3:20 PM. It is
late in the day, but oh what a day it has been. One hundred and
twenty lucky paddlers have hiked down a nearly completed walkway and,
after lowering their boats that last 90 feet by rope, have put on
Tallulah Gorge for this historic first day of white water releases
available to the public. There remain 40 minutes before the dam
gates are closed and the water level drops. All shuttles have ceased
running and most of the paddlers have finished their runs. Except
for us.

AWA
Access Director Rainey Hoffman and I put on the river and experience
it the way few people did on this busy day. Not being a soul in
sight, we began negotiating the steep, class IV+ rapids on our own,
“read and run” style: not much time left for time
consuming scouts. This run definitely has the feel of a first
descent, and I will carry it with me as one of the great paddling
days of my life. Although I left Tallulah that evening to return to
Atlanta for another commitment, I returned two weeks later with my
core paddling group and the “Colorado Contingent” to repeat
the experience. This report is an amalgamation of those personal
experiences.

The
saga of Tallulah Gorge has been a long one. Risa Callaway told me of
a hike that she and her husband, Woody, took down Tallulah Gorge 10
years ago. Being cutting edge kayakers, they saw the possibility of
a pristine expert level run and checked with AWA and confirmed that
Tallulah was on the list of FERC re-licensing projects and thus a
candidate for an effort to gain recreational releases. AWA
spearheaded the effort and enlisted the assistance of local clubs,
primarily the GCA and the AWC. Representatives of both groups helped
mold the broad terms of the accord, wherein Georgia Power Company
(GPC) and the Georgia DNR would facilitate white water releases as a
part of the re-licensing of the Tallulah Dam by the Federal Energy
Regulatory Commission.

In
late spring, 1993, when I had been paddling less than a year, a group
of local legends, including Risa and Woody Callaway, Kent Wigginton,
Mike Hipsher, Nolan Whitesell, Jerry Jascomb, Charles Brewer, Jim
Silavant, John Bell and Mark Levine, were asked to participate in
the first of two experimental releases to test the feasibility of
recreational releases on Tallulah. As a then intermediate paddler, I
recall watching those paddlers run Oceana and marveling at their
skill and expertise. Yet today it was my turn.

Later,
I got involved in the cause, and was among those paddlers who
witnessed a very ugly side of humanity as we were viciously attacked
by the upstream landowners opposing the Tallulah releases. We
prevailed, in part, I believe, due to the composure demonstrated by
those representatives of the paddling community that had the courage
to face such raging ugliness with dignity and grace. After FERC
granted the hydroelectric license I was honored to help work out a
number of details with Georgia Power Company and the Department of
Natural Resources, two organizations that committed enormous time and
money to push these releases though at a break neck pace.

The
first drop of Tallulah sets the pace for the day. Steep and blind,
the drop requires the paddler to drop over a ledge and “thread a
slot” between two rock outcroppings and then bank leftward off a
wave to kick left of the hole behind the wave, the strainer behind
the hole, and the undercut cliff wall behind the strainer. I saw
more than one paddler whose skills I know to be exemplary get into
trouble on this rapid.

Needless
to say, I also saw a few who flat out did not belong there. For
these paddlers I would quietly draw a breath: if one of these guys
gets in serious trouble, it could screw it up for all of us.
Needless to say, there were a few swims. One paddler broached on a
rock and broke his paddle. For his trouble, he got to have his
difficulties recorded for all posterity as television crews who had
just arrived and set up, captured the entire episode for posterity.

I
also saw a few paddlers, one in particular, who though falling into
trouble on this rapid, demonstrated grace and persistence while
hanging tough through several failed attempts, all the time suffering
the indignation of using their heads as anchors along the rocky
stream bottom, to roll up in the pool below. Some of these folks
were lucky enough to come up with a nice bloody scar, the best
protection from one’s compatriots against a day of ribbing for the
swim. Many aspiring paddlers spoke later of seminal adventures, of
maturing into stronger paddlers capable of handling the many curves
the river threw them that day. Ah, to be young again.

Another
blind drop. At the lower flow, I enjoyed just charging with the main
flow down the left side of this drop. At higher flows, I opted for a
boof on the right. It’s a nice little move, but you have to commit
to the line before you spot the boof rock.

