We still haven’t seen the rock we hit eight years ago. We were pretty familiar with the Nantahala River, at least with the stretch most folks paddled. We had paddled it with Boy Scout troops several times, in one of the inflatable kayaks referred to as a “ducky” or in a multi-person inflatable raft. It was more thrilling than some rivers and seemed safer than a lot of others. The flow was constant, regulated upstream by a dam that insured a fairly measured volume of water most summer weekends, fast enough to mean you didn’t have to paddle too hard, not fast enough to seem dangerous. Because the flow came from the bottom of a dam, the water was a bone-chilling 45 degrees pretty much year-round. Boy Scouts often fell overboard in narrow rapids when boats collided or when trying to avoid a collision. Each was promptly fished out and restored to his place to paddle on, and sometimes to unintentionally swim again before the day ended.
This time my husband and I were going to try the Nantahala in a canoe. Retired only six months, we had purchased a used whitewater boat and taken a weekend-long whitewater course taught by respected and skillful instructors with a hundred years’ experience among them. We were delighted with the boat, which confidently plunged over falls of two to three feet with the bow never dipping below the water’s surface. We were a little less confident about our skill in steering a whitewater canoe. We had thirty years’ experience paddling what many called the “divorce boat”- a tandem canoe. On Class I and II rivers, from arm-fatiguing sluggish water to moderate currents with a few easy rapids, the person in the stern steered while the person in the bow provided power and watched the river ahead. In a whitewater boat, on Class III and above water, both parties had both steering and powering responsibilities depending on the situation.
This stretch of the Nantahala had rapids up to Class III and, immediately upstream of the takeout, a startling Class II/III drop. Wet paddlers assembled on the rocks just below this rapid, named Upper Nantahala Falls, to watch boat after boat plunge, squirt, plummet, twirl, and sometimes flip its way over the falls. If paddlers fell out, they were quickly retrieved from the river by bystanders. For over the river hung a sign on a cable saying, “Exit River Here. Life-Threatening Class 6 Falls 100 yards ahead.” Once I had walked along the road shoulder to look at Wesser Falls. Indeed, after gathering speed for what certainly looked to me to be less than 100 yards, the entire river plunged from between steep, rocky banks almost straight down many feet into a boiling pool below. After the day I went to look at Wesser Falls, I immediately wished I had not, as I could not unsee its terrifying suddenness and power. During my next few trips, I watched hundreds of paddlers, old and young, skilled and clumsy, daring and frightened, safely navigate the Upper Nantahala Falls rapid and take out at the campground, in an effort to scrub my brain of the idea of missing the takeout and shooting to a terrifying death just downstream.
But David and I had both managed to remain in whatever boat we were paddling whenever we were on the Nantahala, except for once when our ducky collided with another boat and a sudden balloon-bounce of impetus shot me overboard just downstream of a small rapid. Just as we had practiced, David quickly hauled me back into the boat and we paddled on – me a little colder than before.
Definitely easier than the time I came out of the boat on the legendary Ocoee River. The first time you paddle the Ocoee, you are pretty sure you are going to die. As your raft livery bus winds its way along the river for miles, the gentle climb of the road belies the river dropping precipitously, rapid by rapid on the road’s right, just where you can get an excellent look at it as you ride toward what you are now sure will be certain death. Huge rocks seem tossed by a giant’s hand to make the river swirl this way and that, sometimes splitting it in two. And yet, you also see hundreds of inflatable rafts, each carrying six or eight people, turning around the rocks and plunging over the falls, incredibly never overturning.
On my second trip down the Ocoee, the water was higher than usual, swollen with brown liquid, and a bulge that seemed to be a solid lump of water thrust me from below my seat and bounced me flying through the air. Suddenly I was below the murky water. It took a moment for my life jacket to propel me back to the surface and at that moment, I opened my eyes to see what appeared to be chocolate milk swirling around my head. As my head broke the surface, I took a breath, turned toward the boat and grasped the guide’s paddle handle extended toward me. He heaved me over the rubbery side of the raft into the bottom like a big fish. Hey, piece of cake! Except for a lost contact lens, filthy clothes, and any years taken off my lifespan by fear of my own demise, I was just fine.
Of course, one hears several times a summer of a paddler fatality. Often it’s risk-taking stupidity. Once, after a boy scout paddle, my son and I sat on the bank and watched teenagers jumping from a railroad trestle into the river about 25 feet below. Of course, my twelve-year-old thought this looked like great fun. It was a teachable moment on the subject of risk. I explained to him that most actions involve an assessment of risk, either conscious or unconscious.
