In the beginning all was darkness. Then the light split the darkness. It illuminated the entire world…for a time. – Book of the Ancients; Paragraph Two


She always sensed that her husband wasn’t quite right. There was something about him that didn’t seem to fit in this world. Perhaps he was born too soon, or maybe too late. Regardless, he didn’t seem to fit. You could dress him up but you couldn’t take him anywhere. Come to think of it, you really couldn’t even dress him up. In fact, he probably would have been happiest running naked through the jungle somewhere. A cave would likely suit him best. That’s really where this story begins, in the darkness of a cave.

He liked canoes. No, he liked boats. He loved canoes. He loved gliding down a river, paddling across a lake, crashing down a rapid or just sitting and drifting. He loved her too. She was as wild and beautiful as any river and frequently as hazardous and unforgiving. He wanted to have them both. It was a tricky game. He told her about a one of a kind treat that could be had on a river near here, on a river in this very state. Just about an hour or so north of here is a place where the river has been diverted to flow through a tunnel cut through a mountain. A vein of gold was discovered that ran into the river. To get the gold a tunnel was cut seven foot high by seven foot wide through a quarter mile of mountain. The river was diverted so the gold could be removed. Ironically, the vein did not extend into the river. Fortunately for “River Rats” the tunnel remains today and can be paddled by those who are wise to the entry ritual.


While most paddlers speak of the river gods with tongue in cheek, no one of consequence would dare to tempt them at the tunnel without executing “the ceremony.” At a minimum, one believer in each group must perform this ceremony. So at the entrance they stopped. He was wise and so a believer. He stepped into the river. The water was just above his calves and very swift. The rocks moved beneath his feet as the force of the water swept them forward. Still he plunged to mid stream where he stopped and steeled himself against the tug of the current. Bending low, his chin was mere millimeters from the surface and he peered into the darkness. Here is the crux of the ceremony. If darkness is all to be seen, the tunnel is obstructed. Entry equals entrapment and likely death. Seeing a spot of light he extends his arm, raises his thumb and sights down the tunnel. The spot of light is half as large as his thumbnail. It is likely that the tunnel is clear enough. He stands upright and grins. The ceremony is complete. The river gods must surely be smiling today.


She wants to follow the river around the mountain. Now the river gods are laughing. Laughing at him that is. They’ve come all this way and she doesn’t want to go down the tunnel. The gods are mocking him. Surely she can see how foolish it would be to come this far to run the tunnel and not do it.

In the entire world, only in New Zealand is there an opportunity remotely similar to this one. And we are here. We stand at the entrance. She wavers. She wants to go. She needs encouragement. “It is easy,” he says, “All you need to do is stay down low, hold your paddle across the canoe and push the boat away from the walls.” It means so little to her but she can see that it means so much to him. “Okay, let’s do it.”

She is in the bow on her knees staring into the darkness. He is in the water at the stern, lining the boat up with the tunnel’s entrance. “Are you ready?” he asks, not waiting for an answer. With a push he slips into the boat. Slowly they pass the point of no return. “Stay in the boat no matter what,” he coaches, yelling loudly above the roar of the rushing river. The water thunders in the tunnel now and darkness blots out everything but the tumultuous sound of the contracted river and the lunging sensation of motion. As they shoot through the tunnel the canoe bangs against the side of the cavern and hangs for a time against the wall.

Water pours into the canoe, drenching them. She is screaming now, but she remains in the boat. His experienced paddle pushes the boat upstream away from a crevice in the wall. At the end of the stroke the river takes control and they are whisked forcefully towards the other end. A sudden glow of light signals the center of the tunnel. It’s an air shaft in the ceiling. It comes as a small reprieve from the darkness. But it passes so quickly. The roar of water, the swift current and the complete darkness again overwhelms the senses. For now there is no outside world. There are only two souls screaming in the dark, blasting through the earth, heading into oblivion. Another glow insinuates itself upon the eyes. They flicker. They squint. They see the other end. The opening is a welcome sight. Relief seems at hand. Now above the roar of the water, she too hears the river gods laughing. The tunnel’s flow squeezes to the right wall and pours over a boulder then drops into a pool in the river. “Hang on. This was rough last time,” he yells to her but seems to be talking to himself. Somehow it did little to reassure her. The boat slammed hard against the wall, pitched left, tilted crazily, then blasted from the tunnel. It struck hard into the pool, water poured in but the craft bobbed quickly to surface.

It was a beautiful sunny day on the river again. She stopped screaming and started grinning. He grinned back, “That was awesome! Let’s do it again!” She said no. That was it. But that was okay. It’s never a good idea to tempt the river gods. They learned a few things on the river that day. The adventure taught them that they could trust each other. He learned that she could overcome her fears and push her limits. She learned that he really wasn’t quite right and she would not be so quick to discount her mother’s good advice in the future.


By Vincent Payne
From The Eddy Line, April 2003

Related: Tunnel Video

For more information on this river see:
Etowah-Tunnel