Linville Gorge: Triumph and Tragedy

Editor’s note: On April 28, 2018 a small team of kayakers paddled North Carolina’s Linville Gorge from Pine Trail to Lake James three times in one day. Linville is one of the grittiest runs on the East Coast. It is long, hard, and dangerous as a rattlesnake. The triple involved paddling 45 miles and dropping a vertical mile through a minefield of sieved out whitewater.

Although the first descent was attempted in the early ’70s over several days, Linville was not paddled regularly until the  early 2000s when Lunch Video Magazine popularized an abbreviated 4 mile section known as Babel to Conley.

In 2004 a crew paddled from Babel to Conley twice in a day, and 2008 saw the first Babel to Conley triple. Until recently no one had attempted to run the entire gorge multiple times back to back. Dylan McKinney, Steve McGrady, Michael Welch and Clay Lucas successfully completed the triple in fourteen hours.  But at the end of the day elation turned to horror when they paddled into a tragic scene. Dylan dropped by sitezed world headquarters after a late evening Green lap to tell the tale of the first true Linville triple.

SZ: Let’s start from the beginning. How did you guys plan and prepare for the triple?

DM: We had always talked about doing the triple when we were in college at ASU but we never acted on it.  Two years ago I was headed to work and got a bunch of text messages: “We are going for the Linville triple tomorrow.” I was super bummed I could not make it. They attempted it but I guess they didn’t plan it well enough…the first lap ended up being a little too long. They got to the put in for the second lap and completely axed it. They just took their time on the second. I was kind of stoked they did not get it, “All right, sweet. The door is still open.”

SZ: Who was the ring leader for the successful trip?

DM: Steve McGrady is always the motivator for anything that involves pushing limits. He sent a text out and we ran with it. We had always talked about it, but you can’t plan for the rain. I ran Horsepasture the day before Linville. I got back into town and Steve had been texting us, “Y’all are jangling, y’all aren’t gonna be there.” He had run Linville that day. He was camped out at the lake. I told him we would be there, “We’re gonna show up. We’ll get up at 4 a.m.” Michael and I got there at midnight and he still had to put a seat in his boat.

SZ: What time did you get to sleep?

DM: Around 1 a.m. Steve was sound asleep. He didn’t think we were gonna show up. He was calling us out the whole time. He was putting doubt in our minds about the level but we just stuck to the plan, “We’re gonna do this. I got food. Let’s go. We will be sleep deprived, but it will be fine. Let’s go.” I remember my alarm going off at 4:00 and just being like, “Ah shit. We gotta wake up.”

SZ: Who was there?

DM: Me, Steve, Clay Lucas and Michael Welch.

SZ: You had four cars?

DM: Yeah, four cars. When my alarm went off no one was moving at all. I was kind of thankful, “I’m tired, screw it.” Then Welch opened my door and said, “Get up dude, were going.” We all packed up, loaded up and rallied the dirt road in the dark. McGrady couldn’t believe we had made it.

SZ: There’s nothing better than a Linville dawn patrol. Where did you put on?

DM: Pine Trail. You can’t put on river right at the falls anymore so you would have to drive to the east rim of the gorge to put in at the falls.

SZ: What time was it?

DM: Six or so. We hiked in the dark the whole time. Not even a sunrise, just barely light, like it is now. The level was 2.6. We knew it was going to drop through the day, but it had ben an epic rain. This was in April. We had some friends camping out at Jailhouse on an overnighter. I don’t think they knew we were gonna do it. We passed their camp at 7 a.m. hootin’ and hollerin’ in the upper gorge. From there it was no eddys. Steve had been there the day before so we knew we were good with the wood situation.

SZ: Did you have any problems on the first lap?

DM: Run one went really well. It took just under four hours. We got to the takeout and there were a bunch of boaters there. It was just like clock work loading up again. We were on a program. We put on around 11:00 or 11:30 for the second lap. Everything went well until we got near The Wall down in the lower and Michael broke his paddle. It was funny, on the first lap we were like, “We need our breakdowns.” We forgot them. And on the second lap we were, “Let’s bring those breakdowns.” But we didn’t. So Welch was like, “Fuck it. I’m gonna do the third lap.” He hiked out on the Pinch In Trail. It’s heinous. He hiked all the way to the top of the gorge and we picked him up on our way up for the third lap.  The crux was the second lap, because when we got done we knew we still had time.

SZ: What were you eating?

DM: Ingles subs. We had a bunch of those and plenty of Gatorade and water. Some Yerba Mates. They were a life saver.

SZ: How was your energy level?

