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Thursday, October 20, 2011

How I almost died for my birthday

I went on my first whitewater rafting trip when I was 12. I've loved it since then, but I've always wanted to try whitewater kayaking. Around Augusta, there's really not much one can do about that. So I've only kayaked flat water.

Another reason not to kayak the Savannah River.

But for my birthday, my awesome sister took me to kayak the Nantahala River in Bryson City, N.C.

Who can be stressed out in the middle of this beauty? Not me!

The Nantahala stays about 50-degrees all year long, so we geared up in wetsuits, splash jackets and PFCs. Notice I didn't put the word "helmets" in that gear list. Foreshadowing.

I'm a good rafter. I'm a stable canoer. But kayaking is still pretty new to me. Skill sets are similar, but there are differences - the most important one being that rafts give you slightly more leeway.

In a raft, you bounce down the rapids with 1,000 units of air to protect you. Kayaking in duckies, you're much lower to the water and have only 20 units of air between you and the rapids. Also, in a raft there are other people to help you read the river and correct your course. If you get flustered and mis-stroke, they'll balance you out. In a kayak, your mistakes have an immediate impact on your safety. There's another way to look at that: In a raft, your actions impact the safety and enjoyment of up to five other people; in a kayak, you're the only one who suffers. So, there are pros and cons to either sport.

I wasn't thinking about any of that when we carried our kayaks to the riverbank. I was thinking one thing: "LET'S GO!"

But the second we put in, I realized something: I paddle like a damn rafter. I mean that I pull harder on one side and lean slightly to one side. So I spent five minutes drifting in large, crooked circles until I got the hang of it. My sister, wisely, did not laugh at me.

But I was raring to go, and we didn't have a lot of space to practice. On the Nantahala, you have less than 100 yards to get acclimated before hitting the first rapid, Patton's Run. It's Class II-III, but there have been two drownings at this rapid. We ran it river right, as recommended, and it was splashy and sweet.

Just below Patton's Run is Tumble Dry and then there is just enough room for a raft to get stuck between two rocks at the aptly named rapid Raft Trap. A raft that pins here must be deflated to be removed. No bueno, folks. No one wants to have to get back out after only 20 minutes on the water.

Then there's Isle of Dumping, Pop 'n Run and Pyramid Rock. After that, Delebar's Rock, Quarry Rapid and Root Canal.

By this point, I had noticed what a superior kayaker my sister is. Granted, she had done this same run before with a friend's father, who also is an experienced kayaker and an excellent guide. But she also has an elegant, conservative stroke. She's fast and nimble. From behind, it looks like she barely dips her paddles into the water.

Not me. "HULK SMASH WATER!" is the best way to describe my method. I was getting through fine, but I was also kicking my own ass. She talked me through some pointers about using my core as opposed to my shoulders, and reminded me that how I lean impacts the way the kayak moves. Again, different from rafting. So, basically, I'd been steering the boat one way with my arms, and another with my butt. Oops.

We ran through the wave at Whirlpool, then hit Ledges, Little SOB, Blowing Springs, Surfing Rapid, 4 Eddy Rapid (where the concrete bridge crosses the river) and Devil Kitchen Caves. Y'all! We made this river our biznitch! I pulled some crazy hip swivel at the end of one rapid that was all kinds of awesome.

"That looked so professional!" Kelli exclaimed. I was proud of myself, and kind of hoping she would notice, because I am a giant puppy dog on the water. Rawrf! *PantPantPant* Snausages!
About seven miles into the eight-mile run (hell, yeah, eight miles; this is a four-hour upper body workout, people) there is a sign on the left. It's right beside the tracks for the Blue Ridge Railway.

"Huh," I thought. "Weird to have a bump on the railroad tracks. And why did they hang that sign over the river?"



That's why.

And into the water I went. We were at a spot called, appropriately, The Bump. That sign was there because you can't see it from upstream. Non-morons see the sign and take caution. Idiots like me look for a train catching air. Plus, I went river left when I should have gone right, and basically I messed it all up.

My boat came down on my head, my paddle hit me in the face, my helmetless head smacked against a rock and I went right into the dreaded hole.

The hole was shallow enough that I could stand up - but there's a whole (see what I did right there?) reason why they tell you not to do that if you fall out of your boat. So what's the first thing I do?

I try to stand up. And the river smacked me back down again.

Of course.

Luckily, I managed to kick out of the hole and grab the side of my boat. My paddle banged against my face again.

So what's the next thing I do? Turn over on my stomach to try to see where I'm going. Rocks began pounding my legs. Waves splashed into my face and made it impossible for me to catch my breath. In a brief moment of panic, I tried to call for my sister to help me.

"Kell-" garblegarble *cough*

Well. Now that I've swallowed half the river, I'm nicely hydrated and ready for more exercise.

The next rock to my shin knocked some sense into me, and I flipped over on my back, into the proper whitewater swimmer's position - just in time to come out of the rapids. Excellent timing, ya moron.

I caught my breath, plopped my paddle into the boat, and started backstroking towards the side. Kelli dragged me the last five feet, and I hauled my stupid ass over to the concrete landing.

Kayaking: UR DOIN' IT WRONG.

