Growing up in Topton North Carolina I rode the school bus to the Nantahala School. We would make the winding route up Wayah Road early in the morning. More often than not the river would have its natural base flow of around eighty cfs in it. However, after enough trips on the bus every week one is bound to see the water rising. Even as a 10 year old, this daily trip afforded many opportunities to dream about running the Cascades section of the Nantahala River. Long before I even before I knew how to roll, I dreamed of running that stretch of river.
I finally started kayaking when I was thirteen. I lived–and have lived, within ten minutes of the Cascades for 23 years now. After a two-year break, I picked it back up when I was 18. I bought my Dagger Vengeance at GAF in the fall of 1999, hopping on everything that would float me. Jumping on the “fast track,” people said I had more balls than brains with my choices of runs in relation to my kayaking experience…even though I had been rafting since I was five and kayaking for a collective five years. I spent that winter with my good friend paddling the Nantahala, Tuckasegee, Little Tennessee and over to the Greenbriar section of the Pigeon. We paddled almost every day that winter…in ice, in snow, on clear windy thirty degree days. We paddled with the desire to one day be able to run waterfalls, with the desire to do cartwheels and be able to run some of the classics– including the Cascades. After two years of as much consistent boating as my scumbag lifestyle could afford, I knew I was ready to start creeking! And I never stopped.
The Cascades is my “backyard run” and it would be impossible to recount the trips I have taken down it. The best thing for me about this run is the wide spectrum of levels which it can be navigated. I believe the lowest I’ve run them was around eighty cfs and the highest being around one thousand. From super tight and technical Class IV creeking to huge pushy Class V West Coast style, boating the Cascades offers every boater something to work on. Over the years, there have been days where we would post up all day and pull thirteen runs, stopping just long enough for a quick lunch in the middle. There were days when it had rained all night and I would go run a couple laps before going to work as a raft guide at 8:30 in the morning. I made three Christmas runs, meeting up with the couple of people that braved the solace of a Nantahala winter run. From my Vengeance, to a Freefall, to my Shredder, and my eight man Hyside, I’ve taken down just about everything (with the exception of maybe an Old Town canoe). And as the odds have it, I did swim out of my raft and Shredder several times. I have had good lines and bad lines. I have never swam out of a kayak on the Cascades (knock on wood) although I have run Kahuna upside down and backwards, I have been pinned in Junkyard on a log and climbed out of my boat onto the rocks where I was unable to pull my boat out, and been surfed at the hole above the Horns. I have learned a lot about the river, the most important thing being that its difficulty cannot be underestimated, and it should be respected.
Fast forward to the year that Duke Energy and the Nantahala Gorge Association (NGA) started talking of the re-licensing project. Excitement flushed through the paddling community, though for a few years the update was always “next year.” As excited as the local community was to have scheduled releases in the future we were content knowing that we lived near and were able to run them whenever there was enough water. The scheduling did not really affect us as we have always had the Cascades whenever it rained enough, but we were psyched about the idea of scheduled releases on nice sunny days without rain but still have optimal levels to paddle.
Since the start of recreational releases the past few years, I have come to notice a common misconception– that the Cascades are an easy run. The fact that it is a part of the Nantahala, that it is road side and that it is officially rated a Class IV run all seem to have contributed to this underestimating the difficulty of the Cascades. I believe the term “recreational release” seems to have brought disregard to the severity of consequences should someone have a bad day up there. Every release, tons of people flock to the Nantahala Gorge to come paddle the Cascades, the Upper Nantahala and the commercial stretch at the higher flow. This is fantastic! I am so grateful for all of AW’s work and for all the help of the outfitters to make this dream a reality. To have warm sunny days to gather your friends to paddle a run that is typically de-watered is amazing. I would love to see it continue in this same manner for years to come so that one day I can be there with my daughter and our friends when she has her first run down the Cascades. Unfortunately, I fear that dream could be in danger because of the lack of respect and the underestimating the difficulty of the river.
