Saturday morning of GAF weekend, I drove in from Chicago to arrive at our rental cabin at 4:45am. I went straight to the kitchen and start cooking for 15 whitewater crazy paddlers that were still sleeping off yesterday’s adventure.
GAF stands for Guest Appreciation Festival, hosted by the Nantahala Outdoor Center. It is a yearly festival that draws everyone from the professional beater like me to pro boaters like Aaron Erdrich. There are huge discounts at the NOC and used gear sales by private individuals in the back parking lot. Scheduled around the release of the upper dam, there’s a run for everyone from the class V Cascades, to the class III+ Upper section, to the class II+ Nantahala Gorge.
I hadn’t slept but I wanted to run the upper section with my friend Jerry Griffin. I was already exhausted and my reflexes slow; I knew that a hard boat was not a smart decision. I had bought a thrillcat from Chillywater Larry of River Rat Rafting on the Pigeon River earlier this year. I decided to run this pontoon style duckie on the upper section, then change over to my kayak on the normal gorge section. I have only paddled this duckie once before, but on this day it was the right choice for many reasons.
The crew wanted to be as early as possible for the valve to turn on. The dam usually releases around 10am. We were there on time and half of the crew caught the first bus to the put in. Jerry and I missed that one and were first to get on the second shuttle. When we arrived at the top our crew was waiting for us: Steven Adams, Jerry Smith, Trevor Lee, Donna Kestner, Lance Peters, Russ Fauver, Brad Eldridge, Katie Miller, Rahul Subramanian, Jerry Griffin, and I. We started off under the bridge and patiently waited to drop the first ledge.
As we dropped the ledge we ferried into the eddie on the right to separate our crowd from the rest. After everyone descended past us, we turned and one by one started to drop the next rapid, Magic Carpet Ride. It’s a decently long, very fast, very shallow rapid with many lines and “dang it rocks” everywhere from shore to shore.
Potter in action!
I scouted my line and took off paddling between the exposed rocks. I aimed for the river left eddie at the bottom just past the hole. My line was perfect and I eddied out right beside Jerry, facing upstream. I raised my vision to see someone sitting on a rock, far river right, holding his right arm and not moving. It took me a second to realize that it was Rahul.
Jerry and sat and watched for a few minutes to see if he was going to move. He was stable and safe in his position as long as he just sat there. After a couple of minutes we knew he was not going to make an attempt to self rescue and we went into retrieval mode. The river is not extremely wide, probably about 50 feet or so, but it’s extremely fast and shallow with steep gradient.
I told Jerry that I was going to pack my duckie up and ferry over to him to figure out the best approach for extraction. I picked up my boat, packed to a place where I knew that I would come in right behind him, then I cut my line perfectly.
Once I reached the eddie about 10 feet above Rahul, I got out of the boat and waded down to him. He immediately told me that his shoulder was dislocated. At that time I heard some branches breaking to my right. I looked over my shoulder to see Donna and Steven crawling through the woods to assist me. I was happy to see them!
We discussed the situation for a few seconds after checking our position and available lines. The first thought was to throw him on the duckie and run the rapid, hoping for a good but uncertain outcome. I looked upstream and saw a somewhat smoother line. Now to get him from here to there.
As we attempted to put Rahul on my duckie, there was mutual understanding that this would not be easy. Every time we tried to move him there would be harrowing screams of pain. I had no idea how to handle this part of the rescue. I could handle the rescue on my own if needed but I knew nothing about how to deal with the injury itself. I am smart enough to know that I could hurt this young man even more than he already was.
I knew it was time for me to step back and take my orders from Donna. She is in the profession to deal with all types of injuries. Donna was an extreme blessing at this moment. Just the knowing that she understood the medical portion was such a comfort. Steven and I could handle the grunt work, but as well as I know Donna’s caring heart, she would be an important part of the whole operation.
We moved the duckie into position behind Rahul. He started inching his way onto the boat. As he leaned back without warning Donna reached over the end of the duckie, grabbed his PFD straps and skillfully pulled him into position on the floor of the duckie where he was laying flat. I was amazed at how nicely she did this move without causing him any more pain than he was already in.
With Rahul now secure, Donna leashed the boat, while Steven and I held it secure. The three of us started the slow trek upstream, pulling Rahul against the current to the safest spot to ferry him across, at a large rock under the water’s surface. I fell several times and at one point I had to stop our makeshift barge to get my foot out of an entrapment. I had stepped perfectly in a crack that sank me quickly to my left knee. There was approximately an inch to either side of my leg. Had I not had hold of the duckie to pull myself out, there could have been a second extraction needed. I warned Steven and we continued on.
UPPER NANTY RESCUE
When we got to the final destination I saw Mike Thompson on the other side of the river. He made the motion to ask if it was a dislocated shoulder. I made the signal to show separation and shook my head yes. He made sign back to me that he could reset the shoulder.
A few feet above Mike I saw Jerry Griffin throw up his paddle and blow his whistle. I knew it was game time. A few boaters couldn’t stop immediately and three or four floated by, but soon traffic got stopped. The signal carried upstream as boater after boater eddied out all the way back to the put in. We had stopped the Upper Nantahala River on GAF Weekend! That was unheard of and impressive at the same time.
As soon as Jerry got traffic stopped, Steven and I left Donna and Rahul in the eddie, and waded to the middle of river. Russ chunked us a rope from shore, which I caught on the second throw. The rope was too short to reach all the way so I left Steven holding the rope while I went back and got Rahul.
