Lunatic Fringe


Chris Gragtmans dropping Big Falls on the Elk at flood stage. Photo credit Spencer Cooke,
Chris Gragtmans going huge at Big Falls on the Elk at flood stage. Photo credit Spencer Cooke,


Stinging cold wind burned my face. The freezing water of the Green River shocked my bare hands, but I pulled my neoprene gloves off. I was about to get in the ring for some high stakes bare knuckle boxing. The river was high, 21 inches on the gage (a normal summer release is seven inches), and I was above Gorilla, the biggest rapid of the day. I was fucking scared. I felt fear and apprehension sliding up my gut and into the back of my throat, but I swallowed, forcing doubt down. A few deep breaths and I entered the first ledge. In seconds I was flowing downstream, dancing with an untamable force of nature. I dropped off the main event, a narrow 15 footer, right where I wanted to be. Landing in the final eddy below the last big holes, I pumped my fist in the frigid air and shouted out “Woooohooooo”. Euphoria flooded me.

We were a group of nine, but only three of us tangled with Gorilla that day.

Just prior to that run, my wife had asked me “What do you do now for your dopamine fix?” in light of the fact that I don’t push my limits with the frequency I used to. I tried to come up with a good answer (endurance sports, picking hard lines in easy rapids, etc.). But after that day I came home with the real answer. “You don’t replace that level of paddling with anything”.  And not just any rapid demands that level of commitment.

There are hundreds of Class V rapids in Western North Carolina. But there are a few drops that dwarf the rest. These are the rapids that the best of the best often leave for another day, the ones that leave the majority of even the strongest groups standing on shore. I interviewed some of the South’s most prolific paddlers to come up with this list of  the hardest, meanest drops in the state.

Class V+

Next Time on the Lower Cullasaja. Photo credit Spencer Cooke,
Next Time on the Lower Cullasaja. Photo credit Spencer Cooke,

These rapids are run with some frequency, but for many takers they are career defining.

  • Gorilla at 200%: Gorilla may be the most famous rapid in the country. It is a staple of the southern creek boater’s diet; particularly in the summer when other streams are bone dry. But when the power plant upstream is releasing 200%, or double the normal flow, it enters an unrivaled realm of intensity. The entrance above and slides below the main drop morph into one another, forming a multi-move cascade with a raw power that sends most boaters for the bank. I can attest to the difficulty of this set-one high water season, I swam out of the bottom hole three times.
  • Nutcracker: Gorilla, Sunshine and Go Left and Die are together considered the “Big Three” rapids of the Green. Add Nutcracker to make the Big Four.   Although in its current incarnation it is a wood clogged mess, at times it is runnable. The tight slot twists 90 degrees as it drops through a boulder pile with a shallow landing. A clean line is imperative due to the pinny run out that dumps into Groove Tube and Sunshine.
  • Drunk Tank: The Linville River has more Class V rapids than any river around, but Drunk Tank stands out from the rest. It features a stompy hole with a narrow exit between a rock and an undercut room that looks fatal. Local boater Mark Taylor related the story of his first Drunk Tank run at low water. “…I instantly got stopped in the first hole. It typewritered me into the fan rock. I figured it was a pillow and held a left brace to try and counteract it. It rocked me so hard I saw stars. I got knocked out briefly before I came to, and was struggling to roll up on the left wall. After carping a few rolls, I finally rolled up and paddled off…”
  • Eclipse and Next Time: So called because it eclipses Sunshine on the Green, the Lower Cullasaja is home to this gradient storm. First run accidently in the 90s, Eclipse is long, tall and ugly. A sharp turn leads to the crux 15 footer with plenty of consequence in the run out. One of my buddies once pinned in the vertical crack below the big drop. I had already run it and was waiting for him below. His helmet floated off the bottom drop sans paddler, then his sprayskirt, paddle and boat followed suit. Seconds later he swam off the ledge, leaping for shore. He was badly shaken but uninjured. Next Time (as in “I’ll run it next time”) is immediately below Eclipse. It is a 10 to 15 foot ledge with a shallow, undercut landing.
  • Anaconda: “The Snake” as it is affectionately known, is on the Raven Fork Gorge in the Smoky Mountain National Park. A tricky eight foot ledge leads into a winding corridor full of potential problems. Not only is it the first rapid on Raven Fork, it is at the put in. No time to warm up for this one.
  • Mike Tysons Punch Out: The Raven Fork is home to some of the some of the steepest whitewater in Carolina, and for most paddlers Mike’s is the biggest rapid of the day. The 50 foot slide throws it all out there, with a stacked entrance and massive curler that was made to flip kayaks. Hold on tight and brace yourself for the climax, a steep 20 footer.
  • Energizer: The Toxaway River is unique in Appalachia due to a dam breaking loose decades ago and flooding the river bed. The result is several miles of scoured bed rock. That does not make it clean though. Energizer lives up to its name. The sliding crack drop just keeps going and going. It goes right into a big flake rock that shoots a rooster tail 10 feet into the air. Though it is run frequently, no one takes it lightly.
  • Trash Can: This high country special has been a long time favorite of the Boone/App State crowd. It is on a tiny tributary to the Watauga, Laurel Creek. The drop is anything but tiny. It sluices through a boat wide slot, dropping ten feet onto a big slab that slides down the mountain. It goes better than it looks though.


Next Level

Chris Gragtmans exiting the Mini-Gorge on the Whitewater River. Photo credit Spencer Cooke,
Chris Gragtmans exiting the Mini-Gorge on the Whitewater River. Photo credit Spencer Cooke,


These drops are beyond Class V. If there is such a thing as runnable Class VI, this is it.

  • Hale Mary: Every rapid on the Raven Fork has been run. Hale Mary, named after Jason Hale made the first descent, has been run at least a few times. It is a hideous, sieved out boulder pile, full of pin potential.
  • The Mangler: Also on Raven, professional kayaker Pat Keller ran it first, at the tender age of 15. He describes it as “two drops with around two boat lengths between the landing of the first drop and the launch off the second. The really aesthetic thing about this rapid is the way the first drop twists to the right, and the second to the left. That sounds all fun and good but there are a few issues. Part of the river goes underground between drops one and two, so no swimming allowed. The second drop lands on a weird block rock to the river left, and what doesn’t boil up from the rock is jammed way down into a pothole/crack center to right. On top of all that is the huge log that blocks the bottom of the crack.” It has seen at least four more runs since Keller’s first descent (one unintentional). Unfortunately it has changed for the worse and is now “completely unrunnable” according to Keller.
  • Death Penalty: Almost everyone who runs Linville looks at Death Penalty, a standard portage, and thinks “It might go with enough water”. It does, but the line is thin and it lives up to its name. At high flows it is a big, marginally covered sieve. It is not recommended, but it has been run at least three times in the last 10 years.
  • Seal Launch Portage: This is another Linville drop that people look at with curiosity. I confirmed one descent, at high water, by Mark Taylor. Most people who run Linville don’t run it with enough water to consider this heinous drop. And most people who run Linville high enough will already find their threshold for adrenaline in overdrive by the time they get there. But Taylor proved that the move over a 10 footer and past a terrible room of doom is possible.
  • Mini-Gorge: The Whitewater River, in the Lake Jocassee drainage, is known for high adventure. It delivers more than most can handle right off the bat with the Mini-Gorge. Keller describes it: “For almost a hundred yards the entire Whitewater River funnels down into a crack that is only 3 feet wide in places and drops precipitously down the mountain”. Multiple steep, potholed drops lead into a clean 30 footer. It is a sweet reward for anyone willing to deal with the stress of the gorge, where downstream is the only option.
  • Nemesis: The Cullasaja features many marginably runnable drops but Nemesis may be the hardest of them all. It is in an inaccessible, steep, and slick walled gorge. It pinches down into a slot that has dished out as many beatings as the rest of the river combined. Luckily the road is never far, making the portage an easy option. Knoxville local Caleb Paquette, who has run many of the drops on this list, said “Nemesis is definitely one of the most difficult rapids I have run, with multiple moves and consequences. And the road is literally right there making portaging the logical choice. You really have to want it. All that said, I ran the bottom slot backwards and didn’t get my face wet.”
  • 40/40: Half waterfall, half rapid, 40/40 on Toxaway saw several descents in the early 2000s but since then has fallen out of favor. One of Keller’s personal favorites, he says “There’s just no way to make it clean and not take a hit. Fall off the right slab and you get this gnarly change of direction that tries to unhinge your lower back from your hip.” It is also in an incredibly remote spot with limited access.
40/40 on the Towxaway River. Photo credit Pat Keller
40/40 on the Towxaway River. Photo credit Pat Keller



There are not many runnable waterfalls in WNC, and the ones people run tend to be anything but clean.

  • Big Boy: The marquee drop of the Raven Fork, Big Boy is a 25 to 30 footer that lands on rock. There is a clean line, but the landing is extremely tight. It used to be portaged more often than not, but now it is dropped with some frequency.
  • Brick Layer: Another Cullasja waterfall, Brick Layer is in the 20 to 30 foot range and also lands on a big slab of rock. It has been run many times, but is usually portaged.
  • Big Falls: The Elk River plummets 50 feet at the put in of the Twisted Falls section. It looks clean but I have seen many errant lines resulting in broken bodies and gear. It falls hard.
  • Silver Run: Above the more commonly run Whitewater River gorge, Silver Run falls beckons hucksters looking to get loose. The 30 plus footer careens down a steep slide before going vertical. It lands in a dead green pool. At least one run has resulted in a broken back.
  • Courthouse Falls: The beautiful 40 foot vertical drop on the upper reaches of the French Broad was originally documented on the classic video Southern Fried Creekin’. It comes in when the North Fork is flowing high, but apparently it delivers a big hit.
Daniel Stewart drops Big Boy on the Raven Fork. Photo credit Fergus Coffey
Daniel Stewart drops Big Boy on the Raven Fork. Photo credit Fergus Coffey



This list is not definitive (Linville Falls, Toxaway Falls, Looking Glass Falls and the Garden of the Gods on the West Fork of the Pigeon have all ben run). There is always going to be someone out there seeking the next big thing. But these rapids and falls have stood the test of time. They will always be hard, they will always be dangerous. Those who step up to them will never forget their runs.


David Cohen's perfect line on a high water Gorilla run still resulted in a dislocated thumb. Photo Credit Olivia Linney
David Cohen’s perfect line on a high water Gorilla run still resulted in a dislocated thumb. Photo Credit Olivia Linney

No Province for Old Men

Reaching My Limit in BC’s Coast Range and Discovering Life beyond the Progression

From our overhung perch hundreds of feet above Snowcap Creek, it appeared Bett and I would have a slow if not slightly bumpy flow.  We quickly assessed it as perfect for a September afternoon exploratory fix. Only after pulling a few strokes into the bulging center flow did we immediately adjust our assessment from “a good first-time level” to “high water indeed.” I should have known how the gorge effect- when swollen features look puny from the top of a gorge high above the river- would skew our terse analysis of Snowcap Creek in British Columbia. On the water, as we scrambled to make last-second portages around trees and questionable whitewater, we were tossed back and forth from one side of the creek to the other by single surges.  Nonetheless, we pressed on with the natural optimism of stubborn creek paddlers. The quality of the run soon picked up, and we even cracked a few smiles. When the walls abruptly constricted, our cheer dimmed as we looked into the clichéd unscoutable, unportageable corner in British Columbia.

Bett, an avid and skilled outdoor practitioner, traversed downstream and initiated a technical rock climb high on the left as I scrambled down the crumbling, narrow right bank hoping for a clear view of the next move. Our reconnaissance came up short, however, and our gazes locked with a thick acknowledgement. Our silent cross-stream conversation eventually ended with me pointing upwards and Bett giving a reluctant nod. Retreat.

Moments later, I found myself dangling 75 feet above the river holding a rotten tree root. Hands bleeding and with stinging sweat blurring my view of the roaring water below, I irrationally wished to be sitting safely, but no better off, back at river level. Weak with dehydration, I hoisted my boat overhead and propped it against two diminutive saplings, the bow resting on one and the stern on the other. Falling here would be disastrous. I breathed out all my doubt and dismay and pulled up to the ledge.  While I waited for Bett to clip into a rope I’d lowered for him, my thoughts began to wander through a bleak mental landscape of self-doubt and uncertainty.

This was my fourth season paddling in the wild Coast Range of southwestern British Columbia, and I had stacked up an inclusive résumé of classic descents during what normally cagey locals openly conceded were incredibly brief stays. As a committed career/family man, my necessarily quick trips demanded preparation, focus, and the pointed resolve to avoid the “down days” and “life-styling” longer-term visitors could comfortably fit into their loose schedules. The goal was always new and harder streams, and a successful trip ended with more unique runs than vacation days elapsed. Having become adept at working through the intense gorges of the north, I developed the sense I was born with a tenacity for this very task.  In turn, this drew me into the type of meditative mindfulness and flow state to which so many outdoor writers allude. British Columbia is heaven for many outdoor sports, kayaking included. The committing and powerful gorges that line the impressive Coast Range are some of the most beautiful on Earth and demand the highest level of skill.  It was a natural place to continue down the progression of becoming a better, more mindful hardcore boater despite the perspective from my perch above Snowcap Creek.

On an earlier trip to the Northwest I’d been part of a fast-and-light crew of three. We went as hard as possible every day of the trip. Our first day out consisted of a double header on Ernie’s Grove and Robe Canyon.  The following week featuring back-to-back high-water descents of Rutherford Creek, and dawn-to-dusk exploratory bashes down obscure, committing creeks. On Skookum Creek, an intimidating rappel into a precipitous gorge filled with rowdy whitewater committed us to blind high-water runs over a 35-foot waterfall. We were getting everything we asked for and relished the taste of adventure for days on end.  A brutal two-day marathon of routing the Top Tye, Lower Icicle, Cooper, and the Ohanapecosh, though, found even my stalwart companions’ fire growing dim as our last day in the Northwest approached.

A strong believer that it is the official duty of the disinterested to run shuttle for the motivated, I stubbornly demanded a late-afternoon drop-off atop the eerie Carbon Canyon on the north shoulder of Mt. Rainier. Without a willing partner, I opted to rappel in alone and solo the canyon at a high level. I could almost commend myself for my myopia in sticking to the plan, but my companions’ faces remained dull in the face of my zeal—they were understandably concerned about making our early morning flight and weren’t as charmed with the Carbon’s dreary abyss as I. Alone, I plodded through the dark, thick forest to the gorge rim, anchored my 60-meter rope, and embraced a strange brew of delight, acute awareness, and terror as I abseiled toward the coldly indifferent, grey ribbon far below.  My tenacity of spirit seemed to prevail.

