US "The Ballad of Big Red and Lil Green"
- Three scaredy cats tour The Appalachians, May 2002
by Laurence 'Pob' Crow
"Whatdyamean there's no water !?" or words to that effect were spouted across the internet highways during yet another one of my attempts to avoid work.
"It's flippin dry" came the response.
A couple of days later myself (Pob) and Jim were at Gatwick airport awaiting our flight to Atlanta debating the merits of trying to ram our (one piece) paddles into a kayak whilst still ending up with one piece paddles at the end.
As all good trips this was planned in a pub, (inspired by Julie Keller's talk at River Rats) and spurred on by third member of our group (Cam) heading off a couple of weeks beforehand.
The plan was to fly to Atlanta, meet up with an old university mate, doss for a day or so then head up towards Washington taking in a variety of rivers on the way before returning to Atlanta to chill before going home.
We chose the, "book a ticket asking the baggage allowance - stating we had a kayak that only weighed 18kgs - please make a note on our ticket", route.
We arrived early and put our boats round the corner out of sight of the check-in crew (cunning eh?) and when our turn came, turned on what charm we had. This worked a dream and we ended up taking our boats, another bag each, and a further one with our paddles for nowt, good old BA.
The boredom of the flight in cattle class was mightily relieved by having plenty of space, copious amounts of alcohol, Lord of the Rings on the telly and our stewardess being a boater.
Fears over water levels were soon squashed as we landed at Atlanta just before heavy rain temporarily shut the airport, shortly to be replaced by boiling sun. That set the tone of the trip for the next 15 days or so.
Bags and kit collected we breezed through customs with cries of "have a nice day" ringing in our ears and awaited Cam.
He had mailed to say that he had bought a van 'Big Red' so with the kit transport problem solved Jim and I rented the smallest thing we could as a shuttle and we headed off in a tiny Daewoo newly baptised 'Lil Green' to meet our friend Chris who had foolishly offered his apartment as a staging point for us to organise ourselves. We arrived and had the choice of resting or going to a bar for pizza. Naturally food and beer won and we rolled in tired and fuzzy headed several hours later, jet lag of course.
Morning dawned nastily and as king of faff it took us a while to arrive at the Ocoee slalom site for a vaguely arranged meeting with Scott Shipley. We found the rains had turned the river into a fierce brown silty silicone seething mass. Undaunted by the lack of enthusiasm from the local boaters and rumours of a fatality on the section below, lines were chosen, eddies were picked and we kitted up and headed off for our warm up.
30 seconds later (or so it seemed) three dishevelled boaters gathered at a micro eddy at the bottom.
"Sketchy?" , "yep". Wimpering over, stiff upper lips reattached, steady hands returned and we ventured off again. So much for the nice gentle Class 3 warm up.
Our second run was much more comfortable and we actually went almost everywhere we wanted - much to our surprise. Luckily for us this was the point where Scott turned up, thus missing our initial flailing and blushes. We then watched how things should be done.
An invitation to meet Scott and friends for a meal was accepted and we arrived at the restaurant on Karaoke night - it doesn't sound any better abroad.
During the course of the meal an invite to paddle the Bear ( a solid class 5) was extended. "You think were really good don't you?" replied a smiling Cam, apparently our sticker covered van, playboats (Big EZ and InaZones) and friendly greetings to Scott had led the others to think we were sponsored and therefore rather good, . we wish.
Misunderstandings over the serious business of eating, drinking and socialising progressed and we were treated to tales of America's baby kangaroo's, 30lb roosters, loose dogs and ugly women.
The morning mist was as reluctant to leave the trees as we were to leave our sleeping bags but the promise of another great day on the Ocoee soon had us changed and ready to go.
A fast brown chocolaty run from Dam 2 followed with plenty of playspots and the thrills of rapids such as Double Suck, Diamond Splitter and Cats Pyjamas at a nice Class 3+/4 level, leading into the spills of the fast steep playspot that is Hell Hole. I remember watching 'Rodeo Ocoee -93 Worlds', and thinking I would A) Never be able to go there and B) I would never be that good.. Amazing ;-D. After starting on the tan during the end shuttle we said our goodbyes and headed to Tennessee and the Tellico River (aka Sweetwater creek).
