of Two Cheoahs
Atlanta paddlers officially earned what qualifies as the “successful
first descent” of the Cheoah River in North Carolina, completed
on September 17, 2005. They actually paddled the Cheoah twice in two
weeks and report that it seemed almost like two different rivers.
This group included: Peter Elkon, Ricky Martin, Bryant Smith, Hank
“Tao” Klausman and Doug Pratt. Yes, the Ricky Martin.
for an Official First Descent
elite paddlers around the world know, a “Successful First
Descent” is officially defined in two parts. It is 1) the first
advertised release of 1500 cubic feet per second of dammed water into
a dry river bed that’s been growing trees for 75 years, 2) paddled by
an exclusive group of 400 or more crack paddlers who sincerely
believe the water level to be as advertised. River lore adds a third
part to the definition, widely accepted by most experts. That being,
at least one paddler arrives at the take-out still in his or her own
boat. To be perfectly clear, this report will use the official term
“first descent” in a sincerely facetious sense.
we had not advertised our trip, we were stunned at the turnout of
support. No fewer than four hundred volunteer paddlers ran safety for
us. This “first descent” presented the challenge of big
water volume in a narrow river bed. Most of the day the level was
1400 to 1600 cubic feet per second, after an initial A.M. release of
2000 to a gazillion cfs of muddy water. These are estimates.
is certain is the Cheoah was very fast and pushy, and choked with
what Ricky identified as Bradford Pears, Formosa Azaleas, and Vinca
Major. Rocks ranging in size from Vespa to Airstream were positioned
randomly, without any regard for aesthetics, but most were well
cushioned at this water level.
Cheoah’s Big Gun
small group, each of us in superb to mediocre condition, performed
exactly as our sponsor had expected. (We would like to thank our
generous sponsor, Luscious Herbals. Luscious Herbals is my daughter’s
homemade hand lotion company located in Anniston, Alabama. Thanks to
her products, our hands remained smooth, soft and youthful. For more
information on the entire line of
Herbals skin and hair care products, please call my daughter Tanya’s
office in her dining room, at 205.1987.)
may sound impressive to you. But it didn’t make success easy for us.
Lots of our safety boaters lost boats or paddles and couldn’t finish
the river. But there were very few and only minor injuries, to the
best of my knowledge. Even we lost one paddle. And two boats. Leaving
three of us on the river. And one elected to portage Big Gun Falls.
So two of our five actually paddled the entire river, but selflessly
claimed “first descent” glory for our group. This is what
Break in the Action
“first descent…” a term that can’t be overused in
report… went so well that we did the Chattooga River
IV the next weekend, September 25, just for a change of pace, a break
in the action, and we had a ball. (Interesting fact: the Chattooga is
the river used in the making of the classic white water film with
John Voigt and Burt Reynolds, A River Wild Runs Through It.) We
started above Bull Sluice and everyone had a beautiful run. Well,
Ricky strained his shoulder executing an extremely very high brace.
But we really had thought his run looked beautiful. Then he told us
he was going to have to portage everything else.
Crack was a bit different than we’d come to expect, with the chute
terminating within the crack rather than farther out in the pool. We
watched a canoeist, Chad, flip and roll. “Ah ha, now we’re
ready.” The rest of us got through Middle Crack with elan. Well,
except for me. My elan was more what you might call “rococo”.
Middle Crack swooped me into an elegant back ender that segued into a
seamless roll that only acutely strained my right lat. I’m pretty
sure “acute” lasts from a minute to about three weeks or
we returned to NC for a “second descent” of The Cheoah the
very next Saturday, October 1. Again we were not alone. This “second
descent” was inflicted by an intrepid horde, hundreds of top gun
paddlers. Including some who’d paddled the Upper Ocoee more than
day the water was lower, about 1000 cfs, which exposed more rocks…
so this was more technical paddling through long eddy-less rapids
that caused lots of minor injuries in addition to boat losses. From
the get-go, it felt like this wasn’t my day to paddle the Cheoah. My
right lat, with the “acute” strain, was still a bit tender
from all the elan on the Chattooga. I felt butterflies in my tummy…
I mean abs, but I put in anyway…
the River Gods, Praise the Paramedics At the first mile I got
broached on a rock amidst some small trees. In getting myself
untangled I hit my hand. It didn’t hurt much… really, I’m not being
macho; that part comes in just a few more paragraphs… but when I
had a chance to look, it was bleeding freely and a very large little
flap of skin was pulled back off my knuckle. “This is the sign
from the river gods,” I thought. And I did heed. I told my
buddies I was off the river.
were paramedics stationed every mile or so along the river, so I got
cleaned and bandaged. Here’s a fact that merits your attention; for
both Cheoah releases, there were many volunteers stationed along the
eight mile run. Local fire fighters and paramedics and County Rescue
Squad, with first aid kits, throw ropes, and ambulances. They do
deserve thanks and serious kudos for helping to keep the paddlers,
onlookers and motor vehicled rubberneckers safe.