Coming from this take-no-prisoners style of divide and descend, I was thus shocked at how quickly I’d unraveled on Snowcap Creek. I’d loved to have simply viewed our failure as an outlier, but in reality this was yet another day in the middle of a week fraught with similar experiences.

It had all begun with an extended and deeply anaerobic out-of-boat tour of the burliest rapid on Thunder Creek in the North Cascades. With my gear lost to the canyon, I clawed out of the gorge and waited for an hour on the footbridge at the canyon mouth for any sign of my kayak. Soon my unmanned vessel appeared around the corner capsized and listing. I jumped in and limped my battered Nomad to the bank. Though my only loss appeared to be a throw bag that had been ripped from its attachment point, something more ineffable also seemed to have gone missing: my confidence.

The big-water expedition runs of the Canadian Northwest add a dimension of unpredictability to the style I’m used to.  Having knocked off challenging creeks and multi-day trips in the lower 48 states, big water expeditions in remote areas seemed like the natural next step for our hard driving adventures.  With this in mind, rivers like the Homathko began to drift into my crosshairs.  The contrast between creeking and expedition paddling feels analogous to the jump from the somewhat more-static multi-pitch routes of rock in Yosemite to the dynamic nature of bagging the 8000-meter snow- and ice-covered peaks of the Himalaya. Massive glaciated watersheds and unpredictable weather patterns threaten the already thin autumn windows when the flows drop low enough for a survivable run. An unexpected heat wave or a steady rain can render these rivers unrunnably high in a heartbeat. We, unfortunately, had August-like temperatures of 85–90 degrees in September, warming the glaciers and rendering the Homathko out of the question. We rummaged around for day runs in southwest BC — a paddling paradise, but admittedly a letdown given the original plan. The best whitewater in Canada would just have to do; we imagined ourselves on another rampage of river running with the Homathko now out of the picture.  This made it all the more debilitating when we were field-stripped by almost every river we paddled, including Snowcap Creek.

Decisions on the Ohanapecosh
Decisions on the Ohanapecosh

My return home to Tennessee after Snowcap Creek brought more hard times. Getting laid off and a serious illness in the family whisked my ego’s ten-day battering in the Northwest away to the lesser recesses of my memory. When the bad things happen — usually in their unpredictable bursts of twos and threes — their forceful jolts put us in our place, and we can see the staggering gulf that separates pursuits of pride from the things that truly matter. Having a wife and child who depend on you is always a reasonable excuse to check out of the Class V universe, at least for a while, and earns at minimum a modicum of understanding from the more committed of river chasers. But I’ve never been able to let myself off that easily. The reasons to paddle hard rivers never did involve rationality or prudence, and, perhaps, the reasons not to paddle them shouldn’t either. It may come down to accepting the limits the river presents to you — and the only way to find those limits is by pushing your boundaries. After thirteen years of not knowing when or where my personal peak would occur, it had made itself rather clear in astonishingly short order. Having turned around short of my intended summit, I experienced a cocktail of negative emotions. In a heartbeat, the lightness and vibrance born of years of pushing my limits had been squeezed out of me and replaced with the thick, heavy fog of disappointment.  I felt broken and lost in a habitat that meant so much more to me before than it did now.  I have seen the tide come and go for many paddlers, and now I felt the tug myself.

As it strips away the clutter of life, the river can bring an immeasurable wealth and healing to the soul, forge deep friendships, and cultivate a deep connectivity to our natural surroundings. For anyone diving headfirst into paddling, however, the progression of striving to paddle harder and harder whitewater can sink its poison barb in quickly. Early in my career, I would routinely leave veteran paddling friends behind in favor of venturing to harder rivers, steeper creeks, and scarier places. Drunk on my newly expanding mobility and freedom, I wondered why their appetite for these types of experiences wasn’t stronger. One sunny day when the flows were mellow, I asked a long-time paddling mentor to accompany me to the Linville Gorge. He had the experience and was in fine shape, and, in an attempt to repay a fraction of all he had taught me, I desperately wanted to share this most special of Southern Appalachian rivers. Yet he declined, following with, “I’ve heard great things about the Linville, Kirk. I’m sure it’s an amazing place, but I just don’t know that I have the drive to paddle rivers like that anymore.”

In my immaturity, I couldn’t imagine such a capable paddler choosing to relegate the Linville Gorge to an acquaintance in name only. He further explained that he was lying low and focusing his efforts on preparing for a trip down the Grand Canyon, a place that, at the time, did not pique my interest. If I was going to travel west for an overnighter during my one annual window, I thought, it certainly wasn’t going to be for flat-water sprinkled with the occasional mellow rapid and a pretty looking canyon.

I don’t regret my route through the sport of kayaking and am increasingly grateful for all my days on the water, difficult or not. More and more as I reach my limits in the progression of hard whitewater, I am refocusing on what originally drew me to the river; it has also dawned on me that I’ve been playing catch-up with ”the lingerers” all along. Pushing drowned out the subtle rewards of being on the river and monopolized the experience to its own end.  The meditative state I once reserved for challenging whitewater I am now grafting onto every moment on the river regardless of the whitewater. Every color, the nudge of every current, every sensation is increasingly vivid as I take my rivers one bend, one eddy, one moment at a time.  The more attention I give, the more the river gives back.   No longer is this attention concentrated mostly on whitewater, and the river still gives.

As I refocus my paddling goals, a whole new frontier of river adventures has come into view. I now realize that my appreciation for lengthy wilderness immersions — the self-reliance they require and the meditative simplification of day-to-day life to be gained — can be enriched with or without tackling cutting-edge whitewater. To exclude a river based on difficulty would be a mistake I’ve learned. Now instead of asking, ‘how hard is it?’ I ask, ‘how long will it take?’ or more directly, ‘how long can we stay?’ These days I aspire to the great rivers of the West: the wilderness rivers of Idaho, labyrinthine desert canyons both great and small, and, of course, the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.

This past fall, as summer exhaled her final warm, moist breath into the rivers near our home, I floated quietly in the twilight alongside my son, Alexander, who at seven years old is already caught up in the river’s spell. I’m re-learning the river’s lessons through his eyes, and I envision us sharing, learning, exploring, and finding humility together in the big ditch of the Grand Canyon a few years down the road. “That’s assuming he’ll be interested in slumming it in the Canyon with a moderate old boater like me,” I remind myself. My paddling mentors were years farther down a path along which I myself am just beginning despite decades of paddling and progressing. On the river under the vivid contrast of the fading evening light, my gaze returned to Alexander, a silhouette on the shimmering water. In that moment, I hoped my son’s path would be as exciting and fulfilling as my own. And, even though all paths have limits, the potential of each moment within an experience is infinitely boundless, and carries an immense energy. Mindfully appreciative of this electricity, this energy of the now, I stroked toward Alexander.

“Isn’t this great?” I reflected, edging in to pull his boat alongside mine.

“Yeah,” Alexander sighed.

“But, daddy,” he hesitated. “Aren’t there any good rapids on this river?”

I shouldn’t have been surprised.

“Yes, Alex,” I replied. “There are. But those are for another day.”


My Riot Bus Tour of ’99

I guessed what was about to happen and knew it was wrong. But, what was I going to do about? I was only 16, and it had happened so many times over the past few months it was almost funny. I was sitting in an eddy above a blind drop on a class V river somewhere in the northwest. Maybe BC, it is such a blur now that I can’t remember exactly. Daniel DeLaVergne and Raymond “Bubba” Cotton were next to me. Daniel was in his standard creek boat of choice, a Riot Glide he’d nicknamed the “creek glide” due to the fact that its edges and hull were so beat and rounded one could barely believe it used to have a planing hull. With his typical guilty smile, Daniel said something like “It’s in the guidebook so it can’t be that bad,” and paddled off the lip. No scouting, no nothing. Raymond and I had learned that 9 out of 10 times Daniel would reappear in a pool below and start waving us down as if he could not believe we were still wasting time wondering if he was okay. Not this time though. The first thing we saw was his paddle floating in the pool, then his boat, and, finally, he surfaced and starting swimming towards his gear. It ended well except that he lost his paddle and had to hike out. All in all, this seemed an acceptable price to pay.

We were a couple of months into the 1999 Riot Bus tour, a team Riot USA paddling mission that included Raymond, Daniel, and me with Bo Wallace, Jed Selby and others joining occasionally. ’99 was a unique year in the world of whitewater kayaking. Freestyle competitions were extremely popular, boat designs were changing quickly, and the general consensus was that our sport was on the verge of blowing up. Paddling apparel and gear companies were popping up out of nowhere. The number of “pro kayakers”, as in people who were actually paid to paddle, was growing quickly. Unlike today, the junior division at freestyle events was packed with kids who wanted to ‘turn pro’. Parents were sending their children off to expensive, kayaking-centered adventure high schools like Adventure Quest with the hope that they’d become the next Eric Jackson. While kayaking companies had always sponsored athletes, factory teams going “on tour” was a relatively new and untested concept. It was a free-for-all compared to the past and future. Today companies expect their team members to visit dealers on a regular basis, give clinics, paddle with locals as much as possible and be upstanding role models. In ’99 we were stoked to get boats, gear, and a little money with almost no strings attached so we could go paddling. The Riot bus was right there at the heart of all this paddling mania, and I was an adolescent along for the ride.

Raymond Cotton and Bo Wallace bought the bus in South Carolina during the spring of 1998. They were already sponsored by Riot at the time and had a goal of traveling the country in search of epic paddling. Naturally a gutted, repainted, logo covered, 8-mile-to-the-gallon bus was the perfect vehicle for their dream trip. For Riot Kayaks, a relatively new company trying to break into the U.S. market, turning a school bus into a huge traveling billboard seemed like a great idea. Especially since all they had to kick in were a few giant stickers and a little gas money. Thus, the original Riot bus was born. Riot actually liked the concept so much that they bought a mini school bus for some of their international team paddlers, notably Dan Campbell and Steve Fisher, to use when on tour in the states.

In 1998, just as the original Riot bus crew was in the midst of their first full blown tour, I had begun to makes progress toward my childhood dream of becoming a professional kayaker. I was one of those kids aspiring to a profession that had only come into existence just recently. Spencer Cooke, a paddler and sales rep for Riot Kayaks at the time, took me under his wing and recommended that Riot and a southeast kayak shop called Whitewater Destinations add me to their regional teams. I feel incredibly lucky to have met both Spencer and subsequently Whitewater Destination’s owner, Don Hege. I knew almost nothing about Whitewater Destinations, but right from the start and before I’d won a single event, Don treated me like I was already a top-level pro.

Now, 14 years later, I vividly remember speaking with Riot Kayak’s President, Jeff Rivest, for the first time. It’s difficult to explain, but just hearing him say, “Yes, you’re on the team” was a turning point in my life. It meant the diligent and sometimes painstaking practice was paying off and I might actually be capable of paddling at an elite level. It was the first time I had been recognized for being exceptionally good at anything. Those few words had a profound impact on my future. I met both my best friend and my future wife as a result of my relationship with Riot kayaks and Spencer Cooke along with a slew of other life-long friends. Looking back it’s clear that Spencer did much more than just hook me up with a couple of sponsors and bring me to events. He also introduced me to industry insiders and paddlers such as Dan Gavere, Eric Jackson and Clay Wright. People I’d idolized ever since I started kayaking three years before at age 11.

Andre and the Bus
Andre and the Bus

Despite my complete lack of coaching or regimented training, the first year traveling with Spencer I placed in the top 3 juniors at almost every competition I entered. While I had some skill, there were other talented paddlers in the junior class who were arguably better. I believe the way in which freestyle was scored at the time allowed me to usually keep up with more talented competitors. For some reason, I excelled at vertical (the highest scoring) cartwheels in flushy playspots. This was partly because I was a small kid in a relatively high volume Riot Glide. Many of my competitors, on the other hand, were larger kids in smaller boats. The combination of my particular skill set, my boat, and the scoring system of the day allowed me to stand out from the large crowd of talented juniors. Had I started competing at a different time, it’s hard to say whether I would have had the same success.

How I ended up on the Riot Bus in 1999 is not entirely clear. Spencer was good friends with Daniel and Raymond, and I suppose he recommended that they bring me along. Although he barely knew me, I heard later that the ever generous Don Hege put in a good word for me as well.

However it came about, the idea of me going on the tour with team Riot was outrageous. I was a 16 year old with a learners permit and had practically nothing in common with Raymond and Daniel other than kayaking. I was a shy, admittedly dorky play-boater who had never paddled anything harder than the Fish Ladders at Great Falls, Maryland. Daniel and Raymond were already accomplished creek-boaters and routinely paddled the hardest runs in the southeast. While they enjoyed play-boating, they mainly wanted to paddle as much hard whitewater as possible. I’ve often wondered if my inclusion on the Riot Bus was to round out the team’s skill set, and it seemed the sentiment at freestyle events was, “Alright Dre, this is why you’re here, go kill it.”

As ridiculous an idea as it was- and ridiculousness seemed a part of pro-kayaking then-, the plan was set for me to join the Riot Bus Tour. First, I’d join up with Daniel and Raymond at Rock Island, TN, and then we’d head out west on the bus. Raymond and I had never met; I’d only hung out with Daniel a couple of times. We had one short conversation about me coming along where Daniel’s sole advice was “You’ll probably need $500 a month for food and whatever else. Oh, I guess you’re not old enough to drink, so $300 would probably be fine.” I had no paying sponsors at the time, and my life savings worked out to about $200 – $300 for each month that we’d be on the road. The lifestyle afforded by ~$10/day was adequate but not glamorous. I had no health insurance, credit cards, or emergency funds. One trip to the emergency room would have brought the whole thing to a halt and put my family into debt. Going on tour was a larger than life adventure, and I wasn’t about to pass it up for anything.

I remember feeling a mixture of fear and excitement as Raymond, Daniel and I pulled away from the Rock Island parking lot and began the long, 55mph drive out west. It also hit me that I was merely along for the ride. Raymond owned the bus, and both he and Daniel had secured gas money from Riot. They would choose were we went, what we paddled, and with whom we paddled. This worked well since I had no interest in logistics and just wanted to paddle. It was also clear that, despite my lack of creek-boating experience, I’d be expected to keep up on any and all runs.

