The face of "the thing"
When I was seventeen, I told my parents that a few friends and I were going to the Tallulah "River". I told them we were going with some more experienced boaters and we'd be totally safe. I neglected to mention that the Tallulah Gorge was a class V river that we’d only ever seen in boating magazines, and that we’d made a pact to run Oceana, a 150 foot rockslide with big boulders jutting out at random intervals and water going so fast it would shoot twenty feet in the air when it hit the rocks.
When we got to the river, I signed a document exempting the state of Georgia for any liability for my life, and walked down five hundred metal stairs to the entrance rapids. My friends and I stood in line with our boats over our shoulders, waiting for our turn to put in. Right off the bat, you put your boat in a small eddy in the class IV entrance rapid. After whizzing through the first rapid, boofing off a rock and a fun little five foot drop, the world ended.
We eddied out on the side and looked down. Below us, we saw Oceana. The only official criteria for a class V rapid is that a human being has survived passing through it in a kayak, and Oceana was known as a "Class V+" rapid. The rockslide drops fifty feet in elevation and is 150 feet long, with the water moving so quickly that there are only two inches of fast-moving water between the boat and the rocks. The few exceptions to this are the random boulders and "The Thing" a huge rock ledge at the bottom, capable of stopping any kayak that hits it at speeds of 30 mph. The safest path is to aim for a small chute on the left and punch a recirculating hole at the bottom. My friends and I had heard a story about a woman who hit the Thing at full speed. She was in a playboat that didn’t protect her legs well. Allegedly, her shin bone became connected to her hip bone when she struck The Thing head on and came to a dead stop. Now, I never confirmed this story, but we had all heard it and definitely believed it at the time. We stared down the rapid, and looked back at each other. We were all nervous, and we all knew it.
It’s hard to describe the feeling you get kayaking up a horizon line, but I love it. Ideally, you have faith in your abilities and a plan for getting down, but the world keeps disappearing over the edge and all you can hear on the other side is a ferocious crashing sound. It’s a straight horizon, and you can’t see anything until you go over the edge. As you get closer and closer, you feel your speed pick up. To hit the rapid right, you have to pick up as much speed as you can. A moment comes when you need to embrace your fate, let the fear go and paddle for the edge as hard as possible. Your heart pounds, other thoughts drain away, and you drop. The world opens up and decisions are made by reflex and training, as you try to enjoy the ride while dodging your next concussion.
As I came over the edge at Oceana, I immediately realized my mistake. Because this was my first rock slide, I had not known what to expect and had trained for this as though it would be a normal rapid. If that were the case, I would be able to control the line of my boat with my paddle. Unfortunately, there was only an inch and a half of water over the rock in most places, so my paddle just hit the rock and didn’t really have any influence over where the boat went. Crap. I figured I'd try to steer the boat by leaning and angle, like a sled or snowboard.
I got water in my eyes at the top of the rapid, and shook my head to clear it. In that small amount of time, my boat turned towards one of the bigger rocks on my immediate right. I’d heard about the people who had broken legs, but I was definitely more concerned about my head. In an effort to avoid getting knocked out, I tried to steer my boat away by leaning back to the left side and raising the right edge of the boat in between me and the rock. When I hit, the rock flipped over and I was sliding down the rapid on my face. I was only down for half a second, but I was going between 25 and 30 mph. A small ledge hit my teeth, then my nose, and ripped my paddle out of my hands. I handrolled upright as I entered the re-circulating hole at the bottom (think washing machine that sucks people in and beats them with the current from the waterfall) and used my hands to paddle out while the current tried to pull me back in.
What my friends found most amusing about the whole thing was that the first words out of my mouth were, “Where is my paddle?”. I had a bloody nose and small, pointy shards where my front teeth used to be (which makes it extremely hard to eat post-boating nachos) and all I cared about was Maximus, the solid carbon fiber Werner paddle I’d blown a month’s lifeguarding salary on. (Side note: Werner paddles are awesome, and Jim Miller, the marketing director, was nice enough to who gave me a write up on their blog!) Luckily, someone had caught it coming out of the hole, and we were reunited. I got out for a second, wiped the blood off my face, and did the rest of the river. As far as I know, bits of my teeth are still bobbing around somewhere in the Tallulah gorge. Looking back, I thought alot about whether I'd just been a total idiot or whether there was some redeeming value, and I'm definitely glad I ran the river. I do wish I'd been more responsible and trained correctly for the rapid, but I guess that's the difference between your teens and 20s. Maybe maturity comes from the occasional rock to the face :).
Oceana, as pictured on American Whitewater