Part III: Learning to Whitewater on the Nantahala River
In 1976, the nation’s Centennial, my friend Mark’s family and my family happened to take separate vacations to North Carolina, and a few weeks apart we both happened upon a sparkling white-water river in the western mountains near Cherokee, not far from the terminus of the Blue Ridge Parkway and the eastern entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We both happened to take raft trips down the Nantahala River, which flowed through a deep gorge that gave the river its Cherokee name, “Nantahala–Land of the Noonday Sun,” because it was shaded a great part of the day. A two lane highway ran the length of the paddleable 8 mile stretch, which contains over 20 named rapids, mainly Class II whitewater with a III at the beginning and the end for a good shot of adrenalin (See Footnote 1). The water was cold, around 45 degrees, because it is pulled from the bottom of a dam high in the mountains and dropped down the mountain through a tube in order to generate hydroelectric energy, before being channeled into the riverbed. The sun only directly hits the water for about 4 hours, and often a mist hovers above the river where the cold water and warm air make a dense fog. At these times paddlers appear as disembodied heads bobbing above the mist. Where the sun does hit the crystal clear water, it creates golden patterns along the sand and gravel bottom, visible at depths of several feet.
Summer mornings in that gorge felt magical to a Mississippi boy who grew up on adventure books that frequently featured young kids or teenagers stranded in the wilderness and learning to survive (Farley Mowat’s Two Against the North and Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet come to mind). More often than not, that survival depended on mastering the skills of running rapids. Mornings in the western North Carolina mountains had a cool crispness and the air had the clean smell of spruce and white pine and rich damp earth. At the put in to the river there was the pleasant busyness of loading and unloading boats, pumping and rigging air bags, gearing up for cold water, stretching, and checking out other paddlers and their boats. (Like most outdoor activities, a good portion of the fun is getting ready, messing around with ropes and equipment.) The put-in for the river lay in an arrowhead of land between two forks. On one side the natural riverbed lay exposed, with just a thin trickle of summer water winding between rocks, and on the other the channel leading up to the power station. Usually around 9 a.m. as the demand for electricity arose somewhere, the power station would generate by pulling water out from the dam and through the turbines and into the channel, raising the water level in the river and transforming it from a stream into a pleasantly roaring white water river.
It should be noted that the year Mark and I got our first taste of whitewater, 1976, was a short four years following the theatrical release of Deliverance, the Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight film based on South Carolina poet James Dickey’s novel about four men from the city who venture on a weekend canoe trip on the fictional Cahulawassee river in the remote mountains of North Georgia. The heart of the story focuses on the conflicts between the city men and the mountain men, and the movie created the unforgettable and chilling line, “You shore got a pretty mouth,” a prelude to sodomistic rape, but for me, the movie’s main attraction was the whitewater. These segments were shot in the Tallulah Gorge and on the Chatooga, a national Wild and Scenic River, a little known gem at the time. But the movie sparked an interest in canoeing, and even Jimmy Carter, the governor of Georgia before he became president that bicentennial year, had run the rapids a couple of times. The names of the Chatooga’s rapids still stand out in my memory: Warwoman, Rock Garden, the Roostertails, Dick’s Creek Ledge, The Narrows, Screaming Left Turn, Bull Sluice, 7 Foot Falls (described in the guide books as a “train wreck”), and Woodall Shoals. The naming of rapids has always provided a rich mix of imagery and language to characterize the raw experience of paddling a river.
Following that North Carolina trip, Mark purchased a yellow, 17 foot “Blue Hole” canoe, manufactured out of ABS Royalex in Sunbright, Tennessee. For boys experienced only with aluminum canoes, which, while wonderful, were heavy, noisy, leaky, and because they almost without exception always had a keel, difficult to maneuver in whitewater, canoes made out of ABS Royalex represented the jump in grade from a single gear fat-tire bicycle (this before retro was cool) to a ten speed English racer. Royalex is a synthetic material manufactured from acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) plastic. It featured a hard inner and outer shell of ABS sandwiched around an inner layer of ABS foam. It was manufactured in flat sheets that could be heat moulded into any shape, including canoes ranging from 18 foot expedition models down to sleek and highly maneuverable whitewater playboats. An outer vinyl layer painted the boats bright primary colors and made a day on the river look like a festival.
