Seems like every time we lead a trip, Maggie and I learn something else about trip leading. Our class 1-2 Trained Beginner foray down the Chestatee this past weekend is a case in point.
As many of you know, the Chestatee, particularly the section from Copper Mine down to Highway 52 take-out, is a relatively benign stretch of river at its normal level of about 1.5 feet. Blasted Rock, a shoaly jumble rated a class2, is the only rapid of any significance if you choose to put in below Copper Mine itself. Always a pretty river, in autumn the Chestatee fairly glows with bright leaf colors and sparkling clear water. It was for the fall scenery more than anything else that Maggie and I selected it for our leader’s choice trip. A lot of other people must have felt the same way, because by Thursday night more than a dozen boats had signed up, prompting us to close out any further participation.
On Friday the rains started, with forecasts of more of the same mixed with thunderstorms throughout Saturday. The cancellations poured in almost as fast as the rain fell, so that by the time we met on Saturday morning only five boats,including Maggie and I in solo canoes, remained. The other hearty souls were Bart Keith and Cathee Gallant in a tandem canoe,Belle Wilmer and Charley Zaph, in a tandem canoe, and Tim Rich in a brand new kayak.
Of the two tandem teams, Bart and Cathee were the most experienced, having paddled together for some time, and paddled this section of the river once before at low water levels. Belle and Charley were literally strangers whom I had teamed up when each called looking for a partner. For added excitement, they were in a borrowed Mohawk XL-15 canoe that neither of them had paddled before. But, at least they had each had some training. Tim, in his Pirouette, had never even been in a kayak before! Now you have to understand that we knew all of this before hand, but were convinced that no one would have any problems on our gentle little Chestatee. Ah, the leaves, the light, the sparkling waters — nothing could spoil the tranquility of this leisurely float, even if it was raining just a little bit.
Maggie and I got there early and checked the gauge at the 52 bridge. It looked to be at about 2.2, a little high but nothing to worry about. The water, on the other hand, was the color of rust and running at a respectable rate. Clue 1, openly given and callously ignored.
By the time we collected everyone and got them down to the put-in the rains had stopped, even though the cloud cover was as thick as ever. More rain was certainly on the way. Just above the put-in, Copper Mine Rapid was an impressive deluge of muddy red water mixed with an interesting variety of tree limbs and other flotsam pouring over its three ledges. The rocks and channels that normally defined it were mostly missing, replaced by a continuous fall of water stretching from bank to bank. More than one pair of eyes grew large at the sight. I was beginning to get just an itsy bit uncomfortable about this trip.
“Well,” I thought, “We’ll just put everyone in the pool below Copper Mine and let them paddle around a little to see how things go. After that, we can make a decision whether or not to go on.”
Under normal conditions this pool (really more like a large pond) is very placid and an excellent place to warm up. This day it seethed with a tortuous blend of squirrelly currents and broken tree parts that would challenge any boater. Never deterred by details, however, we put on and began to paddle around.
Cathee and Bart appeared to have no problems; and even Belle and Charley, though they had never paddled together before, were practicing ferries and eddy turns. Tim,in his kayak, was understandably having a more difficult time of it, with the boat often taking off in directions of its own choosing. But, generally speaking and particularly under the circumstances, he seemed to be doing okay. He even tried a couple of rolls and wet exitsjust to see that he could get out of trouble if necessary. Over the next few hours he would have the opportunity to put these new-found skills to good use.
After about 30 minutes we called everyone together to discuss the situation. The river, I explained, was a little higher than usual (now there was an understatement),the current pushy, and conditions in general were marginal at best. Then I made my big mistake. Instead of saying, as any rational person would have, “Pack up your boats, we’re getting out of here!”, I let them make the decision. “If anyone,” I said,“feels they don’t want to run this river, let me know and we’ll go home.”
Noble gesture but p—s poor judgement, since naturally, no one wanted to be seen as the wimp who spoiled everyone else’s good time (although frankly, I suspect that everyone in the group secretly hoped that someone else would speak up). Well, no one said anything, so Maggie went through her “how to swim in the current” spiel one more time and off we went, with me in the lead, Maggie sweeping and everyone else under firm instructions to stay between us.
We ran the first rapid after leaving the pool and it became transparently obvious that this was going to be a long day. Although everyone made it down in an upright position, those tall standing waves and sucky little holes we were swept over gave a whole ‘not her definition to paddling on the Chestatee. In fact, nothing looked familiar; all the accustomed rocks and sand spits were gone, buried under a foot or more of opaque red river. Where once there had been large eddies and banks for recovery, now there was nothing but rushing water,unpredictable currents and vicious looking hydraulics. But we were committed and had to move on.
Tim flipped for the first time shortly after putting in. Fortunately, I was able to get to a small eddy next to the bank and throw a line to him. Since he had already exited his boat and made his way to shore for the most part, I was able to pull him into my eddy without much trouble. But there was nothing to stand on, so getting him back into the boat became a Keystone Kops comedy of prate falls and other misadventures. Soon enough, however, he was skirted up and heading down river once more.
Then, just above a rapid that never has existed before, Tim flipped for the second time. I happened to be looking back at the time and saw him go under, but was unable to buck the current upstream to help him out. Maggie, in the sweep position, was also caught up in the flow and flushed on past him. Tim was on his own in this one.
Again, through sheer determination on his part, Tim struggled to the bank and, clinging to tree limbs and exposed roots, tried to wedge himself back into his yak. One hand holding on to a branch, another trying to control the bucking yak, another hand struggling with his skirt (Jeez, how many hands this guy got, anyway?),legs flailing all over the place… well, you get the picture. Finally, just as I was beginning to think that he was going to have to give in and swim it, Tim was in his boat once more and paddling hell-bent-for-leather over the rapid. I still don’t know how he managed to do that.
It was time for a war council. Luckily, one of the few remaining bits of dry land big enough to hold the group was close by. After gathering every one together, we had a frank little exchange regarding our situation: (1) the river, although not necessarily life threatening at this point, was a solid class 2-3 and was certainly pushing the skill level of the group at large; (2)the water level appeared to be rising even as we sat there; (3) the potential for more rain and thunderstorms was clearly evident; and (4) we still had along way to go. Unspoken but lurking in the back of my mind was the thought “….and (5) Blasted Rock is between us and the take-out.”
For the first time that day, I actually made the right decision. We were going to head straight down stream — no delays, no playing, no demonstrations (hopefully) of my phenomenal z-drag skills. Hey, we weren’t even going to pause for lunch! We were getting off that river ASAP. Also, since I had all the rescue gear, Maggie and I changed positions, with her in the lead and me in sweep. This was done under the assumption that if I were upstream of an incident, I could at least sneak downstream to it; but, there was no way that I could make my way back to a situation if I were in the lead.
Anyway, the rest is history. In spite of everything that river threw at us, we all made it safely down. I had counted seven noses at the put-in, and still had seven at the take-out. Blasted Rock, although a solid class 3, adrenalin-pumping torrent by the time we got there, was mercifully forgiving and let us all through with minimal bloodshed. Maggie did manage to go down the river left side backwards, which I thought was an unnecessary display of bravado, and I told her so, too. Once off the river, we all went to Caruso’s in Dahlonega to toast our survival with wine, beer and good pasta. Hey, what the heck, it had been an excellent day.
By Jim Griffin
From the Eddy Line,December 1995