Through
a slot in the wall and now its time for the Big One: Oceana.
Although Tallulah is a IV to IV+ river, Oceana deserves a V based on
risk, if not difficulty. Oceana is huge: an eighty-foot slide with a
sixty-degree pitch. Oh, and there is the “Thing” — a 15
to 20 foot rooster tail at the bottom, terminating in a hole. And
then there is the “thing within the Thing:” the wedged rock
outcropping that forms the rooster tail. Yes, it is possible to hit
the Thing and miss the rock; but not everyone was so lucky.

I
had a distinct advantage on this one. I had seen videotapes and thus
knew that it was possible to run this rapid and live. As for the
first brave soul to try it (whom I believe may have been Kent
Wigginton), my hat goes off to you. Not sure that I would have had
the guts to step up to the plate. Nobody around to act as probe on
this day, though. Rainey opted for the right line, I opted for the
left. We both had good runs, though Rainey mentioned that he had to
brace hard at the bottom to avoid flipping and he clipped his elbow
on the rock shelf that forms the pillow on the right.

The
key to running Oceana is simple. No brain, no pain. That’s right:
look at it, decide where you want to enter it and hit your line with
lots of speed. Do not stop to think about the manifest insanity of
what you are about to do. Don’t seek input from others unless you
are speaking to one of the immortals. Just do it. Prayer doesn’t
hurt either, since this one has more to do with Grace than skill.
Oh, and if you’re gonna do it, paddle like there ain’t no tomorrow
because any sign of tentativeness will be dealt with swiftly and
harshly by Oceana.

I
saw several great paddlers striking classic “air brace”
poses on this one; it is that intimidating. The reports of carnage
at this rapid are manifold; at least one shoulder dislocation on each
of the six release days, one of our group on a later day, a highly
experienced expert kayaker with many Class V first descents under his
belt, came out in severe pain, leading us to wonder whether he had
cracked his ribs. Another bruised rib (and broken boat) from
another one of our Colorado friends, again an expert and veteran of
many first descents.

Then
there was at least one fellah who was not so lucky. I wasn’t there
but I hear he hit his line tentatively, slid sideways, flipped one
third of the way down and finished the run on his face. Twenty
stitches, three busted teeth. Gee, now that’s what I call a bad hair
day! Amazingly, all injured souls managed to leave the Gorge (by
boat or foot) on their own steam, a credit to the paddler’s credo:
No whining.

At
the higher flow, Oceana becomes much more intimidating. The line is
very tight, and a slight drift right-ward often resulted in harsh
consequences. Moreover, even expert and pro-level paddlers got
stopped dead by the hole at the bottom. Although I had made the run
with no problems before, I was feeling just a little puny, having
wrenched my back the day before. I elected to walk that sucka. I
had a lot of company.

After
Oceana, things lightened up to fun class IV ledge/drop-pool stuff,
lots of fun, though there were reports of broaches and surf-outs
aplenty on this section of the river. Then came Bridal Veil. I had
hiked into the Gorge while the river was dry and had quietly
concluded that if ever there were a place that could form a terminal
hole, this was it. A long slanted shelf forms the perfect
configuration for a true keeper hole. Oceana will hurt you, but
Bridal Veil will kill you.

You
really can’t see it from above; it’s pretty blind. My buddy Rainey
jumped out of his boat peered, over the drop and said there was a
curler in the center of the drop that would carry him left away from
the bad part of the hole on river right. He headed over the drop and
disappeared.

“……OK,
he should have shown up by now, what gives? If he is in trouble,
maybe I should skidaddle to the riverbank and grab a rope…. Ah,
there he is, looking tired but none the worse for wear.”

I
began my descent only to see him aggressively pointing leftward with
his paddle. The curler had not stopped him, and instead he had
punched it and dropped directly into the hole sideways. A huge surf
— a mere mortal would have swam, but Rainey is a paddler of
legendary renown and somehow had managed to work his way out.

Armed
with his instruction, I skirted the hole safely by paddling on hard
rock leftward with all my might. From center to left, this rapid is
all about boat angel and speed. If you have good hole punching
skills, Bridal Veil should present few problems. Having said that,
apparently, Bridal Veil claimed a number of swims over the series of
releases.

We
took a close look at the hole on the right side of the drop.
Someday, some unfortunate soul is going to swim into that thing.
Apparently, this one has killed a number of kids during the summer at
low flows, less than 100 cfs. It will be a sad day when this one
claims one of our own.

Onward
and downward. A number of cool drops between Bridal Veil and the
Amphitheater. Rainey and I traded the probe position, and I was kind
enough to show Rainey how not to run some of the drops. At the
higher flows, these drops become quite interesting. At one point
during the release series at the higher flow, as I negotiated a
series of ledge holes, I made a quick turn to the left to avoid a
hold that was occupied by a boat (sans its owner) that was going
nowhere fast.

