The Demons and Angels of White Top Laurel. By Michael Potter

I had no plan to paddle on Mother’s Day this year. I had just done the Nolichuckey Gorge cleanup the day before, and had stayed up into the wee hours of the morning. I had intended to hang around the house and be lazy for once. Who boats on Mother’s Day anyway! Go spend some time with your mother, wife, or daughter!

9:30 AM I wake up, and as usual check my phone as soon as my eyes open. I’ve 20 messages on Facebook messenger, another 20 Facebook notifications, and 1 text message. I go straight to the text, it’s Jeff Vannoy “Get up bro.” I immediately send him a text back “I’m up Hero.” Within seconds my phone rings.

Jeff : Get loaded and head this way. How fast can you get here?
Me: Not sure, I just woke up. 10:45 maybe?
Jeff: Ok, I’ll set it for 10:45. Me, you, Bill Finger, and Ben Carr on White Top Laurel. I’ll set the time with them.

I rush to get all of my gear ready and meet the rest of the crew. Everything works perfectly and we all pull into the parking lot within seconds of each other. This is definitely not normal for us.
We consolidate vehicles for easy shuttle. Ben and I in one vehicle to take us all to the put in. Jeff and Bill in the other to leave at the take out. After a quick boat transfer we start the 1 hour drive toward White Top Laurel. We park Bill’s car at the take out and run quickly to the put in.

Along the way I’m scouting the river on the way up, until it disappears. Nothing on the first section that concerns me. When I saw the next section of water, that thought changed quickly. It was narrow, steep, shallow, and rocky, with lots of low lying Mountain Laruel limbs, strainers, vertical drops and technical turns. I asked Bill if that was the same stretch of water. He replied “No. You’re good. We’re not running that. Our run is on the other side of the mountain.”
We traversed up the steep winding road through some of the most beautiful mountain terrain. Not long after we reached the top of the mountain, Bill told Ben to take a right turn so we could scout our run. We turned on a narrow, one lane, dirt road. Bill pointed over the hill and said ” There she is.” I was on the opposite side of the car, so I shoved my head into the roof to look down in the rivine. Bill was pointing out all of the technical moves to me, “Drop this with a left angle. You have to do a shoulder boof into the right eddie on this one. Don’t nail that hole sideways. Etc, etc, etc!”

This stretch of water was even worse looking that the last stretch I was asking about! Big logs, steep boulder gardens, even a very old abandoned low head dam. Pro boaters would have trouble in that gnar, I’m just a beater at best. I’ll even prove it later.
Soon Ben And Jeff were jumping in on the boating advice. When we got halfway down the hill, they asked if I was ok with it? I replied “Sure am, because I ain’t running that. I’ll wait on y’all, and be the shuttle bunny.” All three of them started laughing as Bill explained that it was just a tributary to White Top Laurel, and nobody was going to run it.
We were soon on the water with Jeff and Bill in the lead. Jeff explained to me that there were a couple of class 4 rapids that we would scout, not to pass him and Bill on the way down.
We ran lots of shallow boogie water, and technical moves, while boofing every rock sight. Soon I saw Jeff catch an eddie on river left and put his hand on his grab loop. This was my signal, I pulled in right beside him and got out of my boat.
We walked the bike trail beside the river to look at the rapid. It had a very technical lead in at the top that reminded me of PB&J on the Nantahala. The lead was probably a class lll+ rapid. A single 3ft drop at the top, catch the small eddie on river right, ferry out and drop the last 5ft decent into a river left eddie. All of this to set up for the final 8ft vertical drop through a slot just wide enough for the boat on river left.
This was over my skill set. I started portaging before the other 3 pro-boaters finished scouting. Ben called me down to the scouting rock and asked “Whats the worst thing that can happen here?” I told him ” Worst case is you swim the crack on river right. I’m sure I’ll swim something here. I’m out of it. I’ll go set safety.”
I set safety with a rope ready in one hand and Jeff’s camera phone in the other. Jeff came through first with Bill right behind him, both executing the slot perfectly. Ben followed suit but I saw him carping his rolls and soon he was out of his boat swimming into the right slot. Worst case scenario is now a reality!

I threw the camera phone on Bill’s spray skirt and readied my rope as Ben dropped the top of the slot opening. I waited poised to throw the rope when he flushed out into the current. I waited, I waited, I waited. No Ben! I was in a panic now. Ben was out of sight behind a huge boulder. I had no access to the right side of the river. I start yelling “Where’s he at! I’ve lost him!”

A few seconds later I saw Ben’s paddle blade come in view over the rock. It was standing straight up like a flag. I immediately thought of Clay Nash getting pinned under water on Chattoga and holding his paddle out of the water as a marker for his friends to find him. This didn’t help calm me at all.
The paddle held position for about 30 seconds then fell from sight. Still no Ben! I had dropped my rope to my side and was starting to look for ways to get across the river when suddenly I hear the dull thud that stands out in the sharp hiss of the rapids. Ben is swimming for the right bank! When he made it to safety I turned around to Jeff and Bill who were emptying Bens boat. Jeff told me later that he had been sitting in a position that allowed him to see Ben the whole time, so he wasn’t panicked.
Soon we had Ben and his boat reunited and were traveling on down river. We ran most everything without scouting. Ben decided to get off the river at the confluence and wait on us to return for him.
I had one instance where I boofed and got flipped into shallow rock. So shallow that I was stretched out on the back deck and couldn’t understand why that I couldn’t tuck for my roll. I pulled my skirt and came out, only to realize that I was only in ankle deep water. I had basically dry docked myself upside down.

