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Big Water

"Holy ____!" Travis exclaimed as we pulled in to the takeout parking area. The water, normally contained within the river banks, was flowing up over the stairs that made up the commercial takeout, up over the parking lot in places, and out in the riverbed it was an angry brown capped by huge exploding waves. The ranger stood next to the bathrooms, talking to some tourons. Travis parked the truck on high ground and we walked down.

"Some water, huh?" the ranger said. "You guys thinking of paddling?"

"Uhhhh" I said, somewhat stunned by the awesome power of the river, "We were."

"The official position is that we recommend against it."

"Yeah, I can understand that. What's it running? 15 thousand cubic feet a second or so?"

"'Bout ten or eleven times normal."

"Any chance of it surging?"

"TVA doesn't think so, but you know how they predicted Ducktown last year."

I laughed, remembering the pictures of destruction, the water 15 feet above its current level, said to have hit 49 thousand CFS. "Yeah. I think we're just gonna meditate on it for a while, probably drive up."

"Be careful you don't get caught on the road if it surges. And the official position is it's dangerous. I'm gonna get out of here before I see you guys do something stupid", and with a final smile he got in his car and drove downstream, toward the lake and the ranger station.

Travis and I were still in shock. The highest we'd ever been on the river was 5 or 6 thousand, nearly a third of this, and while we'd both been on big water, floods are always different. "Let's go look at it", I turned back toward the truck, noticing the white station wagon that was just pulling in. "Hey, it's the world oldest squirt boater!"

Norman got out of his car. "Hey boys, looks like it's a little up. You going to run it?"

"We were gonna go scout it."

"Let's throw the boats on my car and leave yours as a shuttle. Just in case." He grinned the grin of someone who is about to do something totally stupid.

"By all means!" Another car pulled in to the parking lot. "Hey, more paddlers!"

It turns out they were from Knoxville, Alan and Ben, not quite as experienced as us, but they decided to drive up river with us and take a look at it. So we parked the truck up on the road, hopefully clear of the surges, and drove up, stopping at every possible place.

If it weren't for the irregularities on the river bottoms, there would be no whitewater. But the irregularities are there,, and the bumps and ledges create waves. Sometimes, just as in ocean surf, the waves break on themselves, and sometimes the drop is sudden enough that it looks like there is no wave, just the break. We call these holes, or hydraulics, and they're where a lot of the danger comes in. Ya see, despite what it may feel like, the human body, especially when in a kayak or life jacket, likes to float, and the breaking part of the wave is where you tend to float.

This isn't too bad, except that this water is actually flowing back upstream, and you can't always catch the current below it to pull you back downstream. So often you get caught in the hydraulic and can't get out. Normally, at worst it just thrashes you for a while before you finally go unconscious and flush out. At this level, the holes were terminal.

Up in Slingshot, a rapid that I've let commercial whitewater customers swim at normal levels, a hole extended most of the way across the river, and it looked like the backwash from it extended 50 feet downstream.

The rapids called Table Saw and Diamond Splitter had combined in to one huge rapid. Diamond Splitter's identifying feature at normal levels is a 10 or 15 foot high rock. Here it formed a slightly larger hydraulic in the midst of a hole that extended all of the way across the river. In awe we piled out of the cars and stood on the cliff overlooking it.

"Man, that looks impossible."

"No, look at the break next to Diamond Splitter rock. Just enough irregularity that you could blast the wave."

"The right side looks easier, but there's that tree down just past it."

"I'd take my chances with the left, I don't want to deal with a strainer."

"Look just downstream there, if you get in those holes you are dead."

"Yeah, but they're easy to miss. Just don't screw up."

General laughter. Then: "Hey, you aren't thinking of running this, are you?"

"Well... Not the top half."

We ended up parked on a creek that flows in halfway down, 2.5 miles from where we hope to take out, unloading boats, zippering drysuits, testing grips on paddles and fits on skirts on kayak cockpits. Alan decided that he's not up to it, so he puts in below the big stuff, about a mile downstream. We carry our boats down to the bridge where the creek flows under the road in to the river. I stop before clipping on my helmet and speak to Ben, although it's meant for everyone.

"Just want to get something straight. If anybody gets in trouble, you're on your own. No use in two of us getting killed. If I can help without endangering my own life, that's cool, but I sure won't go out of my way for your gear."

Norman laughs. "Yeah, but we will pull you out of the lake if we can find you and you make it that far."

"Just so we're all straight. Let's run this sucker!" I grin, clip my helmet, and wiggle down into my cockpit, checking the seal on my skirt. Then, with a wiggle to slide my boat off of the rocks, I'm committed.

