John Blue – The Ocoee
Have you ever fallen asleep during a car ride? Under the right circumstances, it’s an easy thing to do. For instance, if you’re in a car, if the sun is shining on you just right, and if you just woke up earlier than you’re used to, it’s not that hard. At the time, for me, all of those applied. Not for long though. I woke up just in time to see the sign: “Welcome to Tennessee, the volunteer state.”
“Almost there,” I thought to myself. I was at the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) kayaking camp. Along with five other campers and two instructors. We were on our way to kayak the Ocoee river. The previous day we had paddled the Pigeon, the day before that the Nantahala. The Ocoee was going to be harder than both of them by a lot. The Ocoee is a dam-controlled river, and there had been an extra water release, which meant harder rapids.
“Alright guys,” Andrew said from the drivers seat. “ We’ll stop here, the main put-in, get ready to paddle, then drive down to a rapid called Slice and Dice. We’ll put-in there because the first couple of rapids might be a little tough for you guys.”
We got out of the van, and the first thing I noticed was grey. Grey road, grey restroom, grey rock wall. (like the ones you see on the side of the road when you’re driving in the mountains) There were trees with leaves, and there was a blue sky, but earthward, most stuff was grey. The only sign of the river was a faint rumbling in the background. We got our stuff on and packed ourselves back in the van.
Once we got to the put-in, we all got out of the van and started unloading the kayaks from the trailer. Then came the tough part, getting them to the river. The put-in was a twenty-foot steep rocky slope onto some rocks in the river. Every person did it his or her own way, but eventually all the boats and paddles were down.
After everything was unloaded, Andrew took the van to the take out while we waited with our other instructor, Candice. We spent our time watching the seemingly endless line of multicolored rafts run the rapid. It was quite a contrast from our first stop.
About twenty minutes later, Andrew came back. We got in our kayaks and headed downstream.
From the front of the group Andrew almost yelled, “The first rapid we’re going to run is moon shoot. You guys should not have a hard time with it.”
As Andrew told us, moon shoot was not very hard. We passed by a rock with a crack in the middle, and then went left through a middle-sized wave train. We then paddled into a calm section of water behind a rock, known as an eddy, as we waited for the others.
Andrew got his boat to where we could all see him to explain the next rapid: “Once we get out of this eddy, we will have an easy rapid, then the river will bend to the right and narrow, that’s when you know you are at ‘double trouble.’”
“What is double trouble?” I asked.
“The biggest waves you’ve ever seen. If you flip and swim, try to get to the right shore. Let’s go!”
We paddled out of the eddy into the first easy rapids. Then the river started bending to the right, the banks got closer together, just as Andrew had warned. Then I looked in front of me and saw it: “double trouble,” just like Andrew had described it, the biggest waves I had ever seen!
Suddenly, everything slowed down. The green blue water moved in slow motion. The roaring of the rapid, which just a second ago had been so loud I could hardly hear myself think, was now quiet. I saw David’s red eight-foot long boat go up the first wave. The face of the wave was bigger than his boat! My heart started beating faster; I started breathing faster; I started up the first wave. As I came down the back of the wave I felt in my stomach that sensation you get on roller coasters. I had made it through it through the first one, but there were still two more to go.
I began the journey up the face of the second giant wave, focusing solely on getting over the wave. I made it up the face, hit the frothy crest, and flipped! The water swirled and disoriented me. My eyes were shut tight; I didn’t want to risk something in the water scratching them. I tried to remember how to roll, and after what felt like forever, it hit me. I started putting my paddle in position, but the water would not let me lift the blade to the surface. This meant I could not push as hard on the water and would have a harder time rolling. I pushed down on my paddle anyway while snapping my hips at the same time and rolled!
I took a deep breath then shouted “Yes!” out to nobody in particular.
We entered an eddy, that calm spot on the water, on river left. Again, Andrew explained to us what we would face next: “It’s one of the longest rapids on the river, which makes it tougher. Follow me, and we will avoid the nasty stuff.”