Tellico Plains gave us our first real experience of the Bible Belt of the USA - WE COULDN'T GET BEER - Arrrgh. However a little persistence corrected that ( turning down the offer of directions to a local hideaway - "It won't be the British embassy that saves you boys in times of trouble but pleading a good Baptist upbringing" I kid you not..) and after a meal of Cajun Catfish and Pecan Pie we watched the sunset fall over our campsite for the night.
The next day saw us loading up on eggs for breakfast and being engaged by the site owner who told us of his son's tour of England and Scotland before cheerfully informing us of a fatality on the river a couple of days before
The day was hot already and shorty cags beckoned. The river ran through a pretty wooded valley with plenty of ledge drops and short rapids to keep the interest up. Generally class 3-4 with only a couple of drops requiring more than a stretched neck. An altogether better run than promised by it's roadside appearance.
A badly boofed ledge led me to run a short section of bony rapid on my head - much to the amusement of the others, my embarrassment and the bemusement of a family out walkingsigh..
The highlight of this run is 'Baby falls' a sweet fall of about 15feet. Watching a local getting pounded in it as we inspected, led to slightly revised lines and big cheesy grins at the bottom.
Shame about the sign next to the falls "81 people have died here don't be number 82", cheerful lot the yanks.
Fed and watered we headed off to North Carolina, the Nantahala and the NOC. Heading up and over the Smokey Mountains, it was almost impossible to take it all in, miles and miles of unspoilt forest as far as the eye could see, eagles, buzzards and a blazing sun overhead.
We arrived early evening at the Nantahala and visited the NOC shop. Informed of a well known wild camp spot we then stayed to sample the playwaves and meet the locals. Our accents were loved and we were encouraged to keep talking so they could hear more.
The local hangout for boaters was KJ's in Bryson City a few miles away, so off we went to mingle. After a Mexican meal and a healthy helping of frozen margarita's ( a four pint pitcher ! - Cam still claims he didn't know - yeah right) we retired to said KJ's and treated ourselves to local micro brewery beers and the houses version of long island ice teas mixed by the ever smiling barman Bradley.
We drank, the locals played banjo's, we were joined by Aussie backpackers, we drank.
The next morning rose far to noisily and a quick dunk in the ice cold river made no difference to the hangover. It was 9 am, 82 degrees, Cam and I felt awful and driver Jim from last night was far too smug.
A quick trip to Endless River oufitters yielded an up to date water report. Heavy rain in West Virginia gave us a direction and off we went via the Chattooga River (yep the one in Deliverence).
Eventually we arrived at the Classic Section 4 run. While the guys did the shuttle I wilted in the boiling sun, liquid left with me soon started to go and wet kit steamed in the sun. I read a notice board to see the trip was up to 6 hours long, the temperature increased, I shaded the kit to stop the tape seals peelings, and I ran out of liquid. After an eternity the shuttle returned with tales of no road signs and a stupidly steep road to the get out. It was now 1.00pm and after paying the honesty parking we put on with the river at 1 foot 6 inches on the gauge - apparently ideal for a first run.
A couple of locals asked if we were on our own ,"yes" we replied, "had we been down before?, "no, but we've read an old guidebook and watched the deliver me from the paddlesnake video". You could hear jaws hit boats and rapid yammerings about the river followed with us picking out that Woodall Shoals looks ok but isn't, Endless River had already warned us of regular beatings here and that in the right levels it was a keeper. Best wishes were eventually exchanged and we drifted off into the distance.
Drop followed drop and rapid followed rapid in a 3+/4+ run that never got desperate. Of the named sections we sneaked a route around Woodall, took a chicken route around 7 foot falls (which was probably harder than doing the fall). Deliverence rock was huge, much larger than it appeared on the film.
The 4/5 Crux of the run we broke down to small bite size pieces - Entry Rapid, Corkscrew, Crack in the Rock, Jawbone, Soc em Dog, and Marginal Monster. A missed breakout by me above Corkscrew led to a few rapid heartbeats all round until I gave the thumbs up from my improvised eddy. Crack in the rock was exactly that, a narrow cleft in the centre of the river that is not the easiest to inspect, just keep the boats front light.