The other alternative was fiberglass boats, and though these were ultralight and also mouldable, they broke when wrapped around rocks. That’s where the beauty of ABS Royalex came in. The boats floated naturally without built in air chambers (like aluminum boats), and they were practically indestructible. Whereas Burt Reynolds’ wooden canoe snapped in half in Deliverance, I once helped pull an ABS boat off of a rock it had wrapped around and used a chunk of driftwood to beat it back into river-worthy shape, with only a slight crease in the side to remember the battle with the rock.
Of course, Mark and I knew very little about paddling whitewater at the time. Our experiences on the Buffalo hadn’t prepared us for the real thing, but that next summer, 1977 we headed up to the Nantahala to learn how to whitewater or get hurt trying. I believe the first time back to the Nantahala, it was Mark and I and his father. We camped out at a little campground a couple of miles above the river, Lost Mine Campground on Silvermine Creek. We were fortunate on that trip to meet a little group from Mississippi camping at the same campground. They were actually there for college credit, a class on canoeing, taught by Dave Heflin and Dr. Henry Outlaw. Dave and Dr. Outlaw invited us to join their group and we paddled with them for three or four days, essentially taking their class (See Footnote 2). It seemed ironic both then and now, that Mark and I learned to whitewater from two Mississippians who lived in an even flatter part of the state than we did (the Mississippi Delta, where the land was as flat and smooth and green as a pool table).
While I look at Class II-III whitewater now as fairly easy, I can thank Outlaw and Heflin for opening my eyes to the science of whitewater, teaching me to read rapids and understand the dynamics of water falling down hill toward the oceans of the world. They taught us the names of the rapids on the Nantahala: Patton’s Run, Tumble Dry, Pyramid Rock, Quarry Rapids, Pop ‘n Run, Delabars Rock, Whirlpool, and Nantahala Falls (or, the Lesser Wesser), a Class III+ at the end of the run where motorists pulled over to watch paddlers run–and often swim–the rapid. Whereas Mark and I would have been happy survive the river, counting success as getting downstream with a minimum of spills and swims, Outlaw and Heflin taught us how to “run” the river with style and grace.
We learned to read rapids and look for the clearest channels and how to recognize the pillow above rocks from upstream and avoid them. They taught us how to “catch” an eddy, the pool of water located behind rocks or in the bend of the river, by driving the bow of the canoe into the eddy and pivoting the rest of the into the quiet water. They taught us to lean downstream when in trouble, because the current can easily flip a boat turned edgewise to the flow. We learned draw strokes (to move the boat laterally), crossover draws to avoid having to switch hands on the paddle, pry strokes, sweeps, and the always useful J stroke. We learned how to do an upstream ferry, which means to turn the bow upstream and angle the boat slightly, so that we could cross the river without being swept downstream, a useful skill when maneuvering a difficult rapid. We learned how to surf, that is, sticking the bow of the boat into a hydraulic, a strong hole in the river where water falling over an obstacle recirculates (powerful enough to hold a boat or a swimmer depending on the size of the obstacle and the volume and speed of the current). Under Outlaw and Heflin’s tutelage, we learned to work the river like a math problem, catching eddies, ferrying, and playing in the rapids, rather than just surviving.
- Eastern rivers use a scale of I -VI, with I being moving water with small waves, and Class VI considered un-runnable by anyone other than experts. Class IIs are fun paddling, with lots of action but little real danger or need to scout. IIIs are pushy and require intermediate skills, but they’re usually forgiving–other than battered pride–if mistakes are made. Class IVs are exponential IIIs and swimming one is no fun–in fact swimming a IV is likely to rough a paddler up. Once I started paddling on my own I usually looked for a way around Class Vs on the rare occasion I got on that level of river.
- I just learned of Dr. Outlaw’s death as I looked him up on the internet. Both he and Dave are legendary at Delta State University, in Cleveland, Mississippi. Apparently Dr. OUtlaw, a chemistry professor, was also a Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor scholar, dabbled in poetry, and they both left a legacy of outdoors adventure education. Heflin (still alive) has a distinguished chair named after him at DSU, with the position dedicated to the continuation of outdoor education at the university.