DM: The first one I was fine and the second one I was downing food even though I wasn’t really hungry. We were eating a little on the river but mostly on the drive. You’ve got forty-five minutes so it’s enough time to digest and get it moving on the hike in. I guess thinking back to it we were pretty defeated at the end of the second but we knew we had ample time. It was around 3:00 and we had daylight til 8:00 or 9:00. I never thought about it this way, but it’s one thing to run class V for a couple of hours; it’s another thing to do it for fourteen hours nonstop. Youre just checking behind you making sure everything is good. It was exhausting knowing we were tired and knowing we had to keep it dialed. We couldn’t let our guard down. At the end of the second we were prepping for our party lap, “Were gonna bring the speaker for the paddle out.” We brought that and a couple beers for the final hurrah.

The last lap, at the third rapid in Cathedral Gorge, Mike pinned sideways. I was behind him so I tried to grab him but he was stuck good. He bailed and his boat was floating down toward the next drop. We rescued his boat and put all that back together. We were crusing on down and no shit his paddle broke the second time not 100 yards from where the first one broke. We had breakdowns. We were getting exhausted. We didn’t want to deal with it. We could not get the paddle together, could not get it together. I brought mine and we got it together.

We got through The Wall. And after that it mellows out. The Pinch In Trail comes down to the river and there’s a big flat pool, a bunch of camping spots, and a shoalie section with a sieve. The first time I was there it was this oh shit moment. It’s a last minute move away from the sieve. Earlier we had talked about how once were below the last rapid of consequence, that rapid, we could break out the speaker and the beers. That was the pinnacle. That was our thing, blast the music and it did not matter. We would not need to be on guard anymore.

We floated through that rapid and we saw a throw rope stuck in the pin spot. We were like, “Weird.” We did not want to think anything bad had happened at that point. But we looked around and something seemed off. We floated down a little ways and saw a few boats on the side of the river. I saw Mac and Corey. I said, “What’s going on, are you guys good?”

None of them said a word.

They looked like they had seen a ghost. Mac didn’t say it but he kept mouthing something. I was thinking, “There’s no way he’s saying someone is dead, there’s no way.”

We got out of our boats and they had a bunch of lifejackets and gear piled on top of Burton. It had been over for awhile. Mac is a nurse. He called it. Burton tried to go up and over that spot and just pinned and John kept trying to throw him a rope, kept throwing him a rope. He whistled for Mac and those guys. Burton flushed and they got him out of the river. They worked him for a bit.

SZ: Sorry you had to see that.

DM: I saw the same thing happen to Eric Wiegel. I was eighteen. I was paddling with him. He was wearing an FNA helmet which I strongly discourage anyone from doing. I see my friends wearing shitty gear and they think its cool, old school, retro. It’s not cool. I’ve seen it. They think, “It can’t happen to me.” It can.

That’s what I thought when Eric died. “It can’t happen to me or anyone in my group. There’s no way it can happen.” And then I’m on the banks of the river doing CPR. Dragging a friend out of the river. He was going to ride home with me the next two days back to North Carolina.

SZ: It’s a brutal sport.

DM: It makes you wonder if it’s worth it. I don’t know sometimes. That’s the weird thing about it.

SZ: It’s not worth it when it goes bad.

DM: Crazy tough year and it was two weeks back to back. Maria, Burton and Matt.

SZ: After all that went down it must have been getting on in the day.

DM: We probably had an hour and a half of daylight when we rolled up on that scene. We spent forty minutes or so there. They had sent a runner to call 911. We gave them what little food we had, jackets and lights. We hung out for a little bit. We all took it different ways.

SZ: Tell me about that paddle out.

DM: It was a quiet one. I think I cried a couple times. Everyone had this stone cold look on their faces.

SZ: The thousand yard stare. Did you know Burton?

DM: I knew him. I didn’t know him well.

We paddled out in the dark. We got to the takeout and the rangers were breaking into Burton’s car. I opened up my phone and word had gotten out. Some people knew we were there and I had a handful of text from people trying to see if were okay.

It was a tough process. We went from the highest of high, “We made it, we did it. We overcame all our obstacles. Welch broke a paddle and hiked out. He didn’t paddle the last little bit but hell, he got the three laps. He hiked out Pinch In, that’s a shittier version of what we had done. Having to go tell people that we did three laps in a day and in the last rapid we saw somebody dead who we knew and kayaked with…who would have thought.

SZ: It’s the ultimate juxtaposition.

DM: The highest highs and lowest lows in a single day.

Photos Steve McGrady
Photos Steve McGrady


2 replies on “Linville Gorge: Triumph and Tragedy”

No words really provide comfort, only the passing of time. Im in WV but I know the community there was rocked hard with 3 losses in such a short period of time. Godspeed to the victims, families and friends. Cherish the wonderful memories and keep a watchful eye on your paddling friends.

Mike, Thank you for your kind words to Burtons’ family. As his parents this was heart wrenching to come upon. John Manley, Madison, and Chip have been amazingly supportive since his death. The river folks continue to send prayers, photos, cards and calls. We are so blessed that Burton knew the Lord and He continues to comfort us. We appreciate Adam and Dylan taking the time to do this article. We would love to receive two copies of the printed articles to share. Gratefully In Him, Burtons’ Parents Glenda and HB Greer

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