Forgive me if I glance upriver to an earlier time, before the years of the GCA, for a few paragraphs. My white water roots go back to a four-day canoe/camping trip in June of ’59 on West Virginia’s Cacapon River, connected to a grueling stint of paddling up the Potomac. I had convinced my Georgia Tech roommate, Fred, that this was the ultimate wilderness experience. It was. Despite our naivety, the river gods smiled — the weather was perfect, the water level optimum, the scenery outstanding and we capsized only once. From that point on, there was no turning back — not even a portage!
Explorer Scouting was a natural way to go, as I discovered in the early sixties. I enjoyed working with older kids (I still am one) and I loved white water paddling of any type. Thus was born white water Explorer Post 757 in Howard County, Maryland. We built molds, C-2’s and kayaks — lots of them. Resin was ordered in 55 gallon drums, fiberglass by the 125 yard roll. Most weekends found us on a river, sometimes racing, many times just for the joy of the journey.
It was boat-building that precipitated a memorable incident. In their Sunday Magazine Section, The Baltimore News-American ran a feature on how I built kayaks with my Explorer Scouts. Monday evening the phone rang and my wife Roberta handed it to me.
“Is this the Doug Woodward who was in the Sunday paper?”
“This is Blaze Starr.” I paused to swallow. “…the dancer,” she added.
“Yes, I know who you are.”
“I liked your looks in the story. Do you give kayak lessons?”
“Of course!” (“And do you give lessons in your specialty, too?” I would have loved to add, but didn’t have the courage!)
We talked for a half hour that day and I assured her that I could supply kayak and all related gear and that she would be in good hands — so to speak! I did wonder, though, about the size of the PFD I should bring. I suspect Roberta wondered about a lot more than that!
Blaze gave me her phone number (unlisted) and her address on Park Avenue in Baltimore. We spoke several more times and finally a Sunday afternoon was set for the kayaking. Boats and camera were loaded. I called a couple of hours ahead to make sure everything was still on. It wasn’t.
“I’m so sorry Doug. I was all ready and took my poodle across the hall for my neighbor to keep. Until she reminded me, it had completely slipped my mind that I’m supposed to be at the Annapolis Clam Festival today. We’ll have to make it another time.”
Sure enough, her picture was in the Baltimore Sun the next evening, clad in a bikini, while eager artists at the Clam Festival painted her body for charity fund raising. “Another time” never came.
And so the legends of Post 757 flowed on. The rivers of West Virginia and western Pennsylvania were our favorite playgrounds. We paddled the Yough before there was an outfitter there; we competed in and helped set up the early North Fork races at Petersburg, West Virginia. When the first “experimental races” on the Savage were tried (and later, the ’72 Olympic Trials), we were there. Many explorers went on to work as river guides. Eric Neilson started his own company on the Cheat. Brad Hager, with partner Bill Endicott, raced C-2 at the Worlds in July of ’69. In ’70, nearly the whole Explorer Post ran the Colorado in rafts, three of us in kayaks.
When I moved to Atlanta in July of ’70, molds and materials in tow, I found Payson Kennedy and Claude Terry already working with a Boy Scout Troop at the Unitarian Church. They were also in the experimental stages of boat building. “How about an Explorer Scout Post?” we all asked. Since we were selfish enough to designate this a white water post before it even formed, it seemed logical to ask the GCA to be the official sponsor.
What happened then was truly amazing. Not only did the GCA sponsor this group, but a good dozen of the club’s most active paddlers became the leadership core for the post. Why? Was there an overwhelming altruistic urge toward the would-be paddling youth of Atlanta? Perhaps. Or was there something more immediate and tangible? There was.
Being associated with Explorer Post 49, either as a scout or an adult advisor, became an avenue toward building your own kayak at cost. Plastic kayaks were unknown — it would still be several years before Hollowform in California would begin rotomolding the first prototypes. Our glass K-1’s (and C-2’s) were among the best available — strong (epoxy was our resin of choice), lightweight (24# for a 4/3 K-1 lay-up), strategically reinforced (bow & stern, hull under seat and deck behind cockpit), and with our own design of adjustable foot braces.
