After
reading the tragic report that Vincent Payne sent us about the death
of the kayaker in a rain swollen creek in the Smoky Mountains, I
thought it important to start a dialog about different rivers and
creeks and what happens to them at different water levels. If any of
you have experience, please share it with the group. The life you
save may be your future paddling partner.

Rivers
at normal flow are not the same river at flood stage. Remember that.
Always. To set the stage for my report, I think it is important that
you know a little about me and my paddle partner for this adventure.

I
am 59 years old, 23 years of military experience, time as a
scoutmaster. Lots of time spent in the woods, less time on the water.
I am SCUBA certified and a fair swimmer. I am comfortable in the
outdoors and in most matters (I did say most, not all) I think I
display good judgment and like to think I have a little bit of common
sense.

I
have been kayaking for a little over 4 years, mostly lakes and Class
1 and 2 rivers. I figure at the current rate of improvement I will be
running the Class 3 rivers with you young folks by my 70th birthday.

My
boat of choice has been a Necky Manitou kayak. It is a nice rec kayak of 10 feet
ll inches. I have taken her down the Nanty, but did not run the
Falls. She has also been down the Chattooga, Section 2, so I do have
a bit of Class 2 experience.

In
March of this year I got my first whitewater kayak, a sweet Dagger GT
8.1, and have been slowly but surely getting more comfortable in her.
We have also been down the Nanty, but again I carried her around the
Falls. I am an ACA certified kayak instructor for moving water up to
Class 2. I do not have a roll but I can wet exit in a New York
second. Last, I have taken a two-day swift water rescue course, which
I recommend to everyone who paddles.

Doc
is the adult in this paddling duo. He is not as old or good looking
as me but that is a story for another day. I believe he has been
paddling a little longer than me, both canoes and his boat of choice,
a Tsunami 120 (12 feet) kayak. Doc has never paddled a whitewater boat.
Again, he is a man with good judgment and common sense.

That
is the duo; here is my report and what I learned. The section of the
Etowah that I am writing about is putting in under the Highway 9
Bridge near Dahlonega and taking out at the Castlberry Bridge. This
is a trip of about 6 miles. It has several Class 2 rapids and one
Class 4-5 rapid, Etowah Falls.

The
Etowah Falls are easily portaged on river right. You can actually paddle to
the top of the Falls and take out, but I recommend stopping about 50-
100 yards above the Falls on river right. That way there is no chance
that you and your boat will get caught in the current and make and
unexpected boof off the Falls. Very experienced boaters do run this
falls. I ain’t one of them.

The
gauges I will refer to can be found at:
http://waterdata.usgs.gov/ga/nwis/current/. They are under the
Cossa-Tallapoosa River Basin section. The first one is number
02388900 and is located at the bridge where we put in on Hwy 9 above
Dawsonville, near Dahlonega. The second one is number 02389150 and is
located at Highway 9 below Dawsonville.

For
the sake of this report, we will refer to the Hwy 9 Dawsonville gauge
since this is the one I looked at most. For the record, the reading
on the upper gauge is usually lower than the gauge on the Dawsonville
one.

As
you all know, in late August we saw more rain than we have in ages.
As the rain fell, the rivers and creeks were rising. The computers
and phone lines were hot with people wanting to know what to run, who
was going, what levels were safe. Excitement was in the air; there
was water in them thar hills!!

On
August 26, a group of us started plotting a kayak trip down this section of
the river. I have been down it before, both in my Necky and my
Dagger kayaks, at water levels between 4 and 4.5 on the lower gauge. (For
future planning, I would not want to drag my boat down this section
if the lower gauge is below 4 feet. Ever.) Doc had never paddled it
before but was anxious to give it a go. All summer the lower gauge
has been hanging around 3 feet. Not good.

At
7:00 a.m. on Tuesday the gauge was at 4.42 and climbing. Looking
good. By 1:00 p.m. on Tuesday it was at 6.58 and going up. Looking
good. By 5:00 p.m. it was at 7.74 and we were beginning to wonder. At
9:00 p.m. it was at 10.06 and we were having second thoughts. For
those of you who are new or inexperienced, note how fast the water
level climbed with heavy rains in the area. Almost 7 feet in just a
few hours.