We walked the last drop, we had our lines but weren't prepared to accept the beating if things went wrong, "we're here for a while longer, why spoil the trip".
The paddle out was a painful 2 miles across a lake, made bearable by the scenery and sunbathing turtles and vultures.
A quick swim at the end almost cooled us downafter our 4 hour, 7 mile run. More boat scouting was possible than we thought and you know, we didn't once hear a piggy squeal.
Again we are told to go to W Virginia as the rivers are running big. We took to the road again at 6.00pm when it had cooled to a bearable 83 degrees. Eventually by a combination of dead reckoning, map reading and an on board compass we arrived at the now closed camp site and tiredly pitched. We woke up on the banks of the French Broad river with the water a couple of feet away and curious ducks giving us the beady eye. Temperatures hit 90+ as we headed to the Nolichucky, Tennessee. A very mellow 3-4 run with a wonderful playwave "Jaws", which tempted us all with it's delights.
US raft have a camp site on the river bank so again we joined the local boaters and we grouped around a huge fire and chilled while bugs bit us to death and beer flowed freely.
A day off paddling came next as the trip to WV was long. I'm sure the map scales were wrong because it really didn't look that far, but we rolled onto the Extreme Expeditions campsite in Fayetteville in the early evening having travelled into heavy rain along the way. A chat to the site raft guides revealed that this was the first day in about a week they had been allowed to run trips as the levels were so high. We were told about the Dries, which only ran in high water so we went and looked, WOW 11,000 cfs was pushing through.
Phone calls home were made and we settled around our fire with yet more beer.
Morning broke reluctantly ( though it was probably us) and we decided to run the Dries. The levels had dropped a couple of thousand cfs but it still looked rather big to me, so it was with some trepidation I broke into the surging mass of water and firmly fixed the others in my line of sight.
Shortly after the start is a river wide wave called "Big Kahuna" which we had watch played by the locals the evening before, personally it looked more like a huge solid wall of pain as I paddled hard to punch through it's edge. A fast 3+ run followed with one long section of squirmy class 4 ( Mile long rapid), which as long as you could put your boat where you wanted would be fine
I have to admit to remembering very little of the run except apprehension, but by the end I had a smile on my face and felt happy on this new style of river. In fact we had all had so much fun we ran it again, except this time I drew the short straw and had to go point. "It's for your own good" I was told.
This time we played on "Big Kahuna" and boy was it wild and fun, unfortunately Jims deck blew and a hectic few seconds saw us chase him and his boat down to an eddy where we gathered grinning, though Cam admitted to not getting any photo's.
A wonderful run over we headed off to look at the New and to travel over the New River bridge, the river didn't look too bad from about a 1000 feet up :
Back to Fayetteville and the Cathedral Caf. This is a must go place, for here you will find boaters, climbers, outdoors people galore. The owner has installed internet access with home pages being realtime American river level readouts, how cool. You can while away hours here chatting, drinking Vanilla malts and reading books from the shelves.
It was here we met and were befriended by Eva, a barking mad Chilean boater and Rob who had dropped out and was travelling in a pick up boating as he went, and we agreed to join them on The New River the next day.
We arrived early to read that The New was running on 14,400, unsure of how big that was we checked things out to find that the normal level was 2440, ok so it was a wee bit big then.
Worried by the volume, nervous joke were cracked at each others expense as we discuss alternatives such as another run on the Dries or a trip down Meadow Creek. Eventually we agreed to do the New on the condition we could walk if we wanted ( obvious really ). Somehow we inherited people as the shuttle was organised until there were 8 of us in and on Cams van bouncing to the put in.
Eva then informed us that she couldn't actually remember the river or any of the lines but Rosie and one of the newcomers Todd were on the case and soon aquired three British ducklings on their drainplugs.
One word, HUGE, 10 foot waves galore and long bouncy rapids with rather large holes. Greyhound rapid really could swallow a greyhound bus and then some. Rob portaged Double Z as he was finding the going a little hard in his 007. The Keaneys were out of this world, a maelstrome of waves, holes and whiteness, cool as.
A hole at the edge of one of the rapids led to an impromptue play session and I really lost my inhibitions in big water.