The run under the bridge was fine. Smooth concrete means there wasn't even a ripple as I glided toward the roaring river outside. At the far end of the bridge the water curled around, flowing slowly upstream. The line between this water in the eddy was hardly smooth, though. At that point, the difference between the water speeds was probably over 20 miles per hour. I could see that as I tried to cross that it was going to try to whip my boat violently downstream and turn me over. Rolling back up in this water was not something that I wanted to deal with.

A few hard strokes and I hit it. My left shoulder was in the water as the bow of the boat crossed the line. As I spun out of the turn, I was sitting upright, now going the speed of the water. Instantly, my heart went wild.

Normally there are one or two rapids on the Ocoee with waves over 3 feet high. At this level there isn't one below that, and most are in the 10 foot range. As I crested each wave my stomach dropped out and I went weightless before I hit the trough. I'd gone probably a thousand feet before I could devote any energy to anything but survival. By then, I figured that I ought to wait for the rest of the group, so I turned the boat hard on the breaking crest of the wave and pointed it upstream, surfing down the face of the wave, carving back and forth.

Ben was next out, and I was on the wave probably a good 20 seconds before he got close. His expression was the same as mine, a mixture of sheer terror and utter bliss. Travis and Norman were close behind. Wanting to stay out front I leaned forward a bit and slid down the wave. The bow of my boat cought in the trough and the water pushed it hard downstream, snapping my boat vertical. As it went up, I twisted slightly with my paddle, and as the tip of the boat went through the crest I was twisting and turning, completely airborne, to land flat, pointing downstream in the trough of the next wave. "Yeeeeeha!"

It seemed like no time at all until the road started rising away from us. Working left I found an eddy large enough to hold us all and turned in to it. The others followed.

"Wow." Travis was on cloud nine. No drug that I've ever seen could produce that state, somewhat lost, very euphoric, but completely focused. "I've never paddled anything this big."

Norman laughed. "Yeah, this is up there."

Ben was still in shock, not saying much of anything, probably a little bit concerned about dying and what sort of crazy people he's hooked up with.

The rush was great, and it was nice to hang out, but it was taking energy to stay in this eddy, and a kayak cockpit is not the place to experience feelings like that. I said "Well?", and with two fast strokes Norman peeled out of the eddy and was gone. I followed soon after.

As we dropped in to the gorge I got a consistent two waves behind Norman, able to see him as I came over the crests, hoping that if he saw something I could use his reactions to move with a little warning. Before I knew it we were in the waves of Tablesaw and I started moving right. Then I came over the wave and saw the hole at Diamond splitter, too soon, and watched, in horror, as Norman dropped in to it.

My body went in to overdrive as I pushed the boat right as hard as I could. Then I dropped over the wave in front of the rock, and it was paddle as hard as I could and hope that I could clear that wave in between the holes, that was looking higher and higher. As I came over the top of the wave, every bit of concentration I could spare was looking left, looking for Norman, hoping he made it through. Then the break of the wave caught me full in the chest, blowing water up my nose, pushing me back. I reached as deep as I could with my paddle and it caught the current and I fought through. Then I was pushing left to dodge the tree, and back right to catch an eddy and miss those deadly U shaped hydraulics we'd seen down here. And there was Norman.

I must have looked like I was seeing a ghost, but I don't think he noticed, 'cause he had obviously just had a religious experience. If he believed in a god, and I think all paddlers do, even if they claim not to, he had just seen it. I banked my boat in to the eddy and dropped in beside him. "I thought we'd lost you."

"Yeah, I did too."

I think that that's the extent of the conversation we've had on that particular incident. We've rehashed the run, talked about the day, and I've never seen him without the gleam in his eye since then, or before, for that matter, and I've never figured out how he managed to clear that hole. I think it's one of those questions you just don't ask, you just hope your karma's good enough that when that day comes the river gods will let you get away with one.

Not too much further down we picked up Allan and leisurely paddled the remaining wave trains, tame in comparison, but something I'd drive hours to run any other day. When we got to the bottom, the county cops were there, trying to scare us off. As soon as they left, we went up and ran the last mile or so again, but by that time debris broken loose by the flood upstream had started to clutter the river, and we had worse concerns. When we got to the bottom this time the state police were there, and the rescue squad showed up, trying to scare us off the river since they had no legal recourse.

Of course by that time we'd had what we needed, found our limits to the extent that we dared to find them. But we had to load the boats back in and drive back upstream, no ignorant trooper was going to run us off.

That was two years ago. I toned down my paddling that spring, and I haven't done anything really hairy since then, and I still wonder how Norman got out of that hole. But I'm no longer sure I want to know. There are some limits that you don't need to find, you just need to know that they're past a certain point.

This is a part of the Dan's Stories collection in the home pages of Dan Lyke, reachable at