As
I quickly reset my angle, I got turned into yet another ledge hole,
and once again, surf was up! It was a long symmetrical hole and I
was definitely having some trouble with it. As fate would have it,
an intrepid paddler came bopping through and nudged me out of the
hole. As he took my place, I gathered my cool and said “Uh,
thanks man!”

Down
to the Amphitheater, a beauteous curved sheer rock cliff with the
greatest 360 hole I’ve ever seen. A lot of fun, and nearly
automatic. Just one thing — this is a counter clockwise hole. Do
not try clockwise 360s. My experience with the clockwise approach
was as follows:

Surf;
window shade; bang head while going into tuck. Roll up in the hole;
surf some more. Smile weakly and try to look like your doing this on
purpose. Repeat steps 1 through 6 until expelled; con your best
friend into getting into the hole so that you can laugh at him.

Yep,
that little sucker was sticky in a perfectly symmetrical creek boat.
Next time I think I’ll bring my Whiplash.

And
on down the river. Three drops. One in particular was pretty weird.
We eddied out, peered over our shoulders and saw what appeared to be
a clean line on the left. My turn to go, no guts not glory. Down I
went, only to confront an undercut rock attempting to draw my bow
into it.

Let’s
see, maybe its time to BACK PADDLE — HARD!!!!!!! It was a brief
flirtation, but it was enough. That particular undercut was
responsible for several pins and a number of swims. We decided to
run that one on the right from there on out.

At
lower flow, the line on the right is not bad. At the higher flow,
best I can tell, the line on the right is a mandatory surf in a huge
hole. Although it caught many in our group, we all managed to dig
our way out after only a bit of effort. Only alternative is to
thread one’s way through the trees to avoid it. The rule of thumb,
run all three of the drops on the right and deal with it.

On
another one of these three, we dropped into a left eddy halfway down
only to discover that all of the slots were pin-piton spots. We had
to do an attainment move to reset our line to the right. Saw a few
empty boats broached in that spot over the course of the releases.

After
that, a long series of shoals with shallow flow. No big deal at the
lower flow, so the punch it packed at the higher flow came as a
surprise. As I looked downstream, I saw a very experienced boater,
one that I had followed down rivers in several mountain ranges, doing
an interesting series of cartwheels in the hole at the bottom. It’s
rare to see such dexterity in a creek boat.

I
chose a different line, bracing off a curler on the way down the
shoals. As I hit the bottom, my compatriot was still upside down and
trying to make his roll. On his second or third attempt he nearly
came up, only to be hampered by yours truly. Sorry man! He made his
roll and I glanced downstream just in time to broach on the large
rock that was blocking my way. Let’s see, ….uh, lean downstream,
yeah that’s the ticket. 8 seconds later I was free. Next candidate,
please!

More
rapids. I feel certain that this is starting to seem repetitive. As
we rounded a bend in the river there remained one last small shoal.
On the day of our first run, it was no big deal, primarily because by
this time, we had run out of water. So it came as a surprise to me
to drop off this ledge on a subsequent run only to find myself surfed
out in yet another hole! This one claimed a few swimmers, but I
somehow managed to get out. The muscle pull in my back is healing
just fine, thank you.

After
that, we had a nice paddle out on Tugaloo, perhaps just a bit shorter
than the section IV paddle out. In all, it was a delightful run for
our group. Our carnage was relatively light — two sets of bruised
ribs and one broken boat. In all it was a great day. Not bad for a
scant 1.8 miles of river!

How
do you know if you’re ready for Tallulah? Do you still get a little
nervous running Corkscrew, Jawbone and Sock-em-Dog at 2 feet or
higher? If your answer is anything less than a resounding NO
followed by derisive laughter, then consider carefully your motives
in heading down this river. Work on your skills so that you will
have a positive experience. Five Falls of the Chattooga would be an
excellent training ground in advance of the April releases.

If
you feel marginal, go on a Saturday at the lower release level of 500
cfs. It is broachier at this level, but not nearly as pushy. On the
whole, Tallulah is a solid half-class harder at 750 cfs than at 500
cfs. If you don’t feel ready for Tallulah, then I advise exercising a
bit of self restraint and continuing your training. The existing
FERC license is in effect for 40 years. The river will be there when
you are ready.

by
David Cox

Saturday,
November 1, 1997