“If rightly made, a boat would be a sort of amphibious animal, a creature of two elements, related by one-half its structure to some swift and shapely fish, and by the other to some strong-winged and graceful bird.”
-Henry David Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers
The West Prong of the Little Pigeon River is my local class V creek and my favorite river in the world. Dinosaur is a large, stacked, five-step rapid on the Upper West Prong that commands respect. Just below the second drop is a swirly eddy known as the Panty Eddy. Named for the pair of panties that hung in the overhead rhododendrons for years, shreds of fabric can still be seen there today. I always catch the Panty Eddy for two reasons. First, it is my way of paying homage to all the West Prong chargers of old who came before me. Second, and more importantly, I like the way it sets me up for the remainder of the rapid. I charge from the Panty Eddy to the right side of the current. This slows my downstream momentum while setting my arc and creating my desired charging arc for the next two drops before the final plunge. The West Prong crams everything I love about kayaking into six miles. Well, almost everything…
Charc (charging arc) is squirt boater vernacular that describes the angle of attack of a boat’s long axis as it encounters currents and features. But charc is not exclusive to squirt boating. Charc is ever-present on steep creeks, easy rivers and eddy lines alike. The power and frailty of your charc lends itself to any move you’ve ever made on any river, and it permeates every aspect of your life. Charc is all about where you have been, where you are going, and how it all goes down. It encompasses your style and your attitude, which are continually being refined by every current and feature you encounter. The following is a collection of musings that highlight emotional responses I’ve experienced through my charc. While these thoughts represent a wide range of individual emotions, they all weave into the fabric of the larger whole. I encourage you to read the following words much like a mystery move within the context of a session. Mystery riders charc in (enter the mystery move), hold their breath, charc out (exit the mystery move), and then breathe again. I ask that you to do the same while you read.
Intrigue. Charc in. I knew the first time I saw someone squirt boating that I wanted to get into it. I introduce other paddlers to the sport regularly. Their reservations about “if they’ll like it” are foreign to me. I knew right away. After a few sessions with a borrowed boat I quickly pulled the trigger and had a custom boat built. For a couple of years early in my squirt boating career I am certain I squirted more than anyone in the world. Not that such a feat deserves accolades. It was never about going more or getting better. It was about complete immersion in fun. I was totally enamored with the underwater world that I had previously only floated over. My appetite and tenacity had me spending lonely, cold days hunkered down on an island warming myself beside a fire between mystery sets. Looking back I laugh about those days now and grab the creek boat in winter. The days of the annual Winter Cup are long gone, but for several years a group of hardened souls would descend upon Cowbell in the dead of winter for a few rides. Charc out.
Wonder. Charc in. In the past I always wore a scuba mask while dropping mystery moves. One reason was that my prominent beak tends to drink a lot of water if left unchecked. The nosepiece of the mask helped protect my sinuses from the aqua-douche that occurs when I drop eight feet under water in three seconds. But more importantly, it was always for the visuals. A single long blade of grass is captivating when it spirals horizontally past your face five feet underwater on its own little mystery move. Columns of whirlpools with beams of light breaking through the shadows of overhanging trees make me so happy just to be alive. It can all be quite distracting. The intoxication of thousands of bubbles can almost make you forget that you have to…breathe. Charc out.
Elation. Charc in. Years ago I lost my mask and never got around to replacing it. One of my early mentors in the sport always claimed to be able to feel the water better with his eyes. While I cannot verify his claim, life without a mask does have its benefits. Now I can actually see above the surface. Recently I was dropping some rides at dusk. From the moment I slid into the water my only company was a thick blanket of fog. Chirping sounds echoed around me, but I could not find the source. After my longest ride of the set I resurfaced far downstream and finally saw them: two river otters, the first floating vertically like a buoy, and the second on its back. They floated toward the squeeze at the top of the strong re-circulating eddy. I saw them twice during the set, but I heard their constant chirpings the entire time. I thought of us as kindred spirits playing in the whirlpools together, and I hoped they were as fascinated by me as I was of them. Almost falling up the hill toward my truck, I smiled as I realized the similarities between mystery riders and river otters – smooth and graceful in the flow, but stumbling and clumsy on the bank. Charc out.
Humility. Charc in. “What’s it like down there?” is a question I’m asked frequently about the mystery move. My brush off answer is usually something along the lines of “It’s quiet.” but that’s not entirely true. When you drop into Smoothie on the Ottawa River, you hear the tink, tink, tinking of small rocks bouncing off each other as they move around the eddy.
