I can probably count on two hands the number of times I’ve been down river, and I can probably count on two fingers the number of times it’s been blue skies, sunny, and warm when I paddled. Being relatively new to paddling, I’ve come to accept (whether by fact or by luck) that it isn’t always a fairweather sport. January 18, 2004, was no exception, with overcast skies, a light drizzle, and air temperatures in the 40s or low 50s. I remember watching the rain bead up on my dry top as I was getting ready to put in. Trying to think optimistically, I said to myself, “At least it looks like the waterproofing is working.”
I put the rest of my gear on and headed down a slope to the put-in we had chosen for a GCA-sponsored trip down the Upper Tallulah River outside of Clayton, GA. Yes, that’s the same Tallulah River as in Tallulah Falls, Oceana, Bridal Veil, etc. However, this particular portion of the river has a much calmer temperament, or at least a mostly class II temperament. But for a relative newbie, I knew this quieter portion of the river would still prove to be enough action for me. Fortunately, I had good company, including open-boater Roger Nott and the father-son team of Chuck and Sam Wilburn(paddling a canoe and kayak respectively).
Soon after putting in, we floated down a ways to a flat, deep section of the river. Having recently gone to several kayak roll practices in the pool (but not having actually been down river in a month and a half), I decided I should probably practice my roll before we started to see any major rapids. I asked Sam to spot me, took a big breath, and flipped myself over.
“Whoa! That’s some cold water!” I thought. And unfortunately, unlike the pool, I realized that when I got in my setup position and looked up towards my paddle, I couldn’t see anything except areas of shadow and light through the brown water. No problem, though; I swept out to T-position and rolled back up. So far, so good.
Good until the first major rapid arrived, that is. Roger told me this rapid is called “Cold Buns” for the shape of some of the rocks around the rapid and for what happens to your backside when you swim. I watched Sam’s line as he went ahead of me, and after swallowing my courage, I headed in after him. I came through the chute, splashed through some waves, and spied Sam sitting in an eddy on river right. I figured I’d made it, and was so relieved I paddled towards him in the eddy. However, something went wrong (as I’ve discovered they usually do for me at the bottom of a rapid if I’m not paddling hard enough) and I suddenly found myself underwater, surrounded by the rush of air bubbles and water around me.
I thought to myself get set up for an onside roll but realized I was not even completely flipped over but was being held at what felt like a 45 degree angle under the surface. I later learned from Sam that I had very nicely landed on a flat rock that was holding me in this position — just my luck. I decided this is too much for me, so I pulled the grab loop and punched out of my boat. I took a nice, cold swim over into an eddy on river right while someone went to rescue my boat. I was a little dazed and disappointed at having swum, but being a newbie, it wasn’t exactly the first time I had ever swum at the bottom of a rapid, either. As I was emptying the water out of my boat, I realized my paddle was nowhere to be found.
Chuck apologized and said that although they had looked for it all over the place, my paddle was gone. “Gone?” I thought. A sinking feeling came over me. “So this is when all those other boaters talk about losing gear,” I said to myself. “And I’ve only been paddling for 4 months! Well, that’s why I don’t buy expensive paddles….” While Sam and Roger made a last attempt to search for my paddle, Chuck offered to lend me Sam’s paddle while Sam would use one of the extra canoe paddles. I picked up Sam’s paddle, and although thankful for the loan, I realized it just wouldn’t be the same as my lost paddle.
However, I decided I shouldn’t give up so easily. Since all the other guys in my group had been chasing my gear, I figured I ought to at least give it one more try as well. I hiked back upstream in the direction of the rapid, dodging rhododendron, thorns and slippery rocks.
Needless to say, I wasn’t expecting much out of this last search attempt, but I wanted to give it one more shot. As I came around a large rock on river right, I could make out the outline of a black shaft and two white blades against the dark water. “I see it!” I shouted to the others, who had also nearly given up their search. Roger, who had just about turned downstream, also saw it and told me that it was recirculating in the current, but he would be able to get it. He sent me back down to my boat to get dry while he rescued the paddle. I happily scampered back to my boat, knowing that I with some luck and perseverance by all, my paddle had been found.
Soon I was back in my kayak continuing down river, with my own paddle in my hands. It’s a cheap, heavy paddle that I had bought used, but I never thought I would be so glad to see that paddle again. And as I was soon to find out, I was going to need it. Another rapid presented itself, and as I came over a wave, I got that all too familiar feeling of getting window-shaded and thrown into the cold water upside-down. Here we go again.
I had never successfully combat rolled before, and more often than not I had never even managed to keep my head on straight enough to get set up properly, let alone roll. To make matters worse, I had just swum a few minutes before, so the odds for a repeat event seemed to be stacking up against me.
I got my paddle into set up position, and as I made my first attempt, something went wrong (a nice helmet kiss from a submerged rock, I think). I was still underwater. However, I kept my composure, got set-up, swept out to T-position, and next thing I knew, I was seeing trees, the sky, and most importantly, myself above the surface of the water. “WHOO HOO!!!” I could hardly contain myself as I let out a loud rebel yell, realizing I had made my first combat roll ever.
The rest of the trip was a relative breeze, with only one other major rapid (Halitosis) on the Upper Tallulah and the rest being a mostly relaxing flat water float. The rain still continued to drizzle down on us, but from time to time, the sun flirted with us and illuminated the raindrops. I thought about how beautiful the backlit rain looked falling from the sky, and I reached for my waterproof camera to record the moment. However, I realized that somewhere between swimming, losing my paddle, and sticking my first combat roll, the shutter had broken off. I contented myself by keeping the image in my mind of another cloudy day on the river, knowing that next time I counted on my fingers the number of rivers I had run, I would have one more finger to count.
by Jay Manalo
From The Eddy Line, March 2004