Eighteen boats were built in my Dunwoody basement the first year (1971) of the Post’s existence. Twenty-one were popped from molds the second year. Often there would be from three to five kayaks in various stages of completion at any given time.
Anyone associated with the Post could build a kayak for $140. This included all materials that went into the boat plus a small fee to cover such things as tools stuck to the workbench and epoxy on the door knobs and telephone! But each person who did so, had to help the next two persons build their kayaks. This served to lighten my load a bit.
In the early and mid-seventies, it was the Explorers who shared much of the service load with the GCA. When basic canoe and kayak classes were taught, the majority of instructors were scouts or leaders from the Post. The Dogwood Festival down river races were planned and carried out by the Post, as were two years of Stone Mountain races.
When the Southeasterns moved to Nantahala Falls in ’72, it was Post 49 that designed the first slalom course and handled the scoring. Another post, sponsored by Southern Bell and led by longtime GCA member Ken McAmis, set up the first phone reporting system for gate judges that year.
Thanks to Horace Holden, Sr., we were able to meet at Camp Chattahoochee, his Roswell place, which later became the Chattahoochee Nature Center. Rolling instruction, English Gate practice and drownproofing courses (Georgia Tech / Fred Lanoue type) were held at Keywaden pool, also in Roswell, during the winter months. We paddled during that season, too — I can still remember a five degree trip on Alabama’s Little River where I could hardly see Payson Kennedy’s face through the icicles hanging from his helmet! My beard was solid ice! (At that time, Payson was clean-shaven and I was fuzzy.)
The adults who worked with the Post over the years were Payson and Aurelia Kennedy, Claude and Betty Terry, Margaret Osborne Tucker, Julie Wilson, Barbara Walmsley, Rodger Losier, Melanie Dixon, Dave Truran, Boni Zucker, Mary Alice (Mouse) Woodward, Ruth Gershon, Denise Siegel, Mary Atkinson, Pat Tomeny, Harry Brown, Harry (Buddy) Collins, Claude Grizzard, George and Dot Stephenson, Falma Moye, Clyde Woolsey, Mark Warren, Tom Lines, Horace Holden and Doug Woodward. There are many others, of course, who will have memories of those times.
But for all the apparent adult presence, it was the Explorers who took most of the responsibility for planning and carrying out events — and it was done well. Although paddling was our primary activity, there were many others — camping on Cumberland Island, backpacking in Linville Gorge, rock-climbing at Little River Canyon. The Post newsletter was called the Rapid Express and had a string of able editors — Cathy Kennedy, Ronnie Cohen, Butch Terry, Greg Mohr.
Other scouts who were active leaders were Mark Reimer, Hugh Hilliard, Reid Dowdle, Frances Kennedy, Laura Greiner, Cathy Brown, Tracy Chapple, Steve Kohler, Charlie Holden, Helen Johnston, Gretchen Hund, Helen Stephenson, John Stephenson, Harry Kustick, Rick Howard, Lisa Pieper, Bruce Loehle and Charlie Woolsey.
It was Claude Terry who always seemed to have an inside track for getting white water into the spotlight, whether it was taking the late Harry Chapin and his family down the Chattooga on an overnight raft trip or arranging for NBC to film their Go Show around a Post river trip with a paddling safety theme (Cathy Kennedy was the star of that one!)
One July weekend in ’72, Claude had arranged — through the Georgia DNR, I believe — for Gov. Jimmy Carter to paddle Section III of the Chattooga. Bringing several of his staff and his son Jack, Carter was paired with Claude in a 16′ Grumman, while several of the more competent paddlers in the Post and the GCA accompanied the others. After considerable scouting and discussion, Claude and Carter made a flawless run of the Bull. We were impressed.
