The south is getting hot and dry this time of year; as a result the southeastern rivers are running low. This makes run selection much harder – always watching weather apps, AW gauges, praying for rainfall, the happy rain dance around the campfire, and whatever other idiotic shenanigans you might think of to obtain a drop of precipitation. These circumstances all came into play last weekend to start my next happy dirtbag adventure.
My close friend Jeff Vannoy and I were discussing the water level in the southern rain forest of the Smoky Mountain region and surrounding areas, basically anything a weekend warrior can get to fast from Johnson City, TN. We discussed the local runs and how low they were. The French Broad 9 was around 1000 cfs and the Nolichucky was 560 cfs.That’s dog butt scooting dry, folks! Not the best way to get a new piece of plastic, just the fastest.
We saw no solution to our unfortunate dilemma of dehydration except to find something with a dam release. This left us talking and weighing the options of the Tuckaseegee, Ocoee, Upper Pigeon, Cheoah, and the Nantahala rivers. My skill level is not Cheoah beater friendly at the moment. That option is out for me. The Tuckaseegee is a great skill working river, but a bit low key and flattish for anyone with a touch of experience. The Ocoee is a bit of a drive for one day. This leaves the Upper Pigeon and the ever popular and beloved Nantahala.
We were still debating these options when I got a P.M from someone wanting to buy some extra gear I have for sale. I asked where the person was from and instantly got a message back saying “Helen, GA.” I set the price, forwarded some pics, and the deal was set. Now for the fun part of setting a meeting time and place.
I informed Jeff of what was happening here, still unsure of a plan. Rivers, friends, and money, it was all starting to get a bit sketchy. I told Jeff that we’d talk about it all tomorrow. “I’m going to bed.”
Before I went to bed, I checked my Facebook notifications. Wesley R. Bradley had posted to the Appalachian Paddling Enthusiasts (APEs) page. I read the post and immediately forwarded it to Jeff. The post was about The 48th Annual Southeastern Downriver Race hosted by Chris Hipgrave and the NOC. After reading the post I delved into the comments section. With a touch on my phone screen I read that Jerry Stevenson, Ryan Horn, and Wesley R Bradley himself were going to grace the river with their appearance. Ok, my curiosity was up now, and back on the messenger with Jeff I went. We quickly decided we were in for this.
I sent a message to GA telling the recipient that I can have the gear at NOC Saturday night. “This kills two birds with one stone,” I thought. “I can deliver gear, collect the money, and be at NOC when it opens the next morning.” Score! Score! Score! I informed Jeff of my plan.
Saturday morning rolled around and I rushed home once again to load gear and head off to the Nantahala. (Sometimes I wonder why I even own a house.) I met up with the buyer at 8pm and collected my money, then stood around socializing with other late night fun lovers till closing time. There was a band playing that was pretty dang impressive, with many people dancing in the provided space between the stage and picnic tables. Some of the dancers were pretty good for the amount of alcoholic beverages I saw pass me by, and others… well not so much. The Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) had a large fire pit blazing beside the river for people to lounge around and mingle with friends. The fire was a quite nice gesture as the summer heat cooled off to an easy night chill in the Nantahala Gorge.
It was time for some grub and bed. The Bryson City area rolls up the carpet early for us night owls, so I ended up with a lovely salad with that extremely mouth watering ranch dressing from McDonald’s and a large sweet tea, no ice. (Sarcastic but true.) I pulled my SUV to the park and ride by the exit, let down the 2nd and 3rd row seats, aired up my mattress, and turned on my AC. I was asleep within minutes in the cheapest motel in town.
Now it’s Sunday morning, and I’m up early to meet Jeff at the take out. We find spots to park and move the gear to my vehicle, leaving his, and head to Patton’s Run for the race start.
At Patton we arrive a few minutes early, with just enough time for sign in. I look around and see many familiar faces from the Georgia Canoeing Association (GCA). What? No Wesley, Ryan, or Jerry. I kinda laugh as Chris Hipgrave is trying to get the boaters to the start line and I see The Three Amigos pull in. Now, I have several reasons for laughing here.
1. I have never paddled my new beloved greenboat before.
2. I have never raced before.
3. I may or may not have done a good bit of smack talking to Larry, Moe, and Curly Saturday.
4. I have the least experience of my fellow comrades.
5. I might actually be in front of at least one person by the end of the race.
We all shuffle to the small staging hole, bumping and trampling each other. The more experienced are trying to get lead positions, as this is a mass start and we are all in this hole like sardines in a tiny can.
Chris steps up and stands at the confluence of the river and staging hole. He holds his watch up and starts the countdown. I take a look around and realize Wesley, Ryan, and Jerry are still unpacking in the parking lot (remember this, it’s important).
“Three, two, one, GO!” Every boater is suddenly in a mass frenzy to bust the water of the chilly river. The sounds of screaming paddle warriors going to battle, boats and blades banging and crashing away, were easily heard on the other side of the mountain. The racers pour out into the river in every kind of long vessel imaginable. The most experienced and trained in their wave hoppers take point, fast followed by those of us in traditional long boats.
Chris Hipgrave’s video from the start of the race on Facebook-
Knowing that I don’t have a chance at winning, I’m the last longboat out of the staging pool, followed by the river running and canoeing type vessels. Never having paddled this boat or raced before, I quickly start making mistakes. I’m having trouble keeping the boat straight in the current. The greenboat is on a totally different level than a creeker or river runner. There is no forgiveness in its design. This boat is a precision machine that is meant to be driven.