The day ended with a relax from our exertions watching rubber buses on Fayette Station rapid and returning for free beer night on the camp site, well it would have been rude not too.
Another rendevous the next morning saw us meeting Rosie and her hubbie Tim (operator of nearby Ultimate rafting) and more nervous banter from the Brits, Eva and her hubbie Kurt pitched up with another friend Colleen, whose dry humour and laid back style was an instant hit with us Brits and eventually we headed off to the Upper Gauley.
At the put in Cam was reunited with "poncharello" Pete, a guide he met and paddled with on the Nile a few weeks earlier - what a small world. He joined our group and in the company of another random lady paddler Alex we were for a second day 8.
Nervous smiles were exchanged by the three brave Brits and we launched into the unknown, permission to whimper sir.
Colleen's description of the rapids quickly went from intricate to "theres a hole there avoid that and just deal with the rest" - you guys are fine. A compliment to our paddling I hope.
The main named rapids here were Insignificant, Pillow, Lost Paddle, Iron Ring and Sweets Falls.
Again the run was a bit of a blur but I remember many fun rapids and drops and some fantastic playwaves, we had no swims and only a few hairy moments,
Cam ended on top of pillow rock as he employed the rafters trick of if in doubt head straight for the pillow, and squeaked as he gazed into a 20foot plug hole. Volkswagon rock (the sting in the tail of pillow) caught Jim but a swift roll rectified this. The boily eddy lines of Iron ring played with yours truly giving a few seconds of nervous tail dancing gazing into the blue sky until control was regained.
An awesome run, with a cool group of people.
After breaking camp we headed ever Northward and experienced our first and only fast food of the trip at Taco Hell, nuff said.
We arrived at night in pouring rain in Friendsville and the town was shut. Unable to find the campsite we retired to a Motel and an evening of reflection and channel hopping.
The morning found the town still shut and we found our way to Precision Rafting to check on the Upper Youghigheny and to get directions to "Canoe on the road" for a superb set you up breakfast.
This river runs for a half mile or so of flat warm up and then you're under the cosh for 5 miles of pretty much continuous full on 4/4+ (possibly verging on 5 in places) with a 2-3 mile class three run out. The levels were high and everything merged into one as we craned necks to scout and eddy hopped to try to open out blind corners and lines, cameras staying firmly in boats.
We all received a cuffing at some point with skinned knuckles galore but again no swims ( not a pleasant thought on this run) and three v tired but buzzing boaters hauled themselves off the river at the get out. This was one of our favourite runs.
An outfitters opposite provided a changing room ( the locals don't like roadside changing) and conversation.
We treated ourselves to another night in a motel in Kingswood and whiled away the night in a local bar drinking GT, meeting and greeting and trying to avoid looking at the bright red furry walls.
An alfresco breakfast in Allbright at the Appalacian Raft centre heralded our run down the Cheat. Info from local boaters led to us ringing "Glen Miller", -yep he's still alive and offering a shuttle service on the river. You ring, say how long you'll be and he meets you at the end and brings you back ( for a small fee of course). Trusting Brits that we are we decided to go this route and were glad to do so.
The Cheat is stunning, an attractive mighty fine class 3-4. It was here I took my bath as a hole above Collusium rapid window shaded me, blew my deck and sank my boat, oh well, a quick self rescue into the slack water below saved the swim beers and I explained that I wanted to cool down anyway.
The Cheat is the birth place of squirt boating and both me and Cam kept up a constant moan, " wish I had my squirt boat", maybe next time.
The section ends at the junction with the "Big Sandy" and we got out and waited for our shuttle. Eventually a battered 4x4 pick up that I swear was once owned by the Dukes of Hazard, appeared and Mrs Miller got out.
Minutes later we and our boats were in the flat bed with an ice box full of Pepsi and beer kindly provided by our host. A comedy shuttle followed as we headed up through the woods on tracks that literally did not exist, hanging on for dear life we lost count of the times the truck slewed towards the tracks edge and the drops below, without this 4x4 we would have been stuck as there was no way a regular vehicle could handle this. Our bums became more bruised and our giggles shriller until we finally broke from the tree line and headed road bound to Allbright, the heavens then opened leading to frequent yelping as the driving rain penetrated my helmet holes.