Life on tour was unlike anything I’d experienced. Every couple of weeks the full entourage of pros and aspiring pros would descend upon a small river town to compete. Any parking lot that happened to be close to the competition site was fair game for a makeshift camp. The absence of a “No Overnight Parking” sign was taken to mean “make yourselves at home for as long as you like.” A couple hours after at the tour arrived, there would be throw-bag drying lines strung up everywhere, people cooking with camp stoves on the pavement, and boats and paddles heaped near every vehicle. We must have looked like a traveling circus to non-paddlers. Dan Gavere always had the best parking lot toys: remote control cars, scooters, trials bikes, unicycles, you name it. Someone was always messing around with their outfitting which mean the smell of contact cement and pieces of foam lying around were ever present. Gear was always getting run over. Boats would usually come away with just a few deep gashes, but there’s nothing quite like the sound of an AT paddle crunching under tires. It was a mini version of a Grateful Dead tour, except without tie dyes and patchouli. Police weren’t pleased and non-paddlers stayed away. The Riot bus, since it was one of the larger vehicles, was often overrun with paddlers from when we parked to when we pulled away. Raymond, Daniel and I basically had no private space. Many times I’d come back from a paddling session and there would be people I’d never met hanging out in the bus. Sometimes they’d stay for hours and, upon their departure, we’d discover no one had any idea who they were.

While kayak companies were spending unheard of sums of money on their touring teams and our sport seemed to be exploding, the free-style tour did not provide a lavish lifestyle. Without a family safety net, I relied on my $10/day and made sure every penny was well spent. Billy Craig and I were always happy to eat at the cheapest places possible. Fazoli’s, with its $1.99 slices of pizza and all you can eat breadsticks, was a favorite. Or if everyone else was eating somewhere that we thought too expensive, we’d just squat in the parking lot and cook. Sometimes counting pennies was not enough. Being on such I tight budget, I would make a point to eat items from sample trays at grocery stores. A friend of ours, who shall remain anonymous, liked to push this free sample concept right to its moral edge. He’d stand there and eat an entire tray of whatever sustenance was offered. One time, he grabbed a huge sample tray of cookies and walked out of the grocery store with it. He carried the tray- tray cover and all- right past all of the employees. While I didn’t exactly condone this behavior, I didn’t turn down the cookies either.

In between competitions, we focused on what we (well, Daniel) really came to do- paddle hard whitewater. Our approach was loose and spontaneous. We were game to get on any run, anytime, with just the bare minimum of logistical planning. A week spent creek-boating with the Riot bus crew would have been an uncomfortable and draining experience for most class V boaters. While we certainly cared about each other and took safety precautions, our laid back approach didn’t always come across as safe. Most groups would want to put on a run early to maximize time on the river for fun and safety; we usually hung around the put-in all morning messing with gear and outfitting and setting up shuttle. Once on the river, our demeanor would turn 180 degrees, and we began a mad rush to get to the take out. Scouting, unless absolutely necessary, was looked down upon because it slowed progress. Daniel made a point of asking locals if there were any truly dangerous features on a run. With this assurance, he could fully dive into running blind drops without scouting. My nickname “Peekums Dre” was earned during this time for my fondness for scouting, or ‘peaking,’ rapids. Whether because of herd mentality or the freedom of a fellow blind drop enthusiast, Daniel’s willingness to run drops blind would increase or decrease depending on who we were with. Daniel and Charlie Beavers seemed on the same page and together would push way past my comfort zone. I had very little experience on hard whitewater before the Riot Bus, and I was largely expected to keep up on everything Daniel and Raymond wanted to run. Keeping up meant making the “run or portage” call very quickly, and I never felt pressured to run particular drops. Each day I’d listen as they were talking about where to paddle and I’d be thinking “Oh god, I hope I make it through another day.” We ended up paddling 23 different class V or V+ runs, running many of them multiple times. Looking back, it’s lucky that I, a 16 year old with very little experience on class V, came away unscathed.

Overall the pro tour was a friendly, welcoming, and tight knit group that divided into subgroups of paddlers within the formed along economic, geographic, and boating lines, like creeking or playboating. The subgroups had nothing to do with the company that funded the athlete to paddle. Most pro team managers believed their paddling team’s allegiances were to the company and liked to think because their athletes paddled the same boats, the athletes camping together, ate together, and hung out together. In reality, which boat you paddled had little influence on your social circle. This lead to athletes on ‘competing’ teams spending more time together than on cultivating their team or its brand. Paddlers were more committed to their subgroup of creekers or play-boaters. Another division existed between those juniors who received coaching and those who did not. Sponsors did not provide coaching which meant coaching came to those athletes who could afford it. For juniors, there were few places that provided structured and regular coaching. The main structured coaching resources were the kayak academies which commanded steep tuitions. This created an economic dividing line within the tour amongst the juniors. I remember being jealous the Adventure Quest kids had a full time coach. While they were doing video analysis and getting real-time feedback mid-ride, I was on my own. I’d get an occasional tip from someone, but since we were all competing it wasn’t part of the culture for paddlers to give in-depth advice to one another. Ultimately, I believe this lack of coaching forced me to excel at breaking down, analyzing and learning moves just from watching others. It also made me try harder and my victories that much sweeter.

Even within the Riot bus there were divisions. Before his incredibly tragic and heartbreaking death, Daniel DeLaVergne would become a respected expedition kayaker, entrepreneur and videographer among other things. He was exceedingly motivated and virtually fearless. He would do everything in his power to help if you were in a bad situation on the river. He also seemed to be unshakable under pressure. Overall, Daniel was an excellent person, but he had a darker side that not everyone saw. At the time he loved paddling hard whitewater and seemed to look down on those who couldn’t keep up. He and I never really became friends. With the 6 year age difference and our different backgrounds it is to imagine us becoming close in ‘99. Having to be responsible for a 16 year old didn’t mesh well with partying at bars and meeting girls. In a way, I was probably cramping his style. It wasn’t by design, but it occurred to me while writing this that Daniel and I never paddled together again once I stepped off the Bus in ’99.

There were also divisions between local paddlers and the pro tour. Whether it was our competitive nature or divergent interests, this separation between local paddlers and pro paddlers was real. Eradicating this gap is now a major part of any sponsored paddlers duties. Back in ’99, it was just part of the deal. Daniel sat me down and warned me in all seriousness, “Look Dre, there’s one thing you need to understand about Colorado paddlers. They talk a big game. But when it comes down to it, they rarely run anything hard.” For better or worse, this was my introduction to the Colorado boating scene during that first year on tour. Harshness aside, I believe Daniel was getting at a feeling I’ve heard elsewhere about the cultural differences between competitive, hard-driving eastern boaters who push each other constantly and Colorado boaters who focus on getting on the river with friends and escaping the competitive atmosphere and work-a-day pressures. With this introduction, we pulled up to a kayak shop in Durango, Colorado. As soon as we stopped, a paddler recognized the bus and came over to say “hi.” Daniel, our unofficial leader, greeted the fellow boater, “hey, what’s up? We’re planning to hit Vallecito this afternoon. Do you know if anyone has been up there this year?”

“Vallecito? No, you guys probably shouldn’t go up there. It’s super high and full of wood. I think some people tried it and had to hike out. Sorry, but it’s no good this year.”

“Oh, okay well good to see you. We’ll be here for a while so I’m sure we’ll see you around.”

Daniel and Raymond did not even pause with this warning, so neither did I, and we were soon on our way to Vallecito Creek. This sort of interaction became normal. Locals would warn us that their local runs were dangerous, and we’d go run them anyway. Similarly, Daniel, and on occasion Raymond and I, were into running class V in play-boats such as the Glide or 007. This was partly because it seemed cool and partly because the Kix, Riot’s only creek boat, was pretty lame. Most would agree now that paddling a play-boat on a creek is dangerous and really not that fun. Nonetheless, this was one way in which we liked to push our limits. And I’d be lying if I said that rolling up to another group on a class V run while paddling a play-boat didn’t provide an ego boost. Both our disregard of advice from locals concerning runs, and our sometimes dangerous choice of boats, probably offended some people and made us a little notorious.

Our reputation for running hard whitewater didn’t always serve us well and sometimes in unexpected ways. At one point, a company rep was kindly showing us around his hometown of Fernie, British Columbia. He had scoped out a bunch of first descents and was pumped to finally have some good creek-boaters in town to take a look. We were going to be up there for a few days so he went ahead and planned out a first descent hit list for us. All seemed fine until he took us to the first one. We parked the bus and jumped out expecting to see the most amazing section of whitewater, and indeed we did. An absolutely beautiful rapid lay before us. An incredibly impressive series of perfect drops interspersed with huge ledge holes and undercuts. Beautiful yes, but it looked like if you ran it 10 times, you’d die twice. Our guide said something like, “This is amazing, eh! You love it, eh! You guys start getting ready and I’ll get the video camera!” There was no way we were running it. We just stood there wondering how to break the bad news. Eventually, after an extended period of inaction on our part, he got the point so we moved on to the next only to have an exact repeat. I’d never felt like such a disappointment for not running something.

One of our last stops on tour was the Ottawa River Rodeo in eastern Canada. Since we’d be relatively close by, we decided to swing by Riot headquarters in Montreal. I’d never actually met anyone behind Riot before, so I thought it would be fun to hang out and paddle with them on the St. Lawrence River’s famous Lachine rapids. The scene we found at Riot cemented a theory I’d had since about midway through the tour; a theory that now seems representative of the industry as a whole. Riot did all kinds of marketing. Magazine ads, catalogs, videos, you name it. In all of this marketing material they featured me, Raymond or Daniel exactly zero times if memory serves. The well-dressed French Canadians who greeted us in the parking lot had almost no idea who we were, they barely knew what we were doing and certainly didn’t trust us to embody the Riot Kayak brand. It was an odd situation; I felt like I’d gone rogue and overstepped my boundaries as a Riot athlete. Raymond later filled in my understanding of our official relationship with Riot in ’99: they had put in a relatively small amount of money and Raymond and Daniel had picked up the rest. Riot’s investment in us had been low, but it appeared their desired return on that investment was a sum total of zero. I got the sense they were out of touch with the U.S. market, or more specifically the East Coast of the U.S., and getting access to that world was why they offered to sponsor us. We were loosely connected despite driving a giant billboard for Riot for months. I had been living in the Riot Bus but really wasn’t a Riot person. This became more evident when Spencer Cooke, who connected me with Riot, switched to another company, and I promptly followed. My connection was with Spencer, not Riot.

A couple weeks on the Gauley wrapped up the Riot bus tour of ’99, and I was ready for it to be over. Winter was coming and putting on wet, cold gear day after day gets old, especially since we had no place to warm up and no showers. It was with both relief and sadness that I stepped off the bus for the last time. The tour’s full implications hadn’t hit me yet, but it was my launching point into a professional kayaking “career” that lasted until around 2005.

Those around in 1999 would probably agree that there was a palpable sense of potential and excitement in the sport. It remains the most eye-opening and exciting year of my paddling career. Why there was so much hype around the sport is anyone’s guess. I always thought it was a “bubble” in the sense that kayak companies forecasted a period of incredible growth and were therefore willing to invest maybe a little too heavily in team budgets. I’ve come to believe that this bubble was created by paddlers just as much as companies. For some reason tons of kids thought that they could make a career out of kayaking, hence the packed junior competitor field, and high “kayak school” enrollment figures.
Waves and Signs At the time there existed in me, and I believe others in the kayak industry then feel similarly, a fundamental lack of understanding that our actions as professionals must eventually lead to increased sales. I thought winning a competition had inherent value in and of itself. Or to put it another way, I thought I was being paid to win, not paid to sell. In many ways the rodeo in downtown Wausau, Wisconsin exemplified this era. Kayak team vehicles packed the parking lot and hundreds of spectators lined the river bank in anticipation of the men’s and women’s pro freestyle finals. It seemed as if the entire industry was present. Tensions were high. I remember hearing a fellow junior competitor’s father yell to his son, right in front of the whole crowd and the most of the other competitors, “Beat him! You can beat him! You’re better than him! You can beat him!” (Referring to me). An awards ceremony and extravagant party with live music followed the day’s seemingly endless number of competition heats. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Mayor of Wausau was there. Wausau undoubtedly spent thousands of dollars supporting the event and building the play spot. Spectators, competitors, sponsors and parents were emotionally invested in the final results. The whole scene was a huge deal, but to what end? It’s not as if there were lucrative sponsorships or scholarships on the line. Were competition rides being broadcast to thousands of freestyle fans across the country? No. Were the throngs of spectators actually going to start kayaking because they watched a competition? Probably and unfortunately not. Were any of the companies being represented actually going to sell more gear because of this huge event? Sure, probably a couple boats or paddles. But when it was all said and done, I just can’t imagine that this, along with countless similar events, actually made financial sense.

Now, ~14 years later, it’s clear that our sport might never see the type of growth predicted in ‘99. I was lucky enough to be an adolescent boater at a time when anything seemed possible. As the industry and I matured, our views evolved and changed. Kayaking will never lose its allure to a small percent of the population, but I have a hard time envisioning it growing as I dreamed it would back in ’99. I’m no longer a professional kayaker, or a kid who stakes his dreams to the profession of kayaking, so this is alright by me. Now, I enjoy non-professional kayaking. Or as it was known before and after the pro era, just kayaking.

Essays history

The Grande Finale of the Jamie McEwan Trilogy: Denied- Linville Gorge, 1973

It was one of those early spring days that seemed no season at all, rather a pause in seasons, as if nature had come to a stop while trying to remember what should come next. We had seen signs of spring on the drive down: crocuses and daffodils pushing up beside lonely houses, a purple furze along the highway. But here, in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, there was no color, not even from the buds on the trees. And no birds. No birdcalls, no flutterings in the bushes. This struck me as very strange.

It was a long hike down to the water, so it was a relief to finally put in within sight of a large braided waterfall, to make the delightful transition from heavy, jerky plodding to effortless gliding, from laden camels to free-floating dolphins.

The Linville Gorge. It had never been run, though an imaginative description existed in a guide book written by an expert map-reader named Burmeister. If we could run the gorge, Tom assured me, it would be a first descent.

We started off on a stretch of easy, pleasant whitewater, where Tom pulled away from me. Then, at the first challenging rapid, I caught up when he got out of his boat to scout.

I joined him on the bank, and we studied the rapid in silence, as usual–while I suppressed my impulse to ask questions.

The proper route was obvious. It involved a ninety-degree turn, in mid-current.