We were at the next class IV rapid rather quickly and it was time to scout again. Jeff, Bill, and I docked our boats and walked out on the rock directly above the drop. This thing was manky! Jeff picked out all of the available lines. The line that he settled on was far river right, directly under where we were standing. It was so shallow that Jeff expressed concerns of busting his boat.
I was ready to go run the drop when I heard Bill say “Yes, I’m scared.” I asked “What are you scared of Bill?” He just pointed to the shallow mank. I should have asked in more detail.

Bill and Jeff ran the line perfectly as I sat rope safety. Then a short walk to my boat and its my turn. As I stepped off the trail to get in my boat something odd happened. Like the flick of a switch my heart rate elevated. I Had never experienced this before. I was in over my head and I knew it. The river demons attacked me from out of nowhere. I tried to calm myself as I sat in my boat. I could not get my heart rate down. I looked downstream at the rapid and could not find my line. I felt true fear. A fear that I haven’t felt in over 20 years. The last time that I felt fear like this, I was 17 years old and looking down the barrel of a 12 guage from 2 feet away.
I decided that the only way was to just overcome a do it. Against my better judgement I paddled off toward the rapid still trying to find my line. At this point I decided to go far right and sneak the first ledge so that I would only have the drop to deal with. This would only become a series of bad decisions.
As soon as I dropped off the ledge my boat went completely across the point where I had picked for staging the next move. As the front of the boat drydocked the current pushed the rear of the boat around and I’m now going backwards. I tried to spin the boat around to get the drop in view, instead I got sucked under the top ledge pour over and surfed until I flipped.

I unsuccessfully tried a roll, then in sheer panic I reached for the grab loop.
The moment that I felt my grab loop with my right hand, the paddle caught current and was jerked from my left hand. Something miraculously odd happened at this moment. I realized that I was in the absolute worst possible position that I could ever think of. I’m upside down on the most powerful rapid that I have ever attempted, and I have no paddle, but my fear left just as fast as it came. Everything turned suddenly, peacefully, calm as if angels had touched me.
I didn’t pull my skirt. I actually took my hand off of the grab loop and decided to ride it out. The water that had scared me on the surface seemed so smooth and soft under there. I felt the boat speed up as i descended the drop. I waited to feel my body crash against the shallow rocks that I knew waited for my arrival. I felt nothing! Not one tiny ping from anything! I knew that the rocks were gone and I was in the pool below, safe and sound. My unintentional line was as smooth as a Cadillac.

I pulled skirt and swam the few feet to shore where Jeff was standing with my throw rope. I stood up and looked at Jeff, he had a look I’d never seen on him. His eyes were big, he was pale, and his jaw dropped. I just held out my hands, bowed my head to the right side, smiled, and said “I’m fine.”
Jeff started getting in his boat as I emptied mine. Bill paddled up and said ” I’ve never done a Hand of God on an unconscious person before. I was wondering how that I was going to pull it off.” I made mention that if they would wait a minute, I’d go back and try it again, and I was serious about that. Jeff did something else that I had never seen from him. He took on a role that was a mixture of a concerned father and a best friend. He pointed his finger at me sternly and said ” Get in your boat. We’re going down the river.” I didn’t push the issue, i got in my boat!

The ride home was alot of chatter about the two bad lines that me and Ben had taken. There was very little conversation about the amazingly good lines that Jeff and Bill ran. You can’t cheat the Wallace, but Jeff and Bill definitely got cheated on aor time, and credit for top notch boating and safety.
I personally am glad that our guardian angels were stronger than our river demons. I received this text from Jeff the next morning. It’s so golden that I have to include it. “You paddled really well yesterday, except for that one class 4 rapid where you almost died.”
I apologize for the length of this read, but this is only half of what I could have written about such an amazing day with 3 totally awesome boaters. I look forward to seeing this run with them again.


DBP Executive editor and Web Head Honcho! Paddling and taking photos in the UK.

One reply on “The Demons and Angels of White Top Laurel. By Michael Potter”

Once again, Michael Potter you’ve left me sitting here thinking, holy hell this guy just gets either braver or crazier one river and one run at a time. Lol. Wonderful article and enjoyed it veryuch. Nice to see how much you’ve progressed in your skill and comfort levels since the first time I met y’all and paddled with you guys. I still think if it was anyone else leading me down the falls my first time I would’ve decided to skip them, but you give off a confidence and vibe that make things you felt were a definite nope, I’ll portage to the feeling that you can do it and even if you mess up then, ok…you swim. Big deal. Lol. Glad to see you doing so well and enjoy following all your adventures!

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