Big Water Awareness

When a forecast predicts 3” of rain in 2 days, most kayakers get as giddy as a kid the night before Christmas waiting for Santa to come. When you wake up and realize your area has been absolutely hammered with rain you have a few choices to make: run something extremely familiar, run a rare watershed or stay home. Most rare watersheds were blown out and staying home just didn’t seem like the right choice, so I decided to go to my “back yard” run – section 4 on the Chattooga. My thought was that I could walk anything at five falls (the crux of the run).

Let me walk you through my mistakes and maybe you can learn from them. Don’t assume since you are going to a river you know well that it is remotely the same at more than double the “normal” flow. Get beta. And if you can’t find any, don’t go. If it is not a roadside run, know what trails can get you out. Don’t chase gear in the case of a swim. Stay with your crew.

Here is the breakdown of my big water chattooga day (gauge read 4.8’ – multiple creeks pumping in water after gauge, estimated 6’+ through the crux of the run). My buddy swam, I saw him in the eddie (mind you not on solid ground) and made the split decision to chase down his gear. Hindsight is 20/20. If I would have stayed with him, the rest of my day probably wouldn’t have happened the way it did and I would have made the hike out with him. Instead, I was far downstream. I had thrown his paddle on river right and got his boat river left (the side I knew he swam to). I thought “He will hike downstream, he has hand paddles, we are good.” When time elapsed, I decided to hike upstream. I found a huge boulder, crawled up and sat to wait as it was a point in the river he would have been able to see me from the distance. When a crew came down, they said they had not seen a hiker. At this point I had no idea what to do. After whistles, discussion and more time passing, I made the decision to go with this crew to the next beach and hike out. Problem was, when we got to what usually is a beach, (water had completely overtaken it) we couldn’t find a trail. With a previous incident, I didn’t want to get lost out in those woods.

We were just above Five Falls (crux) at this point. I was told by this newly acquired crew that there was no way to walk around once in five falls. When asking what was below I was told “If you swim it will be fatal. You will drown.” Great. The decision was made to run it. Remind you, this is a section I know better than any section – at normal flows. I could barely recognize it when I entered. I followed and came through “entrance” and didn’t have the angle I should have, caught a big wave and fought to get into an eddie. Perfect. Breath. Next rapid, corkscrew. I knew to go far right from the beta given. I watched one go to the right of a boulder and then disappear. When I peeled out and looked to my left, I thought “Holy sh*t” as the main line was ridiculous. When I passed the boulder I saw two guys in a smaller eddy and thought “I’m there, breath.” Wrong thought. Next thing I know I am surfing and honestly, just reacting. I panicked at first and then told myself to calm down. About the time I told myself that, I was upside down. I didn’t even try to roll, I just bailed and when I was out of the boat the voices of this crew saying how a swim would be fatal entered my mind. I didn’t know what was about to happen. My head popped above water and had a stern of a boat to grab. Only I missed it. I was exhausted at this point. The driver of this boat yelled something encouraging that gave me the mindset to not give up. I got his stern on the second go. I was safe.

I was on the side of the river but all my gear was gone. I hiked up and around the next couple rapids to rejoin these boys. There was a dented boat that was in the pool below the last rapid of five falls. Graciously the leader of the crew put me in his phantom and he took this insanely dented boat and another guy gave me his breakdown. At this point, my mind was not solid but I wasn’t overly shaken. However, I wasn’t touching a thing in his boat and had to make a pretty big ferry into one more large rapid. I tried and was denied. I tried again and was denied. At this point I gave up (I did not want to mess up/lose his boat) and said I was going to walk. The guy told me I couldn’t, adjusted the boat, I made the ferry and got into the staging eddy. Just as I pulled out, the dude in front of me was caught surfing and there was nothing I could do but try to avoid him. I flipped, rolled and watched this guy swim and collect his own things. We then finished a 2 mile lake paddle. Not your ideal scenario in demoing a new boat!

Through all this, I was smart enough to have my phone on me. I had spotty reception and had received a text from my buddy and another girl-friend of mine (who picked him up from his hike) to know that my buddy had indeed hiked out and was safe. Unfortunately with spotty service, texts don’t seem to be sent/received in the correct order which in turn caused panic from my buddy. He did everything he physically could to help me out if I would have been still stranded at the river. Great friend.

All is good but a few things to note: be smarter when things are running this big. Take into account side tributary creeks that add even more volume. Know where you can and can’t hike out. Don’t tell someone before they enter a big series of rapids that if they swim, they will die. I am extremely grateful for these boys that ended up babysitting me, however, I believe you can make the point that what is ahead is solid class V and we as kayakers can fill in the blanks.

I did end up getting back my almost brand new Nirvana and the story is pretty cool. Days later, I received two emails to my work account. Both with the label “Kayak.” Long story short: a retired couple was out fishing on the lake, came across a capsized kayak, towed it back to their car and went back to their Atlanta home. Inside were two dry bags. One a cheap bag, ripped open, and another, WaterShed in tact. Inside this bag was my river permit that I have for a long time called my karma ticket. They googled my name, came across a Jackson Kayak blog post where I had taken my basketball team to a pool session, looked up the school and made a call to the school asking if I was safe and that they had recovered my kayak. To even add to the story, a friend of mine in Atlanta went to get the boat and went out of her way to meet me about half way. Truly amazing. I cannot express the gratitude I have. The nirvana has no dents, no oil canning and no holes. Just some added scratches to the front and the back where it appears it had been caught up against rock(s).

I went back this weekend for some redemption. It was still considered “high” but it was mind blowing the difference in levels. The gauge read 2.4’ – a level I had done before in my plaboat so I was much more familiar with this level. I still got out and looked at a few things before running certain rapids. The craziest rapid to me was corkscrew, where I swam. When I had been out there last weekend and saw this enormous spray, I had no idea what was causing it. I do now since getting out on river right and looking at the river. It is a giant boulder in the center of the river. If you look closely in this picture, to the left of the rock you will see a kayak to get an idea of the perspective. The other drastic change in rapids was “Crack” – normally there are boulders lining the river bed that create different “cracks” (left, middle, right and far right); there really weren’t any boulders at this high flow.

The power of mother nature is humbling and I am so grateful to be able to write this blog post, learn from the things I did wrong, and improve on it. Hopefully the education can impact others as well. Please be safe out there.


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