But, people, I still have some pride left because I saved my glasses. AND THE JAWS OF NERDS EVERYWHERE JUST HIT THEIR DESKTOPS.

That's right. Even though I left the athletic strap (hee!) at home, and I got half-drowned and beaten by rocks, I refused to lose my glasses. You may all tremble before my superiority, nerdlings.

Kelli and I sat on the concrete while I laughed at myself and explained what happened.

It looked a lot like this.

"I would have freaked out. You were so calm!" she exclaimed.

She couldn't see my hands shaking. In fact, my whole body was shaking. And it wasn't just from the 50-degree water. It was straight-up fear. It was a scary, painful and freezing-cold experience, but I wouldn't take it back. I haven't gotten knocked out of a boat since I was about 15. I was getting cocky and careless. I needed that surprise beating for perspective.

** However, I'd like to take a second for a shout-out to the 10-15 male kayakers in and beside the river who saw me go in, watched me struggle, observed as I paddled to the side of the river with all my gear, and did absolutely nothing. I'm not saying they lack chivalry. I'm saying we're all supposed to look out for each other on the river. Thanks, turds. **

The last time Kelli ran the Nantahala, she got dumped out of her boat on Nantahala Falls (aka Lesser Wesser), kind of like this:

So she was a-okay with skipping the last section of the run, if I was too scared to go on.

"We can stop here," she said, as we warmed our numb hands and feet in the sun. "They'll come and get our boats."

Nantahala Falls is a Class III/IV. It's the longest and fastest rapid on the run. The "Big Finish." If we stopped then, we'd just walk a quarter-mile to the outpost. They'd come get our boats, while we changed into warm, dry clothes and ate delicious sammiches. It sounded pretty damn good.

Then my brain played this: 

Stupid brain. If I didn't run it, I'd be angry with myself forever.

"Screw that. I'm doing it," I said.

So when I felt less shaky, we hopped back in our boats and left the take-out spot. Once you do that here, there's no going back. You immediately hit the wavetrains that snake down the middle of the river, and it narrows into a swift channel that drives you over the falls.

Unless, that is, you paddle away from the take-out spot, into the current, and immediately get stuck on a rock with a resounding skrronnnnnk! Then you see that as a sign that the universe does not want you to go down that waterfall!

"I got it!" Kelli called, as I rocked back and forth, trying to dislodge the boat. I looked up, and she was driving straight at me.

"Surely she's not going to run into me," I thought.

BLAM! The pointy end of her ducky drove into my left arm at 20 miles an hour.


Why do I stupidly question things that are right in front of my face?

"I'm sorry! I was trying to push your boat off the rock!" she exclaimed, while I said some not-family-friendly words.

I could see the swift, deep channel to the left. I pushed harder to get out of the stupid shallows and the boat drifted free.

"Yay!" we cheered. Then... skrronnnnnk! Another rock. I just couldn't get it right today. I dislodged, paddled twice, and skrronnnnnk! Another rock.

I got mad. Dangit! If you're planning on killing me, Nantahala River, could you just do it quickly in the falls? Stop dragging it out, okay? Let's get this straight: I'm going down those falls if I have to drag every rock in the river with me.

Then the current pulled me free and yanked my boat into a section that looked not entirely unlike Six Flags' Thunder River. Great. This, I thought, is how I am supposed to die.

Instead, this is how much we killed it:

Kelli slid down after me, smooth as silk, and we pulled into the gravel take-out area 50 yards down. I was shaking so hard that I could barely get out of the boat. My arms hurt, my hands and feet were numb, my legs were bruised, a scratch ran down the right side of my face, my head hurt and I was tired, hungry and cold.

I've never felt better.

I'm not getting any younger. And some people who shall remain nameless freaked out about me going on this trip. Those people think it's too late to take up kayaking. This was, after all, birthday number $29.95 (but I'm on sale).

Well, those folks can bite me. This was the best birthday gift I've ever had. Thanks, Kelli!

I have a goal. In five years, I'd like to do the Olympic run on the Ocoee River, and not get killed. I've said that before, but I'm going to keep saying it. I hope you will all hold me to it.

As soon as Emerson's old enough, I'll be taking her with us. It's fun, it's safe if you're not stupid like me, and it's an exhilarating workout.

Just watch out for that bump.

If you go:

Bring: Neoprene gloves, water shoes (or you can rent booties), a bathing suit. Pretty much everything else is supplied by the outpost. We almost always use Nantahala Outdoor Center. Also bring: a change of clothes and shoes, maybe a towel, and sunscreen never hurts.

Leave: Fear and whining.


  1. Awesome story, beautifully written experience!

  2. I know your inspirational writing is supposed to make me WANT to go kayaking, but it did exactly the opposite. I very much like to try to remain alive on most days, especially my BIRTHday. Although I do appreciate the irony of your almost dying for your birthday. Ha ha. But I am SURE Honey will join you when we go to the States, and I will be more than happy to shoot the videos!

  3. Actually, it's just supposed to entertain people as to how much I suck at life. But I'm so glad to hear that you want to go with us next time! (See how I totally ignored your earlier statement and shoved you in a boat?)