When I got to Rahul, I left Donna holding the leash attached to the boat. I explained that I lost him in the space between her and Steven, if I fell or something and had to turn loose it would be up to her to rope him back in.
I made it back to Steven with no problem. We hooked the rescue rope onto the back of the duckie. Just for safety Steven swam into an eddie in the middle of the river; in the event something went wrong he would be there to catch Rahul. The current was so fast that he barely caught it, but he managed. I motioned to Russ and shoved the duckie off. Russ quickly pulled the rope in and done an excellent job of getting Rahul safely to shore.
Mike Thompson and Jerry Smith went quickly to Rahul’s aid. Both were very capable of handling the situation and I felt that my part was over. Now I just had to figure out how to get back to the other side of the river. Donna led me back through the route Steven and she had used originally.
When I got to Steven’s boat, I tried to use it to ferry across the river, but I couldn’t even get in the cockpit. I didn’t realize that Steven was that short. Donna leashed Steven’s boat and ferried it across. Jerry Griffin brought my boat back to Donna, who then ferried it across to me. I looked up to see Rahul being assisted by Jerry Smith into Mary Mill’s vehicle, then he was gone. Mission accomplished!
With nothing left to do, the crew turned and headed for PB&J, which is the next rapid. When I turned the corner Jerry Griffin’s backraft was circulating in the hole. I didn’t see Jerry anywhere. I decided to punch the hole with my duckie and see what would happen, maybe I would knock his backraft out. I did just that. Then I swam PB&J for the second year in a row! You can read about my first PB&J Wallace in an article that I wrote this time last year. That one hurt me more than any beating I’ve ever had.
We gathered up our gear without injury and headed on downstream. A few rapids later I paddled past Steven, who had somehow gotten caught in a strainer. He was pushing himself out as I came by. I asked if he was ok as I paddled past. He said he was good, so I didn’t try to stop. A few minutes later I saw him coming at me. The rest of Upper run went well, we had no more incidents on that run.
When I reached Patton’s Run, which is the takeout for the upper and the put in for the Gorge section, I changed into my hard boat. I met up with Mike Pepper and Elizabeth Hurst, and DBP Admins Tommy (Whatshisname) Hammit and Michelle Terrell. I gave Elizabeth my duckie and they joined the rest of the original crew (minus poor Rahul) to run the Gorge section.
We were soon separated by Patton’s Run when Whatshisname decided to Wallace and throw his paddle away. I had spare paddles in my van, so I gave him the keys and sent him to get another. There’s no way I was gonna let him get off that easy. We finished the run with no more carnage.
At the rental cabin that night Rahul and I had a long conversation. He explained what had happened earlier to dislocate his shoulder. Jerry Smith had gotten into a small pin situation and Rahul was so concentrated on Jerry that he lost track of his own line. He then flipped, carped a roll, and tagged a rock, which pulled his shoulder out of socket. After getting the lowdown, I was exhausted and went to bed.
I woke the next morning with the intention of not paddling. I skipped the first run, but when I saw Jimmy Jones at Patton’s Run, he didn’t give me a choice. He took one look at me and said, “Get dressed. Get your boat, I need someone to chase mine today.”
I laughed at him and replied, “There’s no way you’re swimming anything. Besides that you’ve got Brett Russell with you. Both you are better paddlers than I’ll ever be.” I guess I was wrong when I got to the bottom of Patton’s and saw a new brapp floating by. Just the color of Jimmy’s…
I asked Brett if he had it and he replied that he did, so I eddied out to check on Jimmy. He was OK and told me to go help Brett. I figured Brett had the boat by now, but when I turned the corner it was still going. I hurried to catch up. Half a mile later I caught Brett still struggling. I intervened and leashed the new Brapp. After I got it to shore, I climbed the hillside to the roadway and walked back to get Jimmy. Along the way I saw lots of bright colored plastic that had been hidden in the brush, patiently waiting for it’s rightful owner to come and pick it up.
We later met up with another crew of Georgia Canoe Association (or GCA). We finished off Sunday with only one more Wallace that isn’t worth mention. I did run Nantahala Falls backward for the first time ever though. It wasn’t intentional, but Jerry Griffin said it looked professional. It was just one of those times where Plan A quickly became Plan B, and I styled it.
Rahul had xrays done that Monday morning. Unfortunately he will be out for four to six months. Good news is that I saw him put up a post looking for a medium Jackson Rockstar. There is hope!
I learned a lot about preparation for SWR:
- Always carry your rescue equipment with you. My duckie had no places for attachment. I had to rely on the equipment of others.
- Every person working the scene is just as equally important as the next. The extraction would have been much harder without everyone working together.
I’ve heard several comments about how smooth that extraction was. This team came together quickly and pulled of an excellent rescue. On my way home I stopped and bought anchor points so my boat will be rescue ready the next time it’s needed. I hope that time never comes, but I want to be prepared.
Be safe and have fun until the next Wallace.
DBP Admins Michelle Terrell and Tommy Hammit enjoying the Nantahala River.
EDITOR’S DESK: Michael Potter’s latest escapade highlights the importance of teamwork and paddling together, reminding us that no matter what level of difficulty your crew selects, and no matter what the skill level of the whole is, every trip should have a base level of safety in mind. Things can go wrong at any time! Know and practice your rescue skills for that day when your good friends, or you, require them!
We would be delighted to hear about your rescue… comment away!