“If you missed the turn, you might get banged around on those rocks,” I said finally, pointing.

“Yeah, maybe.”

The water, as I stared at it, kept changing its aspect. One moment its currents and cross-currents looked muscular, powerful beyond all resistance; the next they seemed minor rivulets. Would I cut right over them? Or be swept onto the rocks? I couldn’t tell. I could see exactly what was happening, but I couldn’t gauge the scale, the degree of power. I picked up a piece of driftwood and tossed it in, watching it bob slowly through the waves. It disappeared entirely when it came to the turn.

I saw that it would not be hard to walk around. And I reminded myself that I have to be especially careful. The boat I was paddling, a Hahn design built in England, was unusually fragile. I had sold my tougher Olympic C-1 back to the builder, leaving me with a craft made entirely of polyester and fiberglass, no sandwiched nylon or polypropylene to toughen it. But worse than that: the entire deck, and most of the hull, was not even woven fiberglass, but rather chopped fibers pressed together into what is called “mat.” Mat is considered a heavy material, but this boat was thin enough to remain light–light, stiff, and as I already knew, notoriously easy to break.

But that’s why we trained slalom, wasn’t it? To be able to get down the river without touching any rocks.

Then there was always that other option.

“I guess I’ll carry it,” I said uncertainly.

Tom gave me a quick glance, then looked back at the river. Our etiquette was firmly fixed: each man for himself, make your own decisions, never pressure the other, never give in to pressure.

Tom climbed into his boat. I stood, making no move to carry, and watched him turn out into the current, slide down the first drop, perform a smooth half turn, and accelerate through the proper slot. As I watched him do it, I immediately knew that I could do it, too. Watching another boat paddle a rapid gives you a lot more information than throwing in sticks.

For several long moments I did not move; I stood in the chill air, staring dully at the water, while there passed through me a wave of internal disorientation. Pieces of my mental universe were being rearranged–some moving aside, others falling into the vacancies. When the relocating had completed itself I shivered, and with that shiver the new parts settled into place–and there it was, not at all a new, but an all-too-familiar, pattern.

Big brother leads little brother down the river. No, not a new feeling at all. At six years my senior, Tom had always, automatically, been the leader of our group of two. What was more, he was somewhat of legend throughout the sport for being tough, unafraid, for thinking for himself. He had also been a standout wrestler at Yale, placing second in the Easterns, for example. I had grown up hero-worshipping Tom.

But it wasn’t without a certain sense of personal diminishment that I felt the old paradigm reassert itself. For some things did not fit into that old pattern; there was no room for certain of my previous year’s cherished individual accomplishments, for Olympic Team or Bronze medal or any of that. These are entirely irrelevant here. What did the river care about credentials? This was no artificial trumped-up television spectacle. Here was only the ceaseless flow of water over rock.

And I was still the relatively cautious, pain-avoiding Jamie I have always been, still with that unambitious goal of getting myself down in one piece.

Some things never change.

I climbed stiffly into my boat and ran the rapid exactly as Tom had. It was easy.

From that point on we tried to hurry along a little more. We made up our minds quickly, unanimously, when we scouted rapids. Tom was still, almost invariably, the first one down any rapid difficult enough to scout.

The river dropped away, and dropped away again, throwing one blind horizon line after another across our view downstream. Time after time we were forced to climb from our boats. I longed for a dull stretch, for a quiet, lazy mile.

The first serious incident came from just a little slip. I pulled into an eddy at the top of a blind drop, popped my skirt off the cockpit rim, put down my paddle–and started to slide backwards out of the eddy. I grabbed a slippery shoreline rock, but was unable to stop myself; a jet of the main current caught me as I left the shelter of the eddy, forcing the boat against the shore and pinning it there while water poured into my uncovered cockpit. Bent violently sideways at the waist, I clung to one last rock.

I had no attention left for anything outside myself. Suddenly there were hands underneath my armpits; then the boat and I were lifted up, dragged across the rocks, and dumped high and dry.

I crawled out of my boat.

“Thanks. Sorry. I just–I guess I wasn’t paying attention.”

“Let’s be careful.”

We went on. Rapids, and small, bubbling pools. We had to get out to look at almost every drop. Most we ran, but often enough we both decided to carry. Several times we were tempted to run drops which, if located on some easily accessible stretch of river, would have been commonly run. But here, miles from help, we portaged. We made decision after decision without discussion, by mutual consent.

Late morning, perhaps midday, we came to a rapid that we disagreed about. The drop was not tall, and it ended in a calm pool, but I was convinced that the water was dropping directly onto just-concealed underwater rocks. It was hard to tell, because after a drop like that the water boils to the surface anyway, whether it is deep or shallow.

We disagreed briefly, carefully. In order to emphasize the certainty of my opinion, I put my boat on my shoulder and started to walk around, then put it down again as Tom paddled away from the bank to line himself up. For a moment he was hidden from my point of view–then he reappeared above me, poised against the sky; he fell–


One moment he was falling–the next he had come to an almost complete stop, the boat still vertical; then it tipped, twisting, to one side.

Tom rolled up and paddled to shore, sinking fast, the bow of his boat pointing crazily skyward, like the curled toe of a jester’s shoe.

Although this was almost exactly the result that I had anticipated, when it actually happened I found that I was shocked, disconcerted. I realized that, subconsciously, I had assumed Tom would find a loophole, an out, that he would at the last instant pull off the move and arrive at the bottom unscathed. Never had I felt so taken aback to be proven right.

Tom joined me on shore, and we conferred.

“I could hike back in tomorrow with some duct tape,” said Tom. He had allowed three days for our first descent of the full fifteen or so miles to the first bridge-crossing below. We never dreamed, in those days, of carrying extra gear, camping gear or even food. There was no good way to waterproof it. We weren’t about to put ammo boxes in our slalom boats; that was for the traditional canoeists in their big open craft. We didn’t even own a flashlight. Camping would be out of the microbus.

Besides, we had started out hoping to run it all today.

“You really think you can tape it on?” I asked.

“I’m sure I can. I’ve seen it done with a bow that had fallen off completely. This isn’t that bad.”

“Yeah–this has at least six strands of fiberglass holding it on.”

There was a problem, though: the river right, the side of the river that the road ran along, was at this point almost a cliff. It looked like a climber’s challenge, not a paddler’s, to ascend on that side of the river.

The river left, on the other hand, sloped moderately away from us. And of course there was a road there, too, somewhere, farther back, behind the hills. We had seen it on the map. There is always a road, if you go far enough. Just as there is always a river.

“I’m going to walk up the far side,” said Tom. “I’ll be on the road over there, near the top.”

“Okay. I’m going to keep going.”

Tom nodded, as if he’d been expecting that. He might have distrusted me, he might have wondered if I should go on alone. But no–his nod was a nod of approval.

“I’ll try to get down to where the path gets close to the river,” I said, “and walk up to the overlook. Then I’ll meet up with Peggy, drive around to your side, and get you.”

“Okay, Jamie. Take care of yourself.”

Tom paddled his broken boat to the far bank and left it there. With a last wave he disappeared into the trees.

Going on alone should have made me nervous, I suppose. It did not. Quite the opposite. Tom was my paddling support, yes, my unacknowledged leader. And he was exemplary in not pressuring me. But at the same time, paddling with him was like driving with my father in the passenger seat. I felt exposed, observed, judged. It was not his fault. It was nothing he did. But I couldn’t seem to help it.

Only now, alone on the river, could I fully relax.

At the same time, without really thinking about it, I knew: no more slips were allowed.

I paddled. I climbed out of my boat, I looked. I climbed back in, and paddled some more. Rocks flashed by, waves broke over the deck of my boat, overhanging branches swept by overhead. Gone was the morning’s uncertainty. I was entirely absorbed in what I was doing. Words were irrelevant. There is a terrific clarity that comes with being alone on the river, trying to solve one intricate puzzle after another. And the Linville was complex beyond anything I had paddled. Often enough I chose to portage.

My progress was very slow. My boat had begun to leak badly. Soon I was forced to put in hurriedly, pop my skirt on as quickly as possible, paddle one short section, sprint to shore, climb out, empty, climb back in again.

The time came when the gorge, long shadowed, began to darken. Though I was reluctant to stop–for all the slowness of my progress, this was still a far more appealing means of transportation than walking–I knew I should strike off right away. I hadn’t seen any evidence of a trail, and bushwhacking in the dark without flashlight or compass is a sure way to get lost.

I left my gear on the riverbank and started to walk. My feet squished in my wet-suit booties. The wet-suit chafed at the groin. It didn’t matter. I felt both tired, and infinitely strong.

After a long, wearying, pathless climb, a thousand vertical feet up from the river, I pushed through a screen of bushes and stepped onto the soft dust of the ridge-top road. Twilight had fully established itself. Perfect timing. My brother Tom’s girlfriend, Peggy, should soon leave from the bridge that had been our over-optimistic goal, to drive up this same road toward me. If we didn’t reach the bridge, Tom had told her, come looking for us on the road. Dry clothes, food, warmth, were headed my way.

Or so I thought.

It wasn’t long before a log truck came up from behind, and without my having signaled in any way, the driver stopped and offered me a lift. I only rode the short distance down to Wiseman’s view, however–the only overlook on that side, and the only campground–getting out in case Peggy was parked there.

But the area was deserted. I walked back and down the road.

I walked for long while, perhaps an hour or two–I had no watch. The road ran along the ridge-line, so I had a good view in two directions, but the only lights I saw were miles away. There was very little else. The world had simplified itself: the sky was gray, the forest black, the road an in-between shade.

Obviously something must have happened to Peggy. The microbus should have come along hours ago.

Eventually I turned and walked slowly, aimlessly back upstream. If I stopped I’d be cold. Could I walk all night?

It began to rain. After an attempt at sheltering under a pile of leaves, I got up and continued back to Wiseman’s view. There I headed for the only roof: the outhouse.

The door, on its spring, banged shut behind me. It was an instant relief to be out of the rain. The only smell coming up from the lidless toilet was of damp earth. I lay on the concrete. Three-sixteenth’s of an inch of shark-skin neoprene was all that protected me from a cold, inhospitable world.

This should have been the hardest thing, lying here, waiting for morning. But for some reason it wasn’t really hard at all. It was not at all, for example, like that barely-hanging-in-there feeling you got near the end of a running race or a paddling time-trial. Or going to a party where you don’t know anyone. Those were hard.

I lay there, feeling quite certain that I could not possibly sleep … and drifted off, roused to shift positions, slept again.

On one of my many awakenings I found my little box suffused with gray light. I shifted, opened my eyes. The light was filtering down from the ventilation gap between walls and roof.

I closed my eyes again, feeling unbearably cramped, exhausted, cold. I tried, vainly, to sleep once more.

But then, slowly, with every breath, I began to feel better.

Chilled, stiff, groggy, with no plan or time-schedule, no breakfast waiting, no shape to the day ahead, closed between four walls set too close together for me to stretch out, stripped of the basic comforts I have always taken for granted, I became aware of an underlying pleasure. Very mild, very quiet it was, this small but indestructible pleasure–easily lost, overwhelmed, in everyday life–yet here it was, a little pulse of pleasure with each heartbeat. And there was another, steady, sustaining pleasure in the ebb and flow of my quiet breathing. The night was over. And here I was. That was all I needed. Being alive was all I ever needed. Everything else–friends, comforts, medals, success–were extras. Nice enough in their way. But it was tremendously freeing to realize that I don’t need them to feel pleasure. That this bare existence is pleasure enough.

I lay, for a time, clasping this knowledge to myself. Finally, on impulse, I sat up, struggled to my feet, stood leaning against the wall. The light was dim. There was no more rain-sound. No sounds at all.

I opened the door and stepped out. The quiet was unearthly. No traffic, no insects, no birds. Even the light seemed muffled, there under the low branches of the pines. But something had changed overnight. A new smell was in the air. I walked toward the clearing that was the parking lot and stopped at its edge, under the last overhanging boughs.

A sloppy wet snow perhaps two inches deep blanketed the lot. I shivered at this confirmation of the cold, tucked my hands under my armpits and squeezed down.

Slowly I walked out into the open. Stopping in the middle of the lot I swung my arms stiffly forward and back. That didn’t seem to help. And yet I felt very calm, and strangely happy, as I squished through the slushy snow, out to the “main” road, that furrowed tract, and down it.

To my surprise the road remained as deserted as it had been last night.

I needed shelter, food. And it would certainly be nice to take off the damp, chafing wet-suit and put on dry clothes. Yet part of me was for some reason glad that no one came.

It took us that entire second day to reassemble ourselves. The first person I met was a man operating a bulldozer off to one side of the road–a man in his early thirties with an omnicompetent backwoods air about him. He dropped everything to drive me around the gorge in his pickup in search of Tom and Peggy. Peggy I never found, but Tom showed up on the road on the far side. Our new friend bought us food at a gas stop, then went back to work, leaving us with obvious reluctance.

We tried, without money or ID, to convince a hotel operator to take us in, failed, and ended up attempting to build a fire in the snow while a new flurry swept around us. We had not yet succeeded when Peggy pulled over beside us.

She hadn’t been able to make it up the road, she explained, and had spent the night in a woman’s trailer-home near the take-out. The bulldozer operator and I must have driven right by her that morning.

The next day, on a still cool but this time partly-sunny spring morning, we set out once again, with a fresh roll of duct tape, dry wet suits, and a supply of matches double-wrapped in sandwich baggies. After long hikes to our separate boats, and time for Tom to tape his boat and make his way down to me, and then for me to tape mine, it was noon before we were ready to start out together, with boats almost watertight, and determination fixed in our eyes.

Just before setting out, I managed to lose the new roll of tape by dropping it into a deep pool in the river.


Tom just shook his head.

We were in the midst of the most difficult section so far. The river was dropping fast, twisting and turning on itself like an animal struggling against the stony clamp of the squeezed-together hills, fretting at its course, diving under blockading rocks instead of cooperatively flowing over or around, beating itself into white fury over unyielding ledge and stone.

As the afternoon wore on, my boat slowly broke up beneath me, not from any one hole but from the accumulation of many cracks. Dying the death of a thousand cuts. Once more I was reduced to paddling only a couple of minutes before I was forced to stop and empty. Tom’s boat, with its flexible snout, was not doing much better. As the sun passed behind the hills we knew we were far from the end of the gorge. We pressed on until the air around us began to fill with the gray dust of twilight, then shouldered our boats and struck off together into the woods.

