with no mandatory portage. Throw in a horrible sieve, scary undercut and short shuttle and you have one of the classic creeks in the country.

The Bear starts innocently enough. It gives you the chance to warm up and build confidence. Then the big drops come stacked upon one another for nearly a mile: Surrealistic Pillow, Fishbowl, Snake Pit, Knocking on Heavens Door, Stairway to Heaven, Cosmic Trigger, Big Bang, Revelations, Momentary Lapse of Reason and Armageddon. If your confidence remains in tact as you finish the drop section, you must turn your focus to the Gnarl. You see, after you finish the named drops you start into a one and a half mile section of continuous IV-V moves. You fly along, hoping to remember where to go. Hoping you stop in time to work around the tree in Omega. Hoping your boof strokes carry you over the ledge holes and that you can help your buddies if something goes wrong.

The Bear is an amazing place. Nestled in the Georgia mountains the gorge is incredible. As you paddle, you must remind yourself to look up and see the 600 foot overhanging cliffs. Remember to glance to the top of the cascading waterfalls of the many tributaries.  Remind yourself to watch your buddies gracefully navigate the chaos of steep whitewater.

A few days ago David Levitt and I were very fortunate to secure a vertical mile on Bear Creek. Seven laps in the course of a single day. We spent the day mesmerized by the beauty of one of the most magical places on our planet. Before that day Cory Hall, Brad Hinds, Lane Rankin, and Marc Lyle had all once held the record for most laps on this southeastern giant. And soon enough our record of seven will be surpassed by a hungrier crew. But, for now, David and I know how lucky we are to stake claims to the Bear Mile. How lucky we are to have kept going when it would have been easy to call it a day. How lucky we are to have individually dropped 6,013 feet of gradient without injury. How lucky we are to have spent a day immersed in the magic of Bear Creek.

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“The Subtleties of Safety” 55 tips to keep you out of trouble

“The Subtleties of Safety”

Featured February 7, 2012 on the Jackson kayak Blog

Offers 55 safety tips  for paddling.

Link to Jackson: http://jacksonkayak.com/blog/2012/02/07/the-subtleties-of-safety/

 

Paddling fires us up, especially when rain is coming. I get amped looking at the five day forecast. As a storm rolls east towards the Appalachians the excitement builds. Two days before a big storm, I will start rearranging my schedule, trying to free up time. One day before a big rainfall and I am on fire, the boat is loaded and gear is prepped! When the first raindrops start to fall, I always smile uncontrollably. Watching the shades of Green, yellow and red on the radar as the storm builds is beautiful to me. Much like an art buff would stare at a painting; I will stare at the colors on the radar. I know; I am sick. As the storm pounds, the rainfall gauges start rising. A few hours later and the river gauges rise! While non-paddlers are staying indoors and complaining about the awful rain, I will be stoked, trying to not hydroplane while driving to a put in!

With all of the great emotions swirling around in our heads as we plan and execute a paddling trip it is easy to cut a few corners when it comes to safety. We are all guilty of it. You left your airbags in your other kayak or lost your rope on the last trip and have not gotten the new one in the mail yet. There are a million reasons, good and bad why we are not as prepared as we could be for a paddling trip. But when we start to get amped for whitewater, everything looks promising and the glass is usually half full.

Accidents on the river seem to come in two forms. Pure accidents that nothing could have prevented or a few little mistakes that added up to a bad day or worst.

Personally, my crashes have always been due to making a few small mistakes. Maybe I did not wait for my buddies to set safety or I did not scout a familiar rapid and look for new wood. When the rivers are rising and the blood is pumping, it is easy to cut a corner on safety.

Our sport, as amazing as it is, is certainly not worth dying over. We have got to be as careful as we can out there. The little mistakes can snow ball and create an epic bad day. So, to help me and my buddies be safe I came up with the following list to remind us how subtle being safe can be.

I am sure many of you can improve upon my list so please add what you like and pass it on to newer boaters. This winter is possibly going to be the best creeking we have had in the southeast and as storms bring us record days of paddling we have to be more careful than ever! Charge hard knowing you did not cut corners on safety!

Kayak:
1. Be sure to choose the right boat for the run. Paddling a playboat on a steep creek may be more excitement than you bargained for.
2. Make sure your outfitting is properly adjusted: hip pads, back brace, thigh pads and bulkhead.
3. If your kayak has them, make sure the screws and bolts are tightened. Leaky boats and lose hardware can distract you.

Gear:
4. Wear a properly fitting rescue pfd and know how to use it.
5. Sport a good helmet that fits correctly. Full faces are way less expensive than a dentist!
6. A skirt implosion can ruin a day; does your skirt properly fit? Implosion bars are nice.
7. We all need good river shoes.
8. Having airbags in your boat is showing respect for your buddies.
9. Bring a breakdown paddle or spare hand paddles as a backup.
10. Got to have a throw rope and an easily accessible blunt tipped river knife.
11. Got a whistle on your pfd lapel? Are you wearing an easily viewable watch?
12. Carry a first aid kit, space blanket, head lamp, lighter and fire starter (cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly). A fire can really warm up a chilled boater.
13. Bring extra food and water.
14. Pin kits are simple (2 locking biners, 2 prusseks and webbing)
15. Attach your safety gear inside your kayak (ropes, spare paddles, first aid kits, etc.)
16. Unfortunately, cell phones have service around rivers now, carry one.
17. Are you dressed for the potential rescue or just for paddling? Drysuits make paddling safer. A drytop and shorts in the winter time or in cold water in the summer, outside of the southeast, is asking for trouble.
18. Do you have a map or knowledge on how to hike out?
19. Take a small boat repair kit (small drybag containing duct tape, vinyl mastic, hand towel and lighter).

Skills:
20. Do you have the paddling skills for the chosen river?
21. Are you physically fit enough for the trip?
22. Can you swim well with your paddle? Can you accurately throw a paddle? Practice.
23. Take WFA, CPR and Swiftwater Rescue Courses.
24. Practice freestyle swimming. It’s good exercise and may shorten a swim. Do you know how to swim in the river, where to swim, where not to? (We’re not talking whitewater swim position here!)

Throw Rope:
25. Make sure you know how to use a rope and practice throwing it.
26. Stuff it properly so it throws well.
27. Wet it before a throw. The water adds weight and produces a better throw.
28. Position yourself strategically before a throw.
29. Practice throwing it multiple times in a row. Make sure you can properly pull it back and throw again quickly if you miss.
30. Always take a rope with you when scouting.
31. Keep your rope in an easily accessible spot in your boat.
32. Don’t leave a stuck throw rope in the river. It can become a hazard. Cut out as much as possible.

Are you prepared?
33. Have you tested your new gear for comfort before hitting the river? Tight drysuit neck gaskets are going to distract you.
34. Plan a prior scouting mission before putting on a new run. Many rivers offer commercial rafting. A raft trip can help you learn lines and get a feel for if you are ready for the run. If it is a creek, try to hike it with no water before paddling.
35. Be aware of the access issues pertaining to the river. Know where to park, follow the rules.
36. Research and memorized the run: consequences, rapids and levels? American Whitewater, the internet and guidebooks are great resources. The more you know the safer you’ll be!
37. Try to get a good night sleep before a big day of boating.
38. Are you providing something to the team? (Logistics, skills, motivation, big shuttle rig). Got to bring something to the party!

Time to paddle:
39. Try to paddle with paddlers you know well.
40. Is the number of paddlers in your group optimal for the run? 3-4 is usually best.
41. Get an early start and do not put on too late.
42. Meet your buddies on time. Waiting on late paddling partners can stress people and rush a trip.
43. Make sure the river level is appropriate for the paddlers.
44. Check the weather forecast to make sure the level will not increase too high.
45. Empathize with your teammate’s weaknesses and strengths. Know their medical histories.
46. If the run is new to you, is there someone in the group who has the skill, knowledge and desire to show you down?

On the River:
47. Always be aware of where your paddling buddies are while on the river.
48. Taking safety breaks may not produce the safest trip. A lot of folks can paddle fine while using drugs, but they might be slower to help you out in an emergency.
49. Try to be considerate and do not rush your buddies or needlessly slow the trip.
50. There is no shame, be willing to portage or hike out of a run if you do not feel it.
51. Follow the golden rule: On the water you are responsible for everyone upstream of you! Stay close and eddy before going too far downstream to aid in a rescue. A good leader will spend more time looking upstream than downstream! Make sure your buddies are clear of the dangers before going downstream!

When deciding to paddle or portage a rapid:
52. When scouting, it is a good idea to recognize the dangers of a rapid before you start looking for your possible lines.
53. Be patient and wait for your team to set proper safety.
54. If you hear your inner voice trying to talk yourself into running a tough rapid by thinking one of the following: “I have made it in the past, it will work out!” or “My buddy made it and I am just as good as he is.” or “I want to paddle the whole run with no portages.” or the famous “This is a once in a lifetime chance, I better do it!”, it may be time to portage.
55. Before committing can you visualize paddling the rapid successfully five times?

Remember, as the great Mr. Ammons stated, “The measure of ones skill is not what you can do at your best, but how good you are at your worst.”

Accidents often occur due to a few small mistakes that snowball into a bad day. Safety is in the details. This list has kept me charging hard for 20 years, I hope it will help paddlers make good decisions. Please add any additions and share with newbies. Thanks and be safe!

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“The Stikine in a Day” Short story describing an epic one-day trip in British Columbia

“The Stikine in a Day”

Featured September 2010 on the Jackson Kayak Blog, the Kokatat Blog and Paddling Life Magazine.

Story describes the amazing honor of paddling the Grand Canyon of the Stikine River in BC.

Link to Kokatat Blog: http://www.kokatat.com/blog/2010/10/stikine-in-a-day

A few moments before starting my first Stikine Expedition

Before Sunrise, Stikine in a day:

“Bear”, I yelled and frantically set up in my mummified sleeping bag. It was still dark and I turned my flashlight on expecting a Grizzly. Laughter came from a few feet away. Boomer and Todd are already in their dry suits, packing their kayaks. It is 5:13 a.m. and I overslept by 13 minutes. I climb out of my sleeping bag and slide into my carefully folded dry suit. I pull my river shoes on. I had laid my gear out the night before so I could step into it much like a fireman would jump into his suit if the alarm sounded. We are camped at the put in for the Grand Canyon of the Stikine. We are going to try to paddle the entire 50 some odd miles of this class V+ beast in one day.


Nerves:

The nervousness of starting our first trip was almost overwhelming for me. I had trained for a year to do this, but I really had no idea what to expect. The car ride from Tennessee had been a roller coaster of emotions. It took the first three major rapids, Entry Falls, Wicked Wanda and Three Goats to build my confidence. I had never seen anything like this type of whitewater. Stacked, huge, complex rapids with monster holes, crushing diagonal waves, 3 foot tall surging eddy walls all surrounded by 1,000 foot cliffs. The Stikine makes other rivers seem two dimensional. I had always thought of water flowing downstream, side to side and sometimes upstream. Additionally, on this river the water is constantly exploding upward and sucking down. It felt like a giant roller coaster and monster trampoline combined. Waves would throw you into the air. Seams would pull you into deep mystery moves. The crashing diagonals were the painful part. These waves are so massive that when you hit them it knocks the breath out of you. Imagine the ghost of Paul Bunyan standing next to the rapid. Instead of swinging an axe he has a giant 30 foot long wiffle ball bat. As you charge your way through the rapid he squares up and knocks you into tomorrow. I have never been hit so hard by water. I can see how big water paddlers can have good lines, stay upright and still break their ribs. And when you flip, you better hold on to your paddle like never before. The current wants to wrench the paddle from you. Dropping a paddle on this river could easily kill you.