Still giggling we disembarked, paid the toll and headed off North again.
A night in Morgantown gave us the chance to watch Spiderman before our mates back home and while away a few hours eating and drinking in a bar where everyone did know your name, before heading to our coffee and nicotine coloured motel room, now hung full of drying and smelling kit.
The next day dawned bright and hot (again) and we decided to run the Tygert, time had caught us up and we wanted to try as many different rivers on this trip as we could.
The lack of breakfast was depressing but we soon sniffed out a caf in the middle of nowhere to refuel ourselves.
We arrived in the area and promptly got lost, travelling the lanes through Hillbilly villes in a region that varied from palatial detached houses to the poorest of poor shacks.
Whilst inspecting a rather nasty section we encountered a local who advised us not to paddle maaaaaaaaaaaaaan , the smell from his bacci betrayed the fact he may not have been quite with it as he drove away the car weaving slowly from side to side.
The river was much higher and better value than first thought and we found plenty of playspots in the sun. The hardest parts of the run beckoned and we found the water suprisingly powerful which made for some interesting "get the line right " moments.
On reaching Moles falls we decided to portage, the only route was centre over a nasty looking fall which we couldn't protect, the left route was a no go and the right side was guarded by the siphon from hell - the worst one I've seen on a river.
Fun in the sun over we turned south and headed back to our old friend Fayetteville for a meal with Bass bitter (it doesn't travel) and chocolate cheesecake - a real death by chocolate experience.
We woke with travel fatigue really beginning to hit home ( or maybe it was because we realised we were almost at the end of our trip) and wandered to the Cathedral Cafe for breakfast. After meeting Woody from Liquid Logic and remaking aquantencies with Rob we visited various local outfitters and headed off to the Lower Gauley.
An attractive class 3-4 volume run followed with rapids being nicely broken up with calmer sections we spent an age on Koontz's Flume and Five Boat hole spinning ourselves silly. Here the water level was fine but in the short time we were away the Dries had dried up, amazing.
The next morning found us a fair way home having decided to travel as far as we could the night before. Heading down the interstates we encountered more cars and signs of civilisation, it was amazing how we had managed to be so isolated for the last dozen days or so. Eventually we arrived at Chris's and headed into the Buckhead area of Atlanta for one last night out. Suffice to say we found plenty of English style pubs and bars that could have come right out of Coyote Ugly. It was strange how Guinness really really doesn't travel.
We rolled in at 4.30 the next morning and chatted and drank for an unremembered period after.
Raging hangovers do not help packing and it was bedlam as Jim and I staggered round sorting our kit out and shopping for those elusive presents to take back, "have I remembered the Jif peanut butter?".
Hire car returned we said a fond goodbye to the US of A, swore at Cam for being able to stay and went to check in. A brief negotiation with the clerk, who wanted to charge us 100$ for our paddles, led to them being stuffed into and taped onto Jims Zone and his hedgehog boat and the rest of the kit headed off to the plane ready for the return flight in a zoo full of screaming brats who faded into the background as two dishevelled bodies slept dreaming of wonderful rivers and a trip that had been worth all the effort.
Throughout our trip we were amazed by the warmth we were shown and the help we were given by the people we met. There is no problem with hooking up with fellow boaters as they are everywhere, a wonderful experience. Word seemed to spread on the jungle drums ( maybe it was because of the red van), and several times we were greeted with "you're the mad Brits right?") The kayakers we met constantly informed we had hit things perfectly, with the levels being the best for years. Cam stayed on for another 5 months boating and frequent e mails confirmed that the levels were never as good as when we went out. Late April and Early Mid May is obviously the time to go.
Where next guys?.
The three mad Brits.
Laurence "Pob" Crow
Whilst to hear of any incident in our sport is depressing, people often take things with a pinch of salt (It'll never happen to me syndrome) so when I returned to the UK I looked into things to see if they were hearsay. I was saddened to find that they were indeed true.
The Ocoee incident was a rafter who was unseated and swept away. We were originally planning to run the same section on that day but had changed our minds and decided to do the slalom section due to the very high water levels. In fact all commercial trips and many private trips had been cancelled that day. The Tellico incident turned out to be a kayaker who was trapped by a strainer.