We found a path that angled uphill in the right direction, giving us, in comparison with our first-day hikes out, a highway up and out of the gorge. Along it I trudged, hardly noticing that Tom was slowly leaving me behind, forging ahead up the long slope.

For a time the path was easy to follow, even in the dark forest; I could feel its slight hollow under the thin soles of my wet-suit booties. But when, instead, the earth gave way to a haphazard jumble of rock, I stopped and peered ahead.

Night had fallen. A dark night. At some point when I wasn’t noticing, clouds had covered the sky.

I could hear water running, a thin tinkling sound. Ahead of me, across the rock, I could see no break in the dark wall of undergrowth. Taking my bearings from the path behind me, I picked my way across the rocks, stepping over the stream. Surprising how wide a bed this little brook had scoured off the hillside. On the other side I walked into a waist-high rhododendron. I backed off and tried again. And again. Many times. I couldn’t find the path.

“Tom! I shouted. Tom!” I waited for an answer. Trees creaked overhead with the sound of doors opening and closing.

He was too far ahead to hear. I shouldn’t have let myself fall behind.

I dug out my matches and built a fire on the top of the tallest rock I could find. In the wild flaring light of my twig fire I could see a thin unmistakable path cutting into the darkness.

Once on the path again I had no trouble following it, curving back and forth but always up, until the slope finally eased. Stepping into a wide grassy clearing I was greeted by a familiar voice.

“Hey, Jamie.”

“Did you find the road?”

“No. I lost the path in this open spot. I’ve been wandering around looking for it for a while.”

I laughed, and told him what had happened to me at the streambed. To my surprise, Tom apologized for leaving me behind.

It struck me as very strange, to have him apologize. I hadn’t kept up, my fault, end of story–or so I would have thought. And if I had thought differently, why should Tom care? His apology revealed an unexpected sensitivity to my opinion.

Together we located the path again, and on it soon found the ridge-top road. Dropping our boats in its ditch, we turned and strolled downriver, silent for a time.

I knew the adventure was over. We only had the three days. We had to drive north; my spring vacation was nearly over, and Peggy had to return to her job and two girls. In two days of paddling we had covered perhaps eight miles, roughly half of our goal. We had been defeated. Denied by the river.

I wouldn’t have thought that possible. To me, yes, but not to Tom.

Our booties squelched as we walked. We followed the road down onto flatter ground where we came upon human habitation, a farm where a single street lamp shone all night, high on its pole.

In its light I looked over at Tom. Aware of the turn of my head, he looked back at me, giving his tight-lipped smile. It struck me how vulnerable that look was. A wave of protective feeling passed through me.

It surprised and disconcerted me to notice this feeling. Protective, toward Tom, my leader and my own main protector, who had pulled me out of trouble time and again?

But there it was. I was a middling sort of guy, a mixture: a dash of courage, a cup of caution; a dose of ambition, a healthy measure of laziness. While Tom’s purity, like the brittleness of many an unalloyed metal, could also be a weakness. He had missed out on Olympic year training with shoulder and knee injuries.

And, walking under that single light in midst of overwhelming darkness, it fully came to me: Tom was just another guy, another human being, very different from me, but not essentially different, having to make decisions, day by day, like the rest of us. Not as certain, not as monolithic, not as heroically “other” as I, in my hero worship, had always assumed. This was the kind of revelation one usually has in relation to a parent–and Tom, six years older, had in my mind assumed a half-parental role. It was the simple realization: he’s human, too.

Of course, I knew that; in a sense I’d always known that. I just hadn’t felt that.

We passed the farm and moved on into the darkness, disappearing as tracelessly as two wandering spirits.

We talked, now and again, about the river, the countryside, the upcoming summer, the cold, our voices thin and lonely in the vast darkness. But for the most part we walked in silence, side by side in our parallel tire ruts.

Essays history

Jamie McEwan II: Years Later, I Added the Frame- Chattooga River, 1971

Look at the moon,” I said, pointing. “And that star, and the little cloud.”


“And the ridge, and those other clouds. What a picture. What do you think–do you include the ridge and the clouds, or zoom in on just the little cloud and the moon and the star?”

A hypothetical question–we had no camera.

“Why not include everything?” said Tom. “Why draw a line around it?”

I looked over. Brother Tom, driving, sat sprawled, his seat as far back as it would go, one rawboned hand lightly holding the wheel.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Just–for fun.”

“We don’t have to cut things up. We don’t have to take them to pieces.”

I looked at the moon again: a thin crescent moon with its star and pink cloud keeping pace with us while tree-topped ridges rose and fell between.

“So many people,” Tom went on, “only see things the way everyone else sees them. Pre-digested. They don’t think anything is actually real unless it’s on TV, or if there’s a photo. Or a story.”

I waited for him to go on; his last sentence hung in the air with the pitch of incompletion. But the minutes unrolled with no further comment.

Perhaps Tom had concluded that by talking at all he was interfering with the experience. I tried to think of some safe topic of conversation. Failing, I turned away, rested my head on the cold, vibrating glass and watched the silhouettes of trees and signs speed by like–no, not like anything. Like themselves.


I woke in full daylight, to a discord of chirping that seemed to herald a spring morning, rather than late fall. Tom was not in his sleeping bag. Pulling on jeans and a sweat shirt I climbed out of the van’s back hatch and walked upriver.

The road was an orange-red gash through the pine forest, a startlingly bright color to northern eyes. From a low area on the left, from beneath a chill swirling mist, came the sounds of gently flowing water, bubblings and churnings plus an occasional percussion of plops. The sun was hidden somewhere in a pearl-gray sky; the tops of the pines trembled only slightly.

Too cold to linger long, I jogged back to the van. Tom sat in the sliding-door opening gently spreading peanut butter on too-soft bread.

“Maybe we should hit a restaurant for breakfast,” I suggested.

“Notice any last night?”

“I guess not.”

“I think we’re pretty far from any town. Besides, you probably want to get an early start.”

“I guess. You know, I was hoping it was going to be warmer here. I think we’re going to have to go farther south.”

“Think so? If we go much farther south we’ll run out of mountains.”

I didn’t answer.

“We’ve left the snow behind, anyway,” he added.

“Yeah.” I moved his crutches, sat beside him, reached for the bread.

“What are you going to do today?” I asked him.

“I don’t know. Poke around, I guess.”

He would stay dry all day. For a moment I almost wished I could trade places with him, injured knee and all.


It wasn’t long before I dropped my decked canoe onto the water, snapped my sprayskirt on its cockpit rim, and took up my paddle. There were many strokes ahead of me.

During the first miles I picked a dry line down mild rapids, while the mist dissipated and the sun became a bright spot in the still-prevailing haze.

Then a well-defined eddy beckoned. I planted a paddle deep into its solid stillness, swung myself around to face upstream, and then drove out into the current again. Now that I had turned one way my muscles required a corresponding stretch on the opposite side; I soon found an appropriate eddy. Then the first side again. Back and forth. As the river began to fall more quickly I paused in the center of each eddy to look ahead, twisting around in my boat. Often a single glance was all I needed, allowing me to flow back into the current without entirely losing momentum.

At a deeper, more serious note from the river I pulled against one shore. A vertical gap in my view downstream marked a steeper drop. I stopped and climbed from my boat, making the awkward transition from water to land-animal.

Three choices. I could carry around. I could run the drop before me, to plunge into a bubbling pool, with unknown consequences. Or I could scout a side channel that flowed off to river right.

I shivered in the mist that rose from the churning water before me, and again felt a shrinking distaste for all that turbulent wetness. I could easily pick up my boat and carry around; the pool below the falls waited only steps away. No one was there to judge me, to coax me; no one was there to impress. The only thing that I had to do today was to deliver myself at the take-out before dark, where food and shelter waited. In fact–what was I doing here at all? Why go to all the trouble to get myself into a situation in which my only goal was to get myself out again?

Take away the prop of other people, the support of their gaze, the stimulus of their conversation–was there anything left?

I looked up at the sky, around at the undramatic brown hills, and felt a crazy, disconnected freedom. I could scream, sing, shout, run naked…. No one was there; no one would pass this way for months. How strange it seemed, that of all of the places on Earth, I was in this particular one. I looked back up the river. No trace remained of my passage. Yet here I was, somehow. Still shivering.

Looking back at the drop I saw, in one sweeping glance, the proper line. I imagined how it would feel, how the strokes would fall, how the waves would jostle me. Then, without ever having come to a conscious decision, I trotted back to my boat.

Swooping with the water as it curved, then smacking into the boiling pool below, seemed so natural, so inevitable, that it was almost dreamlike. The imagined run and the experience had blended.

More rapids, more drops, more decisions. Rocks and water, hills and sky were my only audience. All the attention I would have given to companions fell only on these–and on myself. The day grew warmer, the sun brighter. Once I tried sunbathing on a flat rock out of the wind. Still too cold, the sun too hazed. I had brought no lunch. One part of me wanted only to put the miles behind me, to find food and warmth and companionship at the end of the run. Another part wanted nothing, was lost in the wordless isolation of the day.

In a calm stretch I pulled my boat onto shore and wandered up a small rise, between oaks and beeches and dogwood and rhododendron, to relieve myself. Away from the river I became aware of the calls of birds, the rustle and scamper of small animals, the soughing of wind in the trees. I walked further from the river, aimlessly exploring.

Who owned this land? Did anyone ever visit it?

I put my hand on a white oak tree and looked up, feeling its strength of trunk, its spread of bare reaching limbs. I laid my cheek against it as if to plumb the secrets of its woody heart.

The chill drove me back to my boat, where I was grateful to again fold my bare legs into its thin fiberglass protection. The sun, a white disc showing through the wooly overcast, had already passed its zenith. I had no watch, but I could feel the afternoon drawing on as I continued down the river.

Again I was forced to scout, again wondered why I should run a tricky ledge. Why bother? The desire seemed to come not from my mind but out of my hands, my arms, my back. This morning my body had demanded symmetrical turns. Now it urged me to put into motion the strokes I imagined while standing on shore.

Look. See. Do.

The river took on a new rhythm. The rapids became more continuous, the surrounding hills steeper. Now I threaded down among large, dark, worn rocks, half submerged, that brooded silently amidst the rushing waters.

I came to a rapid where the only clear channel lay between two large boulders in midstream. There was no good way to scout from shore; I paddled back and forth above the drop, snatching glimpses over my shoulder when I could. A smooth green path of water led over the lip between them, exiting below as a gush of white foam.

Finally I swung my canoe around and shot through the gap. Losing my balance I put out my paddle in an instinctive brace–it rasped over the rock–then with a “Crack!” that vibrated through my arm I tipped over.

I fell as through a mirror into another world: a cold, wet, unfriendly world where I could not breathe, could not see, could not hear. Stupidly not understanding, I tried to use my paddle to right myself. Failing, I realized that I held only a splintered shaft in my hands–the blade had broken off. I tried to roll up with my hands only, a maneuver that was easy in a swimming pool; failing again, I pulled my spray skirt from the cockpit rim, pushed my legs from the boat, and swam upward.

Light. Air. I grabbed the end-loop of my canoe and hung on grimly, looking from bank to bank in indecision. As I hesitated, the current washed me gently against a flat rock that just broke the surface. I crawled up onto it.

For some moments I lay, while the water drained from my clothes. But I couldn’t rest for long. I had to find the paddle blade. With miles still to go, I needed it.

I rose and gazed downstream. Not far below me the river fell away abruptly over and around an irregular line of boulders. No paddle.

It might have hung up somewhere in the drop below; if not, it was now washing downstream. I had to catch it. I had to try.

With a struggle I emptied my slippery water-filled craft, slid it into the water below the rock and stepped in. Without bothering with bracing or spray skirt I hand-paddled to the left bank, jumped out and, hoisting the canoe to my shoulder, tried to run along the bank.

But it was impossible to run amongst the jumble of boulders. In the next eddy I could find I climbed in again, pushing fully into the knee braces this time and attaching the spray skirt around me. From close-by, upstream, came the pulsating roar of the rapid I had just carried around. Downstream the waves were mild, and scooping at the water with both hands I made good time through them and around a bend.

There, above the next rapid, I saw the blond flash of freshly broken wood. Bent forward I dug away, harder and harder, as if sprinting for a finish line, as if thousands of spectators were cheering me on. I snatched up the broken blade just at the lip of the next drop.

Crude though it was–a blade with only six inches of splintered shaft for handle–it yet served far better than my hands. The rapid proved easy.

When the water slowed and deepened I rested, leaning forward on my front deck. Before me lay a long, quiet pool. I had reached the reservoir that filled the river valley with its unnatural flood.

The sound of rapids upstream became louder as I drifted around to face them. A patch of vivid blue appeared in the sky above the hills upstream. The first clear sky of the day. For one moment, seeing the sky, the hills, the trees, the river, it seemed that a great message was about to be given to me. I sat very still, floating, waiting in suspense.

No message came.

I breathed again. That scrap of luminescent blue emphasized the relative gloom of the shaded river. It must be getting late. And I had–what was it?–I tried to remember from the map–two or three miles of flat reservoir to cross before I reached the take-out.

Through experiment I found that the best way to use my stub of a paddle was to switch from one side to the other every few strokes. The splintered wood chafed my hands. My back ached. My legs cramped. It seemed much longer than a few miles. The riverbed widened into a lake that still did not reveal my brother or any sign of road.

I made for a light patch amidst the dull shoreline: a beach, I guessed. Slowly I crawled across the surface of the water. A dark spot resolved itself into Tom, sitting motionless. Watching me approach, no doubt. Now I existed in someone else’s eyes.

I paddled straight in, running my bow onto the rough pebbles. Tom sat against a little tree stump, his crutches beside him, looking at me with mild interest. The moment came when he should have spoken, asked a question, wondered at my plight … and the moment went by in silence. My turn … somehow silence was the proper answer.

Silence to silence went the conversation as I climbed stiffly from my boat, hoisted it, and waited for Tom to push himself to his feet.

Still without speaking we made our way along a path through blackberry bushes. With one word, any word, I would have fallen back into everyday life. Instead I remained suspended. The diffuse light of the fading sunset, the water dripping from my boat, the ground beneath my feet, the bushes, Tom–I was acutely aware of them all. At the same time I was aware of my own awareness. I could look both ways–from outside and from inside–bounded and unbounded–framed and frameless–present and storied.


As he drove out the gravel take-out road, Tom threw out a long arm to point across me.

