Poole: The kayak ride when it all went wrong

Poole: The kayak ride when it all went wrong

July 30th, 2009 by Jamie Poole in Sports - Outdoors

I started learning to kayak in April, taking roll classes with Rapid Learning Whitewater Club. I had my first river experience during the Tennessee Valley Canoe Club's paddle school on the Hiwassee River in May.

Last Saturday I went down the Nantahala River for the second time.

My first run was great. I stayed upright the whole time on the Class II rapids. The big challenge on the Nantahala is the Lesser Wesser Falls, which ends the eight-mile trip. I was so proud of myself for going down a new river and not tipping over.

The falls don't count because I've never been on a Class III rapid and I knew there was a 70 percent chance I'd go over them upside down.

So after having an exceptional first run, I was excited about a second run a week later. This time I decided to try an Axiom from the outfitters store. The Axiom, as I've heard it, is a marriage of the Dagger Juice and Dagger RPM, two boats I had used, so I thought there wouldn't be much difficulty trying this new kayak on a river that I had already run well.

I'd been having issues with my glasses fogging up and becoming covered with water. To fix the latter problem, I tried Rain-X on them, hoping the water would bead up and run off.

The Nantahala is so cold that you have to dress like it is winter even in the hottest part of summer. Once you are suited up in your gear, you want to get on the river right away to cool off from dressing like an Eskimo in July.

The first rapid is Patton's Run, rated Class II-plus. My instructor, Betsy, asked me about my previous trip through Patton's Run, and all I could remember was that I had made it through OK.

I was sweating while getting in my boat, and the water felt great when it splashed on my face as the boat hit the water. Immediately, my glasses partly fogged up, but everything else seemed fine. I followed my instructor toward Patton's Run, but I had a little trouble steering the new boat and my glasses completely fogged.

Again I made it through the rapid, but now I knew why I didn't remember my first run: I couldn't see. And the Rain-X wasn't helping at all. Instead it smeared the water and made it even harder see. It wouldn't let me wipe the water off, either.

The other kayakers in my group suggested I spit on my glasses, like divers do, to clean off the Rain-X and defog them. (The theory is that your spit has your body temperature shielding the glass from the water temp.) It works but for only a short time, I found out.

My next learning experience came just before Pyramid Rock rapid. I flipped after hitting one of the many rocks in the river. With my nose plugs in, I was able to hold out upside down for a good while as I waited for Betsy to "buddy rescue" me. I haven't figured out how to roll over by myself even with several months of practice.

Once upright again, I could hear the others in my group saying how amazed they were at how long I held out under the water.

I fought with the new boat the whole eight miles. At one point a person in my group wondered if the paddle length was right for me. Another variable to my difficult day: My paddle was different from the type I usually used.

This trip was nothing compared to my first run. This time I felt like a rock magnet. One rock wouldn't let me go, in fact: The water was forcing my boat against the rock and I couldn't paddle out.

Another instructor had to push me off the rock to my next adventure, and I had to be buddy-rescued one more time before the trip was over.

As we approached the Lesser Wesser Falls overlook, where we get out of the boat and walk beside the river to survey what line we need to take, my instructor asked me if I wanted to pass on the falls since I'd had a rough day already. I couldn't decide, so I looked for a sign and there it was: my co-worker's car parked on the side of the road.

I couldn't go back to work and tell an experienced kayaker that I was too tired to go over the falls. And I'd driven as many as three hours to do better on the falls than I'd done the week before. I couldn't pass up the chance to learn how to make it over the falls upright.

I got back into my boat and on the river. I prayed. I told Jesus he was in control of my boat because I hadn't been able to control it all day.

I thought about my previous run of the falls and what I'd done wrong. I had gone over the first drop in the wrong line and hit the whirlpool beneath it, and it had flipped me over and I went over the second drop upside down.

I managed to line up correctly for the first drop this time. I was so proud that I failed to line up right for the next drop.

I hit the second hole and stuck the stern into the whirlpool and flipped over. This time I "wet-exited" immediately. I was tired and not willing to wait. No one had been able to reach me on my first run of the falls, so experience told me to get out of the boat.

I managed to hold onto the boat and paddle this time when I hit the surface, but something was terribly wrong. I couldn't see!

My instructors rushed to me as fast as they could with all the river traffic and other accident swimmers. One took my gear and Betsy had me grab her boat. The water is shallow at the base and there are a lot of rocks. I tried to get into the correct position, floating on my back with my feet in the air, but all I could think about was that I couldn't see and I didn't understand why.

Once I was in floating position I touched my face and my glasses weren't there. Finally it clicked in my brain: Where are my glasses? I panicked big-time. Betsy told me to forget about that for now - the more important thing was to get me safely out of the cold river.

The first place to get out of the river safely is the commercial rafting take-out on the right side of the river. Kayakers, private boaters and NOC rafts aren't allowed at this landing. But it has been my recovery spot both trips, and both times people came over and said they were sorry I almost drowned but I must leave.

Last time that was fine. I gathered my gear and drained the water out of my boat and ferried across the river and paddled several feet to the boater takeout. This time was different. I couldn't see and I didn't know what to do or where to go. I didn't know where my gear was. It could been few a feet in front me and I couldn't see it.

More panic set in. How am I going to get my car home? It's around 5 p.m. Saturday in a place I don't know. Could I find an optical store to get a new pair of glasses?

Betsy found me. She knew where my boat was and the paddle had been right in front of me. We walked the boat back to the store and asked if they knew of an optical store close by, but they didn't. By the time I got into dry clothes and waited on Betsy to paddle across the river and change, it was too late to hunt for a store.

Another kayaker from my group volunteered to drive my car back to his car in Ooltewah, so I called my parents to meet us there to get my car the rest of the way home.

I found only one optical store open Sunday, and it wasn't the one I wanted. Luckily when I got home I found a 10-year-old pair of glasses, so I didn't have to call in sick Sunday because I couldn't see. With the urgency factor solved, I was able to wait until Monday to get the "buy one, get one free" deal.

I put the extra pair in my glovebox for my next Nantahala run in August.

I plan on using the model paddle I'm more used to, and I will demo a more stable boat or borrow an RPM, the model boat I used on my exceptional first trip.

Will I go over the falls right side up the next time? We'll see. One day I will succeed. It just may take a hundred more tries.