The beauty of this canyon is without a doubt the greatest my eyes have ever seen. The whitewater offers the most amazing, fun and consequential puzzle imaginable. The canyon is colored in every shade of gray and green. However, the end result of a Stikine trip is usually black or white. You either succeed or you are lucky to survive. Swimming here will be the worst mistake you will ever make. Surviving more than a rapid or two out of your boat is unlikely. Actually being able to swim into an eddy is highly unlikely (the eddy lines are surging walls of water you can barely paddle through). If you survive a swim and make it to shore you are then confronted with a 1,000 foot cliff. If you survive the climb to the rim, my personal greatest fear is possible, becoming dinner for a Grizzly. The epic stories of paddlers climbing out of this canyon sound terrifying. Some groups have tried to quit and climb out only to find themselves trapped. They have to abandon their escape, return to the river and continue downstream. There seems to be two very different types of Stikine trips. You either have the trip of a lifetime or you are terrified and barely survive. A black or white outcome through a canyon painted in every shade of gray.

First Trip Goes Well:

The predicted rains, which rushed our first trip, never came. The second day, like the first, was amazing. We portaged Scissors and The Hole that Ate Chicago. My only bad line on the first trip was the ABC line at Site Zed. Of course, this is the only rapid where we took photos. There is a great photo of me dropping the main drop backwards. It felt how I imagine running Gorilla backwards at 13,000 cfs might feel. It worked out. Paddling through the Tanzilla Slot that first time was incredible.

There is still plenty of class IV whitewater below the Tanzilla. The Mountain Goats are there to welcome you. Finally, you have a chance to enjoy the amazing scenery and wildlife.

Made it to the takeout on the first trip, one happy dude!

Levels and Gear:

Our first trip was at 13,500 cfs. The one day express was at 12,000 cfs. I was in a Jackson Villain. It handled the massive water well. The bow floats over most anything. The boat stayed dry and the removable bulkhead made packing gear a breeze. I wore a Kokatat dry suit and rescue vest. When it really matters, Kokatat is the best. For footwear, I wore Five Ten Canyoneer boots. The grippy soles and ankle support kept the portaging and scouting safe.

One Day Express Goes Well:

There is so much great whitewater in there. Countless and constant un-named rapids go on for miles. Garden of the Gods I and II, The Wall I and II, Wassons, AFP, The Hole that Ate the Hole. V-Drive is the craziest rapid I have ever kayaked. Imagine falling 30 feet with 13,000 cfs under you. There is nothing like it! We rolled into it all, but portaged Scissors and the Hole that Ate Chicago again. Running V-Drive for the second time was even better than the first. We ran Entry Falls at 7:00 am. At 12:30 we arrived at the Tanzilla Slot. Six and a half hours after leaving the put in. We stopped and hiked for a bit and floated the next 12 or so miles to the takeout. We finished around 4:00.

The emotions swirling around in your head as you commit to each rapid are mind blowing. You realize that you are far more dependent upon your paddle not to break, your skirt not to implode and your kayak to perform than anything else. Your buddies are there, but they have their hands full and really could not do much if you crash. It is just you and your gear. You obviously need the skills, preparation and training for this type of stuff, but what made all the difference was sheer determination. Jason Hale emailed me before I put on and said, “Do not ever quit”. If the rapid is not working out as planned you simply have to paddle your ass off and make it work. Before each rapid I imagined having such a burning fire in my heart that when I blew the snot out of my nose flames shot out. It is funny to think about now, but I would growl before I hit the big waves.

We were not the first or the fastest to one day it, but that was definitely the best six and a half hours of kayaking I have ever done. The Stikine is everything I had dreamed it would be. A brutally consequential puzzle immersed in perfect beauty.

Boomer, me and Todd, Just finished 50 miles of Class V in a day

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“The Edge of the World” Pushing personal limits on southeastern waterfalls

“The Edge of the World”

Featured in the January/February 2010 American Whitewater Journal, page 32.

Me and a friend try our luck at paddling waterfalls in the southeast.

Link to AW story: http://americanwhitewater.org/content/Journal/index/issue/1/year/2010/

Standing beside a popular roadside waterfall you’ll hear the tourist chatting about scenic beauty, the local good ‘ole boys talking about tubing, and the kayakers debating lines. Even the kayakers’ perceptions of the waterfall will vary greatly. A beginner may see an unrunnable rapid, an intermediate may see a fun drop and an expert may not even get excited. All paddlers have an evolving idea of an acceptable height from which to launch a boat. I can remember my first three-foot ledge as a beginner. Even though my Mirage was four times longer than the height of the drop, I thought it was amazing I survived the descent. That three-foot horizon line looked like the edge of the world.

 Paddlers keep pushing the limits. It’s hard to believe the world waterfall record was recently set at 186 feet! Personally, my vertical limit has stayed around 25 feet for a decade. Single drops higher than that have always seemed a bit much—at least until recently.Maybe a mid-life crisis drove me to it. Attending my 20-year reunion and discovering my high school buddies  are now grandparents didn’t help. For whatever reason I decided it was time to try waterfalls in the 30 to 45-foot range. It was time to see what all the fuss was about. By gosh, it was time to huck some drops! This new waterfall mission started with a bit of planning. Who would join me? Where are the closest 30 to 45 footers? Is my health insurance paid up? These were all important questions. Matt Wallace joined in the quest and with a little research we were off to our first waterfall.

The drive gave us a chance to chat waterfall technique. When do you tuck? How are you supposed to spot your landing with your eyes closed? Do these big time waterfall guys really pour several gallons of water in their boat? Is it better to throw the paddle or reference it? Joking about this stuff was more fun than considering the serious possibility of becoming maimed.

A bit off line at Cannon Falls in Georgia

Our first big waterfall was a rolling lip 40 footer. No rocks at the bottom, just the hard hit of falling 40 feet. The approach was Class II and a perfectly placed limb made a great marker for lining it up. Standing at the lip of the drop looking down on the tree tops I suddenly remembered my fear of heights. Time to get back in my kayak where I felt safe! As I paddled into the rolling lip entrance I reminded myself to keep it straight. I was on line and the kayak accelerated in an indescribable way. I saw the landing, threw the paddle and tucked like there was no tomorrow. WOW! That barely hurt! I didn’t even flip! I couldn’t believe it: That was freaking fun!

 The adrenalin was pumping and the drive home was full of waterfall talk. We were both surprised by the minimal hit. It stung, but it wasn’t bad. It reminded me of tackling someone in football. Our first big waterfall had been a success and we were stoked to prepare for waterfall number two!

 Our next waterfall opportunity came a few days later. The adrenaline had worn off from our first success, but a slight pain in my lower back and neck persisted. I convinced myself it was just a nice reminder of the importance of a good tuck. For waterfall number two we chose the center line at Little River Canyon Falls. This is about a 30-foot vertical drop. The center line is only runnable at high water. This day we had very high water, 30 inches on the gauge or about 6,000 cfs. Watching 6,000 cfs fall 30 feet is not reassuring. The hole at the bottom was huge. The approach was full-on. Plus, the line at the lip was 100feet from shore. Scouting from 100 feet is not ideal. The line was to drive right, bust through a Rock Island size hole, punch a stout diagonal wave, line it up and fly off. Matt’s line was good, which left me at the top by myself. I handed the camera to a tourist and went for it. 6,000 cfs is a lot of water for a southern creeker to pound through. Surprisingly, I held the line and approached the lip exactly where I wanted. Some primal and instinctive reflex took over and I boofed the crap out of it. There I was, flying through 30 feet of air completely flat with the perfect boof. What had I done? I couldn’t resist, the pad looked so inviting. Time to tuck! Boooooof, the landing was smooth! The huge boil in the landing zone made my flat kayak land as if it was landing on a giant bowl of Jell-O. It didn’t hurt at all, in fact, it felt great! Waterfall number two was more fun than number one. Once again, a good tuck made the day.

 With two big drops under our belts we started to feel good with our waterfall quest. We were solid with holding our line, tucking and dealing with the paddle. I needed to work on controlling the angle for landing. No more boofing! With no rain in the forecast I headed to an old faithful to learn how to better pencil. Baby Falls on the Tellico became my practice field. Plus, climbing back to the top each time for another run was a nice workout. Like many southern boaters I’ve logged countless runs on this easy 10-footer. The problem is that I have spent 15 years boofing it. Time to practice penciling! After a few runs I dialed the stroke in. A more subtle stroke that gently pries on the water was the ticket. Nice and easy!

The downtime awaiting more rain allowed me to get my head around this new waterfall hobby. When creek boating, I try to focus on the run as a whole, not just the big rapids. Class V paddlers often have the worst wipeouts in Class IV whitewater. It’s the not-so-big ones that get you. Worrying about a big drop five rapids downstream is a recipe for trouble. But running big waterfalls can make one rapid your  whole day. The size of the drop requires you to focus and channel all of your energy into one series of moves. A few crucial body movements will make or break you. It becomes obsessive. Every stroke is planned. David didn’t have all day to defeat Goliath. He only had a few seconds and one shot at it. With the size of these drops you have to be smooth and precise. This waterfall hucking stuff requires a lot of multi tasking. It all comes down to a couple of seconds, a few exact moves, and a bit of luck.

Our chance for our third big drop came surprisingly soon. The Smokey Mountain National Park was drenched by a storm and the mighty Raven Fork was flowing. The Raven Fork is home to one of the south’s toughest drops, Big Boy. This is a 33-foot waterfall dropping beside a large rock. I’ve been lucky to paddle the Raven many times in the past several years, but I have always portaged Big Boy. I’ve scouted the drop from every angle: left, right, downstream, upstream. Plus, I’ve hiked the Raven at low flow and climbed and swam in the pool.

This day, I put on knowing it may be time for my Big Boy first descent. I couldn’t have asked for a better day. The level, weather, everything was perfect. We knocked out the paddle down to Big Boy in only 15 minutes. My lines were solid and when I stepped out above the drop I left my boat facing towards the water ready to go. I walked to the edge for one last scout. The line was obvious: drive left, aim for the seam, take a big right stroke and land a few feet from the most menacing looking rock I have ever seen. There is even a nice diagonal wave breaking from the right to guide you. But, I just didn’t see it happening. I saw the line, but I couldn’t stop imagining flying through the air and splatting on the boulder to the right. Falling 33 feet and landing on a dry rock would be horrible. The risk seemed too great. Many paddlers run this drop regularly, but it wasn’t my time yet. My little voice sent me portaging again. Maybe one day!

Matt dropping Mill Creek Falls

The amazing fall rains kept pouring and a week later Matt and I had our chance at Mill Creek Falls. This waterfall is huge! A 10-foot boof leads into an eight-foot boof, which lands on a 45-foot slide/drop. This rapid has only been run a few times. The pool is deep, but the entrance is tricky. The first time I scouted this drop I couldn’t imagine paddling it. The encouragement came with a low water hike. I spent several hours climbing the waterfall and swimming the pool. After a heavy night of thunderstorms in the Cohuttas it was time. We met at 7:00 a.m. and set shuttle. The waterfall is only a short distance from the put-in. We hopped out to scout and my little voice gave a thumbs-up. Walking back to the top I actually felt calm. The nervous energy of running a waterfall was replaced with the focus of scouting a rapid. I went over the sequence in my mind: boof left, boof left, keep it straight, spot landing, throw paddle and tuck! Peeling out at the top I stayed focused on connecting the dots. Everything went according to plan! I  plugged into the pool at the bottom and surfaced upright and smiling. Matt flew off a few minutes later with a great line. That drop will keep us smiling for a few weeks!