White water addiction is contagious! Carter’s eye had been caught by the mobility of decked boats that day, and by winter we were teaching him to roll a kayak in the Georgia State indoor pool. In the spring, equipped with basic skills, a 70% roll and a borrowed kayak, he negotiated Section II of the Chattooga with little difficulty.
Later that year (’73), we accompanied the Carters in kayaks as they rafted down Section IV with one of our scouts as raft guide. Showing the same paddling determination as her husband, it was only Rosalyn Carter that stayed in the raft after a plunge over Seven Foot Falls! Never prone to shrinking from adventure, the ship of state sailed on.
Something like this seemed always to be happening. The autumn after Payson, Claude and I had worked with Warner Brothers on filming Deliverance [to be covered in a separate article next month], one of our Explorers, Steve Kohler, was called to do a Wheaties TV commercial that had white water paddling as its theme. He was out of school for several days, and when he returned to Briarcliff High, found that his locker had been filled with Wheaties! (Fellow Explorers had actually used corn flakes because they were cheaper!)
As I look at old newsletters, I’m overwhelmed by the pace of Post activities — it was off to a race or river almost every weekend, and on long weekends, we might be as far away as the New, Gauley or Yough. But as we’ve often said, the road is more dangerous than the river. The following is an excerpt from the Rapid Express of March 7, 1973 (I was filling in for editor Ronnie Cohen):
“As many of you already know, Ronnie Cohen, together with Mark Gavron, Gretchen Hund, Ken Kohler, and Laurie Lassiter were involved in an auto accident on I-85 returning from the Chattooga River Sunday night. Briefly, Mark’s van hit a flooded portion of the Interstate just south of I-285, skidded, flipped and then burned when it was struck by a second car a short time later. Without any attempt to make a judgment on an accident which occurred in an extremely hazardous section of highway (at least four other accidents were reported in this same spot on the same night), I offer these comments. First, the quick thinking and action by Mark was able to change the direction of the initial skid, avoiding the concrete barrier and almost certain serious injury to the three front seat occupants. Second, immediate action (and an unbelievable lift) by Gretchen, Laurie and a passing motorist freed Ken from under the van seconds before it was struck from behind. All five are now at home, mending well, and thanks to some very cool heads, a tragedy that might have been… never was.”
The 1973 Dogwood Festival Races on the Chattahoochee drew nearly 200 paddlers and were run on a rain-swollen course. Not only did the Post handle planning, advertising, registration, timing and all the other mechanics of the event, but Julie Wilson — bless her heart — made by hand 138 medals (we had a lot of categories!), each one a copper disc enameled with a dogwood blossom and suspended on a leather thong. These medals would be collector’s items today.
As if a full Saturday of racing were not enough, we were off to Section IV of the Chattooga the next day. We were hosting Walt Blackadar and several other western paddlers to give them their first taste of southeastern rivers. As luck would have it, the Chattooga was 3.5 and rising. At that level, Five Falls is pretty continuous; sneak routes appear in a few rapids, while some of the normally easy runs become something else. Raven Rock was one of the latter.
Nothing looked familiar except the towering cliff above us. The main ledge had turned into a river-wide stopper and the pothole that 18 of us had once squeezed into was nowhere to be seen. The Chattooga roared over the lunch rocks to the left and created intimidating holes in the large cracks.
I had paddled with Blackadar in Colorado. Once, when I came out of my kayak in the “Numbers” section of the Arkansas River, he had admonished me by saying that I still had plenty of air and time for more roll attempts — despite the beating my head was taking from bumping over rocks. I knew of his reputation in Turnback Canyon on the Alsek and the upper Susitna, both in Alaska. He never came out of his boat.
That day, in Raven Rock, he did. Running the line that he chose, the river became a bully — it physically separated him from his kayak — it was not his choice. Walt was a good sport about it, running well everything that came before and after — and had naught but praise for the Chattooga ever after.
We were paddling well, too, but there were some hair-raising moments in the Five Falls. Hugh Hilliard and I had stationed ourselves with a throw rope on the large boulder above Left Crack to spot one of our rafts coming through Corkscrew. It needed us. The occupants of the raft snubbed our line to a D-ring, and Hugh and I hung with all our weight on a belay over the top of the rock as we fought to hold the raft out of the Cracks.