“Moon’s up,” he said, with a quizzical smile.

The moon gave only a fuzzy glow through the haze: unworthy of photographs, not suitable for framing.

“Oh, moon,” I said. “Oooooh moon!” I howled, and we laughed as the gravel clicked and the van swayed and the boats creaked above.


An Analytical Look at Survivable Submersion Times

After the tragic entrapment of a canoeist on the Little River last weekend, I found myself wondering about the odds of surviving a long submersion.  The canoeist’s peers, a team experienced in swiftwater rescue, persisted in their rescue efforts for 37 minutes by repeatedly swimming into a rapid that had just ensnared their friend in an unseen feature and despite initial orders from responding authorities.(1) Thus is the camaraderie and commitment within the boating community; few rescue personnel would have given the same concerted effort at such great risk to themselves. That a pulse and spontaneous respirations were restored following resuscitation is further testament to their efforts. Unfortunately, the victim succumbed to his injuries later that evening in the hospital.

The decision to continue rescue efforts is personal and based on careful consideration of the risk to oneself and the likelihood of good outcome for the victim.  Many boaters would place themselves in harms way given the slightest chance of successful rescue, and I’m sure some would even risk harm to recover the body of a friend. Nobody can argue with those decisions, as long as they are based on an understanding of the chances for successful recovery. While most boaters have an appreciation of the risk involved in a rescue, few understand the relationship between survival and time submerged. I have heard everything from scaling back efforts following the “1-minute window” to pursuing rescue up to an hour in cold water. Medical professionals were present for last week’s rescue, and their decision to continue the rescue was based on a variety of factors.  While contemplating what I would have done, I realized my knowledge was limited to a recollection that children can survive extended periods submerged in cold water, and that Rod Baird survived 6 minutes submerged under Hydroelectric Rock on the Chattooga(2). The following is an exploration of the subject to aid myself, and others, in similar situations.

The Natural Course of Prolonged Submersion

Death or severe disability by drowning is caused primarily by lack of oxygen to the brain. Fatal neurological injury normally occurs within 5 to 7 minutes of submersion, and almost always occurs following 12 to 14 minutes.(3) Survivors may suffer a spectrum of disability ranging from memory loss to persistent vegetative state, as damage to the brain progresses inward from the cortex (higher brain functions) to the brainstem (heartbeat, respirations, reflexes). Challenges following resuscitation include fatal brain swelling, damage to the kidneys and lungs, and electrolyte imbalances which can cause cardiac arrest. Several studies have demonstrated the relationship between submersion time and survival (5,6), including a case series of children that found the risk of death or severe neurological disability to be 10% for 0 to 5 minutes, 56% for 6 to 9 minutes, 88% for 10 to 25 minutes, and 100% for greater than 25 minutes.(7)

Submersion time over 5 minutes makes intact survival unlikely; however, there have been rare cases of survival following prolonged submersion, including the longest case ever documented, a 2.5 year old girl submerged for 66 minutes in 5°C (41°F) water.(8)  One physician writes, “Reports of such ‘miracle’ cases in the medical literature, although fascinating, can readily introduce a false optimism because of the limited reporting of the dismal outcome in the majority of prolonged submersion victims.”(9)  There are 500,000 fatal cases of drowning per year worldwide(10), and exposure-adjusted, person-time estimates for drowning are 200 times as high as such estimates for deaths from traffic accidents(11). Despite this frequency, a 2011 review of medical and news reports with documented submersion time and age found only 43 cases of survival with near-normal functionality following prolonged submersion (> 4 minutes).(4)  Two-thirds were children less than 12 years old, and the remaining adolescents and adults were noted to be small in size. Only 4 survived prolonged submersion in water greater than 6° C (42.8° F), and all were submerged less than 30 minutes. The authors state that “this is likely to be a reflection of the fact that such survival is extremely rare in water warmer than 6 °C, rather than indicating that we have missed a large number of incidents in our search of the literature”, although the possibility of undocumented cases has been raised (12,13).

Cold water lengthens the survival time by two mechanisms. It triggers the mammalian diving reflex, which halts breathing and conserves oxygen by slowing the heart rate and moving blood to vital parts of the body. This response is stronger in children than adults.(14) An opposing “cold shock response” may predominate, which leads to a faster heart rate with potential fatal rhythm disturbances(15). This response also causes immediate aspiration and swallowing of water, which quickly cools the heart and carotid arteries leading to “selective brain cooling”.(4) A reduction of brain temperature by 10° C decreases energy consumption by 50% and doubles the duration of time the brain can survive without oxygen.(16)  This “therapeutic” hypothermia is accelerated by surface cooling in children and small adults with higher surface-area to body mass ratios and less subcutaneous fat.  Panic by the victim (breath holding and vigorous attempts at escape) and protective gear worn in cold water work against these principles and may prevent therapeutic hypothermia.

Relationship between water temp and submerged survival time for the rare instances of survival with full recovery outlined above. From Tipton 2011

Technical Guidelines for Rescue Attempts

There is no universal consensus on rescue efforts in prolonged submersion. A group of experts published the following based on the cases outlined above: “if water temperature is warmer than 6 °C (42.8 °F), survival/resuscitation is extremely unlikely if submerged longer than 30 minutes. If water temperature is 6°C or below, survival/resuscitation is extremely unlikely if submerged longer than 90 minutes.”(4)  They made no differentiation between children and adults given that there have been rare cases of adults surviving prolonged submersion. The possibility that cases of survival longer than 30 minutes in water warmer than 6°C  exist, but have not been identified, has some promoting between 60 minutes (US Lifesaving Association) and 90 minutes (The Joint Royal College Ambulance Liaison Committee) of rescue efforts regardless of water temperature.(12,13) The original authors point to a lack of evidence supporting such guidelines, adding that “when conditions are extreme, rescuers may be put at risk without foundation.”(17) Regardless of differing views, all agree that it is the responsibility of the commander to tailor efforts to the situation at hand, and specified timeframes are simply guides “likely to be of most use when rescuers are placed at high risk by continuing a search and subsequent rescue attempt.”(17) As another medical professional writes: “It is important to emphasize that the victim first needs rescuing and it is the decision to continue these attempts beyond the ‘likely’ survival time that is important for the commander. If the casualty is still awaiting rescue and is beneath unstable ice, in large seas or in the depths of a cave then we would hope rescuers would think carefully about the likelihood of survival versus the risk to those whom we know to be alive right now – the rescuers.”(18)

Practical Guidelines for Rescue Attempts

In dangerous swiftwater environments, the likelihood of survival should continuously be reassessed by the trip leader or individual leading the rescue. For the average person trapped underwater, intact survival is most likely if rescued within 5 minutes, and unlikely following 10 minutes. Cases of survival longer than this are rare, but efforts may be extended in controlled environments with acceptable risk. Guidelines vary between 30 minutes for water exceeding 6°C (4), to 90 minutes regardless of water temperature (12). The one consensus is that likelihood of survival decreases greatly with time submerged, and this should be considered in light of the risk to the rescuer.

Situational awareness is key, and each rescue will be unique. Accessible location, experienced team, and low risk to the rescuers make prolonged efforts more reasonable. Water colder than 6°C and small size of the person entrapped may increase the length of survival. Rivers in both rainfed and snowmelt regions may be colder than 6°C in the winter, but typically exceed this temperature in the spring, summer, and fall (see figures below the Conclusion section for average temperatures based on USGS data from a variety of popular whitewater runs(19)).  For example, from March 10th to 16th this year, the Little River fluctuated from 4.4 to 10 °C (NOAA).  Of course, rivers vary widely in temperature due to a variety of factors (distance from source, air temperature, reservoir release), and each river should be considered independently for the implications on rescue efforts. Lastly, whitewater is dynamic, and the possibility of air pockets should be factored in to any consideration of submerged time.


The rescue attempt that spurred this discussion was certainly conducted within accepted timeframes for possible survival, and it is admirable that the team persisted through difficult conditions to give their peer a chance, however small. Nobody can fault such selflessness, and I hope a similarly skilled crew is present should I ever become entrapped on the river. I also hope that each rescuer would be able to make an informed decision given the circumstances and consider their risk against my chance of survival. I would never wish for heroics that are not founded in purpose and reason.

Frequency of kayaking and seasonal differences between snowmelt and rain-dependent regions, based on averaged USGS data, from Moore 2010.


  1. American Whitewater Accident Database. Accident #3693. Accessed March 19, 2013.
  2. Chattooga River Fatalities and Near Fatalaties Since 1970. U.S. Forest Service.
  3. Orlowski JP. Drowning, near-drowning, and ice-water drowning. JAMA. 1988; 260: 390-1.
  4. Tipton MJ and Golden FS. A proposed decision-making guide for the search, rescue and resuscitation of submersion (head under) victims based on expert opinion. Resuscitation. 2011; 82: 819-24.
  5. Szpilman D. Near-drowning and drowning classification: a proposal to stratify mortality based on the analysis of 1,831 cases. Chest. 1997; 112: 660-5.
  6. Manolios N and Mackie I. Drowning and near-drowning on Australian beaches patrolled by life-savers: a 10-year study, 1973-1983. The Medical journal of Australia. 1988; 148: 165-7, 70-1.
  7. Quan L, Wentz KR, Gore EJ and Copass MK. Outcome and predictors of outcome in pediatric submersion victims receiving prehospital care in King County, Washington. Pediatrics. 1990; 86: 586-93.
  8. Bolte R and Black P. The use of extracorporeal rewarming in a child submerged for 66 minutes. JAMA. 1988; 260: 377-9.
  9. Suominen P, Baillie C, Korpela R, Rautanen S, Ranta S and Olkkola KT. Impact of age, submersion time and water temperature on outcome in near-drowning. Resuscitation. 2002; 52: 247-54.
  10. Peden M MK, Sharma K. The injury chart book: a graphical overview of the global burden of injuries. Geneva: World Health Organization, 2002.
  11. Mitchell RJ, Williamson AM and Olivier J. Estimates of drowning morbidity and mortality adjusted for exposure to risk. Injury prevention : journal of the International Society for Child and Adolescent Injury Prevention. 2010; 16: 261-6.
  12. Perkins GD. Rescue and resuscitation or body retrieval—The dilemmas of search and rescue efforts in drowning incidents. Resuscitation. 2011; 82: 799-800.
  13. Perkins GD. Reply letter: Rescue and resuscitation or body retrieval. Resuscitation. 2011; 82: e5.
  14. Gooden BA. Why some people do not drown. Hypothermia versus the diving response. The Medical journal of Australia. 1992; 157: 629-32.
  15. Shattock MJ and Tipton MJ. ‘Autonomic conflict’: a different way to die during cold water immersion? The Journal of physiology. 2012; 590: 3219-30
  16. Szpilman D, Bierens JJLM, Handley AJ and Orlowski JP. Drowning. New England Journal of Medicine. 2012; 366: 2102-10.
  17. Tipton M, Golden F and Morgan P. Drowning: guidelines extant, evidence-based risk for rescuers? Resuscitation. 2013; 84: e31-2.
  18. Ramm H and Robson B. Reference editorial – Rescue and resuscitation or body retrieval. Resuscitation. 2011; 82: e3.
  19. Moore RD, Schuman TA, Scott TA, Mann SE, Davidson MA and Labadie RF. Exostoses of the external auditory canal in white-water kayakers. The Laryngoscope. 2010; 120: 582-90.
“Screaming Meanies” on the Little River. Photo by author in 2007.
Essays history

The first of the Jamie McEwan Trilogy: Iron Ring 1970

What a crowd,” my brother commented as we ate a hasty breakfast at the parking lot that, by common consent, had become the paddlers’ campground. There must have been six or eight other cars there, at least a dozen paddlers, just beginning to stir.

That was a crowd in those days. How little we could have imagined that the annual draw-down from the Summersville Dam would one day become the “Gauley Fest”: one part each of circus, party, and trade show, with attendance in the thousands.

It was a chill October morning. Someone was pumping up a Coleman stove; others were conversing in low tones. Though we were out of sight of the Summersville Dam’s discharge pipes, we could hear the tremendous sound–not exactly a “rumbling,” but a peculiarly deep static–as the three great pipes, twenty feet across, unceasingly shot their jets of water at sixty to ninety miles per hour into a churning pool below. We had slept to that sound, dreamed to it.

“Come on,” said Tom to me. “Now’s the time.”

The sun had reached us, on our elevated plateau, but the valley below lay deep in misty shadow.

“You guys going to breakfast?” someone called as we opened the doors to our van.

“We’re going to put in,” Tom called back.

“What’s the big rush?”

“We’re doing the whole run today.”

“The whole twenty-two miles? Today?”

“That’s right.”

“What’ll you do tomorrow?”

“We’ll run it again tomorrow.”

The rest would split the trip into two days, hiking up a trail half-way down to camp with their shuttled cars.

“Hey, you haven’t run this before, have you?” asked someone else.

“No,” said Tom. “But it’s better to go alone, anyway.”

“What are you, anti-social?”

“Not really,” said Tom, with a grin that said, maybe he was. “But it’s more fun on your own. It’s like a first descent.”

Suddenly a knobby, balding head thrust out of the open hatch of a nearby cab-back pick-up. It was John Sweet, National Canoe Champion and a hero, a giant of the sport. A lean, wiry research chemist from Penn State, John was an expert in every aspect of boating, from the new fiberglass construction to the sliding pry stroke. It only added to his mystique that Sweet was the only whitewater paddler anyone had ever heard of who, it was said, couldn’t swim.

“You’re starting down without us?” Sweet asked. John already knew we were planning to do the trip in one day; we had arranged a shuttle with him the night before.

“Yeah,” said Tom. “We don’t want to be led down. We want to see it fresh.”

I watched John anxiously for his reaction. I had been nodding my agreement after each of Tom’s statements, but inside I wasn’t so sure.

Sweet would lead the other group. He was one of the few who had ever seen it before, having been part of the first canoe and kayak descent, two years previous. One of the few rapids that was then named was “Sweet’s Falls.”

“It makes sense to start early,” said Sweet. “You’ll have a long day. You’ll have to scout a lot in the upper half, though. And watch out for Iron Ring. You should carry that. Make sure you carry Iron Ring.”

The head pulled back in again.

Our Ford van thumped and clunked as we eased our way into the shadows, around the switchbacks, down to where the river steamed in the cool air. We suited up, dropped our slalom boats into an eddy that pulsed with the power of the current beyond, snapped on our spray skirts, soaked our hands for a minute in the water’s summer-stored warmth, then paddled out into the current, yielding ourselves to the power of the Gauley.