I am no expert on waterfall hucking, but I can tell you it is loads of fun! Setting and pursuing individual goals is one of the greatest parts of our sport. Dropping a waterfall is certainly an exciting way to push your limits. I recently saw a picture of the three-foot drop I ran in my Mirage years ago. I can still remember how scared I was above that seemingly enormous drop back then. It’s funny how we all have an evolving idea of what the edge of the world looks like.

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“When a Plan Comes Together” The unlikely story of a Vertical Mile on Colorado’s Oh Be Joyful Creek.

“When A Plan Comes Together”

Featured in the November/December 2008 American Whitewater Journal, page 18.

Tells the story of a paddling trip to Colorado that should have been a train wreck, but we dropped a vertical mile on Oh Be Joyful Creek.

Link to AW story: http://americanwhitewater.org/content/Journal/index/issue/6/year/2008/

Dave Levitt firing up Dead Zone

 How often do paddling trips work out as planned? Not as often as we would like. I’ve had my share of arriving at the put-in to find river levels too high or too low. Important gear is sometimes left in the garage. I have seen paddlers use two elbow pads duct taped to their head for a misplaced helmet. How often have your paddling buddies been late meeting you? Or not shown up at all? My favorite frustrating moment of paddling is when you spend hours driving to the river to find the put-in road closed to traffic. Just getting to the river can be a major undertaking. So many variables can keep you from your perfect day of paddling.

On the other hand, sometimes everything works out in your favor. The most rewarding trips can be the ones you gamble on for water. No one else thinks your chosen creek will be flowing, but somehow you know there will be water. Sure enough, as you arrive at the put-in at daybreak, the level is perfect, but dropping. As you finish your run, other paddlers are showing up a bit too late. While the rest of the world is having their morning coffee, you’re changing into dry clothes after an amazing sunrise paddle.

A few months ago I committed to a paddling adventure that was most likely going to become a train wreck. The plan was to fly to Colorado, find a boat, drop a vertical mile on a Class V creek I had never paddled, and be back in the office four days later. The creek was Colorado’s Oh Be Joyful and to pull this adventure off was going to require paddling this amazing monster 14 times in one day. Actually, the paddling was going to be the easy part. Here’s the story:

My buddy Chris and I started our adventure by sprinting through the Chattanooga airport trying to catch a flight. We were late. Imagine that. Our first major fork in the road came when Chris declined the rental car insurance upon our arrival in Denver. I thought I should speak up, but he travels more than I do. I was sure he knew what he was doing. The nice man at Hertz presented us with their top of the line four wheel drive Jeep Grand Cherokee. This behemoth of a gas guzzler was brand new with only 29 miles registering. I knew renting a car this nice was a huge mistake, but it was our vacation. Why not live a little?

Off we drove to Crested Butte. Our journey was shaping up. We met David on the way and by early the next morning we were scouting Oh Be Joyful surrounded by beautiful mountains. Snow still covered the towering peaks and our breath turned to vapor as we labored up the put-in trail. We spent the day scouting every foot of the one mile run. This creek is amazing. It drops 400 feet in nonstop slides and waterfalls. There are only a few traditional rapids requiring boofs and technical moves. The rest is continuous sliding and dropping. The run is fast and has few eddies, one horizon line after another for a mile. The initial thought of paddling this mile long cascade 14 plus times in a day seemed impossible. But, why not try it? We were already there and the following day promised to be an epic adventure.

Hiking back to the car reminded me our quest was far more complex than just dropping a mile of gradient. Somehow, we had to drive this four wheel drive trail 14 times. The road is really just a hiking trail. Vehicles are allowed, but calling this a road is a stretch. Just getting the truck to the trail was unlikely. We were going to have to drive across the Slate River. For you fellow eastern boaters, imagine driving a brand new Jeep through the Nantahala River and you can imagine our required river crossing. The place to cross was thigh deep, graveled and presented 800 cfs of current. Chris had signed the paperwork so he took the driver’s seat. The rental insurance we passed on sure sounded good about now. We thought we could make it, but the water was going to crash over the hood. A few ounces in the air intake would kill this beast. Problem solved with a tarp. We wrapped the entire front with a blue Wal-Mart camping tarp held in place with a few yards of duct tape. The front of our Jeep was going to be submerged, but just maybe the tarp would prevent the water from flooding the intake. I couldn’t believe it, but our Jeep made the crossing. If the Slate rose much higher we would become permanent residents on the far side. Oh well, there are worst places to be trapped than the take-out of Oh Be Joyful.

Crossing the Slate was only the first challenge. Three feet of snow blocked the trail. We tried, but the Jeep couldn’t make it. Time to shovel! Hand paddles make great snow shovels. After a couple of hours of removing mud and snow Chris hopped in the driver’s seat again and hit the gas. No problem, our little Jeep cruised straight up and a few minutes later we were at the put-in.

Our plan was coming together. The last ingredient required was a kayak. My friend Nick who lived somewhere north of Crested Butte had a spare creek boat. He had brought it from Tennessee a few weeks earlier. All we had to do was navigate the treacherous trail back to the Slate, cross the Slate, find Nick, find the boat, return tonight, cross the Slate again after dark and begin our 14 lap quest at sunrise. Yeah, right!

Avalanche Rapid

Finding Nick was absurdly easy. We drove north towards the pass and jokingly asked a girl who was mountain biking if she knew a guy named Nick. She asked if we meant the Nick with really big hair who just started working in Gothic  as a cook. Sure, we said. That sounds about right. She gave us directions and even told us which building to search. Sure enough, as we walked through the door, there stood Nick in an apron placing dishes on a table. He had the kayak and even volunteered to help with shuttles the next day. We returned to Oh Be Joyful, crossed the treacherous Slate for our third time and set up camp. Sleeping under the stars we fell asleep with thoughts of our coming day swirling through our heads. Until now, the many distractions and impossible logistics had made the adventure seem out of reach. I’m not sure I ever imagined actually getting the opportunity to drop a vertical mile on Oh Be Joyful. The odds of just getting there, finding the Slate low enough to cross, finding OBJ at a reasonable level to paddle from sunrise to sunset, digging the snow out of the shuttle road for our Jeep to pass were all unfavorable. Plus, we were camping at an elevation of 8,000 feet, the water was freezing, and I had never paddled here before. To add to the unlikelihood of success, we had to keep from getting injured paddling 14 laps, keep the Jeep running for 14 hairball shuttles, and hope our boats and paddles stayed in one piece. As I drifted off to sleep, the whole venture seemed silly and unlikely. “Who knows how the day will play out, just be happy knowing you’re in such a beautiful place,” was my last thought of the day.

Sunrise. Time to go. David and I geared up. Chris had drawn shuttle duty for the first laps. David knew the run. If I could stay on his tail I might be able to pull this off. The first laps were freezing. Our hands were frozen after the first strokes. The put-in for OBJ is a fitting warm-up for the run. You climb in your boat, slide into an eddy, peel out and fly off of a 15-foot waterfall called Heart Attack. Upon landing there is no eddy; the race is on. A few long slides pass, a rapid with a nasty ledge hole appears and then you catch an eddy above Deadzone, the 23 footer. Coming from the south, waterfalls are not my forte. This thing sure seemed taller than 23 feet as I flew off of it. The landing hurts a bit as you pencil in. You surface, blow the snot out your nose and get back to business. Slides, more slides, a huge slide called Avalanche and finally you’re approaching the grand finale. A rapid into another slide into another huge slide, a 90 degree turn to your right, followed by a 90 degree turn to your left and then fly off of a 15 footer called Oh Be Grateful. This last one is really tough. If you mistakenly go off the middle you will land on sharp rocks. If you go off the right you will piton into really sharp rocks. The line is to hug the inside of the left turn and charge left towards the cliff wall. If you make the move the rapid is very smooth. If you screw it up, as I did three of my first four laps, it really hurts.

By lap five we were dialing it in. Paddling the entire run from Heart Attack to Oh Be Grateful only took 15 minutes. Wow, dropping 400 feet in fifteen minutes is really fun! The shuttle took about the same amount of time. 800 feet per hour was a nice pace. The day was warming and big haired Nick arrived with hot coffee to fire us up. Around lap seven I noticed a windshield wiper lying in the back of our shuttle rig. As I picked it up I thought how nice it was for Chris to hunt for litter while driving shuttle. Then I realized the back of our rental Jeep was not quite the same. Our Jeep was a bit shorter than the last time I saw it. Chris had backed our rental Jeep into a tree during the last shuttle. He seemed confident he could repair the damage, so I smiled and refused to get distracted. I knew the run now. David let me lead a few laps.

Lapping tough creeks is such a unique experience. You find your groove and just keep cruising. We love it. There is really no conversation, just a lot of smiling, hooting and nodding. Nothing needs to be spoken. Life is perfect.

As we completed lap ten we felt a bit of relief. In five hours we had paddled this creek more than most locals paddle here in an entire season. I knew the run, knew the little annoyance rocks, knew the spots to float and where to charge. The beauty of this valley is amazing. The rapids all flow together. No eddies, just keep it in the current and make subtle moves.

Bad news, David’s boat cracked. It was repairable, but he was going to need some time to fix it. Chris geared up and off we went. Five more laps flew by before David was ready to go. I sat the next two out while Chris and David paddled. I had already secured a vertical mile for the day and can not describe how happy I felt.

Ode To Joy Slide below Avalanche

David needed two more for his mile. The water had risen quite a bit and the run became very pushy. The last two runs were amazing. We started the day on low water and finished in high flow. The level had doubled and the holes were getting scary. The last two laps flew by and we finished our journey by early evening.

The Jeep was still running, but looked terrible. It was time to hit Crested Butte for a big meal. The Slate was really pumping and looked impassable. What the hell, we taped the tarp on and started to go for it. At the river’s edge we realized a tire was leaking. The Slate seemed to be rising by the second, the sun was setting, and air was hissing from the punctured tire. We had to change it. The four of us could have gotten jobs with a NASCAR pit crew from our tire changing performance. A few minutes and Chris was plowing forward. The hood disappeared under a wall of water, resurfaced and submerged again. To all of our surprise the Jeep charged out of the deepest portion of the crossing and literally boofed the far bank with power to spare. One kayak flew off, but we made it. Our perfect, unlikely, one-in-a-million day had actually happened.

Our trip was not yet complete. We rested the next day and set our sights on Clear Creek of the Arkansas. It is beautiful, continuous and really fun. No eddies, just miles of cruising. The creek flows through three mini gorges. They are tiny, tight and fun. This was Chris’ day and David and I took turns paddling and shuttling. Chris is a hand paddler and his hands paid the price. After the first couple of runs we had to chip the ice off of his vest, helmet and hand paddles. He doesn’t wear gloves, so his hands are always submerged in the ice water. Due to the cold water, no gloves, and hand paddling, Chris’ hands swelled into giant balloon animal looking pudgy stumps. It was disgusting, but he didn’t seem to care. I guess the cold water had long since numbed the pain. He looked liked Eddy Murphy in Dr. Klump. Thankfully, when the day ended his hands returned to normal. Chris’ perseverance paid off as he may have become the first hand paddler to drop a vertical mile in a day.

Townsend's bloated hands after handpaddling a vertical mile

Time to head home. Our trip was perfect. Despite the rental car damage which we expected to pay for out of our pockets, the trip was unbelievably fun. I would not have thought in a million years that our plan would come together.