At that moment, Payson, running C-1, which was his boat of choice in those years, came out of Corkscrew — upside-down! Not to worry, like Walt, Payson always rolled. But with the river now at a probable 4 feet, there was only a space of seconds between the bottom of Corkscrew and the top of the Cracks. Payson rolled once, twice… three times, but on each attempt, he was flattened again by a wave with a mind of its own. Ten feet above the Cracks he exited, but it was too late. He flushed through Center Crack and disappeared. Hugh and I watched as we still clung to the line that had been unavailable to Payson.
After what seemed an eternity, Payson surfaced, nearly halfway to Jawbone. An Olympic swimmer could not have gained the Georgia shore more quickly! Our group of about fifteen Explorers and western guests reassembled below the Cracks. Jawbone and Sock ’em Dog were successfully run by all, but with great respect. A high water center route in Sock ’em Dog actually made the run much easier.
Within two months, nineteen Explorers were heading west in an old school bus that bore 13 kayaks and two rafts on its roof, for what would be the biggest adventure ever for the Atlanta Post. Our rafts had rowing rigs and would be manned by Pat Tomeny and Charlie Holden. Four newer scouts would go as raft passengers, while the rest would paddle kayak. It was in the waning days of cheap gasoline and we were incensed to find a station in Grand Junction charging 40 cents per gallon!
We arrived to camp beside the rain-swollen Arkansas River at night and it really looked scary in the bus headlights. The next day we ran the section above Cottonwood Rapid, then the Numbers and finally Brown’s Canyon. Pat and Charlie had never run rafts with oar-rigs before, but they were good at reading white water. Local paddlers bet that at least one of our rafts would flip in Brown’s. Neither did.
Our warm-up continued on the Colorado north of Grand Junction and then it was on to Idaho — more or less! The bus was showing an increased reluctance to run, so in Price, Utah, we stopped to rebuild the carburetor and replace solenoid, battery cable and fuel pump. To get back on schedule, the adults took turns driving through the night. Somewhere in the black hours of early morning, Julie made a wrong turn and we were shortly surrounded and stopped by three government security vehicles. After interrogating us and finding out that those long pointy things on top of the bus weren’t missiles, we were promptly escorted to the boundaries of the Atomic Energy Commission proving ground!
Walt Blackadar met us in the town of Salmon and took us to his home high above the river and town, snow-capped peaks in the distant background. He, his wife Shirley and two of his daughters (Lois & Sue) hosted all nineteen of us with an outdoor barbecue! We spent a bright moonlit night camping in their front yard.
Early the next morning, we were off for the Bitterroot Wilderness and the Selway. Walt had made arrangements for shuttle (a long one) and obtained the permit for running this outstanding river before we arrived. The experience was all we had hoped for — impressive white water (many Class IV’s), an untouched mountain wilderness of vast dimensions, back-rubbing circles around the nightly campfires, water so clear that sunlight danced off the stream bed a dozen feet below our kayaks, and a bond of shared adventure that each of us would carry with us all our lives. There was a sadness throughout the group as we reached the take-out and our four river days came to an end.
We treated Walt to dinner out that night, camped, and prolonged our Idaho paddling one more day. This time it was the Lochsa — not wilderness, but superb big water paddling. All too soon, it was time to point the bus toward Atlanta — more or less!
But our month was not yet over. Our next stop was to catch good water on the Gallatin River near the Wyoming / Montana border. We ran the section above and below House Rock, the trickiest part being the avoidance of downed power lines that were dragging in a heavy rapid!
Camping that night by the Yellowstone River at the turnoff to Springdale, we were startled out of sleep at dawn by a sudden thundering sound. Several hundred head of cattle were being driven across a wooden plank bridge and heading right for us! It was the quickest breaking of camp we had ever seen as everyone came awake, scooped sleeping bags and made a mad dash for the bus!