Courage to Choose
I’m off the river now. I got in Hank’s car… he’d made sure we all
could get the keys… and drove down to meet him and the rest of our
group at one of the several rest-and-rescue stations along the bank.
Then took Hank’s video camera down to The Big Gun, a 9-foot falls, to
tape their runs. I positioned myself on the rocks so I could
precisely frame adventure art shots, and waited.
watched many runs, and still waited. Then I saw my group. Above me.
Scouting from the road. Hank waving happily. He had decided to
demonstrate the courage to choose portage. This is why he’s known as
Tao. Even more importantly, he was now free to take over as
videographer. Ricky ran the falls well. Very elan-like.
Down the Barrel of Big Gun
Bryant’s canoe got swamped in the entrance rapid to the falls, and he
was unable to set up for the route he wanted to take. He got swept
over the most rocky unpredictable route and deserves credit for
maintaining as much boat control as is humanly possible in a canoe
full of water at 1000 cubic feet per second as it drops nine feet
over two vertical drops. When Bryant hit the bottom he flipped, but
rolled expertly and paddled into an eddy to bail.
seen so many runs from the bank by this time that I was inspired… I
thought I’d learned the correct set up, the route and what strokes to
apply where. So I told the guys I was gonna run it. Peter waited
while I unloaded my boat, then we set out about 100 yards upstream of
is 100 yards of fairly technical class III rocks, waves and grabby
holes. With no established route, no eddies that we could see, and no
straightforward shot to a sweet spot in the brink, this is what
sabotaged Bryant’s canoe.
Persecution and Suffering Peter immediately got flipped and his roll
didn’t quite get him all the way up… he was upside down doing
battle with some aggressive rocks that got right up in his face
(later, we got chicken skin when we saw the chips, gouges and scars
on his helmet). He swam onto a rock, paddle securely in hand, and
yelled, “Get my boat!” as his kayak careened toward the
falls. He was pretty pissed.
discovered a small eddy just downstream and stayed focused on Peter,
knowing there was no possible boat retrieval in this rapid between us
and the falls. I blew my whistle, yelled for a rope, and Tao and
others on the bank pulled Peter out. But the river beat him up again
during the rescue, completing Peter’s impressive collection of
blood-weeping and colorfully swollen insults from head to toe. Which
led to a brief discussion of a medieval painting that we all seemed
to recall as, “The Martyrdom of St. Peter by Stoning”.
boat was retrieved about a mile downstream, also looking martyred.
The back brace was torn out and the plastic cockpit rim where it had
been anchored was just ripped through. All his gear, including throw
rope and dry bag… sucked out and donated. Most impressively, the
nose of this heavy lay-up Piranha Gus was indented from three
different angles, with the most profound dent about five inches deep
and wide as a nice cantaloupe. Good luck with the hair dryer, Peter.
to The Big Gun, where now there was one. One of us left to run this
Big ‘un. Unbelievably, the Jaws soundtrack was being played through
speakers that looked exactly like river rocks. I remember feeling
anxious and a little aggressive at the same time.
I was, a conservative paddler, but seeing Peter’s beating made me
believe that I could show this rapid we were the Cheoah’s equals. Not
a wise fantasy. Because the river doesn’t care. But right then, and I
don’t know where this conviction came from, I decided I didn’t care
about the river. I peeled out of the eddy. Blasted through the
rapids. Powered over the falls in a clean redeeming run and got out
fast. It was all fast. At the end of the day, in a reflective moment,
Tao shared something with me. There had been a heavyset rescue squad
guy watching my run. And after I’d completed my run Tao heard this
guy say, “Elan.” That’s all the guy said.
and I hopped in the car and met the rest at the take-out.
Collectively we probably sounded like a weird chorus as we “oooh”-ed
over our little injuries, “aahh”-ed over scarred gear, and
muttered cusses over Peter’s battered Gus. Ricky, Bryant, Doug, Tao,
Peter. Cohesive. Coughing. There isn’t any better feeling than
survival camaraderie at the take-out.
humble thanks to the four hundred volunteers who safety boated for
us. We could have done it without you. So this is it, friends. Our
real story, our raw story. Just what you crave in a true
newsletter… white water tales delivering the details paddlers
relish. Mostly paddlers who are actually in the report.
for me, I’m just grateful to be here now. Safe at my typewriter. Able
to bang out a report, the tales of two Cheoahs. Telling the true
by Doug Pratt
The Eddy Line, November 2005