We scouted often that day, stumbling down the jumbled rocks of the bank, or scrambling up the backs of mansion-sized boulders to peer downstream. Each time we climbed from our boats and considered the puzzle of a new rapid, trying to guess at the nature of underwater obstacles from the particular shape of an exploding wave or the direction of the water’s bubbling recoil, trying to calculate the vectors of its dividing and intersecting currents, I asked myself: is this Iron Ring?

Tommy seemed less concerned. As was usual, the loquacious late-night wrangler over Nietzsche or Kierkegaard was transformed into a taciturn boating companion. His expression was rapt, elsewhere. My questions–will you go right or left? Is this one it, you think?–seemed irritating interruptions to a drawn-out conversation he was having with the river. He answered reluctantly. I knew why. To Tommy, words were out of place on the river. Words acted as an obscuring veil; only in silence could the raw experience be directly felt.

The run was twenty-two miles, the entire distance studded with rapids. Twenty-two miles is usually considered a full day of paddling. Twenty-two miles spent scanning for an iron ring at the top of each rapid on the Gauley river seemed Herculean.

I was not just searching for a steep rapid with a big hole at its end; I was looking for an actual ring–for that evocative name, Iron Ring, did not spring from some creative paddler’s brain. I was looking for a hunk of rusted iron that had been bolted into the bedrock of the river bank when the river had served as freight transportation for the product of these ancient hills. It was an anchor point to help lumberjacks clear the log-jams that commonly piled up at the lip of that particular drop.

The Gauley river, named after some long-forgotten West Virginia settler, was part of the drainage system of the mighty New River. The New is–naturally, given the name–one of the oldest rivers in the world, second only, some claim, to the Nile. The forests around us had been in existence for 250 million years, having escaped inundation when the Atlantic Ocean had formed a mere 160 million years ago.

Of course we didn’t know all that, at the time. We had heard it was good whitewater; so we were there.

We didn’t know its age, and yet–somehow–we could feel it. As a very crude, general rule, newer rivers run steadily downhill through beds of smallish rocks; older rivers gather themselves in quiet pools and then plunge suddenly over and between larger rocks or slabs of carved bedrock.

The boulders of the Gauley are particularly large. The smaller are like cars; then there are the delivery trucks; then the semis; then the truly house-sized. Like enormous prehistoric beasts they slumber amidst the swirling waters, towering above this new, brightly colored form of aquatic life that float, or dart quickly about, in their shadows. What cataclysm shook them down from what surrounding mountains, ages ago? (The “mountains” were worn now to rounded lumps of hills, their tops set far back, miles sometimes, from the river banks.) Or dug them, perhaps, out of the obdurate spine of the world. We did not know their story, but their size, the much-handled smoothness of their shapes, spoke to us of their high-piled years of patient endurance. They waited–for what? For us?

We never found the ring. We paddled every rapid of the twenty-two miles–Tommy leading most of them–and never found the iron ring.

We laughed and whooped it up, when, light-headed with hunger (we never brought lunch, in those days), we saw the road again, signaling the end of the run. What was so tough about Iron Ring? we gloated. We never even noticed it!

That evening, at the campground, we traded stories. We heard of lost paddles, swims, involuntary surfs in keeper holes. And, of course, we publicly gloated. What was so tough about Iron Ring?

At this point everyone looked to John Sweet, of course.

Maybe it’s not that hard, Sweet conceded. No harder than the rest. But it’s more dangerous. If you drop into that pour-over at the bottom, that might be it. You might die. It’s not worth the risk.

That sobered us. It sobered me, at least. I could not tell with Tom. I could never tell with Tom.

Was it the glasses that made Tommy so hard to read? Thick, horn-rimmed glasses, held together with strips of duct tape, behind which he blinked out at the world with an air of abstraction, an innocent untouchability which seemed to render him impervious to cold, hunger, danger, or disapproval. He didn’t see what others saw, the obvious, the surface; instead his special x-ray lenses permitted him to see straight through to the hidden essence of things.

I was still a teenager; Tom was twenty-four, the clear leader of our group of two. I was an enthusiastic follower: when Tommy said, “Let’s see it fresh, for ourselves,” I tagged along and did my very best to see it fresh, per instructions.

But here was another expert to listen to. And I listened carefully, to a detailed description of just where Iron Ring was, and just how to recognize it.

The next morning I had it repeated to me, just in case.

And I found it.

Again, we left before the rest, determined to have our own, unfiltered, unsullied experience on the river. We didn’t have to climb from our boats as often, now that we had seen it once. Though, of course, every run was different. Even the most highly trained and well-prepared racer, on a slalom course he may have run hundreds of times, which has been studied on video and analyzed for him by crowds of helpful coaches, still finds it impossible to trace the same line with the same strokes twice in a row. The waves seethe and froth, build and break into foaming white-caps, then flatten again into smooth green lumps. The eddies, too, swirl in one direction, then the other; the water level rises and falls along the banks; tall dry rocks receive an occasional splash on their very peaks from some playful jet. The surface of a rapid shifts and shivers like land in the grip of an unceasing earthquake. There are fractal patterns, too complex for calculation; there are probabilities; but there is never peace. A river is the world’s most dynamic playing field.

I found it, the iron ring set in the rock at the entrance of a short, violent rapid. Whose rough hands had set it in the rock sometime in the last century?

Iron Ring. I held it in my own hands. A heavy, cold piece of dark metal, eight inches in diameter, made of octagonal stock almost two inches thick, pinned so firmly by a bolt of the same material that it seemed a natural extension of the bedrock. Just a thing. And yet, it seemed to radiate a kind of unearthly power, as if it were a talisman, a magic token, the finger ring of a giant who lurked just over one of the surrounding ridges.

A thing; also a rapid. We hadn’t looked for the ring here, the day before, because this rapid had impressed us as less difficult than several we had already negotiated. There was an unobstructed passage down the right side, through a series of cresting waves. Some of these, breaking almost constantly, angled left, feeding into a good-sized pour-over that dropped into a steep hole.

The guru of the river had declared this one a killer hole.

We had judged the rapid no problem, the day before. Start right center, cut a little right near the bottom; no fancy maneuvers needed, no problem. Today it looked different. What if you flipped over?

Can you walk a beam six inches off the ground? Sure. How about sixty feet?

As usual, though, Tommy seemed unimpressed.

For once, I led the way; I couldn’t wait. Fear transformed into action, I drove right, right, far more right than needed, until I saw the hole go by.


I had just turned eighteen. That might explain the strength of the feeling that flowed through me, saturating my every cell. A feeling quieter, stronger than exultation. I didn’t feel like shouting, whooping: I felt completed, as if I had just been reunited with some long-mislaid piece of myself.

Catching the first eddy I could reach I turned upstream to watch my brother.

There he was. He hadn’t waited to watch me. There he was, floating down–backwards. Directly upstream of the hole. Looking first over one shoulder, then the other. I caught a glimpse of his face; it showed only his normal, bemused interest. His paddle moved in a casual rhythm.

“Go!” I shouted, meaninglessly. He could not hear.

It could not happen. It was not possible. He began to paddle away from the pour-over–not fast, just deliberately–but the waves were pushing the other way. His boat lifted for a moment as it rode over the buried rock, seemed to hesitate as if at the very last moment it might slip around–then fell into the hole. Something within me fell along with it.

Instantly the boat was upside down.


After staring for a moment I looked around, trying to shake off the numbness of my dazed horror. There must be something I could do, some way to effect an heroic rescue. But the hole was well off shore; I couldn’t reach him from there. And I couldn’t fight the current back up to where he was. There was nothing I could think of. Gone, gone. I was alone on the river. More completely alone than I had ever been.

Death. It could not happen. It could not. My brother. Tom. Could it really happen, like that?

I could still see his kayak’s white hull, bobbing in the intersection of the two currents. Falling water drummed down on it. And as I watched, the hull worked its way from the center of the hole toward one side. Then the current began to tug on one end. It moved farther and farther, the down-flowing current improving its grip with each surge, until the kayak bounced out one side of the hole and floated downstream.

Then the craft jerked, twisted–and there Tom was, water streaming from his helmet as he rolled. In a moment he pulled into the eddy alongside me.

“God, Tom.”

“Pretty good hole, eh?”

“I thought you were dead!”

“You did? No kidding. Actually, it was–kind of neat.” He smiled as he said this, perhaps at the inadequacy of the conventional phrase. But when all words were inadequate, the most worn cliché will do. “I could feel the current, under there,” he went on, “and I sort of pulled on it, with my paddle angled so it would pull me the right direction; I kept pulling, and I came out the side.”

“I saw, I saw that. God, but Tom–God you scared me.”


The rest of the run was full of incident. In Sweet’s Falls I broke my C-1 and, after rolling up and thus satisfying my sense of honor, was forced to climb from the sinking craft and swim it to shore. Yet after the emotional convulsions of Iron Ring, it was all anticlimax.

We talked to John Sweet again, before the long drive back home. We had to tell him. We had to ask, what about this killer hole? We caught him at the take-out, amidst the “crowd.”

Poor John–but that’s looking back. At the time we had no sympathy for the plight of the veteran who, after a run or two down a river, has “guru” status forced upon him.

“Well,” he said, his voice rising several notes and becoming even more nasal than usual, “well, the hole might not be so bad. It’s against the shore, there, where it’s all undercut, that it looks like a death trap. We saw it at a lot lower water level, that first time–maybe it’s not so dangerous now. At this level, it’s all pretty well covered, and there’s not much push that direction. But I tell you, there are a whole bunch of jagged, undercut rocks in there. I think the loggers used dynamite to clear out the channel, and that’s where the rubble ended up.”

Though we hadn’t seen any of this, we nodded and looked appropriately grave.

“I’d have to look at it,” said Tom later, out of John’s hearing. “You’ve always got to see it for yourself. You’ve got to see it fresh.”

Seeing it fresh: that was Tommy’s specialty. Tom was the first to explore the innards of that hole, and, over the years, he has been among the first to plumb the secrets of rivers from Mexico to Newfoundland to Bhutan, even pushing the edge of the runnable in his own backyard, on the Great Falls of the Potomac.

Seeing it fresh. Talking to the river gods, one on one, deep in their secret places. Seeing things, feeling things, beneath the surface, beyond the reach of ordinary vision.

I’ve tried his glasses. They don’t do anything for me.


Life and Death Beyond the Edge

I watched a man die, for the first time, on the Green River.  Witt was vertically pinned against a tombstone shaped rock at the bottom of Chiefs.  I was scouting Gorilla when I heard shouting.

“He’s pinned” a panicked voice rang out.  I turned and looked back at Witt.  He was vertical but not moving.  Water slammed against his back.  In an instant, the boat collapsed violently and Witt was buried in a liquid avalanche.

We ran up river to help, but it was hopeless.  I will never forget his hand.  It reached up to the surface desperately.  He was still alive and reaching, praying, hoping that somehow we could get a rope to that weakening hand and rescue him.  He struggled for a couple of minutes before going limp.  I could not see his hand after that.

Hours after the water was turned off we extracted Witt’s body with the help of a rescue crew.  His femurs were both broken in half, his legs limp and deformed like bags of jelly.

The second drowning I witnessed was five years later on the Russell Fork, a notoriously deadly class 5 run in Kentucky.  The rocks there are like Swiss cheese, full of holes.  John was an older man and he was rag dolled in a hole for minutes and minutes.  Eventually he flushed out, still in his boat.  A friend pulled him out of the kayak and onto shore.  CPR was initiated, but it was far too late.  John’s skin was a blue-ashen pale.   His life was over.

In both instances, I paddled class 5 the following day.

My Dad got me into kayaking when I was only a kid.  We lived thirty minutes from the Nantahala in North Carolina in what seemed like the whitewater epicenter of the universe.  What more could an eleven-year-old boater ask for?  I spent several years learning the basics, and by the time I was thirteen I was ready for the Ocoee.

The Ocoee is a class 3+ play run, but, at the time, it was a rite of passage.  I stood atop the long concrete ramp that leads to the water and stared at the maelstrom of whitewater in front of me.  I was intimidated, scared but excited.  I don’t remember anything else from that day, but I have a vivid image of the view below the ramp.  Beautiful, enticing, rushing water led to a bend in the river.  Beyond that the river was unknown to me-but I wanted to go there.

As time passed, I became a better paddler.  I ran Section 4 of the Chattooga as a sophomore in high school.  I was comfortable in class 4 and 4+ whitewater, but my Dad would not let me step up to class 5.  At the time it seemed unfair, but I appreciated his conservatism later because it taught me patience.

I graduated from high school and got a job as a raft guide with NOC.  It rained during the spring raft guide training.  A group of us went to the upper Nantahala and ran the Cascades.  At the time it was the steepest thing I had run.  Big Kahuna, the crux rapid, felt like it was 28 feet tall (it’s about 8 feet tall).  It was the first time I had to look up to see upstream.  The rush and sense of accomplishment hooked me.  I loved being in control and so intensely focused that nothing but the water, gravity and me existed.

A natural progression occurred. Paddling difficult whitewater 200 days a year paid off.   I became an expert hair boater.  A year or two after the drowning on the Green another experience changed my life forever.

It was a cold December day.  My buddy Obie and I were running the Green.  We knew the water would be high, but we did not expect the raging monster that we found at the put-in.  Arriving at Gorilla, Obie began the portage.  I stayed in my boat.  “What are you doing, man?  Are you fucking crazy?” he said.

“I can do this.  Will you hold a rope for me?”

I ferried across the lip of the entrance, boofing clean into a big eddy.  I looked over at Obie, and he held up his rope to show me that it was frozen solid.  I was on my own.

A second ferry and I hit the meat of the Notch with all of my conviction.  I typewriterred into the main flow and took a couple of quick strokes before flying off the main drop, a narrow 15 footer.  Exiting the flume I punched a couple of large sliding holes and dropped into a final eddy.  I had never felt so alive.  I had entered the world of big time class 5 and 6 whitewater.  I never looked back.

The next ten years held countless river days, countless adventures.  There were solo runs on the Cullasaja, Linville, and Taureau; doubles and triples of the Taureau and Linville; class 6 descents of standard portages in NC, Colorado, and California.

One day I found myself alone, vertically pinned on the Cullasaja with the entire river pouring onto my back and head.   I did not have an air pocket.  I was doomed.  But, as suddenly as I had pinned, I popped off the rock and continued on my way with sore legs and a broken boat.  The next day I returned to the ‘Saja, solo, and ran the same rapid that had nearly killed me.