The following day, at Wyoming’s Tongue River, we hiked far up into the sub-alpine meadows, alive with wildflowers, and swam in the icy waters of snow-melt. Later, we carried and dragged our boats up the canyon trail until we were well within a Class IV section of the Tongue. The run was worth it!
Scout units, when traveling under an approved permit, have the privilege of stopping at military bases for food or shelter. We had chosen Warren AFB in Cheyenne as our break from camping and cooking. Upon arrival, the captain assigned to meet us seemed a bit taken aback by the fact that we were co-ed. “You’ll sleep in the gym tonight, but we have only one set of facilities,” he apologized.
“No sweat,” we replied. Actually, having been on the road in the bus in mid-summer for two days since hitting water, we had quite a bit of sweat! The first thing on our mind was showers — we shed our dirty clothes and all piled in together without a second thought. As we left Cheyenne the next morning, we passed a billboard reading, Scouting Today is More Than You Think! The whole bus roared with laughter!
From Cheyenne, the driving days became long and the old school bus cantankerous, but on the evening of July 4, we finally chugged into my Dunwoody driveway to the incredulous stares of neighbors! It had been a month we would never forget!
But not to relax! Within days I received a frantic call from Sandy Campbell in New England. “The Kayak Wild Water Nationals have fallen through up here. They’re not going to give us a water release (on Vermont’s West River, if I remember correctly), so we have no race. Can you do the Nationals on the Chattooga?”
“When?” I asked.
“In three weeks,” Sandy replied.
“Well, with a cushy lead time like that, why not?” I laughed. “Let me check the Forest Service and I’ll get right back to you.”
Somehow I managed to convince the District Ranger at Walhalla that the impact would be minimal and we had confirming letters in the mail that week. The Explorer Post went into a frenzy of activity — writing up releases and applications to go out immediately to white water clubs, arranging for safety (no small task), getting timing clocks shipped from Heuer, gathering volunteers, and performing the dozens of other tasks that go into race planning.
On July 29, the Nationals were indeed run, starting above Bull Sluice and ending in the Sock ’em Dog pool. Water level was at 1.75 ft on the US 76 gauge. Tom McEwan of Silver Spring, Maryland, was first, Ken Cooper of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, second, and John Holland of Fair Oaks, California, third. Locally, Jim Shelander, Payson Kennedy and David Jones were 5th, 6th and 7th respectively. Julie Wilson was third in K-1W. Paddlers from Post 49 took five of the first six places in the Junior Division, with Steve Kohler and Hugh Hilliard taking 1st and 2nd. The next day, we typed, copied and mailed the results. We had pulled off the nearly impossible!
Somewhere around the same time — possibly that fall — we got a same-day call from some Tennessee paddlers telling us there would be a first-ever release of water into the dry river bed we knew as the Ocoee. We thought the run could be a good one and about 15 of us scooped up our gear and sped north. We arrived about a half hour before the water was due to be turned off, so it was find a spot on the shoulder to park, slide down the bank and hop into our boats — no chance to scout!
It was a run that that had us all in smiles. The release was 2600 cfs that day and our adrenaline was pumping! I approached the old bridge at the powerhouse and Johnny Stevenson, one of the scouts who hadn’t paddled that day, was motioning at me and pointing to a huge wave train directly below. It looked like a great ride until I came over the second wave and saw the size of the powerhouse hole. I disappeared for most of a minute and when I finally made shore, they told me Johnny was still running east on US 64! The Ocoee, of course, became a favorite for the Explorers, as it did for so many others.
Our friendship with the Blackadars was to continue, and many in the Post would return individually and in small groups to paddle with Walt. Julie Wilson was one of these and had become like another daughter to him. In the spring of ’74, Julie, Rodger Losier and Boni Zucker had gone west, Julie to paddle, Rodger and Boni to backpack.
Blackadar had been the first to run Idaho’s Upper Bruneau and longed to share the wild beauty of this canyon with his friends. Julie was included in this handful of paddlers as they made their April 27 descent through Class IV waters turned treacherous with sudden snow melt. In a rapid where each paddler could concentrate on only his/her own survival, Julie was lost.
