The bottom drops out at soon as you hit the first stair on Tallulah Gorge, after signing your life away with American Whitewater and the local rangers. It’s approximately 600 stairs down to the river and when it’s November and 72 degrees outside, you’ll be wishing you hadn’t put on that paddling jacket or layer of fleece. But whether you’ve got on your birthday suit and its 56 degrees or you’re wearing a jacket, you’ll be covered in sweat by the time you get to the bottom — to the platform where, with a dozen other people, you’ll watch the paddlers before you go immediately from the two available eddies straight down into a mauling class IV drop without any warm up. Some of them break their paddles. Others flip and flush into the jagged right-hand wall. Without any question, the only good line is through a turbulent, rock guarded entrance and through a twisting, hole-baited route that makes Corkscrew look like a straightforward wave train, it was that and other rapids that had drawn us into this brutal canyon in northeastern Georgia.
Standing on the banks of Oceana, the third drop on the river, a 60-foot-tall cataract just a football’s punt from the put-in, there were a few members of the GCA. Their eyes were as big as oil-canned hulls and they were looking straight down into the Thing, a rock that blasted water straight up into the air some 20-plus feet. A marginal line down the left-hand side took the hairy a few feet from the Thing and a wild middle line meant executing a 40-foot slide into a dynamic hole that covers paddler and boat and pushes their course 90 degrees to the left down a sluice that leads up, in and over the Thing. And then down into a big hole.
Of course, there was also a far right line — it meant putting your paddle in your hand and your boat on your shoulder as you walked a class V trail down a mud covered, slippery slope. “I haven’t signed up for life insurance;” “I promised the wife I wouldn’t run this one;” “I’m not feeling up to it today;” “They’re crazy.” The words were not excuses but rather reasons to escape unharmed.
As one boater in our group said after running the big one for his first time, “It’s like a car wreck.” And having generated the bravado to try it myself on the last weekend of releases, I couldn’t have agreed more.
Below Oceana, the intrepid crew played the local play spot (called “Lettuce,” since it’s always being shredded) and jumped into the mauling, 200-yard-long Gauntlet, a class IV, trashy, rock-infested rapid that finds blowing first-timers off course an amusing way to spend its life. From an upside-down-pinned-in-the-trees run to some hip-bruising action at a pin rock cloaked by a diagonal hole, the Gauntlet beat egos down and left a few saying they thought it was the toughest on the river. Not only is it all that, but the rapid ends 20 short feet above
Bridal Veil, a 25-foot slide into a hole that the Mafia could hide bodies in. The interconnectedness of the two rapids was never shown better than when an Atlanta paddler, who has since vowed never to return to the Tallulah, swam both the bottom of Gauntlet and ended up holding a rope, having slid halfway down Bridal Veil. At long last, he let go, sliding on his rear down this bumpy rock face into the hole and then working his way out of the hole only to be followed by his boat, previously surfing an upriver hole, now imbedded deeply in the recirculation below the slide. It took three paddlers on the bank holding a rope and one brave volunteer clipped into the rope and swimming in the hole to pull the boat out.
Below Bridal Veil there was a brief respite with a rapid like a kiddy water slide, then Ticket Puncher, a boof over a grabby hole into strong cross currents that “punches your ticket” when asking for entrance to the Amphitheater, a wave-riding, rodeo-friendly wave hole combination bracketed by a sheer rock wall and a rubble-covered sandy bank. It was a great place to eat lunch, to realize that we’d only made it a quarter of a mile and to prepare for the rapids ahead. It was during this moment of solace, that those who found the hip-basher in the Gauntlet popped back scores of Ibuprofen and rubbed their hips.
