RIVER DEMONS AND REDEMPTION

I find great pleasure and joy in guiding paddlers down their first run on many of the our great southeast whitewater runs, but I really love it when I get to help folks on my favorite run, Watauga Gorge! I recently guided Ryan Horn down his first descent of Stateline Falls in the gorge and he wrote an incredible story about those moments. This story is something we all can relate to at all skill levels in whitewater kayaking, so enjoy:

A chicken s#!t’s first run of Stateline Falls

Standing below Stateline falls feeling mentally defeated, poised to climb back into my boat and continue the trip (like the 7 previous times) without running the biggest rapid on the river, I had a change of heart…….

Nobody will defeat their demons, (and we all have them) without facing them. This sport we share a passion for is one that tests us physically, mentally and spiritually. It is full of personal growth opportunities. The first time we deliberately flip over in a pool is scary. The first time it happens on accident in a rapid is terrifying. Yet we overcome these fears and we grow because of them. And this is exactly what keeps us coming back. As we progress, the stakes get higher. It’s not comfortable to swim a class II rapid, but class V can really hurt you.

Ryan-Stateline-Falls-PFD

Stateline Falls, (for some) is a horrifying, unrunnable obstacle in an otherwise awesome river. For others, it is the best part of the whole trip. It’s the same rapid for everyone, of course so the difference is all mental. For those who have never been there: this is the 411. After a +/-200 yd class III/IV lead in, you find yourself in the appropriately named, “Chapel Eddy.” This is sacred ground/waters, for many prayers have been offered up right here. These are the kind of prayers where you admit you are about to willingly act against your biologically sound self preservation instincts and powers of logic and ask for God’s protection anyway. Next you line up for the main drop. It’s 16’ high and most of the water is greeted violently by a large rock at the bottom. The first 5 vertical feet is a sloping ledge where a very obvious left slant directs the majority of the flow right into that ankle breaking, boat modifying, fear inspiring afore-mentioned monolith. At 200 CFS and below, you must take a precise line to not touch a leftward sending finger rock on the right side of the ledge and pull a strong lefty at just the right split second as you leave the ledge and enter free-fall. I know, (I’m being a little over-dramatic here.) Many have hit that rock and come out with no injuries. I have seen a friend piton on it and only sustain a slightly reshaped bow and a bent foot-plate. But that didn’t change how fearful I was of this rapid. I wish I had started boating when I was younger and braver. But with a mid-30’s mindset that weighs consequences to glory, I have had my biggest struggles in the mental arena of this sport.

So on the way up to Guy’s Ford, I noticed the level had been dropping quickly after the previous night’s rain. I was hoping for a good 250 CFS to make my first run on Stateline, but it was becoming clear that I would not be getting that on this trip. I love the Watauga Gorge and I was looking forward to the rest of it with the always optional walk around that menacing drop. I was also thrilled to be going with a solid crew of friends, (one of which would be getting his PFD). I was having a pretty good day on the river and then….… (cue the foreboding music)………. We arrived at the river left beach above Stateline. Instantly, all those river demons were clouding my thoughts and I got a sick feeling in my gut. At some point, we have all experienced this sensation, right? I tried shake it off as I walked down the poison ivy lined trail to scout the drop. I had seen it plenty times before and certainly over analyzed it. I didn’t need to see again but we owed our buddy getting his PFD the courtesy of an opportunity to look before he leapt. About 10 seconds of gawking from the downstream cliff, and he said, “hell no!! I’m portaging this one and I’m not ashamed to do so” I was displeased to see the leftward diverting finger rock was above the water line and in play but I was not quite sure if I would portage or not. All the way back to the boats, ominous thoughts raced through my mind. I was torn. A little peer pressure from my comrades solidified my decision to walk it again, (for the 8th time). I’ve never been a sucker for peer pressure. If I’m gonna make a poor decision, I’ll do it all on my own.

I was standing by my boat poised to continue my run below the falls when I had a change of heart. Everyone who ran them was so stoked! And they made it look easy. I verbalized this observation when, to my horror my buddy said, “I’ll walk back up and run it again with you.” What an offer!! What a guy!!! I mumbled some indecisive, unintelligible sound below my breath and that was all he needed to conclude that I would happily accept this ridiculous offer. He paddled over to the bank and started to get out of his boat. I looked at him and made the (cutting my throat) signal as I said, “no, I’m not gonna do it today.” He replied, “I’m already out of my boat!” To that, I said, “well then get back in your boat!!” He said, “I’m already out of my boat and I’m going up and running it again with or without you now” I think I said a few 4 letter words as I shouldered my boat and started up the portage trail. I had no more outs. I was going to have to man-up now.

In chapel eddy, I was asked, “do you want to go first?” “No, I said I’ll watch your line.” After all, I had never seen it from that vantage point. I heard the Whoo-Hoo report and knew it was now clear and my turn to go. Pulling out of the eddy, I approached the drop and saw my line. It was right at that instant; all the demons left the building. It was a level of comfort and relief I can only compare to the feeling I felt after finally returning home from a year-long deployment to the Middle East. There was no turning back and clean or not, I was finally gonna run that blasted drop. I hit the line just right and I totally missed the boof stroke, (too early). It was a clean run with no rock, no flip and no sweat really. So much anticipation for a relatively easy and forgiving move. It’s my new favorite rapid!! 🙂

So I came away with a new revelation: When in doubt, be safe and walk it. But if you know you can make that move, don’t let those river demons talk you out of it.

Y’all be safe and have fun out there!!

Story by: Ryan Horn

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