Driven by grief, Walt paddled the river that day and for the week that followed, hoping against hope that Julie might have crawled out on some rock or beach down river. Her life jacket and broken boat were found, and as time passed, the last glimmer of hope faded. Rodger and Boni hiked the canyon daily, searching.
Walt flew to Atlanta three weeks later for Julie’s memorial service and to be with her parents, Elizabeth and Ross. Julie was 26 that year, a second generation GCA member, her folks having been active in both paddling and service to the club. At the memorial, Dave Truran, Julie’s closest companion, played guitar and sang Will Ye Go Lassie Go?, Blowin’ in the Wind and others. I don’t know how he did it — I couldn’t hold back my own tears. The same hour that we in Atlanta were sharing memories of Julie, her body was found by Rodger Losier, trapped beneath a submerged tree 100 feet from where she was last seen by Walt. With her parents permission, she was buried overlooking the Bruneau and the rapid that bore her name — Julie Wilson Falls.
Julie was the only child of Ross and Elizabeth, and they became close friends of the Blackadars after her death, visiting their Idaho home and the spot where Julie died. Thus it was Ross who called me four years later to drop the bombshell that now Walt had drowned, trapped in his boat under a log in Idaho’s Payette River. The whitewater community had lost a legend, and those of us who knew him well felt the absence of a generous and caring friend.
But that was not the end of it. Within a year, Rodger Losier, who had found Julie’s body, died on the Toccoa River. He knew the trails of the southern Appalachians as few people do, was a capable open boater, and had started his own rafting company on the Ocoee River. Most of all, we missed him for his practical jokes and boisterous good humor!
After we lost Julie, it seemed that the shadow of death was never far away. Within the month, Bob Goeke, vice-president of the GCA, became the first to be trapped and drowned in the Chattooga’s deadly Left Crack. Although Bob was not associated with the Post, he was a good friend, and I had built the kayak he was paddling that day.
I knew that that spot was a potential trap. Two years earlier, before the Chattooga had become a Wild and Scenic river, I had spent time at the Cracks during October’s record low water, cutting off with a chain saw a large log that was blocking the passage of Right Crack. I saw where the water went at Left Crack. (And it is still my opinion, based on my experience with the currents that day, that Right Crack can be just as deadly as its twin on the South Carolina shore.)
Six years after Bob’s death, Left Crack claimed another of my friends, Lisa Sebacher, who was a fellow engineer at Western Electric, full of smiles and sparkle, and no older than Julie when she died. Both times I was on Section IV the same day, but neither time with Bob or Lisa, where a word of advice or a shouted warning might have made some difference.
Adrienne Orr was one of the newer scouts on our western trip and went by raft. Her family was enthusiastic about paddling, though, and shortly afterward was on the Nantahala for an outing. Again tragedy struck. Her dad, wading into the cold water to help someone who had spilled in the Falls, collapsed and died in the river from a heart attack.
Greg Mohr, the Post’s last newsletter editor, was killed in an automobile accident while in Florida. He too, left a void in the hearts of family and fellow Post members. The Rapid Express was never published again.
Only three of these seven deaths were of Post leaders or members, but they all affected us deeply. The losses seemed far too great for the few years during which they occurred. We continued to paddle and do things as a group, but by the end of the ’70’s, Post 49 was fading into memory. Individually, many of the group stayed active in white water and most of us still paddle today.
by Doug Woodward
From The Eddy Line, November 1996
– Doug turned 60 this year and now lives in the mountains of western North Carolina with his wife, Trish Severin, and four younger children; Autumn – 13, Forest – 10, Rivers – 7, and Canyon – 3. They built their own home, home school the children, and enjoy all types of outdoor adventures. Doug’s older kids are both married. Cricket – 33, is a climber first and a paddler second. David – 31, is a steep creek boater and won the ’95 Ocoee Rodeo.