Around the corner, Tit, Tat and Left Death followed. They were all fairly straightforward except for the latter. At Left Death, the left line, otherwise a sloping drop funneled into an undercut wall, which left far right if you felt like sneaking a big hole and fighting the trees, or a middle line and a middle-right line. Both of the last two options jumped into big holes, and at one point an Atlanta doctor and an Atlanta computer scientist decided to undergo simultaneous thrashings in an attempt to find out which hole was worse. The winner went to both holes, as each was able to separate boat from paddler, leaving one to walk without a boat for a distance of three long rapids and one to shoulder his boat around the next rapid, Tom’s Brain Buster.
At Brain Buster, we elected to get out and take a breather. It’s a good place to do so: the rapid is like Gauntlet but compressed into 100 feet and with added face-abrading rocks. A walk here is often a walk of saved skin, and on the three weekends of November that we saw this drop, it managed to brain bash at least one paddler per trip. If you run it correctly it’s an all-out flush, but if you run it poorly, Brain Buster becomes a tuck-and-pray flush.
Below this one, we caught up with the doc’s boat — it was clipped merrily to one paddler’s throw rope behind a makeshift eddy. But with uncommon bad luck, the gate of the non-locking carabiner opened and the boat ran Road to Aintry, named, I believe, after the take-out town in Deliverance. The Road to Aintry is but a long shallow slide littered with diagonal holes and a river-wide, sticky hole. On one occasion, after a half dozen GCA kayakers made it through this rapid, it caught up with another group, recirculating a man helplessly in the middle of the river for at least two minutes. When he finally flushed free on his fourth or fifth roundabout, he sat upon the banks and admitted that he thought drowning had been a real possibility. [Though this article is not meant to be a guidebook, let me warn you to not venture down middle right. Surf the backwash of a couple holes to the safety of a pushy left-side line and you’ll thank yourself in the bottom eddy.]
Immediately came a pushy III+ with some juicy holes. When Big Water himself came down this rapid, he found those holes and after surfing two of them and being relentlessly window-shaded, it was clear he needed some help rolling. I paddled up to him, trying to give him the Eskimo rescue, but we flushed through another rapid holding on to each other’s boat, before he rolled himself off my boat. Somewhere in the process, my paddle had become dislodged. Big Water rolled up in just enough time to spin around and go for a last-chance boof, but I was left sitting above a sizable ledge drop with nothing but my hands to maneuver with. Discouraged of running the drop, I waited on my paddle.
Paddle Snake Ledge was the rapid immediately below, and it held a new line picked by L.B. Hole Bait himself. After a couple more runs of this line, it became increasingly clear why everyone runs the boof on the left.
The right side pumped joyously through not one, but three big holes if you blew the second move. This was ascertained after a lone paddler followed this author on a right side try — the lone paddler found himself bludgeoned in all three holes: squirted in the first, flipped in the second and making a feverish exit out of number three. It was an iffy line at 500 cfs, but when Sunday came and an extra 200 cfs poured down the river, it was like trying to sneak cheese out of a mousetrap.
Below Paddle Snake Ledge, named after Milt Aitken’s white water videos of the same name, the run was almost over. Everyone gathered up for squirting, surfing and spinning (and the occasional eddy-out underneath a cavelike boiling eddy), and then some whirly-bird, paddle trading side surfing at Powerhouse Ledge. Below that was the anticlimax — a boof, a run-out and then a 1.5 mile paddle across Lake Tugaloo to the take-out. We all managed down it without the loss of much skin, and the smiles that came afterwards were quite close to permanent. Which means, of course, that the April releases can’t come soon enough.
In a final note, after having spoken with representatives from American Whitewater, the popularity of Tallulah Gorge (nearly 400 paddlers on one particularly nice day) may lead to more releases after negotiations with the proper authorities. This is undoubtedly a gem to have so close to Atlanta, but it’s also one that has beaten up unlucky paddlers. In three weekends, I saw numerous things break: paddles, skin, scalps, knuckles and even a boat. More serious injuries have occurred and can occur, but for those who are prepared, Tallulah has become an exciting paddling destination that few can forget.
by Geoff Kohl
From The Eddy Line, January 2002