Back at the Hertz office, we were late for our flight. Filling out the miles of paper work for the damage would make us miss our flight. The nice Hertz man came out, inspected our completely destroyed Jeep and checked it off as being fine. Chris and I stared at each other in disbelief. How could he not see that the tailgate looked like we hit a telephone pole going thirty miles per hour in reverse. Plus, the spare tire was in use and the normal wheel was tied to the roof! The shuttle bus was leaving for the airport. What to do? Another Hertz customer was standing by watching the whole affair and spoke up. “Did you use your Discover Card,” he asked. Actually, we did use a Discover Card when renting the Jeep. He explained how Discover has guaranteed rental car insurance. The damage was covered. We jumped on the bus, called Discover and made our flight.

Discover picked up the repair bill and we completed the most unlikely paddling vacation we had ever dreamed of. Life, like the river, throws so much at you. After all of these years I still enjoy the many misadventures as much as the rare perfect trips.

Sometimes, the plan actually comes together.

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“The Green Mile” Tells of an epic day paddling the Green Narrows 10 times!

“The Green Mile”

Featured in the November/December 2006 American Whitewater Journal, page 22.

About an epic day of paddling 10 laps on the Green Narrows. At the time we believed the gradient for 10 runs would total a vertical mile. We were off by a few feet so five years later Zach Fraysier and I were able to complete 11 laps in a day finally reaching the goal.

Link to AW story: http://americanwhitewater.org/content/Journal/index/issue/6/year/2006/

Hucking Sunshine 10 times was terrifying

 This past July I heard the words I have dreamed of hearing for many years: “The Tuxedo Hydro Station will be running one unit at 100% capacity from midnight to midnight.” This phone recording meant North Carolina’s Green River was releasing the following day sunrise to sunset (and beyond). This rare occurrence during the summer months was the chance for my friends and I to try our luck at a kayaking goal we had dreamed up years before. We had the ambitious dream of paddling the Green as many times as possible in a single day. I am sure a physiatrist would have a field day trying to figure out what drove us to this goal. In fact, I am still not certain today why we wanted to do it—even after the fact. I do know this: my friends and I made the most of our day dropping 5,250 feet. We went as hard as we possibly could and the fun of kayaking never left us during our 14.5 hour marathon.

Jonathan Shanin and Mark Bowman joined me for this monstrous day of paddling. Our wake-up call came at 5:30 in the morning. We had gotten a few hours of sleep in a motel near the put-in. At 5:45 we were geared up and walking down the put-in trail. At 6:04 we slid in the water, barely able to see. At 6:19 I was in the eddy above the notch at Gorilla wondering whose insane idea this was. I stared through the notch reassuring myself, I have made this move many times before. So what if it was just barely daybreak and all I could see were shadows lingering below. A few minutes ago I was comfortably asleep; now I must charge this beast.

Gorilla worked out fine that first run and the notch treated us well throughout the day. My friends and I spent the day paddling, smiling and soul searching. The countless thoughts of past kayaking days filled my head while racing each lap. Amazing memories of long ago creeking trips played like a movie through my day. Completing our first run we arrived at the take-out at 6:50 a.m. We kept up the same pace until 8:30 that night.

So how does one end up paddling the Green from sunrise to sunset? My story starts in 1992. I was trying to do enders at the Ocoee’s Hell Hole when a really good boater asked me if I was interested in guiding rafts for the summer. The boater was Marc Lyle and the summer job was there on the Ocoee. Yes, before Marc Lyle designed kayaks for Dagger he managed an Ocoee rafting company. My crazy luck was to meet him one day in an eddy. I told him I might take the job the following summer, but wished to creek with him during the coming winter. I had just bought a Dagger Freefall and was fired up about creek boating. Marc and I became friends and before long he invited me on a creeking trip. Since I had only been kayaking for a year he was concerned, but I assured him my creeking abilities were good to go. My experience at the time was actually limited to floating down a couple of streams in north Georgia. I really had no idea what creek boating was, but assumed a stream and a creek must be the same. I assured Marc I knew how to creek boat and that I was more than ready for a good Class V run. Somehow I talked him into showing me down Bear Creek. Bear is insanely steep for a first timer, but I made it down unscathed. Marc could tell I had pushed my limits and afterwards asked if it was too much. “Are you kidding,” I replied. “This has been the greatest day of my life!” I had lucked into finding a great kayaking mentor. Marc took me under his wing and has inspired me ever since. Somehow, I ended up paddling Bear Creek before I knew Baby Falls existed. It’s funny what major effects someone’s kindness can have on your life.

Back tot the job at hand, laps two and three passed speedily and uneventfully. Completing lap number four we found Adam Herzog waiting at the take-out. He was looking for a shuttle and we obliged. Adam is an amazing boater. He is probably in the best health of any kayaker I’ve met. He cross trains by riding and running. Adam has paddled Linville Gorge multiple times in a day and won Jerry’s Baddle twice. This is a mass start head-to-head race which includes kayaking the Green and biking back to the put-in. Adam won this past race beating, as an individual, the teams who had multiple members to share the different disciplines. Even Adam was a bit surprised to hear we had already completed four laps that morning. Keep in mind it was only 11:00 a.m. when he joined in.

Starting with lap number five I began to fixate on the notch above Gorilla. The entire river is funneled through a gap in the rocks so tight hikers can leap from one side to the other. Running the notch is always a huge challenge for me. After a decade of regularly paddling here I still miss the eddy on the river right below the notch at times and have to run the flume direct. The feeling of missing the eddy is always such a surprise. The first thought passing in your mind is “How did I miss that?” Then your heart races as you realize you are about a half second from going over the main drop. Frantically, you straighten your boat and aim for  launch pad. The entire experience is over,regardless of the quality  of your line, in a few seconds.

When you are eddied above the notch on the river left you stare over your left shoulder at the move. You see the river right eddy surging below. You know how terrifying the undercut is on the right at the base of the notch. You know that it is possible to flip and run the main drop upside down. Thoughts of getting turned backwards and going over the main drop stern first add to the stress. But, you focus on catching the eddy below the notch and drive to that goal. Of all the spiritual places kayaking has taken me, Gorilla is at the top of the list. The notch acts as a doorway or gateway to another world. It may only be a rapid, but to me it is one of the perfect places in kayaking. You focus on the move and if it doesn’t work out as planned you have about a second to fix whatever craziness you and your kayak are caught up in before dropping the main falls.

Running this rapid always reminds me of the first time I fired it up on a hot summer day 12 years ago. I couldn’t stop smiling for a week afterwards. The “Gorilla Grin” is a right of passage. The notch is the test and the main drop is your reward or punishment. After hundreds of runs I have only screwed it up four times. Three times I ran the main drop backwards and once upside down. All screw ups were in a 11-foot kayak running direct (without aiming for the eddy), practicing for the Green race. Funny how the many good lines blend together, but the four bad ones still play out vividly in slow motion in my mind. Thankfully, I have never been hurt here. The notch reminds me how fortunate we are. I often think of the amazing kayakers who have passed between those narrow gate rocks, all with clear focus and full of heart, all of them firing it up with determined intensity. I’ll certainly never take Gorilla lightly; it still energizes me as much today as it did my first time, 12 summers ago.

Lap number five complete, I text messaged my girlfriend on the shuttle drive back to the top, “Five down, FIVE to go!” The day is starting to seem possible. We definitely will have daylight for ten runs, but will our energy last? Will the release continue as scheduled? A broken boat or injury will end this challenge and we are definitely not as strong now as we were during the first laps. The time is 1:20 p.m. and we are launching on lap number six.

Jonathan, Mark and I cruise downstream. The Green has a nice class II-III warm-up section before Frankenstein. As usual, we found our rhythm and were ready to race after the Bride. These guys are great to boat with. We kept the boats in the current leap frogging for safety through the tough rapids. The only eddies we have time for are at Gorilla and Sunshine. The rest of the run flows together as one long rapid. Jonathan is determined to fire up Gorilla each run and has smooth lines each time. Bowman chooses to walk on occasion. He has nothing to prove and only runs the big ones when his heart is fully committed. His strategy is smart and his lines show it. Lap number six turned out to be our fastest thus far: 39 minutes from put-in to take-out.

Lap seven was a tough one. I was tiring. The day was wearing me out and my lines showed it. I flipped in Go Left, flipped at Speedtrap and barely cleared the rock at Sunshine. Carrying to the car at the takeout my legs were killing me. The put-in hike is less than a mile and all downhill, but carrying a kayak seven times with wet, sandy river shorts had seriously chaffed the back of my legs. I could barely take a step without cringing. My buddies were giving me crap. Was it time to call it a day? Nope, it was time for Red Bull and Vitamin I (Ibuprofen).

Revived at the put-in, we found ourselves ahead of schedule. We actually had daylight for 11 full runs if we wanted and decided to take a break for a few. Maybe ten laps would actually happen! Feeling stronger I knew I had to do something about my river shorts. No one had a spare pair and I was not going to be turned back due to chaffing. Mark and Jonathan grabbed their gear and started walking towards lap number eight. My legs were killing me. I could not fathom another hike to the putin wearing these shorts. What to do???? Yes, the shorts stayed in the car. Besides, I had a sprayskirt on; no one would see me. No one would know, right?

Lap number eight was smooth and lap number nine was actually our best of the day. The three of us were paddling extremely well for number nine. Arriving at Go Left we were only a few feet apart from one another. Mark lead with a left angle. Jonathan and I immediately knew he was going left. As Mark committed left Jon committed to the river right line. This gave Mark enough of a head start for me to follow him left. The three of us cleaned the rapid and were through the entire drop and gone in ten seconds. A crowd of paddlers scouting from shore gave us a big yelp to encourage us downstream. I have no idea where this surge of energy came from, but I felt like it was my second run of the day, not my ninth. We hit the takeout with our fastest run and felt invincible riding back to the top for number 10.

Walking down the trail our tenth time I realized I had forgotten to eat a powerbar during shuttle. I was so amped on completing nine runs that I had spaced it. By the time we entered Gorilla for run number 10, I was out of juice. I sat in the river left eddy above the notch for a moment focusing. I had to turn my growling stomach into the desire to make this move. A moment later I was safely in the river right eddy below the notch. I couldn’t believe I had safely navigated the notch ten times today. Dropping the flume was as sweet as ever. Cruising down to Sunshine I knew what a huge challenge we had left. One major rapid stood between our goal and us, one last huge boof. I caught the river left eddy above the final move at sunshine and tried to relax a bit. I had flung myself off of this monster nine times so far today and pulled deep for one last good line. I could see the large crew we passed earlier enjoying the big rock below the rapid. Great, an audience. I was tired and really wanted to finish this day with just my friends, not with 20 spectators watching. I went for the move. As I flew off the boof I knew I had made it. Landing in front of the cave in the pool below I celebrated a second too early. The landing blew my skirt! I made it to shore as my kayak filled with water. I stepped out and hauled my boat up to drain it. Then I heard all the yelps. Oh yea, no shorts on at the moment! The crowd got a nice view of my pale behind. The last thing that group expected was to be mooned at Sunshine. Even with the embarrassing exposure, paddling to the take-out felt great. We had completed 10 runs on the Narrows of the Green in a single day.