Every release the people that flock to our run are a mixed bag of boaters, ranging from the likes of Pat Keller and Adrian Levknecht, down to folks that just bought their first kayak this year and are paddling the higher flows of the lower Nantahala. Along with these crowds are the people looking to step up their game. This is where I want to make my point. I am all for the advancement of skills and techniques. I am all for Logical Progression. But at every release that I have been present for on the Cascades, I have witnessed an unnecessary amount of carnage. I understand that everyone crashes. I have. What disappoints me is to show up to the run that I have so much respect for, and see so many people that have no business being there. It is disheartening. To give an example: at this last release, I noticed a group of five boaters going down. I followed their run on foot. In every rapid somebody in the group was upside down. Three of the five ran the right side of the Horns, one of them upside down and backwards for the drop. At Big Kahuna three of them swam, two making it to shore and one swimming Junkyard. Two of their boats temporarily pinned on the same rock leading into Junkyard. It so bothered me that I chose to set up safety after making my two laps. I could not believe what I saw during the time I set safety.
While trying to rope a canoe out of the hole just above the main drop at Kahuna we were signaling people to take the left line down the slide. Most of the boaters that came through had boat control, but one did not. He crashed into the canoe barely escaping the wooden gunnel splinter that broke off and almost impaled him in the face. I was able to connect a carabineer to the bow of the canoe pulling it out before it went off the drop to almost certainly be pinned in the middle of Junkyard. The kayaker let go of his paddle and swam, getting out at the top of Junkyard. The day was full of carnage. Everywhere.
When I teach people, when I give friends advice about kayaking and making a logical progression, I tell them that the objective to advancement is to style a run– not to just survive it. In my book, being a solid Class IV boater means being able to safely and accurately navigate any Class IV run with minimal instruction and detail. It means that not only can you read rapids from the bank but that you can read and run drops that are not blind. It means that you can roll on both sides, rarely swimming. It means that you can show people down any Class III run with confidence and security. But that’s not what I am seeing on the Cascades and Upper Nantahala.
My advice is that when you look to step it up, do so with caution. Do so with patience. When you want to go to a run you’ve never done, one that is harder than you normally run, FIND someone that has done it, not just once or twice, but many times. Find someone that can tell you of all the lines, good and bad and their consequences. Find someone that you are confident with in their ability to accurately guide you down the run; someone that you are confident can help recover you and your boat should you swim. If you and your friends are looking to go to an unknown run then maybe try to split up so you don’t have three newbees running down with one experienced person. This is especially easy on a run like the Cascades since they are roadside and only a mile. Don’t be confident that the Ocoee is a Class IV run( because it is not) and that being able to get down the Ocoee means you are able to hop on the “Class IV” Cascades with little or no guidance. If this is your mentality then your day of punishment is coming. And worse, how unfortunate would it be for these types of releases to be discontinued due to excessive injuries or fatalities?
I would like for people to be safe and have fun and keep kayaking. I am deeply involved with this lifestyle and would like to continue to be so for a very long time. This takes respect. Respect for the river first and foremost. Every kayaker that runs the notch at Gorilla on a regular basis can tell you that you are NEVER truly in control. It takes respect for yourself. You must respect your TRUE ability and knowledge of kayaking before you can safely advance and enjoy this sport. Let’s face it, being scared on a run is ok at times but it should not account for most of your kayaking experience. And lastly, have respect for your fellow boater. If you swim, get pinned or are stuck surfing in a hole, you have not only jeopardized your own safety, but the safety of not just your group, but everyone on the river that day. When you swim, people chase your boat down lines that normally they wouldn’t. They put you on their stern making it hard to paddle and to get to shore safely. They have to use ropes to pull you to shore and any time a rope is in the water the chance of injury/other problems vastly increases. When you swim (at Kahuna for instance) your boat may become pinned in the next rapid, (like Junkyard) making the normal line for those who are bombing unavailable. A pinned boat means someone has to go out in the moving water to connect a line to your boat, putting them self in danger and having a rope in the water again. When you are surfing in a hole you could be potentially blocking the line the person upstream was planning on taking; therefore catching them off guard and forcing them to change their line as they come around the corner.
These are the things I have experienced, seen, and been a part of– not only on the Nantahala, but on too many rivers. We all love this sport, that’s why we do it. Let’s continue to do so by staying alive and safe.