Many years ago a crew was dropping rides at the Wye in the Smoky Mountains. The Wye is never short of spectators, and on this particular day there were two women and a boy watching us. Typically mystery moves do not keep spectators’ attention. Known as the mystery effect, the rider charcs in, submerges, and the spectator looks away never to consider what happens next. The interest of our viewers on this day was an anomaly. After the session they approached and asked “What is it like down there?” I quickly replied “It’s quiet.” But their subsequent questions showed they had been thinking and processing what all the fuss was about. We spoke for some time, and I described how the boat interacts with the water more like a wing with air than a boat with water.
They followed with more questions that showed genuine fascination. Relax. Stay calm. Slowly exhaling releases the build-up of carbon dioxide in your body. I obliged their curiosity with pride as I had dropped some great rides. In my mind I had just put on something of a clinic. The entire time I was speaking with the women, the young boy was quiet but never took his eyes off of me. They held a mischievous look. He couldn’t take it any longer and blurted out “The guy in the white helmet was the best!” I politely informed the kid that the guy in the white helmet’s name was Buddha and that you don’t share a nickname with a deity by being a beater. Charc out.
Harmony. Charc in. During a mystery set, you are in search of that rhythm. Finding the flow of the other riders, your breathing, your charc, and the river – it is all about the rhythm. You focus on a simple singular thing, i.e., your entry speed, your charc, or your breathing. Then you feel the “do less” mantra through your boat, which is no longer separate from you. The line that separates you from your charc or from the river can blur or altogether disappear. Slipping into darkness the light from the surface world exits and ushers in the compression from the deep. The boat squeezes your legs and any air that remains in your dry top escapes via your wrists and neck, vacuum bagging you. Once submerged and in flight all that matters is the ride. Charc out.
Fear. Charc in. Squirt boaters can only get out of their boats in particular spots. Only a gentle grade will allow you to back the boat onto the rock to slither out of the boat. If the rock is too steep, then you’re out of luck. The third of four pit stops on the Upper Gauley takes place around Lost Paddle. Historically this was taken on the large rock in the middle of the river at the Lower Meadow confluence. This rock is dubbed The Rock Where No One Speaks. And it’s generally pretty quiet on this rock. It’s quiet because Second Drop of Lost Paddle is fucking scary in a low-cut, neutral buoyancy boat. It’s steep, fast, shallow, and rocky, and there are tales of bottom pins in the flow near the bottom of the drop. For virgins and veterans alike Second Drop of Lost Paddle is legitimate. When I stop on this rock I pee a minimum of two or three times. Even if my mind is calm my body knows I’m nervous. Once I even tried to pick a conversation topic prior to arriving at The Rock Where No One Speaks to no avail. Now the third pit stop occurs after Lost Paddle so The Rock Where No One Speaks does not see as many visitors. Good riddance. Not an Upper Gauley descent goes by that I miss it. Charc out.
Trepidation. Charc in. Like the height of waterfall descents, mystery moves have been getting big – real big. The minute long mystery is no longer theoretical. That benchmark has been moved to the 90 to 100 second mark, with two minute rides in the near future. Whether you are pushing the limits of what is possible or your own personal horizons, big mystery moves require two things: intent and a sense of belonging. There is no faking intent. The river sees right through that. Your sense of belonging can be honed by a few thousand rides, but I have found my appetite for big rides waxes and wanes out of my control. The lure of the deep is strong, but it is not a place to let your guard down. You can never forget that you are merely a visitor in the sublime underworld. Charc out.
I suspect squirt boating will always be the redheaded stepchild of kayaking and that is okay. Maybe it is the dichotomy of a “swift and shapely fish” and a “strong-winged and graceful bird” that keeps the masses at bay; while at the same time, it is the blending of those ideals that keeps mystery riders searching. Whether you never sit in a squirt boat or you are intimate with the rivers hug found only in deep eddies, I believe it is through your charc that the river offers itself to you. As I muse on the mysteries of my charc I know one thing. The range of emotions elicited through my experiences (intrigue, wonder, elation, humility, harmony, fear and trepidation) has brought me full circle back to the beginning. Like the ouroborus, there is a constant re-creation. With every answer and experience follows another question and ride. The closer to mastery you move the more humble a student you become. It is a paradox, but one that offers one hell of a good time.
Described by his wife as a red-breasted redneck whose natural habitat is the steep creeks and deep eddies of East Tennessee, John Trembley has always been fascinated by bubbles.