I start pouring steam on as soon as I round the bend, making it through the first two rapids quickly and efficiently. “Hey, I may actually get a feel for this longboat stuff.” I keep pouring it on, forgetting about my friends still in the parking lot, focused on Jeff bouncing happily through the wavetrains before me. My friend’s shiny sparkling red helmet is bobbing like a beacon in the ocean of small consistent waves yet to come.
I know that Jeff is in excellent shape but I still feel the need to prove myself to myself. I’m still pouring it on, and we are at the park for the lower put in now. I feel the tension in my arms and the lack of normal exercise taking its toll. I notice that my strokes are getting lazy and my paddle angle is not vertical anymore. This makes a direct impact on my boat control. I start noticing my rear is pushing offline from one side of the river to the other. I’m starting to occasionally spin out.
But I can’t stop. I’m racing. I’m not racing the clock so much as racing myself. I have to prove to myself that I can do this. I’m only halfway through! Push! Push!
I keep paddling, the sweat now pouring from under my helmet, my determination still going strong. I round the bend and into the biggest waves on the river. As I crest the top of the largest wave in the rapid, I suddenly hear a bone chilling noise behind me. I don’t have to ask myself what it is. I know. My friend “The Wildwater Madman” Ryan Horn paddles past me, screaming like a wild banshee with his red Karma Ultimate jetting out of the water like it’s propelled by an inboard motor. This rebel yellow entices me to power my strokes. I crest the wave with my greenboat halfway into orbit. As it sets down into the next wave, I end up sideways, fighting to regain control, and spin out into an eddy. A quick turn and I’m pushing again, onwards toward Whirlpool Rapid.
I reach Whirlpool, trying to line up for the middle of the rapid to slice through the twin recirculation eddies on either side. I miss my mark by inches and spin out again. My stern points downstream as the man himself, Wesley R. Bradley, slides by me with encouragement. “Don’t stop in the middle of the race, Mike. Paddle!”
I paddle onward toward the finish line. I’m exhausted now, fighting the green beast for control. I find my boat taking on a mind of its own with every stroke. I keep paddling past PBR (pizza by the river) thinking, “Only one more mile to go.” I start slowing my pace, focusing on each stroke’s placement, trying to make them count. The next few rapids go well. My spinouts come further apart, and I’m not fighting the boat so much now, but I’m still exhausted. I have fought for control for over 7 miles as I finally come to the last, most significant rapid.
Wesley R Bradley
There’s another Karma Ultimate entering the top of the rapid with me. We are both running for the right line of the river. A few small waves and down we go. Suddenly the other boat turns sideways just a few feet in front of me. I’m headed straight for it. Exhausted and not thinking or reacting quickly, I decide to turn sideways right behind the Karma. My adversary, paying complete attention to where he’s going, pulls a beautiful sweep, straightening out and dropping into the falls.
I on the other hand am too tired to pay attention, and am still sideways in the current and about to drop into a hole sideways. The hole immediately flips me over, and I feel the cold Nantahala water cover my face. I place the paddle half heartedly toward home position, taking a moment to think. I’m tired, I’m frustrated, I’m so far behind…
I reach up and yank the skirt, fully expecting to be pushed over the falls by the rushing water. To my surprise, I am standing in two foot of water on the eddyline. As I watch my greenboat float calmly over the falls, I grab my paddle and look around for the easiest way out. Luckily there is a worn walking path straight up the hill to the public sidewalk. I’ve forgotten all about the race now, as I walk down the sidewalk, watching my greenboat float lazily down the river. At this point I’m mumbling things like, “If I had my .45 I’d plug you full of holes right now…”
Another boater comes by and bulldozes my boat to shore. He doesn’t see me coming; he simply leaves it and paddles off.
As I reach the commercial take out where my boat is and start to empty it, I see another racer capsized and holding her kayak, trying to muscle it to shore. I pull my own boat a little farther up on the concrete and swim out to help her. I swim her boat in onto the concrete berm and turn to help her up. I unscrew her drain plug and empty the water while she rests for a moment, then get her back in for the finish. After she is gone I empty my own boat. The finish is only a few hundred feet at this point. I leave my drain plug out and don’t even put my skirt on to paddle to the end.
All my friends are at the finish line and have witnessed my WALLACE. They are glad to see me finish my first race ever. The smiles and company of my friends quickly overcome my frustration.
The awards were given out at noon sharp with my friends from APEs Ryan Horn taking 1st and Jeff Vannoy taking 3rd in their respective classes. I’m very proud of them. On the ride back to Patton’s, Wesley gave me many tips and explained three fourths of what to do to correct the problems I’m having with longboats. Now it’s up to me to correct my issues. I’m really glad to have these four men as my paddling companions. I’m also proud of their race times.
Jerry Stevenson told me to not beat myself up about my first race. True, I came in last, but I consider it a successful trip anyway. I got a chance to paddle a longboat with my friends. I got to see how it would handle in current. I learned more than I have space to write about racing in general. Lastly I saw my time, took in all that happened, processed my mistakes, and realized that these boats are faster than I thought. At the end of the day it boils down to this: your dirtbagging friends will push you to do things that you normally wouldn’t do on your own, and no matter the outcome they will still support you in the end.
Thanks to Chris Hipgrave and NOC for hosting the race. Thanks to Jeff Vannoy, Wesley R Bradley, Ryan Horn, and Jerry Stevenson for being so supportive of a beater like me. Thanks to all the GCA members that showed to race and help or just make conversation afterwards.
Oh yeah… about that smack talk I may have started. My friends fed me a heaping helping of humble pie after the race. Ya just gotta love ya paddling family!
First photo: The author beatering along
Nantahala Outdoor Center-
Appalachian Paddling Enthusiasts-
Georgia Canoeing Association-