Adam and I decided to run the Nanty and French Broad for our spring trip since he was recovering from his perforated eardrum and felt that dry hair day runs should be our goal.  French Broad had been running just a little higher than when I first did it last summer at 1100 cfs so I felt we were in for a pretty mild weekend.  Then it rained.  A LOT….on the Thursday before our trip….mostly in Western NC just were we were headed.

I had been looking for shuttle partners for this trip, but things just hadn’t panned out yet by Friday morning so we were just going to head to the put in after some breakfast and hope to meet up with a group.  Just as we pulled up to the bathhouse at Hot Springs Campground, a guy in a big truck rolls up and says “hey are you guys looking for shuttle?”  I guess news travels fast in small towns!  He asks if we would like to run Big Laurel Creek.  This had been on my radar for quite some time and I knew it would be running with all the rain so before I could even look at Adam or consider his poor ear situation I said YES.

This was to be my very first creek.  I was pumped up and decided that I was putting all fear aside!  Things had been going well with combat rolls, catching eddies, great runs on the Nanty….I felt ready.  The run started out with some pretty smooth, but swift moving water.  Rocks began to appear here and there and the river began its twisty descent. Soon we ran into Anna Levesque who appeared to be giving a lesson.  I was so distracted by the sight of her that I flipped on something insignificant.  As I set up to roll all I could think is that I had better nail this after all the guidance she has given me lately! Thankfully I was successful.  We chatted for a moment and left her to her student.  We styled a few class II rapids for about a mile and then came upon a horizon line with lots of boats pulled over to the side where I saw that dude from the “Shit Kayakers Say” video who seemed to be leading a group of younger boaters down the creek.  Obviously this was the place to be! We got out to scout Stairstep Rapid which was a series of 3 drops with some big gnarly looking water at the bottom.  I was pretty hesitant about it, but after watching our new buddy Darren run it I was going for it.  He made it look so easy, twirling his paddle around as he skated across the hairy water at the bottom.  So I got myself ready, made my approach with my usual sideways style of scouting while paddling, throwing in a couple of backstrokes just to give myself an extra moment before pounding forward and down the drops.  Before I knew it I was down and still upright!  I turned to look back amazed that I had run something so insane looking.  Even better, Adam had videoed it!

More fun water and then came Suddy Hole.  Darren told us people made a bigger deal out of this one that it was and after whipping down a diagonal slide I had to agree.  This rapid was nothing but fun as we let out woo hoos all the way down. Next was the Narrows section.  Anything called Narrows messes with my head. Must make eddies, tight turns, etc…so many ways to mess it up.  I guess it was about 3/4 of the way down I flipped on some rock and tried 4 times to roll before pulling my skirt.  This was a pretty intense swim with high rock walls on either side and no place to recover for a bit.  Eventually after swimming through a few holes, getting pulled under water and navigating some crazy current I got off to the side and Adam and Darren helped me get back in my boat.  Normally I would feel disappointed in myself, but as I sat there catching my breath I looked around at the beautiful day and couldn’t help but giggle.  This was so freaking amazing!

We ran the rest of the narrows and several other rapids that reminded me of the wall shots down in Costa Rica. I felt like a hot shot as I leaned into the rock walls and flushed out with the current.  As there is a trail beside the creek hikers could easily watch and we got some applause after one particular rapid.  I can’t find a name for it, but I think we took the hero line which must’ve looked impressive.  I was seriously pumped, proud of myself and for once did not feel ashamed about it!

We then converged with the French Broad which was big, wide and brown.  I was not aware it was still at 4000 cfs or maybe I would’ve thought twice about running the two biggies – Kayaker’s Ledge and Frank Bells.  Plus I thought Darren would know the sneaks, but he’s too much of a badass to bother with those assuring us we had the skills to handle the big ones.  We got out to scout Kayakers Ledge.  This looked nothing like the photos I had seen. It was more of a river wide pour over at this level with another hairy looking drop below, but with a nice tongue on the far right.  The top hole there didn’t look like exactly like a low head dam and I was just so high on adrenaline I made an attack plan.  Even Adam knew this was one to walk away from as he started his portage down the far right.  My plan was to ride this tiny tongue on the left side and pop into the eddy there, then ferry across the hole outflow to that nice green water on the right side avoiding the nasty looking bottom hole all together.  Unlike the A Team, my plan did not come together. As I started down the left side I was pushed just a tiny bit right, my stern landing within sucking distance from the hole.  It greedily sucked me back in flipping me diagonally back.  I was upside down with so much going on that setting up took all my strength.  After one failed attempt I was out and swimming.  Fortunately the current pushed me to the right towards the green water so the ride down wasn’t incredibly scary.  I figured my boat and paddle were probably gone forever though.  After about a quarter mile, Darren got my waterlogged boat to the right side and I walked down an island across the river.  Adam hooked up to my drained boat and ferried it across to me.

Somehow I still had tons of energy as we floated and paddled a bit of flatwater.  We came upon Frank Bells as Darren gave us directions.  Adam could not hear because of his ear plugs so I just told him to follow me because even after two swims I was somehow still a kayaking badass!  I had no idea what to expect with this rapid.  The water was huge and brown and dodging the holes was difficult since I couldn’t see them coming.  Somehow I avoided both the big ones, rode atop the biggest wave I have ever been on and rode it on out the bottom where some super squirrely water awaited.  I turned to watch Adam who successfully avoided the holes and was looking sharp coming off the rapid.  He had not heard the part about the nutso water and was taken off guard.  He tried to roll 4-5 times, but that water was just not cooperating so he had to pull out.  As we got he and his boat to shore, he was clearly distraught.  So much for not getting water in that ear!  And he was just mega pissed that his roll had not panned out.  We took a break here and eventually Anna and her student floated on by all smiles.  We got back in our boats to continue down.  Adam was beat, worried about his ear and concerned about “the last big rapid that was coming up.”  He had no idea that we had just done a big water class IV Frank Bells and nothing but a few ripples remained between us and the take out.  He simply could not hear us talking about it!  I guess those ear plugs worked a little better than he thought since he hadn’t heard anything we said at the approach.  Instantly his anger about his roll lifted!  For both of us this was the first class IV we had done and we had essentially styled it!

After a nice dinner, massage and fire we headed off to bed to what was the best sleep I’ve had in ages…in a tent even!  We ran Barnard to Stackhouse the next day luckily running into some CCC’ers who helped us out big time with shuttle.  The river was still running high and this was not the easy French Broad I remembered.  3000 cfs vs 1000 cfs….huge difference there!  The wave train at Sandy Bottoms was amazing.  Nothing but woo hoos all around.  On our way back to Hot Springs we took a hike around Big Laurel Creek scouting a lower water Staircase and taking a few photos for the memories.  Awesome Spring trip!

Mary Elmore
April 9, 2012