We completed our feat at 8:30 that evening. Amazingly, we still felt strong. There was even time for another run before the sun set. It took about two seconds for us to consider and then we all agreed no-way. We were happy to stop at 10 for the day. Plus, our shuttle driver Mason had a hot date in Tennessee and we had to get him home. In the end we managed ten runs with no wipeouts. We each flipped a few times, but stayed safe during our Green marathon. Jonathan ran Gorilla all ten times and I Tripled Crowned all ten runs. The day was amazing. Of all places, Hammer Factor, an easy rapid at the end, actually gave our group the most trouble. That final rapid keeps you humble. I enjoyed the day for a million reasons, but most of all it allowed me to reflect on fourteen years of creek boating. The day reminded me that kayaking is such an amazing gift and we should each take time to share our skills with others. I am so very thankful for bumping into Marc Lyle in that eddy long ago.

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“For the Love of it: A Month of Driving, Gradient and Friendship”

“For the Love of it: A Month of Driving, Gradient and Friendship”

Featured in the January/February 2006 American Whitewater Journal, page 16.

Tells the story of friendship and adventure while competing in a month long creeking competition called TVF.

Link to AW story: http://americanwhitewater.org/content/Journal/index/issue/1/year/2006/

Stan Guy on Suck Creek

 

 In the spring of 2005, a new kayaking competition was born. The Total Vertical Feet (TVF) Creeking Contest (also known as “March Madness”) pitted 19 southeastern teams against one another. The goal was to see which team could hurl themselves down the most river gradient during the month of March. The rules were simple: form teams of up to six paddlers (at least two had to complete each run together), and go creeking. A list was made of the total gradient of each creek in the southeast from put-in to takeout. To earn points teams simply paddled as much as possible and reported total earnings each day. As expected, a month of daily kayaking produced all the usual clichés: poorly tied kayaks were launched from moving cars, state troopers were busy writing citations, broken boats and sore backs required duct tape and ibuprofen. But, most importantly, friendships were sealed and incredible paddling experiences were created. By the end of March we had great stories to remember and some of us had even made new best friends.

The Green Narrows

The TVF competition was created by one of Chattanooga’s most respected creek boaters, Ben Friberg. Ben dedicated his time to create this contest while also managing Steepcreeks.com, a website providing southeastern creekers with a great resource for information on and history of our steep whitewater. Ben is one of those guys who is always a joy to see and his hard work to promote creek boating is derived purely from his love of it. He is not out for recognition, and mentioning his name in this article will surely make him mad. But, without his creativity and enthusiasm, many of us might have spent March on the couch. Thanks Ben.

The anticipation leading up to March was tremendous. Teams were formed. The rules were written, leading to much debate in the online forums. Everyone had a strategy. Best of all, the trash talking began. A few teams guaranteed total gradient in excess of 60,000 feet. Yes, 2,000 backbreaking, butt-jarring feet per day. In late February, two competitors training for March Madness racked up six runs on Bear Creek in one day. Bear was worth 857 feet per run and fast runs can be made in 45 minutes. And yes, the rules allowed for paddling the same run as many times in a day as desired. These guys dropped nearly a vertical mile in one day on the same creek. If teams could drop a mile every two days, their gradient for the month would surpass 75,000 feet. With hopes of much rain in the Southeast, teams looked toward March with the same anticipation as children waiting for Christmas. Everyone was amped and we all stocked up on spare gear and painkillers.

March 1st began for me at 6:30 a.m. Chris and Stan, two of my teammates, pulled into my driveway and started loading boats in the snow-covered front yard. I was on the Internet checking gauges and soon we were on our way to Little River Canyon. The month started dry and we had to paddle whatever we could find. LRC is not exactly a creek, but it was a great way to warm up. As we drove to Alabama we spoke of strategy and joked about past trips. Chris and I have been friends for many years. Stan, I barely knew. I had seen him during past summers leading raft trips on the Ocoee. In 1976, his family’s rafting company was the first to offer trips down the Ocoee. Growing up, Stan spent his summers around the outpost and had guided since he was 18. His kayaking began many years before and had matured into his life’s passion. A year earlier Stan had decided to switch from a traditional paddle to hand paddles. One day he arrived at Overflow Creek and discovered his paddle had not made the trip. He only had a pair of hand paddles with him, and so the legend began. Now, a year later, his hand paddling was smooth as butter and he could match any move a traditional paddler could make using only his hands. Stan stood out not only for his hand paddling, but because he was truly the nicest person I had ever met. On that first day we logged two trips on LRC and racked up 1,100 feet in freezing conditions. It was not extreme kayaking, but it was nonetheless an awesome trip. I had spent the day with an old friend and made a new one.

The first week of March Madness produced controversy. The rules for the contest were under debate. Should a team’s run be counted if the water level was below what most considered minimal? Should a team be allowed to paddle easily-accessible short runs 10-20 times per day and rack up huge numbers? Our team took heat for paddling the Ocoee. Yes, I know, the Ocoee is lame for a creeking contest, but there was nothing else to paddle. The Narrows of the Green, which ran almost every day during the month, was limited to being counted four times per team during the entire month. As you can imagine, limiting the allowed number of Green runs upset the teams based near Asheville. This contest was new and the rules reflected the best guess as to how this style of competition should be managed. This was the first TVF March Madness and it was more or less made up as it went along. Of course, all of the debate would have ended if the rainfall had increased. The month started dry, but many teams made the most of it and logged double-digit runs on Class III-IV. Personally, I did not mind doing laps on the Tellico. In fact, the marathon nature of the first part of the month was great training and resulted in everyone being in solid shape when the rains finally fell.

At the end of the first week, our team traveled to the Green for our four runs. We spent two days in paradise paddling the Narrows. Two runs per day was the goal. On the second day we arrived at the takeout finishing run number three with only 30 minutes to shuttle back to the top and put on for our last run before they shut off the water. The Green is dam controlled and we had 30 minutes to be in our boats paddling with a 25-minute drive ahead of us. As we frantically loaded gear, Johnnie Kern approached and asked if he could join us. I couldn’t believe a legend like Johnnie Kern wanted to paddle with us. “Hell yea,” I said. I grabbed his boat and loaded it onto Brad’s brand new Subaru. Everyone piled in and off we went. What we did not have time to tell Johnnie in the parking lot was that we were starting our Narrows trip an extra three miles upstream. We were putting in at the powerhouse in order to maximize our day’s TVF score. Johnnie was a little surprised when he realized he now had to paddle an extra three miles of slow moving Class III whitewater. He was a good sport about it and assured us he needed the workout too. Ten minutes prior to dam shutoff, we found ourselves nearing the put-in. Brad was pushing his brand new Suby to the limit and everything looked great. A second later, however, kayaks were launching at 60 miles per hour from Brad’s car. One boofed the hood, the other ripped the rack system off the roof. Our great day was spiraling. Johnnie’s brand new prototype creek boat skipped across the oncoming lane and lodged itself in the far ditch. Brad was starting to cry. Honestly, I really just wanted to paddle with Johnnie Kern and I refused to let Brad’s car being partly destroyed prevent it from happening. I loaded the boats again as Brad stared in disbelief at the dents and scratches on his brand new car. I assured him it would be best to still paddle. With one minute to spare, we slid into the river. It was great being rushed and I swear it helped Brad forgot about his car for a while. The Green usually cures all woes of daily life. Not even a brand new car being destroyed could detract from this amazing river. On the drive home, Brad agreed: getting to paddle with Johnnie Kern was definitely worth a few scratches.

Finally, it rained. On the eighth, ninth, and tenth, Stan and I were able to log quality runs on natural-flowing creeks. Stan showed me down Citico and Double Camp at high water. Chris joined us on the Lower Cullasaja for two runs. At this point Stan and I had spent most days in March together. We had paid our dues on lesser-gradient rivers and creeks logging countless runs on Class III-IV. We were not only boating well together, but becoming great friends. Every day consisted of hours of driving in my old Volkswagen Fox combined with great paddling. My car had become our team’s official shuttle vehicle. A good friend had given this car to me a few months earlier. Actually, he abandoned it in my driveway and refused to remove it. It sat there for a month and one day I finally drove it to the store. It runs great and gets 32 mpg. I have driven it every day since. Why do the kayaks never fly off of the old, piece-of-crap cars, while the new cars get trashed?

The middle of March turned dry again. The Tellico and the Little were the only options. On the thirteenth we did perhaps the silliest thing in kayaking history. Stan, Tiya, and I arrived at the Tellico at 5:45 a.m. By 6:00 a.m. the first light of day caught us as we were boofing Baby Falls. We paddled the two-mile laps in 25 minutes. Only two of us paddled per run allowing the third to drive shuttle. Loading, shuttling, and unloading took five minutes. During each shuttle, the driver prepared peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the group. We had cases of Red Bull and allowed ourselves one per person for every three laps. We continued that way the entire day. Somewhere around run 15 I looked back to see Stan sinking. He had split his Response from bow to stern. Actually, the boat was not his, it was his father’s. I knew Stan’s father loved that kayak and I knew how much trouble he was going to be in. “The old man doesn’t paddle anymore; Dad will never know,” Stan assured me (Of course a few weeks later Stan’s dad decided to go kayaking for the first time in years and discovered his kayak looked like a clam shell). On that Tellico day we had no time to think about it. We kept a backup kayak with us on the car and Stan was back in business a few minutes later. By 7:30 p.m. we had finished 22 Tellico laps and dropped more than a vertical mile. One lap was disqualified because I finished it on my own while Stan hiked back to the car. The sun went down during the last trip and we dragged ourselves to the car in the dark. It was exhausting, and some would argue just plain silly, but I would not have traded it for the world. It is not often you watch the sun rise while creeking and paddle until it sets. We took the next two days off.

With only a week left in March, we found ourselves in second place. A few teams had quit. They cited unfair rules and stated they were too good to paddle laps on the Tellico. Oh well, perhaps they missed the point. Our team not only wanted to paddle as much as possible, but we were also using the competition to raise awareness of and donations for our local Boys and Girls Club. We had sponsors donating money to the Boys and Girls Club based on how many feet we dropped. Our sponsors paid a penny per foot to the charity. Knowing our laps meant more than just a win helped keep the strokes going.

After three weeks of wishful thinking, the rains came back to the Southeast. Brad, Stan, and I drove straight for the West Prong. Located in Smoky Mountain National Park, the West Prong drops 1,360 feet. We completed two runs during the day and scored some much needed Class V gradient. It was a great day of creeking. The following day was perhaps my favorite. Stan and I traveled to the Raven Fork. The level was perfect and no other groups were there. For this run you park at the takeout and hike your boat two miles to the put-in. The hike begins by climbing straight up a mountain for 700 feet. The laps earlier in the month had prepared us well. At the top of the ascent you follow an old trail upstream a mile and half until you join the river.

I had only paddled this once before and Stan had never. We scouted everything and took turns leading. It was simply a perfect day. While scouting one of the huge slides, Stan asked where I planned to drop the last horizon line. Looking down, the last horizon line was probably 50 feet below me and I truly thought the last ledge was only five feet tall. He laughed and told me not to be surprised at what I might find after careening the first 50 feet. I definitely need my vision checked because after bouncing at 40 miles per hour I approached my five-foot ledge. I could almost hear him laughing as I flew off a 20-footer. From the bottom, I looked upstream. Stan appeared tiny as he entered the drop. The size of these drops is amazing. The creek consists of difficult 15  to 50 footers the entire stretch. As I watched Stan hand paddle I knew I was fortunate to watch a rising star of kayaking. Stan was perfect with every line. There are only a few hand paddlers who kayak this style of whitewater and Stan did it better than any traditional paddling legend could hope to. One of the last rapids on the Raven Fork is a 10-foot river-left boof called Cave Man. A tree blocked the entrance, but we managed to squeeze under it. When I paddled here before the water was much higher and the undercut on the bottom right was not in play. Today it was. Stan went first and styled the rapid. I committed a few minutes later. The tree was not an issue. A quick duck and I lined up for the boof. At the ledge I got pushed right and landed pointing straight into the undercut. I gave the rock a good head butt and pushed myself back thinking I was fine. Suddenly my edge caught and I was going back under the rock with no balance. I flipped and immediately went under. I was battling, trying to push myself out when a pair of hand paddles wrapped around my torso. Stan tackled me from behind. His bear hug pulled me straight out and up righted me. Seeing his hand paddles wrapped around my chest while I was stuck under the rock was about as cool as anything gets. He pushed me downstream and smiled. We finished with only three portages for the day. Pretty good for the Raven Fork.