“You have to look at three components: What is the benefit? What is the likelihood of bad consequences? And what is the magnitude of the bad consequences?”
He looked blank.
“Think about driving a car to work. The benefit is you get to work on time and get paid to buy food and shelter. The likelihood of getting in an accident is, say, low to moderate. The magnitude of the consequences means how bad is the bad thing that might happen so the consequences of a wreck vary: it could be just damaging your car to dying, or anything in between. So we usually decide the benefit of driving to work outweighs the risks.”
“So what’s the benefit of jumping off the trestle?
“It’s really fun!”
“What’s the likelihood of something bad happening?”
“You don’t really know. Someone could get hurt. Maybe hit their head and drown. But lots of people are doing it and nothing bad has happened yet.”
“So, how bad are the consequences if something bad does happen?”
“Pretty bad, I guess. Dying. Or getting paralyzed.”
“So, before you jumped off the trestle, you’d have to decide whether the fun was worth the risk of dying or being paralyzed, right?”
“So, can I jump?” he ventured hopefully.
On any given day on a river, I figured I had a 99.99% chance of having a wonderful day and a .01% chance of dying. The restorative power of canoeing was almost magical to me. Alternately paddling and floating, meeting the challenges of the occasional rapid, watching the great blue herons and kingfishers fly from tree to tree ahead of us. There is no feeling to match drifting down a calm stretch of river on a sunny day, paddles still, and watching a row of turtles plop, one by one, off a log. All the stresses of my week could be wiped away in a few hours. No question in my mind: these values far outweighed any dangers for the prepared and careful paddler.
Now embarking on our long-planned retirement, we were looking for something more active and more challenging than just riding along on a rubber raft. We had purchased a whitewater canoe to supplement our faithful Old Town Appalachian. The new boat was specially designed to maneuver rapids and resist tipping and taking on water. Our many years of experience in variations of the divorce boat, from dented and leaking aluminum rentals to silent and expensive Kevlar models, had given us what we felt was just the right amount of confidence. Just enough to try some Class III water but not enough to do anything foolish. We thought.
We spent the night in a campground by the river, laughing around the campfire with a group of whitewater paddlers and looking at the constellations overhead in the clear, inky sky. Everyone retreated to their tents and slept till morning broke with a little low-lying mist over the river and the smell of bacon frying on the grill. We didn’t hurry. There was so much demand for paddler access on this stretch of the Nantahala that there was no point in getting in a rush – there would be a wait at the put-in while dozens of rubber rafts, each full with six to eight Baptist youth, scouts, or team-building office mates, loaded and shoved off, one by one. This was a big weekend on the river, the third Saturday in September, when paddlers came from miles around to log a few miles and buy and sell boats, paddles, and paddling accessories at a sort of annual combination flea market and swap meet.
I was a little surprised that our friend Mary said she wasn’t going to paddle that day. She had helped to plan the trip and had brought her kayak, but just wanted to provide support and shuttle folks back to their cars on Saturday. It might have been a sign.
The rest of our group was mainly kayakers, too. The popularity of kayaking had all but overcome the more traditional canoeing. I’m really not sure why. We like the ability to carry more gear, sit more comfortably, and usually stay drier in our divorce boat. Even the other canoeists on this trip were solo canoeists, rugged outdoorsy single guys, two of them whitewater rescue instructors. Fads come and go, in sports as well as other aspects of modern life. Right now, kayaking was on the upswing and canoeing seemed relegated more and more to sixty- and seventy-somethings with a sort of bird watcher vibe. Skinny and dressed from REI, these bluehairs and greybeards paddle serenely down rivers big and small, nibbling trail mix and sipping the occasional extra light beer. As usual, we were the only tandem canoeists in our group.
The September morning was gorgeous – a bluebird sky, leaves just beginning to turn and temperatures promising to peak at about 75 degrees. The sun still seemed low in the sky when we got to the put-in. The group leader made clear that if we wanted to avoid Patton’s Run, a long rapid immediately downstream of this point, we could drive a short distance by road to the next access point, cutting off only a short portion of the river. But we wanted the full eight-mile paddle and were anxious to get on the water. It had been years since we had swamped, overturned, or otherwise inundated our boat. We were filled with wisdom, ready to read the river ahead, steer our faithful craft, and meet each challenge of the day with skill and control. Outfitted with brand-new life jackets and borrowed helmets, we were ready.