My greatest fear was not death.  My greatest fear was losing my edge.  My greatest fear was shoulder dislocation.  I lived to paddle and paddled, literally, to live.

In the shadow of all the insane boating, I led a normal life.  I graduated from paramedic and nursing school, working in the field for over 10 years.  I married and had a beautiful little boy.  We named him Ryland.  I was aware that as I forged my way through life, running difficult water, my responsibilities were increasing, but the idea did not bother me.  Nor did it change the way I paddled.  I became a little more conservative as I aged-it’s inevitable.  But I was still running class 5+ whitewater consistently.

Last August, rain fell in New England.  My main paddling partner Alan Panebaker and I ran Glover Brook.  Glover is steep, shallow and blind.  Full of wood and pin rocks, it’s a true gnar run.  We approached a blind slot, and I hopped out to scout from the top.  I glanced downstream and everything looked clear.  I got back in my boat and shouted some directions to Alan.   As I ferried into current, I felt a twinge in my gut; “something ain’t right,” I thought.  But it was too late, I was committed.  As I dropped over the edge, I stopped dead.   I could not tell what was wrong, but I knew it was bad.

“What the fuck?” was all I had time to think before I was ripped from my boat.  I swam under a log breaching the slot.

“I should be dead,” I thought as I gathered my gear.

“If you had stopped in there, I would just be standing on the shore in a panic right now” Alan said grimly.

“Yeah, there’s nothing you could have done for me, that’s for sure”.

The close call did not have a lasting effect on us.  We were immediately back in our boats running class 5 and 5+ whitewater.  We laughed at danger.

Maybe we should not have.  Alan died a month later.  I watched him broach and pin against a sieve with a tree in it.  He fought for his life, but he was on his own and there was nothing he could do.  He flipped and went into the sieve.  We were below him in a walled out, smooth granite bowl.  By the time we got back up to the sieve he was nowhere to be seen.  We weren’t even sure he was in the sieve but threw ropes into it with fading hope.  He was there, but his hands never grasped our ropes.

An hour or two later, with more manpower, we were able to move the log around and free his body.  He floated through the rapids before coming to rest in a large recirculating eddy.  I ran to my boat horrified, and paddled up to my friend.  He was the pale blue hue that is unmistakably dead.

“Ohh Alan” I groaned under my breath as I clipped my tow tether to his lifejacket.  I ferried out into the flow and Toby grabbed his body.  I caught an eddy and clambered onto a rock to help.  We pulled Alan’s cold body out of the frigid, clear water.  I lay across the top of him, hugging him.  I looked up and saw tourists taking pictures of us with their smart phones.

“This can’t be real.”  I was in a daze hiking out of the gorge.  I called Alan’s girlfriend fifteen or twenty times before finally leaving a message.  “It’s Adam.  Call me.”

We drove to her house that afternoon.  I quickly got drunk on a bottle of Knob Creek whisky. Its warm burn was the only thing I could feel.  Everything else was a surreal numb.

When we arrived at her house, we hugged and cried.  I apologized over and over.  “I’m so sorry.  So sorry.  I never wanted it to be like this.  I never wanted to make that phone call.”

Buddy, Alan’s dog, barked nervously like he expected Alan to walk in the door any minute.

The next ten days were a blur of alcohol and logistics.  We corralled boats and gear, called family members and friends, planned a memorial service.  We drank and drank some more.  It was the hardest week of my life.  I can only imagine how Alan’s family felt.

Now I sit here, trying to make sense of the senseless.  There is no moral to this story.  Alan, Witt and John were in the wrong place.  They died.  I have many other friends who were in the wrong place.  They died too.

I love the sport.  It has taken me to places physically and figuratively that most people will never see.  And there are more good lines than bad ones-more near misses and close calls than fatalities.  Kayaking dangerous whitewater is often forgiving.  The problem is that when it’s not, the toll is too high.


Welcome to Site Zed

Site Zed publishes interesting and thought-provoking original content inspired from paddlesports.  The name comes from the Stikine River in British Columbia, Canada.  Site Zed on the Stikine is the scene of a proposed dam, a local fight against dam construction, and a massive rapid that remained un-run until 2012.  The complexity of its history and the scale of its rapid makes Site Zed a thought-provoking and inspiring locale for the paddlers lucky enough to experience it. This site aspires to be a similarly rich and complex in the stories it tells.

We will be publishing long-form content several times a year with the hopes of giving readers meaty ideas to chew on. Our pieces will range in topic but remain united in their connection to the world of paddlesports.  The first pieces investigate the kayaking community’s value on paddling technique and style, the consequence of whitewater dam releases, and a frank look at the paddlesports industry’s dependency on overseas manufacturing.  This gives a window into the depth and quality to expect from Site Zed.
We welcome your comments and hope you enjoy Site Zed.


For participants in a sport where peeling out at the top of a rapid almost inevitably results in arriving at the bottom, kayakers seem surprisingly indifferent to matters of style. Things can go pretty badly awry, and onlookers might roll their eyes at a particularly bad line, but someone would have to be radically over his head before anyone would be likely to say anything about it. In other sports, this is not the case. Compare surfing: at the world’s stoutest breaks, a surfer with only a few months or even a few years of experience would have virtually no chance of catching and making a wave. Nevertheless, even a surfer with all the skills to ride waves at Hawaii’s Pipeline would be blocked from catching waves, mocked, maybe beaten, if he were surfing with bad style or acting in a way that put other people at risk. For kayakers, though, bucking up to run something huge, even if it isn’t done with much grace, is a lot more likely to get attention and praise than putting down a pretty line on some anonymous class III. Kayaking is not surfing, and few people, if any, would want to see aggressive, territorial behavior find its way onto the river. But is that behavior meeting some social needs in surfing that are going unmet in kayaking?

If there is a place where kayaking’s collective lack of social controls is being tested, it might be the Green River in North Carolina. For how steep it is, the Green is an unbelievably forgiving run. But that forgiveness is routinely being tested by huge crowds of paddlers, some seemingly lacking the basic skills to run any river safely. In June, a video was posted on YouTube showing some gut wrenching lines on the Narrows: one paddler takes a header off Gorilla, another misses the eddy on the lip of Sunshine (a class III move at most) and drops off the center backwards, another paddler swims in the class III runout.  Two of the Southeast’s best (and best known) paddlers, Isaac Levinson and Pat Keller, posted comments, in a discussion that meandered from Facebook to BoaterTalk to the YouTube comment section, calling out the video as an example of dangerous and unacceptable behavior. The callout was unusual, but it was the reactions that were perhaps more telling in what they reveal about attitudes in the sport, as well as the mentality that our collective indifference to matters of style, technique, and safety have helped to bring about with regard to how a paddler progresses in the sport.

One paddler in the YouTube comments section wrote, “I don’t know who died and made Pat and Isaac god, but they sure are a bunch of dumb shits!!! Tell me that they came out of the womb paddling class 5. Everyone has to start somewhere…” Much has been made about how advances in equipment and technique now enable paddlers to run whitewater in a season or so that once might have taken a career to achieve, but for paddlers who took up the sport in an earlier era, the implications of comments like that are jaw dropping: for some portion of the paddling population, the Green is now regarded as a place to start, and taking hair raising crashes as a stepping stone. That mentality has serious implications, though, for everyone’s safety and for the ability of new boaters to progress in the sport.

 It is often suggested that the genesis of surfing’s aggressive attitude towards loose behavior in the lineup is the fight for scarce resources in an inherently dangerous environment, and it may be that changes in the sport of kayaking are pushing toward a similar dynamic. While growth in kayaking participation overall has largely plateaued, creeking is gaining in popularity, and moderately difficult runs like the Green are starting to see crowds that wouldn’t have existed a decade ago. But while a crowd of marginal paddlers at your local playspot is annoying, crowds on class V whitewater are undeniably dangerous.

That danger manifests itself in a way that is perhaps unique to kayaking, and in a way that might account for some antagonism toward boaters insistent on paddling over their heads. In kayaking, there are a lot of ways that things can go wrong. Most of them, though, lead to a brief and urgent window during which another boater can step in and potentially save someone’s life. A pin, a swimmer being recirculated, a long swim threatening a flush drowning… in all these situations, urgent action can be the difference between life and death. And in all these situations, too, that urgent action is likely to call on someone else to immediately put his own life at risk. In the surf, outside of the unique dynamic of tow-in surfing, someone getting beat down is basically on his own. If someone falls climbing, there’s either someone standing at the end of the rope, or there isn’t. But in kayaking, when someone is in trouble, someone has to act, boldly, and immediately.

One of the most admirable characteristics of the kayaking community is this: when someone is in trouble, anyone present will step up and in an instant put his or her own life at risk to save a complete stranger. On a more pedestrian level, paddlers are almost always there for each other when it comes time to help someone who’s swam or unpin a boat, even if it isn’t a life threatening situation. When someone is paddling over his head, he undercuts that dynamic, both by being much more likely to need help and by himself probably lacking the necessary skills to help someone else. Even when it doesn’t entail undue risk, stopping for an hour to deal with unpinning a boat or helping a swimmer across the river interrupts the flow of the run and of the day; nevertheless, most kayakers value being a part of a community where helping out is the norm and wouldn’t want to see the river become an environment where people callously blow by other boaters who could use a hand. If kayakers have to choose between preserving the all-for-one safety ethos on the river or preserving the everybody-come-along vibe in the parking lot, I think most people would unquestionably pick the former.

It seems at times, as well, that the community’s willingness to accept a high level of carnage as normal has lead to some mistaken ideas about how paddlers progress in the sport. Contrary to YouTube commenter opinion, most top kayakers did not start kayaking on the Green River Narrows. “I started kayaking when I was 10, and I started paddling more frequently when I was about 13,” Rush Sturges explained to me. “I ran my first real Class V when I was 14 years old. Leading up to that run (it was Cherry Creek Proper) I was running a LOT of Class IV. I ran the local grade IV section on the Cal Salmon many times that Spring and Summer to prepare. I was very nervous before putting on the river. I had certainly hyped up what Class V was going to be like, and when I finished the run, I walked away with a smile on my face. Rather than being at the edge of my limits on the run, I was actually super solid and didn’t miss a single boof…. I personally am thankful I spent as much time and effort [as] I did on Grade III and IV before finally stepping my game up. I was super fortunate to grow up around competent kayakers, and I think that had a lot to do with it. I didn’t even have a swim until I was 20 years old on Upper Cherry Creek. I’m not trying to brag by saying that, just pointing out that time spent preparing on easier stuff is time well spent when you decide to raise the bar.”

The best athletes in any sport are often those that started young, but consider this possibility: maybe in addition to all the other benefits of beginning at a young age, kayakers who start early turn into better boaters because they are often forced by someone—a parent, an older mentor—to paddle easy whitewater longer than they might want to or really need to. As John Weld put it, “When you’re 13 years old, you’re going to the Lower Yough whether you like it or not.” It truly is a common experience of the best paddlers that, whether through the influence of an older mentor, a lack of good or consistent whitewater, slalom racing, or some other factor, these paddlers have put in a lot of time working on hard moves on easy water.

More than just putting in time on easy whitewater, learning new skills requires pushing it hard on easy whitewater all the time, and it may be that this is an easier mindset to adopt for younger paddlers(for example). It isn’t just a matter of “feeling comfortable” on easier water before taking the next step; it’s about consistently pushing it on easier water—taking the hardest lines, catching the smallest eddies, boofing every rock; learning to make judgments about what moves are makeable and which aren’t; and learning to deal with the repercussions of missed judgments in whitewater with less consequence than in class V. That sort of learning is hard to achieve in a setting where a paddler is basically hanging on for his life.

Pat Keller explained the steps he took to get better when he was starting in the sport this way: “[C]linics clinics clinics, slalom, clinics clinics clinics, foamies…. freestyle freestyle freestyle, clinics clinics clinics (you get the picture)…. Every step on the way up that ladder is important. Take time to know with each one if you are ready to proceed. Willing is easy, knowing is what’s hard.” Runs like the Green are undoubtedly a key step towards becoming a solid boater, but there are surely quite a few steps to be taken before a new boater gets there. “[T]he Green has become the Mecca of honing the skills to become a solid creek boater,” Pat says. “More and more paddlers are climbing that ladder of skill, and the Green is certainly a cherished step for all those who take it. But it must be climbed to with much respect for the dangers along the way.”

All of this is a lot less sexy than just “firing it up,” though. Your Facebook friends are going to be a lot less impressed with that attainment it took you a month to finally make on the Lower Yough than they are with a picture of you rolling over the lip on Metlako. But paddling better, not just paddling harder water, is something that takes time. And taking beatings on difficult whitewater in the hope that one day the beatings will stop is not, for most paddlers, a viable path to success.

For most paddlers who’ve been in the sport for a while, the advantages of encouraging new boaters to progress incrementally seem obvious: fewer incidents to deal with, better safety on the water for everyone, fewer risks to access because of events on the river leading to negative attention or calls to search & rescue, a stronger sense of community. The less obvious issue is how, as a community, to achieve that. Most paddlers are understandably (and commendably) reluctant to insert themselves into other people’s risk taking decisions. As Rush puts it, “My gut feeling is that if someone is putting on the river with you, it’s his or her responsibility to know if that run is suitable for them. However, I am not afraid to tell someone that they should evaluate their skills before putting on a run, or ask them what types of similar runs they’ve done previous. Ultimately, kayaking is up to the individual and there is NO ego when it comes to making sure you are as safe as possible on Class V.”

It may be that the changes the community needs are as simple as recognizing your friends when they draw creative lines on the river or paddle well rather than just “going big.” Inclusion in the Rider of the Year competition of a “Best Line” category, recognizing “styled lines” alongside categories like Drop of the Year could be a step in that direction. A few less high-fives for surviving sketchy lines and being willing to encourage friends to take a step back when needed probably wouldn’t hurt, either.

In the end, the idea is to encourage community by cutting down on the sort of behavior that makes stronger boaters want to abandon weaker ones to fend for themselves or discourages new boaters from sticking with the sport. Hopefully we can all encourage up and coming boaters to progress in the sport safely and incrementally without resorting to slashing tires in the parking lot.

Then again, maybe surf-style aggression is on the way, whether we like it or not. The top comment on the YouTube video, “Carnage on the Nars”? “[F]ucking lame. Stay the fuck off the Green.”