At
this time we decided we needed a backup plan. We did know that with
the rain mostly stopped, the rivers would start to drop like a rock.
So this is what we decided: we would check the gauges at 7:00 a.m.
Wednesday and make a decision of whether to paddle the Etowah or run
the Hooch from Buford Dam to Settles Bridge. The only thing we knew
for sure is that our boats were going to get wet somewhere.

Wednesday
morning at 7:00 a.m. the lower gauge was back down to 7.16 and
continuing down, so we decided to drive to the river, give her a good
look and make an on site judgment call. Because the decision to
paddle was made at the last minute, work conflicts and
miscommunication dropped our group from 8 maybes to 2 positives.

Doc
and I drove to the take out at Castleberry Bridge and did a walking
scouting trip of Castleberry Rapids; Class 2, rocky and technical run
at levels around 4-5 on the gauge. After giving the rapids a good
look from the river right bank we saw nothing that caused us any
concern. As a matter of fact, the rapids looked much more inviting
with water higher than 4.5.

We
were close to a go but had one more stop to make. We drove to the
put-in and again walked the river and gave her a good look. No excess
debris was noted. Of course the water was higher and swifter than I
had paddled before but we both decided that it was not so bad that we
could not paddle against the current if we encountered river wide
strainers and had to turn back. When we put in at approximately 11:00
a.m. on Wednesday the lower gauge was at about 6.7, about 2 feet
higher than I had run before.

From
this put-in, it is about .75 miles to the first Class 2 rapid, Chuck
Shoals. This is Class 2 at levels around 4 feet on the lower gauge.
Chuck Shoals is also a very rocky and technical run, not very long
but boy do you scrape the bottom off your boat at normal flows. When
we came to this rapid, again we gave it a good look. It was clear and
for the first time I saw it with water over the rocks. It actually
had a clean line to shoot through that sucker. I knew from experience
that if we cleared Chuck Shoals and did not encounter any serious
strainers the rest of the run would be a hoot and really not
dangerous.

So
off we went, shooting over the rocks I was used to dragging on, misty
rain, no one on the river but the two of us, life does not get much
better. When we reached the Falls, we beached out boats and sat at
the top and had a very nice lunch break. It is hard to believe there
is such beauty so close to Atlanta, and sad to think that most people
are too busy to ever see it.

The
run at this level was much more fun and exciting that it is at lower
levels. According to our map, we had 6 solid Class 2’s to enjoy. At
lower levels, you can debate whether they rate a 1 or a 2 rating.
Since no one but Doc and I were there, we voted. Everything was a 2
except the Falls: we gave her a solid 5 rating.

We
had been paddling and playing for about 3-4 hours when we reached
Castleberry Rapids. Our scout from the bank was right on the money
and we encountered no problems. That was the end of another great day
on the Etowah river. Doc and I have both decided that we would give this
section a very hard look at levels between 7.5 and 8.5 and would
probably run it at those levels. But we would repeat our process.
Park and scout the lower rapids from the bank. Since they are so
similar in difficulty to the upper rapids, if they looked safe to
run, we could do it again.

I
know this has been wordy, but I do hope that some of you enjoyed it
and more important, got enough information to help you plan a canoe / kayak trip on
this part of the Etowah. This is my advice:

1.
Wear a helmet and spray skirt, even with a rec boat, at these water
levels.

2.
Never run anything you have personal doubts about. Better to portage
and paddle another day than to have your body pulled out of a
strainer 2+ feet above the water levels because you used poor
judgment.

3.
Never run a river for the first time when it is at or near flood
stage.

4.
If you want to paddle a river that you have never been on before,
find a buddy who has and get on out there.

5.
Learn which gauges to watch and what the levels actually will mean to
your paddling experience on your favorite rivers.

6.
With a little planning and common sense, rain and higher than normal
levels are a real treat that we should take advantage of.

One
thing I will admit we did wrong. For safety, you should always have
at least 3 paddlers. In this our judgment might have been a little
weak but if I had the decision to make again, I would still be
writing this report. I trusted that my experience and my paddle
partner would keep me out of trouble.


As
I sit at my desk writing this on Sunday morning, wishing I were on
the Nantahala with Doc and the rest of my paddling buddies today, the
lower gauge is at 3.81 and still dropping. Watch the weather: if that
river starts to rise again, you will find us back on it.

If
any of you have any questions for me about this river, never hesitate
to contact me. Paddle safe but paddle something.

by
John Miller
From The Eddy Line, October 2008

For more information on this river see:
Etowah River- Falls Section