The low-angled sun glinted off the water’s surface with blinding spears of light. The water was clear but it didn’t matter – you couldn’t see a thing beneath the shimmering, dazzling surface. We settled in and made sure all our gear was secure, maneuvered to the middle of the river and began to paddle. David sat as high as he could in the back, trying to look down through the gleaming, nearly opaque surface ahead to spot rocks, shallow spots, and submerged logs that we would have to avoid. We stroked along for a couple of hundred yards, jolting unceremoniously off a series of rocks that seemed to be just about four inches below the glassy surface. Our progress was uneven as we bounced off the invisible bumpers of the rocks, corrected, and then ricocheted again. Not really what we had in mind. We were supposed to be smooth, confident, wise.
“You’ve got to look out for the rocks. I can’t see a thing,” David called to me, thinking that in the bow perhaps I could magically see through the reflected light.
Just as I called, “I can’t either,” we hit the next rock, what must have been the angled tip of a large boulder, just off the port bow. In an instant we were in the cold, cold water. Just that quickly, the boat flipped us out to the starboard side, then proceeded downstream apace, upside down, chasing our paddles which zoomed merrily ahead on the quickening current.
Now, every rapid in every river is different. In fact, they say you can never step in the same river twice. But beyond that, a rapid may be shallow and gravelly, a deep ridge, a series of boulders like a pinball game where your boat or your body is the ball. There are infinite variations, big bumps, swirling hydraulics, deep pits, hidden logs. There are even crevices to catch a Tevo-ed foot and hold it fast – the more you pull, the harder it grips your toes, like the Chinese finger handcuffs of your childhood. Patton’s Run is wide, fairly shallow and very fast. The clear water of the Nantahala slithers over and past large, roundish rocks from about the size of a bowling ball to about the size of a sofa. Except, of course, they are not perfectly round but exhibit a variety of ridges shaped like concrete curbs or the treacherous edges of coffee tables. Humps and bumps like loaves of bread or a mule’s nose, only, obviously, hard as granite.
Before you embark on any whitewater trip, be it by raft, canoe, kayak, ducky, or even inner tube, you are given a lesson in “self-rescue,” actions to take if you find yourself separated from your boat. Self-rescue is pretty simple, really: you position yourself to float downstream, feet first so that your shoes hit the obstacles first. Don’t try to swim. Don’t hold your head up to look around. Just go, literally, with the flow, feet first, till you feel the water slow down and you can regain control. In my brief involuntary swims in other rivers, on other days, it had worked fine. I quickly got my feet up, head back, and let the river rush me along.
After a couple of shouts, I realized David was nowhere near and gave up trying to call out. It was a good thing, too, because soon I needed all my energy just to keep self-rescuing. Patton’s Run was so wide and so fast that there was no chance I’d drift over to one side or the other where I might stop, stand up, or even just slow down. The banks on both sides were steep and rocky – no sand bars here on which rescuers could stand.
I shot down the middle of the river, feet occasionally tapping a rock and pointing me in a slightly different direction, but always rushing, rushing down the river, far from either bank. As I zipped over humps of water, the waves began to come over my head. After the breathless, snorting surprise of the first time, a thought/not a thought, a reflex took over my brain: when you come back up, get a good, deep breath, because you don’t know when you’ll get the next one. I’d gasp, inflate my lungs as full as my tight life jacket would allow, then hold my breath while a rushing wave poured over my head, seemingly from behind. Hold the breath, waiting to come back up, not knowing if it would be five seconds or fifty. Repeat.
They say that in such a situation, your life flashes before your eyes. Mine did not. But one single aspect of it did: the many hours I had spent over 33 years teaching others about water safety. First, as a park ranger for the US Army Corps of Engineers, later as program manager for various water-related programs with the agency, finally as a supervisor in an organization where drownings were ponderously counted and analyzed in a never-ending effort to prevent them. We had employed an absurd variety of slogans, mascots, and reminders to target each group of likely victims. Posters, floating keychains, and fish-measuring rulers reminded anglers that “Life jackets worn – nobody mourns.” Chip clips and pencils urged parents to watch their children in English and Spanish. Coloring books and stickers advised everyone that “Don’t drown. It will ruin your day.” I had carried piles of life jackets (or PFDs – Personal Floatation Devices) to fifth-grade classrooms where I showed kids how to choose the right size and put them on correctly. I and my fellow rangers ticketed teenagers for jumping from cliffs and bridges, boaters for disobeying buoys or not displaying lights, and adults who should have known better for diving nude from the tops of waterfalls. I had written high praise for employees who operated a cranky talking robotic tugboat who spewed water safety slogans and tall interns who, uncomplaining, dressed as the silent mascot Bobber, the Water Safety Dog. Above Average performance appraisals awaited he or she who donned the dreaded Freddie the Fish costume, heavy, shiny with sequined scales and smelling of its many low-ranking previous operators. Earnest lack of dignity for so many years with one primary, all-encompassing, evangelical message: wear your life jacket and you will be safe. Wear your life jacket and you will not die today.