On March 28th we were still in second place. The team in first was racking up laps on the Little while we stuck to steeper runs. We wanted to win, but could not pass up the steeps. Stan and I went back to the West Prong and paddled the Upper Upper, Trailhead, and Picnic sections twice. We scored 3,000 feet for the day and finished with our ritual drive home in the VW Fox. At this point we were both financially broke and our respective girlfriends had long since dumped us. We were, however, paddling extremely well and living life to the fullest. We had paddled for nearly a month straight and had more great memories of our month than most acquire in years.

On the 29th Stan and I headed to the Toxaway. The Toxaway can be a brutally unkind river. It is full of both wonders and misery. The slides are huge, hundreds of feet long, and they drop at a terrifying gradient. The speeds reached while sliding down these monsters are faster than my beater car’s top highway speed. The run requires three of the worst portages known in the Southeast. As usual, Stan was flawless. His hand paddling allowed him precise control. One portage ends at the top of a hundred foot long narrow slide called Land Bridge. You actually walk out on a huge slab of rock that acts as a bridge over the river. To enter the drop, you seal launch off the downstream side of the bridge and land in the falling waterfall. This is only the start of the rapid. I went first and from the bottom looked up to see Stan launch. He was already perched on the rock bridge facing downstream. From this distance he appeared to be tiny. I could see him tapping his hand paddles on. He then reached forward and with both hands gripping the lip of the ledge he flung himself perfectly into the waterfall. I have seen video of the world’s best paddlers dropping these falls and have been fortunate to watch a few of them in person, but Stan’s line was absolute perfection. He glided to the bottom.

If you are new to the Toxaway, Land Bridge is usually the biggest rapid you have ever paddled. Then you paddle the 30 feet of flatwater below and eddy out above Wintergreen Falls. While scouting Wintergreen you realize that it will be the biggest rapid you have ever paddled. Wintergreen is absolutely amazing. I have no idea how big it is. It is so much taller than other rapids there is nothing to compare it to. It makes Stairway to Heaven on Bear Creek look child-sized; Gorilla on the Green looks like an amusement park compared to this one. Plus, there is no portage. You have to run it. The drop consists of three giant slides. The first and last are almost vertical. Wipeouts on Wintergreen often include spinning around backwards after the first slide and stern pitoning into a ledge at forty miles per hour. This results in being ejected out of the back of your kayak and dropping the last huge slide on your butt, backwards! Before running Wintergreen I usually feel as sick as kayaking ever makes me. Afterwards, I feel as great as kayaking ever makes me. Once again, Stan was on the money. We paddled the last section talking about our adventures. With the Toxaway, the fun is not over when you get off the water. The take-out is actually an old road that is gated and you must carry your gear four miles straight up the mountain to the car. Two hours with sixty pounds of stuff on your shoulder going uphill gives you time to reflect.

The following day we hit the Tellico for 12 quick runs. I know it sounds ridiculous to call 12 runs quick, but after our month it was. On March thirty-first Tiya, Stan, and I spent our last day logging seven laps on Johnnies Creek. Johnnies flows into Little River Canyon. The level was pumping and to be honest much scarier than I had anticipated. Tiya knew the run and took turns leading us down. On the first run my creek boat split apart. The boat had been brand new on March first and had kept me very safe for the month. It somehow seemed appropriate for it to give out on the last day. Thankfully, we had a spare and later in the day Stan and I paddled for the last time that month. We raced the entire run and although I was in solid paddling shape I could barely keep up. Remember, I had the paddle. Following my new friend was awesome. There is certainly no one else I would have ever wanted to follow. We finished our last run of the month at sunset. Later that evening, we learned that we had won the first TVF March Madness.

During our month of paddling we racked up four runs on the Green, four on the West Prong, two on the Lower Cullasaja, one Raven Fork trip, one Toxaway trip, seven laps on Johnnies, two on Little River Canyon, seventeen Ocoee laps, one Double Camp, three Citico, and forty-three Tellico laps. We logged 254 miles of kayaking, 4,128 miles on the Fox, watched nine sunrises, broke four kayaks, lost two girlfriends, destroyed a brand new Subaru, raised money for the Boys and Girls club, ate hundreds of PB & J’s, and dropped over 30,000 vertical feet of gradient. Most importantly, I made a new great friend. 

The months following March Madness returned to normal. I stayed busy with my business. Stan made plans to finish college and returned as the head guide and trip leader for his family’s rafting company. Our lives became very busy with our seasonal jobs. Stan and I saw each other every few days on the river. Nothing ever had to be said, but the great bond of friendship from our month’s adventure had forever tied us to one another. We both knew we had discovered a great kayaking partner and looked forward to years of paddling. 

While working one day in July, I was told about a terrible accident involving a raft guide on the Upper Ocoee. The guide had swum towards a pinned raft in order to help out. While swimming through a relatively calm section of water upstream of the pinned raft, the guide was pulled under into an unknown sieve. The guide who lost his life was Stan. 

            Stan was much more than an amazing kayaker. He was without a doubt the most amazing person I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. He treated everyone as if they were his best friend. He was only twenty-three, but knew everything about life. He knew that relationships with family, friends, and how you treat people are miles more important than any other goals in life. Stan inspired everyone who knew him.   

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“Grand Canyon Express” Chronicles a 225 mile, five-day sea kayaking trip on the Colorado River

“Grand Canyon Express”

Featured in the July/August 2004 American Whitewater Journal, page 36.

The story of me and five friends paddling 225 miles of the Colorado River through Grand Canyon National Park in five days. Since this trip, the Park Service has changed the permitting system and greatly shortened waiting times for trips. http://americanwhitewater.org/content/Journal/index/issue/4/year/2004/

Above Lava Falls

Like many of the seven thousand six hundred paddlers waiting for a Grand Canyon private permit launch date I thought I would never get to launch. In fact, in eighteen years when my permit slowly works its way to the top of the list and I receive my date, I figure I will be too old, too fat, and have too many responsibilities to take most of a month off and paddle the Colorado. The only alternative to waiting for decades or paying for a high priced commercial trip is to attempt to obtain a cancellation date. (A trip made available most likely due to the participants growing too old, too fat, and accumulating too many responsibilities.) The problem is that cancellation dates are often given out only one month before the launch date; which makes it tough to find sixteen buddies with enough money and time to participate on one month’s notice.

This past fall I was confronted with this exact problem. While calling the Park Service hoping to obtain a cancellation launch date I made it through the busy phone lines and a Ranger answered. I’ve dialed this number hundreds, maybe thousands of times in recent years and always gotten a busy signal or recording. I could not believe it. A real, talking Ranger had offered me a launch date for the Grand Canyon. I yelled “yes”, answered a few questions, said good-bye, and began running around my office hugging everyone in sight. A few minutes later I was back at my desk, staring at my calendar and fighting back tears. The permit was good for up to twenty one days of bliss on the river. I, however, just realized I had to be finished with my 225-mile trip in five days. I continued to stare in disbelief; prior commitments left me with only five days to paddle the Colorado.

American Whitewater Journal cover photo about our trip

What should I do, call the Park Service and cancel? Never. But 225 miles in five days, is 45 miles per day! Having never paddled more than fifteen miles in a day, 45 would kill me. A few hours later my buddy Jonathan, who regularly winds down after work by paddling long distances for fun, called me. I told him of the dilemma. He assured me that this was no dilemma at all. In fact, this sounded like the perfect vacation to him. He explained, “We borrow hybrid kayaks, go fast, and knock the entire trip out in five days.” I thought he was nuts. He continued,” It will be like backpacking. We pack everything we need in our boats eliminating the need for rafts. With the current we can average nine mph so we only have to paddle five hours per day.”

I had never heard of a “hybrid” kayak. Jonathan described them to me. They are about 11 feet long, can handle big whitewater, and have hatches like a sea kayak for camping gear.” These boats are meant as a crossover between touring and whitewater. Maybe I was desperate to go but the more I thought about it the more I knew it was doable. I am used to paddling four to six hours a day and I can live out of a backpack for five days. By the end of the day I was back on cloud nine. I began the preparations knowing in a few weeks I was going to paddle the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.

Immediately I noticed how smooth this trip was going to be. Normal preparations for a Grand trip take weeks of planning, as rafts have to be rented, and a kitchen capable of feeding sixteen people three meals per day has to be organized and stocked. Normal trip leaders spend hours trying to accommodate the individual needs of every group member and make sure sixteen friends will cooperate and get along for a multi-week trip. The entire preparation process for this style of trip took four hours. I arranged a shuttle through the Hualapai Indians, bought the same type of food and supplies I would normally backpack with, and shoved all of my gear in the convenient deck hatches of a borrowed Prijon Yukon Expedition.

Letting a storm pass under a cliff

Now the tough part: finding friends willing to participate in such an endeavor. Of course, Jonathan Shanin was in. Jonathan is a past member of the U.S. kayak marathon team. He actually enjoys paddling long distances. He could not wait to leave me begging for mercy while trying to keep up with him. Pete Persoljia smiled as I asked him to join us. He loves a challenge and knew we were clueless as to what we had chosen to do. Chris Pesce quickly signed on. Chris owns a videograghy service on the Ocoee and hand paddles while filming raft trips for an extra workout. Jonathan, Pete, Chris, and I had all traveled together on adventures before and you could not ask for better partners on a journey.

Rounding out the team was Spencer Solem and Erik Boomer. Spencer had lived out of a kayak on long trips before and video boats the Gauley during the fall. Erik met us at the put-in, literally. I only knew his brother Abe and none of us knew Erik before the trip. Abe showed up at my doorstep a few months earlier wondering if there was any whitewater in the area. My house is ten miles from the Ocoee! He was just learning how to paddle and was cartwheeling a few days later. Abe had wrestled for Nebraska and was possibly the best athlete I have ever known. He stayed with me for a month and became a solid kayaker. When this trip fell into my lap I immediately asked Abe to join us. Because of family obligations, Abe had to pass but asked if his sixteen year old brother could take his place. Sure, I told him, why not? Abe is one of those guys you just do not question. He said his brother would be fine and that was the end of the discussion.

After three weeks of anticipation we arrived at Lee’s Ferry. The Grand Canyon is incredible. The vivid landscape, the openness, and the powerful river have always entranced me. The excitement of camping on the beach before starting the trip is overwhelming. The Lee’s Ferry Ranger inspected our equipment and filled us in on proper camping etiquette. By now our trip seemed completely normal. The Grand Canyon in five days; I was sure this must be a regular occurrence. Then Chris, asked Ranger Hall how often people paddle the entire canyon in five days. Ranger Hall started laughing. He wasn’t aware of anyone doing this before. I could have read Chris’ expression from a mile away, “What has Jeff gotten us into?” I was starting to sweat it. What had I gotten us into? Was it even possible to paddle forty five miles per day for five days? Could these hybrid kayaks handle the whitewater? Were my friends going to hate me after this? It turned out I had unwittingly created a whole new kind of Grand Canyon adventure. The following are my journal entries from our incredible five day odyssey.

