I was nervous. I arrived at the put in 30 minutes late, not exactly an auspicious start to the day. Once there, I noticed many paddlers were wearing full-face helmets and/or arm pads, neither of which I own. (Note to self: consider purchasing a full-face helmet.) Was I ready for this?

 

I practiced hard for my inaugural run down the Cheoah, but self-doubt lingered. My paddling group convinced me I’d be fine, that I was up to the challenge. Besides, a few butterflies are normal, even good. At least, that’s what I told myself.

 

We had a strong group. There were a number of experienced Cheoah paddlers (Mike Winchester, Tim Propes, Bill Allen, Curtis Norton, and Amy Kinkennon), a couple of newbies (Jesse Hebden and me), and a couple of “tweeners”, with some experience on the Cheoah (Laura Dillon and Ruthie Taylor). I was paired with Amy, Jesse with Mike, Ruthie with Curtis, and Laura with Bill. Tim ran sweep.

 

With that, we put on. The top half of the river was a lot like the Upper Ocoee, the part above the Olympic section, but with more continuous action. Crowding the banks and lining the river bed are many small trees and bushes, some submerged and some poking through the surface. I really can’t overstate the prevalence of strainers. They’re everywhere!

 

I was comfortable on this section, but from the description on American Whitewater, I knew the harder part was yet to come. The river didn’t disappoint.

 

Entrance to Bear Creek Rapid had multiple lines, each with different challenges. We ferried from river left to river right and back again to the left. The water was pushy, with big waves and several drops. To me, it’s the most difficult rapid on the river and probably the most difficult rapid I’ve ever paddled, not the least because it’s above the biggest drop on the Cheoah.

 

Bear Creek is a twelve foot drop with two main lines. The single drop is similar to Baby Falls on the Tellico. Mike and Jesse took this line, styling it. The rest of us ran the double drop, also known as the creek line. The crux move is a boof off of the rock at the top of the first drop, hitting it with a slight left angle. If done right, the boof carries you over the top hole and sets you up perfectly for the second drop. It worked like a charm – we all had good lines.

 

From here on down, the pace is non-stop: a steeper gradient and a bit more volume from a creek or two equal lots more action. Pushy water. Big wave trains. Drops and holes. This section is definitely a notch or two harder than the top half.

 

As I made my way to the bottom of Tapoco Lodge Rapid, Mike gave me the thumbs up, while Jesse dumped water from his boat on the left bank. I thought this must be the takeout. Not so fast. Mike said we still had Yard Sale to go. I remembered reading on the AW site about two big, nearly river-wide holes and seeing a picture of three up-ended kayaks with a couple of helmets – where’s the third?! – bobbing nearby.

 

We ferried from river left to river right, at the top of a blind drop of five or six feet, creating a large hole at the bottom. There are two rocks guarding the top, with an 8’ to 10’ gap between them. The goal is to split the difference with a left angle and some momentum, immediately turning to the right at the bottom in order to miss the next hole. My line was a little off – too far to the left and not enough speed. I was unable to turn right and headed right into the meat of the second hole. I dug hard and luckily punched through it.

 

From the base of Yard Sale, I saw Ruthie get kicked too far right, losing her balance against a big rock. Over she went, but she quickly rolled back up. For someone with roughly 18 months of paddling experience, she’s especially poised and focused. Grace under pressure. I’ve never seen her miss a combat roll.

 

Nothing left but some class III boogie water and a short lake paddle, a welcome respite from the frenetic pace. Added bonus: great views of the dam used in the filming of The Fugitive (with Harrison Ford playing the good doctor).

 

Thanks to the group for letting me join them. I’ve paddled with Mike, Curtis, Bill and Tim on a few occasions, and I always learn something from them. Laura paddled well. She knows no fear (or at least does a fine job of hiding it). Jesse had a great first run! A word of special thanks to Amy: She was calm and patient, the perfect demeanor for shepherding a newbie down the river. As a paddler, she was strong and efficient, no wasted motion, every paddle stroke with a purpose, something to aspire to.

Terry Irrgang
November 5, 2011