And now, one thought dominated my mind: I am going to drown with a damned life jacket on. I was filled with a deep sense of irony. Would my life come down to an asterisk in some long list of fatalities on the Nantahala, in a National Forest, in North Carolina? An exception to the rule. Grouped with unfortunate PFD wearers who were trapped below deck in fast-sinking houseboats or stripped naked by the raging hydraulics below giant dams.
I shot downstream, gasping for the occasional breath, banging off of stones left, right, and below, for about a quarter of a mile. It felt like being in a washing machine full of rocks. David was nowhere to be seen. Once in a while, I would come within 20 yards or so of a kayak, but they could never get close to me in time. Finally, I began to round a bend to the left and moved slightly over toward the right-hand bank, but still in the grip of the swift current. I heard a call from the right bank. One of the whitewater rescue instructors from our group stood on some rocks, gripping a tree to keep from falling in.
“When you hear Bill shout, turn over and swim hard toward him.”
It was only a few seconds until I heard him “Okay, now. Turn over and swim hard this way.” As I flipped over clumsily, I saw a tall, thin figure on a gravelly bank that had formed on the outside of the river’s curve. I swam as hard as I could straight toward him, impaired by life jacket, long pants, long sleeves, and shoes. I got out of the fastest part of the current, into a smoother span of water that skirted the gravel bar. But I was still many yards from the bank. The water was still deep and quick. Just then Bill threw a rescue line toward me, with accuracy born of long practice. The knotted end of the line landed right in front of me and only about a foot from my nose. I grabbed it and experienced what it is to hold on for dear life.
He landed me like a giant fish too tired to fight. I crawled up on the bank and sat, panting, for a couple of minutes. “Where’s David?” I croaked.
“He got out, a ways upstream. He’s okay. Here he comes.” David slipped and staggered down the bank and landed on the gravel. It turned out that he had gotten over to the right bank fairly quickly, out of the rapid current in the middle of the river. He had traveled the quarter-mile on foot, catching occasional sight of me self-rescuing speedily down the river.
“We’re done for the day. No more paddling for us today. We’re taking out.” I was so relieved that I nearly whimpered. The last thing I wanted to do was get back in that boat. Oh yeah, where’s the boat? It had caught, upside down, in some low-hanging branches on the outside of the river curve, just above the gravel bar. It looked like it wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. A bystander produced our paddles, corralled by helpful kayakers. It appeared all our other gear, securely tied into the canoe, had stayed put.
The rest happened fairly fast. Our fellow paddlers righted our boat and maneuvered it down to where we sat in the gravel. Bill ferried me in his boat to the other side of the river, a process that required that I sit in the bow and paddle with all my might toward the opposite bank, to keep us from being washed downstream. On the other bank, at the alternate put-in, where we could have launched to avoid Patton’s Run, stood Mary, ready to take me to our truck. She was practical but mystically empathetic. “It’s okay to cry, you know.” I was beyond tears at this point, moving into a shell of level-headedness. Trying to hide how utterly shattered I felt.
“I’m okay. Lost my sunglasses. Got my truck key here.” I dug it out of a zippered pocket. Mary drove me to the parking lot at the upstream put-in and made sure I got in the truck and headed down the road. I pulled in and we loaded the boat, which had been ferried across with David while Mary and I were driving. We drove back to the campground, where it was quiet now in the middle of the day. The sun still shot spikes of bright light through the trees. The occasional leaf fell, drifting in and out of the luminous beams. I stripped off, not caring if anyone saw me or not, crawled into my sleeping bag, and fell fast asleep.
I awoke a couple of hours later. I felt like I’d been in a car wreck – the kind where you think you’re not hurt but the next day you can hardly move because of the contusions, bruises, twisted joints, strained muscles, wrenched vertebrae. I pulled on some clothes, swallowed a painkiller hoarded from a dentist visit and saved for just such an occasion, and unzipped the tent. I crawled gingerly out and one of my rescuers, finished with his paddle and preparing to cook dinner, observed, “I see you’re moving a little slow.”
I sat on a picnic table for a few minutes just watching autumn arriving in the Great Smokies. Shortly David pulled up in the truck. It took a moment for me to register that it was empty.
“I sold the boat.”
[Check out Avis Kennedy's back porch interview]