We entered the rapid, and after being drenched by the first wave, I realized something, I wasn’t following Andrew. I was following Ben, who was four years older than me and one of the best kayakers in our group. He usually went his own way down the rapids, a.k.a. the “nasty stuff.” We started paddling over the weird holes and diagonal waves. I started to think I was actually going to make it through, when for a second time, I found myself upside down in the middle of churning water. Unlike last time, however, I rolled with ease. My first words after I came up were, “I have got to stop flipping!”
We paddled through the rapid with no trouble, although I was a bit shaken. We paddled on down stream for a while, with a wave here and there, nothing of significance. What I heard to be of much more significance, however, was an upcoming rapid: “Table saw.” It was still a little while away, but it was the hardest rapid on the stretch of river we were running, and I was nervous about flipping and swimming there as I had found my kayak the wrong side up several times before that day.
We stopped for lunch on a tiny beach on river left, and though my stomach had quite a few butterflies, I managed to eat half a sandwich.
We finished lunch quickly; got in our boats; and ran “the doldrums,” the only boring section of the Ocoee. “Table saw” was up next.
The people who had run the Ocoee before went with Candice to run it head on, while Andrew took the rest of us. I was surrounded by water, yet I was almost sweating. I felt tense and jumpy, like there was a wasp above my head.
Andrew led us far right guiding us between rocks, as the roar of the rapid kept becoming louder and louder, almost becoming unbearable. We entered the rapid to find waves a little bit smaller than those of double trouble’s, but they were breaking, making them harder to paddle over. I paddled over the waves, not being able to see anything because of the water in my eyes. Nonetheless, I paddled as hard as I could, and then caught an eddy on the right, where I found Candice and Andrew congratulating me. Suddenly the butterflies disappeared; instead of being nervous about the upcoming rapids, I was excited.
After everyone was inside the safety of the eddy, we took off downstream towards diamond splitter. We went through no problem.
Next up was “cats pajamas”. Even though it was one of the harder rapids, I managed not to flip. However, Jack got stuck in the big hole, did an unintentional ender, and had the river pull his skirt for him. It was funny to watch. At the end of cat’s pajamas, if you can get to the eddy on the river left, there is a rock you can jump off of into a little whirlpool that shoots you under. We spent at least twenty minutes there, jumping off the rock, seeing who could stay under longer. (remember, we’re wearing life jackets)
After a long pool, we came to the next rapid. It wasn’t really a rapid, it was a humungous hole; the type of hole that’s bigger than a boat, no matter how you look at it.
For the third time we split into two groups, the guys that would punch the hole, and those of us that wouldn’t. I was in the latter group. My group, led by Candice, went to the left of the hole, and caught the eddy downstream. We waited there while the others group played in the hole doing tricks.
After everyone had had their fill of the hole, again, we exited the eddy and headed downstream.
This time I found myself behind Aaron, a very good paddler. We got our boats over to river right, setting ourselves up for the next rapid, powerhouse. We were about to run the main drop when a raft came out of nowhere causing Erin to flip, which caused me to stop and turn sideways to avoid hitting his boat. This meant I was about to run powerhouse sideways.
“Here comes flip number three,” I muttered to myself, as I hit the hole.
As I had predicted, the second I came into contact with the hole, I flipped. (it wasn’t really that exciting by then) As my boat turned over, I thought, “ I didn’t want to swim on the Ocoee.” Under the water, I was more sad then scared. I decided that I might as well try to roll, even if there was no hope. I got my paddle to the surface pushed down hard, hipsnapped, and rolled! I had rolled in three class III rapids in one day! Talk about a personal record!
We got to our makeshift take out, another steep rocky twenty-foot long slope took our boats up to the van and started putting them in the trailer. I was having trouble believing what had just happened. The Ocoee! Even when I lost my balance on a rock and nearly broke my leg, I half expected myself to wake up. But it wasn’t a dream, it was real.