Deer Creek Falls

Day One: I cannot believe the speed of these kayaks. Paddling at a normal pace we knocked out the 4.5 miles of flat-water from Lee’s Ferry to Navajo Bridge in thirty minutes. When I realized we could truly move at nine mph, the monkey was off my back. I could easily paddle at this pace for five hours a day. Badger Creek Rapid proved to be a good test for the performance of a hybrid in big whitewater. No problem, these boats maneuvered well and punched the biggest, gnarliest holes. The roaring twenties were incredible. Through this section there is a sizable rapid spaced every mile. The rapids are similar in difficulty to those found on the Lower Gauley. There is nothing like finishing a big rapid and looking back at your friends all bombing through in perfect formation. By five o’clock we rolled into camp at mile 45. At the beginning of the day we didn’t know if we could take the mileage or if these kayaks could handle the whitewater. Neither was an issue. After a gourmet dinner prepared by Chef Pete, I fell to sleep watching a meteor shower. I had just had the perfect day.

Day Two: Day two was incredible. We started with a little surfing at President Harding Rapid. Heading downstream we encountered very mild whitewater. We were thankful to be in speedy fourteen foot kayaks. The incredible scenery rolled by. We broke for lunch at the confluence of the Little Colorado. To our surprise the Little was aqua blue, no sediment. The Hopi Indians believe their ancestors emerged from their previous world within this watershed. If there ever was a Garden of Eden, we had found it. The little Colorado is truly a magical spot. During the next ten miles of paddling we realized how encompassing the area is. Until now the inner gorge and the immediate vertical walls were all you could see. Now, the full height and distance to the rim is exposed. You see the multiple stair-step vertical cliffs and talus slopes rising back from the river for over ten miles and 4500 vertical feet. Soon the whitewater intensified. Starting with Unkar Rapid we went head to head with some big holes. Nevilles, Hance, and Sockdolager all blew by. We finished the day with Horn Creek rapid. I had always heard that Horn Creek consisted only of waves. I floated to the horizon expecting a big wavetrain. The crashing noise told a different story. Apparently, Horn’s is a little bigger at the lower level we had this day. Horn’s was huge with holes everywhere. I began pouring on the forward strokes building speed and momentum. Straight down the middle I was heading for a monster pillow of white. I lowered my shoulders and hoped for the best. No traditional whitewater kayak would have made it through that hole without a trashing. The Yukon just saved my tail. I looked back to see my buddies one by one punch through. We floated the next few minutes to camp exchanging smiles. I had told everyone to expect big waves. The surprise of finding the hole was the best part of the day.

 

View from Nankoweap looking downstream

Day Three:

One of the greatest things about the Canyon is that all of the biggest rapids are in the middle of the trip. Granite and Hermit were sensational. After scouting Crystal, Pete chose to run the center of the hole. There is nothing like seeing a fourteen foot kayak cart wheeling in a hole the size of a Mack truck. Pete not only stayed in control, but after his skirt blew he paddled to shore laughing. Needless to say the rest of us skirted the hole.

Through this section the Canyon’s appearance becomes intimidating. The shear and jagged rocks keep you focused. By today’s standards the Grand’s rapids are considered relatively easy. However, you imagine the early explorer’s nightmare of trying to navigate this run. I doubt Powell ever envisioned people paddling the Grand Canyon strictly for fun. In the afternoon the whitewater eased. Ahead of schedule we shifted into slow gear and focused on the scenery. We passed a private raft trip and chose a campsite directly across from Deer Creek Falls, which plummets fifty feet within view of the Colorado. This had to be a dream; it is not often you fall asleep to a billion stars and a fifty-foot waterfall.

 

Day Four:

Like any good river trip there’s always a day you’d be fine just hanging out, drinking beer, and doing basically nothing. The fourth day was this for me. I really did not want to put on my paddling gear let alone paddle 45 miles. After a sluggish start the day turned out as great as any day in paradise. We made exceptionally good time through this section where the Colorado narrows significantly. In a little more than an hour of paddling we arrived at the only big rapid of the day: Upset. Unbeknownst to us, at low water Upset has a sizable hole and we paddled through unsuspecting. Chris, who was filming a documentary, had strapped a video camera to my helmet. As I floated along behind them trying to keep the camera steady I realized what I was headed for a second too late. I tried to turn but there was no avoiding this one. I hit the hole, flipped and expected to never see the camera again. I rolled up to hear everyone hooting. The camera was still in place and all was well.

After Upset we floated the few miles to Havasu Creek. Havasu is home to the Havasupai Indians; possibly the most unique reservation in the Southwest. The Havasupai live in a small village nine miles from the confluence of Havasu Creek and the Colorado. Their village has no road to it, only a footpath. The closest automobiles are another nine miles farther up the trail. To visit Supai, you, as well as the residents, must walk, ride a burro, or take a helicopter. The village of Supai, Havasu Creek, and the three incredible 50+ foot travertine waterfalls in this canyon make it one of the most spectacular places I have seen.

After a little hiking and a big lunch it was time to continue downstream. The river slows and widens through here. The mileage was tough but the scenery was incredible. As had been the case for the first three days we found a rhythm and knocked out the miles. If I were paddling elsewhere I could not have lasted an hour. However, in the Grand Canyon you are so mesmerized by the surroundings the miles fly by. Before we knew it we arrived at Vulcan’s Anvil, the core of an extinct volcano which rises straight up from the center of the Colorado. The lava flow was a recent event in geological time and probably occurred when the river was here. Imagine paddling a river when a volcano erupts from beneath your favorite surf wave. Vulcan’s Anvil is less than a mile above Lava Falls. We made camp on the River-left beach and watched a remarkable sunset. As the moon rose you could see the Anvil looming out of the river. We slept well knowing that we had almost completed the long journey through the Grand Canyon.

Redwall Cavern

 

Day Five:

Lava for breakfast. Our last day in paradise began with a bang. With only a few minutes to warm up we found ourselves feeling the roar of what once was considered the nastiest rapid on the continent. Of course, times have changed. Lava is no longer as menacing as once thought. Floating to the horizon line could have fooled us; the thundering roars of this rapid left every one’s heart pounding. We all decided to run the river right line. Chris had swam here a few years before, and decided to redeem himself by hand paddling. I followed him, filming his line. The entrance to the rapid is confusing, as it is hard to tell if you are getting too close to the hole. In these kayaks we knew there would be no time to correct a bad line. Fortunately, we were on line and spent the next several seconds in the biggest crashing wave train I’ve ever seen. From the bottom, we could see a faint rainbow forming from the mist. Everyone’s line was solid and after a long rejoice we began the final 45 miles of our journey. The day was filled with smiles and a lot of hooting. Mile 209 rapid had the biggest, fluffiest hole on the river. We all tried our luck at punching it but one by one we did a huge backender and flushed through. Though it is hard to believe, we all wished there were more miles that day. We wanted to keep paddling and not return to the world. As we came around the last bend and saw our cars parked at the takeout we felt both an incredible amount of relief and sadness as our journey ended. Secretly, we all had doubts about making it. Something might go wrong or the miles would be too much. It was a great sensation to ramp on shore at the take out and truly realize that the trip had been a huge success. The smiles from my friends were indescribable, and yet another sight I’ll never forget. For most paddlers, a Grand Canyon trip is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Many of the thousands of folks on the waiting list often spend hours dreaming how great it will be to lead their buddies through the Canyon. Unfortunately, these dreams often do not materialize.

 The waiting list has become so long and the time and planning required to lead a conventional private trip are discouraging. At f rst, I used my permit for this five day trip reluctantly. I feared I would not get the complete experience in only five days. I was wrong. I have participated in a few Grand Canyon trips and this was my favorite by far. The planning for a conventional trip is overwhelming. The expense is as much as a month long paddling trip to South America. The coordination and cooperation required between sixteen friends can be burdensome. All of these concerns were eliminated by this style of trip. The planning required only a few hours. The expense was minimal.The challenge of the trip weeded out the friends who probably would have been the bad apples on a conventional trip. Most of all, I feel I experienced the Canyon fully and was able to focus on the beauty. I did not worry about rigging a raft or preparing an elaborate meal. My focus was on the scenery and the river. My 5-day trip was not a vacation but a journey. The feeling of being completely self contained is extremely rewarding. The rush of flying through the big waves and holes with the speed of a fourteen foot kayak was incredible. Instead of floating through and seeing the canyon I felt as though I experienced it. I highly recommend this style of trip although I think an 9-day trip would be preferable. With fewer miles per day there would be plenty of time to explore side canyons and hikes. You can organize it in a moments notice, keep expenses low, and experience more in less time. The Grand Canyon is a place all paddlers should see. Maybe this style of trip will allow more to see it and change what they see.

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“Who Needs Film?” Tells the tale of a crazy solo adventure in the depths of Cataract Canyon, Utah

“Who Needs Film?”

 Featured in the July/August 2004 American Whitewater Journal, page 48.

 Describes an epic solo adventure I had while paddling Cataract Canyon through Canyonlands National Park.

Link to AW story: http://americanwhitewater.org/content/Journal/index/issue/4/year/2004/

Sunset on the Colorado

I hate the sinking feeling I get realizing I just made a huge mistake. I was standing beside my kayak above Mile Long Rapid on the Colorado River in Cataract Canyon. I was staring at possibly the best surf hole I have seen in days. The problem?… I just realized my thirty-five millimeter camera is sitting safely on a rock one and a half miles upstream. I had left it there an hour earlier while taking a short break from my kayak. Like a complete bonehead, I forgot to grab it before I hopped back into my boat. So there I stood, watching my buddies throw a zillion ends in the hole just downstream of me.  Then I look upstream at the formidable hike ahead of me. Do I hike back up for the camera? Do I try to paddle upstream and portage around the rapids? Or do I forget it and go for the surf of my life. A few other things to consider: It was a beautiful winter day in southern Utah. The temperature at the moment might be thirty-five degrees. This was probably the warmest it has been during our two week trip. As soon as the sun disappears above the cliff wall the temperature will drop to around twenty. It was nowthree o’clockin the afternoon (sunset in three hours). My friends are surfing, yelling at me to forget the camera. Of course, they did not realize all the film I had taken of them during our trip was in the case with the camera. If they had, they probably would have gladly seen me off to retrieve my misplaced goods. The evening’s campsite is only two miles further downstream. The rational choice would have been to write the camera off to a moment of stupidity and go surf in the big hole. However rational I have always claimed to be, I could not pass up a challenge like this. Besides, it almost seemed too easy. I had three hours to jog up the bank, grab the camera, return, and paddle the two miles to camp.  Plus, this would get me out of kitchen duty and my other camp chores. Seemed like the right thing to do at the time.

So the adventure begins. I quickly changed into a dry set of expedition weight capaliene. I found my hiking boots and socks, which were buried at the bottom of my dry bag. My kayaking gear was wet so I spread it out on the rocks in hopes the last bit of direct sun shine would dry it before my return. As I was about to leave, my buddy Pete recommended I take my petzel flashlight and extra batteries. This was possibly the best advice a friend has ever given me. I remembered laughing at him thinking I would be in camp tonight with at least thirty minutes of daylight to spare. I said my goodbyes, grabbed my water bottle, and started scampering upstream along the bank. 

