…The Power of H2O
It had only been a month since we’d been to the Southeast for some creek boating, but with spring break approaching and the promise of good water in North Carolina – well, it was just too much. Four Madisonians, Brian Day, Lenny Sheps, Mark Jankowski and I, would leave the Monday morning following Canoecopia for a week of creeking. Brian’s Honda Civic and Mark’s Toyota Tacoma were loaded and cruising down I-94 by 11:00a.m… two vehicles, four paddlers, and seven kayaks. Yep, seven. I was the only one without two kayaks since I would be picking one up at the Pyranha USA headquarters in Asheville, NC. The forecast predicted plenty of rain, but if water levels weren’t right, then we would need our playboats.
As usual, we drove through the night and encountered only rain (no snow!) in Indiana (hmmm, something is wrong here!). At 3:00A.M. Tuesday morning, we pulled into the put-in for section IV of the Chattooga. Movie buffs might remember that the Chattooga was one of the sites for the filming of the 1972 classic film Deliverance, featuring classic banjo music and the infamous Ned Beatty scene. It continued to rain while we grabbed some brief shut-eye. None of us had paddled the Chattooga before, and at a level of 1.9 feet it would prove to be a formidable challenge. The Chattooga is truly one of the gems in the United States and was named a Wild & Scenic River in July 1976.
Section IV is well known for several reasons. First, it harbors one of the more dangerous holes in the SE called Woodall Shoals. Find any guidebook describing the Chattooga and Woodall will definitely be described in a way to convince you to stay away. Without a doubt the most popular section is Five Falls. Five Falls includes the rapids of Entrance, Corkscrew, Crack-in-the-Rock, Jawbone, and Sock-em-Dog. At most levels, each of these drops rate class IV or above, with the “Dog” sometimes getting a class V designation due to the sticky hole on river right.
Entrance is a relatively straightforward eight-foot drop on river right, ending in a large pool above Corkscrew. Corkscrew, perhaps the best rapid on Section IV, incorporates fast water with big holes placed in such a way that strong boat control is required. Perhaps the most important thing to note about Corkscrew is that safety should always be set below the rapid to ensure any unfortunate swimmer does not continue into the next drop, Crack-in-the-Rock.
Crack-in-the-Rock deserves some discussion as it has been the focus of controversy due to the unfortunate deaths that have occurred over the years. The danger of this drop lies in the constricted nature of its design, with all water flowing through three channels: Right Crack, Middle Crack and Left Crack. Left Crack is especially dangerous since it is a natural sieve; in other words, what goes in may not come out. Middle Crack is the path of choice at most river levels, providing a three foot slot between two huge, undercut boulders.
Jawbone features a fast moving tongue of water leading into Hydroelectric Rock. “Hydro” Rock is just another undercut room-sized boulder worth avoiding.
The final drop, Sock-em-Dog, provides a wild finale. River left, or the Puppy Chute, is a sneak route between a severely undercut overhang and a huge undercut boulder. River right features a boof line over the large hole at the bottom. Treat the Chattooga as you would any advanced-level river and you’ll have a great time on a beautiful river. Although the Chattooga has many commercial raft companies running trips on it, this day we only saw two rafts and no other kayakers; we had the river to ourselves.
With water levels on the rise, we were provided with a rare opportunity to paddle the Elk River in northeast North Carolina. We didn’t have much information other than it was a class IV-V river with huge boulders, continuous drops and breathtaking slides. Even though the Elk is a roadside run it feels very remote; “high intensity” is an understatement to describe this run! The Elk has two steep sections of gradient, separated by a “flat” section to allow you to catch your breath; it has an average gradient of 130 feet/mile with a maximum of 210 feet/mile. All of this is contained within a gorge that at times is no more than 20-25 feet wide. As we paddled, our confidence was growing with every drop. Unfortunately I dropped my paddle getting out to portage a log-jammed drop in the middle of the river (now named “Lost Lendal Falls”). It took some time but the paddle was retrieved and we continued with renewed vigor.
It seemed we encountered a new drop around every corner. Eight foot, ten foot, twelve foot…they just seemed to keep getting bigger. One of the best sections was a slide that started on far river left, took a sharp turn to the right, angled back to the left and then plunged into a crystal pool for a refreshing exit. Wow!
As we entered the second steep section, the site of an old mill came into view, as did a distinct horizon line. I paddled to the edge of the drop in the final eddy, looked over my shoulder but was unable to see a clean line to the bottom. Lenny jumped out of his Prijon Embudo and gave a quick scout. A smile came across his face and he told me, “Looks good. Just line up center with a little left angle and enjoy the ride.” As I paddled off the edge I remember seeing the river twelve feet below me, with nothing but a clear pool of water to break my fall. As I paddled away from the drop and into an eddy to watch Mark’s run, I remember thinking to myself, “This is it. This is why I became a whitewater paddler.”
This trip ended the way every trip does. A long drive back to Wisconsin, with each mile bringing anticipation of our next visit to the crystal rivers of the Southeast.