I quickly discovered how difficult this was going to be. The bank was nothing more than the debris pile of talus from the cliffs. The boulders ranged from coffee table size to house size. The river had been creating this pile of rubble for many millennia. The talus was sloped at forty-five degrees, stretching from the bottom of a three hundred foot cliff down to the water. The river was spaced anywhere from twenty to one hundred feet from the vertical cliff wall. I scampered, leaped, and crawled my way over the boulders. I had hoped to find a game trail to follow, but no such luck. I kept an intense pace, knowing that I had to make the best time possible on this first leg. Running and jumping from one rock to another was awesome. This was probably the only time I had broken a sweat in weeks. The cold air burned my throat a little, but I felt great. After an intense forty five minutes of non stop scampering I stopped to look around. In the distance, I could still see my kayak downstream. Broken hearted, I thought of turning back. I realized there was no way to make it to camp before dark. I knew I could paddle the whitewater by flashlight. What to do?  I had perhaps made it halfway. I had another three quarters of a mile to go. I would have definitely continued, but I was coming to a bend in the river. I was on the inside of the bend and could not see what lay ahead. In fact, the talus slope I was traversing seemed to disappear into the river. TheColoradoappeared to flow adjacent to the three hundred foot cliff wall around the bend. I was still a quarter mile away from the bend. I could not tell for sure. Should I invest the little daylight I had left knowing there was a cliff I might not make it around? If I turned back now I could still surf at the hole for a few rides and easily make it to camp before dark. I could not quit. I would always regret not seeing if I could make it around the meander. I convinced myself there would be a great trail ahead and a nice beach adjacent to the cliff to walk on. I smiled, drank some water, and took off sprinting over boulders again.

The beauty of this canyon is as great as the Grand. The mosaic of reds stretched out to the dark blue sky. The sun had long since left the river bed. The top of the cliffs on the side I was traveling were still lit in direct light. The Colorado beside me made the terrain seem friendlier. I actually found a rough game trail. The Big Horn sheep who live here would probably not appreciate my trespass. I had seen them for days from the conveyor belt of a river. They always stared with curiosity. I doubt I would have received a warm welcome upon stumbling into a herd.

Baby Big Horn

Who am I kidding?  Although, I felt agile and nimble leaping from boulders, I’m sure a bighorn would have heard my clumsy human feet a mile away.  There was probably a herd standing above me laughing at the silly human making such slow progress to an impossible destination. I began around the bend and saw my journey come to an end. The river did in fact meet the vertical wall.  The talus slope reappeared just thirty feet further upstream. Looking up I noticed a small ledge about twenty feet above water level. If I could make it along the ledge without falling I could return to the talus slope and retrieve my camera in just a few minutes. I’m terrified of heights. At least I would land in water if I fell. The climb was tedious. The ledge was less than a foot wide in places. The crumbling sedimentary rock did not make for the best foothold. I had to ascend higher than I anticipated. There was no good route to climb back to the upstream talus slope. I ended up about forty feet above water level. I glanced at my watch,four thirty. I should have already been there and started my return trip. Climbing down is always the hard part.

Finally, I was on the upstream boulders. Moving around the bend I recognized the bottom of the rapid where my camera waited. The rapid was long, perhaps four hundred feet. I was so close I celebrated too early. Coming into view was another vertical cliff. There was no way around this one. I could see from this point the rock my camera set beside. It was still two hundred feet further upstream, but I could see it. The cliff was overhanging and I did not have a chance in hell of climbing it. This cliff was only thirty feet wide. I could not believe I was contemplating swimming around this thing. The time was five twenty. I knew I could not climb around the first cliff in the dark. I had to be returning and pass both cliffs by six o’clock. I knew if I waited for even a few minutes to think about it I would start shivering uncontrollably. There was no way I could prevent hypothermia if my clothes were wet. Here goes…  I stripped my clothes and boots off. I tied my pant legs in a knot, shoved the shirt and boots in, held it all above my head and eased into the thirty two degree water. The air temp was the same and I immediately began trembling. I was able to wade at waist depth for the first fifteen feet. The depth increased. My chest and then shoulders sank beneath the ice water. For some reason I began to grunt and growl. I saw how insanely stupid all of this was and began to crack up. I went to tippy toe depth, praying to find shallow ground. Only ten more feet to shore. Now, my laughing turned to coughing. I had to swim for it. My face slipped under the surface. I have never experienced as much anxiety as that moment. My body was freaking out. I had to hold my clothes above water. They could not get wet or I would have been completely screwed. I could not even swim hard in order to keep the clothes dry. I had to doggy paddle to shore. I carefully flung my clothes to safety and exploded out of the water. I yelled so loudly that I heard an echo bounce around the canyon walls for five seconds. I frantically replaced my clothing and boots. My body heat would hopefully dry the dampness left by my skin. I immediately began running upstream along a beach. A very bad thought entered my mind. I envisioned my buddies grabbing the camera before they left earlier in the day. They never thought I would actually traverse back up here to get it and were planning to pull it out and surprise me at dinner. I would have killed them if after all this there was no camera to recover.

Mama Big Horn

Only one hundred feet to go. I had to duck into a dense Tamarisk tree forest. The Tamarisk tree is a pest to the Colorado. Man introduced it to the area only a hundred years ago. Since, it has migrated upstream and destroyed most of the endemic plant life. The tamarisk is a rugged tree and almost impossible to crawl through. There I was on my belly crawling in the ten inches of space under this little forest when I found what may have saved my life. I came face to face with an ancient tall boy of Keystone Light beer. The label was so bleached you could barely make out the logo. The can was perfectly full and completely intact.  Undoubtedly the remnant of some long ago river trip, this can of beer got away and had been waiting there under the Tamarisk tree just for me. In awe, I grabbed it, stood up and ran the last few feet to my camera. It was patiently waiting for me. I could not believe it.  I sat down for the first time in two and a half hours. I cracked open the beer and sucked down some badly needed calories. The best beer I have ever had.

Looking at my watch I jumped and sprinted back under the Tamarisk tree. I had to make it around both cliffs before dark. I tore off my clothes, repeated my bundling and swam like hell. This time was not quite as bad. I threw my clothes back on and began climbing around the other cliff. I was exhausted and only had about fifteen minutes of daylight to do a climb which took thirty minutes earlier. I flew up to the most dangerous and difficult part. I had to lunge and grab a hand hold five feet away. The move was as exposed as possible. The freezing water waiting for me forty feet straight down. With the light disappearing I made the move. My feet both slipped off the ledge as I hung by my handhold. The adrenaline kicked in and I hauled myself up unto the footing. I stood up still clinging to the rock and looked at the relatively easy climb down to the talus slope. I fished my petzel out, strapped it around my head as the sun disappeared for the day.  If this flashlight did not work I would have frozen in twenty degree temperatures on the side of that cliff for the next twelve hours. Thank God, the light turned on. I carefully followed the trail to the rivers edge and began my miles’ hike downstream to my kayak. There was no rush at this point. I knew I must go slowly. If I fell I could lose or break the flashlight. I took my time and an hour later arrived at my starting point. 

My kayak and all gear were frozen solid. My dry top and fleece could have been used as a hatchet they were so flat and stiff.  I was starving.  I can hardly describe how happy I was to have an army MRE meal in the back of my boat. The capaleine I was wearing was dry and warm while hiking, but not even close to being adequate while sitting. I went ahead and pried my frozen paddling gear on over my fleece. Spray skirt, life jacket, and helmet, everything I had. I wrapped the petzel over my helmet, grabbed the duct tape and began taping the light to my head. If this thing fell off in the middle of a rapid I would be terrified.

I ripped the MRE open and began the heating process of dinner. Those army guys are very crafty. They created a little pouch that you pour a few ounces of water in which heats the pouch containing the beef ravioli. Amazing, in five minutes I had a warm meal complete with pound cake for dessert. It was now8:00; I had been going full strength for five hours. I looked downstream into the dark hearing the roar of whitewater. I was at the top of Mile Long Rapid which is solid class III-IV. As I began to pack my boots I was reminded of the temperature. I had only taken them off twenty minutes earlier but they had already frozen solid from the sweat. Oh well, at least they no longer smelled. I shoved them in the stern and climbed in my boat. The skirt refused to cooperate. It, too, was frozen solid and barely stretched around the cockpit.  There I sat: warm, full, and very happy. I had survived an epic adventure. I could make it through the evening just sitting there. Why risk paddling two miles of solid whitewater in sub freezing temperatures, by myself, in the dark?

My kayak was perched waiting to go.  I probably could have even slept for a while just sitting there on my rock. I was extremely lucky to have made it this far. Why push it? A swim in this water could kill me. The thought of my light going out in the middle of a bad rapid was terrifying. What the hell… I slid in and never stopped paddling. I even went for a surf on the wave just downstream. I caught it on a front surf and immediately began throwing ends. I was having a pretty good ride until I flipped. I rolled just in time to hit the next hole. My petzel provided about fifteen feet of light. I could hear the holes long before I could see them. Once they were in sight I had time for two good strokes. The experience was terrifying. I managed to stay upright through the rest of it. Dodging the meat of what I could see. I did a few unintentional splat wheels trying to avoid boulders. The first mile was the tough one. Afterwards, I was able to float and stare at the stars. 

Just then, I noticed the most bizarre creature staring at me. His eyes were reflecting my light from about fifty feet away. I presumed it was some type of small mammal on a cliff. As I paddled closer I could see the outline of his body. A large man was standing there staring at me. He was shaped like a professional wrestler. The broadest shoulders I’ve ever seen on a man, approximately six feet tall. I thought I must be delirious. I must be having some sort of delusion due to exhaustion. I ferried towards it but could not keep from washing downstream. As I slid closer to the bank he started walking downstream to keep up with me. Was this Big Foot? Maybe a member of some ancient Anasazi tribe? I yelled over to it and it picked up the pace. This is nuts, I thought.  I have not seen another person outside of my group in a week. There is no way some hiker is down here walking around three hours after dusk. Finally, I was able to eddy out.. Now I was fifty feet downstream of it. It was coming towards me but stopped just barely too far away for me to tell what or who it was. It continued to stare at me and finally stepped out of my view. I was both scared and amazed. Some huge bipedal creature was stalking me. I turned downstream and took off. I was praying that my buddies had set camp up on the other side of the river.

A few minutes of paddling hard and I saw the camp fire. Crap, they camped on the same side as the giant creature. I jumped out on the beach yelling for them to pack up. We had to move across the river. They had been drinking for hours, thought I was already dead, and welcomed the visit of some strange creature. I stood by the fire for an hour refusing to take my paddling gear off.  I figured I could be out of there in twenty seconds if I had to. Slowly, I calmed down and figured if I were to be attacked by big foot tonight I might as well drink some beer. The exhaustion took over and I was out cold in a matter of minutes.

I slept as sound as ever and awoke to an incredible sunrise. Looking around at the beach I could not see the night before, there he was; Bigfoot, in the flesh. A huge male Big Horn Sheep studied me. He was facing me so I could not see his side profile. His shoulders were as impressive as I remembered. His coat was white in the front and dark behind his shoulders. Seeing him from fifty feet with a flashlight the night before would maybe explain the mystery creature. He must have been as curious of me as I was of him.  I saw Bigfoot. He saw a floating spaceship with a strange light shining out. I certainly was not disappointed to learn that I saw him; I hope he felt the same.    

The Colorado makes you happy!

Years later, I still have the crushed Keystone Light can. Everyone wonders why it is nailed to my office wall. The camera still takes a great picture. The photos from that trip as well as my other travels are invaluable possessions. However, they hardly compare to the experience of rescuing my camera. You take a camera on trips to bring home photos so you can remember the details. My camera provided me with much greater images of an experience than a photo could ever do, better than video too!

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