By Nathaniel H. Axtell
Have I told you about the time I and 900 of my closest friends went paddling on the Nantahala River?
It all began on a sizzling hot August day when I suggested to my buddy Mark Shelley that we go kayaking on the Nantahala, located near Wesser, North Carolina. Mark, director of the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition, is an experienced paddler who has run the Gauley, the Youghiogheny, and even the Nolichucky at flood stage.
“I don’t know whether that’s a good idea on a weekend,” he warned. “I hear it can get pretty crowded.” I figured he was balking because the Nantahala’s whitewater is pretty tame compared to his usual fare. I’d been told that its Class II and III rapids are easy enough for kids in “duckies” to navigate. As it turned out, the Nanty has plenty of excitement to offer even experienced paddlers.
Conceding that he hadn’t paddled any river in awhile, Mark strapped his hardshell Dagger to the top of my Subaru and we headed down Hwy. 19 into the shady bowels of the Nantahala Gorge. ‘Nantahala’ is a corruption of the Cherokee word for “mid-day sun,” a reference to the fact that, in places, steep cliffs in the gorge shade out direct sunlight until high noon. The gorge is home to many unique plants and animals, including the federally protected Noonday Globe snail and Indiana bat.Sea of Humanity
We arrived at the public put-in around noon, just in time to catch some sun. After blowing up the three-chambered Aire inflatable kayak I would use, we shouldered our boats and followed a long line of rafters, playboaters, funyakers, and other paddlers down the ramp to the water. This was just one of several put-ins, and I was beginning to think that Mark had been right. The river resembled a crowded municipal swimming pool more than a prime kayaking destination.
While I waited for Mark to put on his skirt (a stretchy piece of neoprene that keeps water out of his boat,) I watched the hordes amass in the small put-in pool, most of them looking like they’d never before been on water (or even outdoors). One mother in a funyak with her daughter kept swirling around in a small eddy up against the bank, and with each circle Mom would brush her head up against a giant poison ivy vine hanging over the water.
Taking a deep breath, Mark and I shoved off into the main river, which was running about 600 cubic feet per second. Almost immediately, we were dodging huge packs of commercial rafts, so we eddied out just above Patton’s Run (the first significant rapid you encounter on the river) to let some of them wash on by.
Just then a raft stuffed with overweight teenagers ran aground hard on a midstream rock, ejecting one portly young man into the drink. Panicking, the kid latched onto my paddle blade as he began slipping over the lip of a cascade below us.“Let go of my paddle!” I hollered. “You’ll be fine — flip on your back with your feet in front. Let go!”
But it was too late. The weight of his tubby body pulled me over the falls with him. Fortunately, I kept my balance and managed to rip the paddle away from the kid in time to regain some control and avoid capsizing my little sit-on-top. The kid bobbed into an eddy and crawled out, shaken but unhurt. I ferried across river to avoid any other panicky swimmers, then Mark and I finished out the rapid uneventfully.
The next few miles put a big grin on Mark’s face — there was a big wave train to punch through below Campground Rapids, a couple of hazards to avoid at Pyramid Rock and Delabar’s Rock, and lots of natural beauty to behold when you could see the banks through the giant flotilla of humanity. Wild sunflowers, Joe-Pye weed, cardinal flower, phlox, and yellow jewelweed were in bloom, attracting roaming hummingbirds and tiger swallowtail butterflies.
In fact, it was all so beautiful and easy that I did something stupid: I got complacent. Then we entered the Quarry Rapid, which is named for the Nantahala Talc and Lime Company mine that can be seen from the river here. A kayaker in a hard boat downstream from me plowed through the big, white haystacks with no problem, so I decided to follow suit. That was my mistake. On the last giant wave, the inflatable became mired in a hydraulic and dumped me into the foam below. I don’t know what was more shocking, the unexpectedness of being dumped or the chill of the 45 degree water, but when I popped up I still had my paddle clutched in one paw, my shades were still on, and Mark had recovered the Aire.
Downstream of the Quarry, we eddied out in a sunny spot so I could dry out a little and eat a Snickers bar. As we sat there, a young couple joined us, bickering at each other. “You almost let me die!” the woman screamed. “I tried to help you,” the man insisted. She had obviously suffered the same fate as I did, which didn’t make me feel any better. In fact, I was questioning my ability to make it through the next run, known as “Root Canal.”
But Root Canal and the Whirlpool Rapid at its base proved to be nothing the ol’ Aire couldn’t handle and neither was the Blue Hole, Three Hump Rock, or The Ledges, the latter of which is the site of the first drowning of a recreational boater on the Nanty. I didn’t know that at the time, which is a good thing, because I navigated the Aire through its series of rocks and waves without a hitch.
About then I was starting to get hungry (we hadn’t eaten anything except two candy bars all day), and as luck would have it, we soon floated into an area known as the “Upper Gorgarama.” Hanging from a tree on river right was a sign that said, “Pizza!,” followed by another that said, “Hot Chocolate.” Soon, the savory scent of pork barbeque wafted over the water, all of which was too much to bear. “Let’s pull over and eat,” I begged.
Mark pointed his paddle at a shack above the high-water line called “Pizza By The River,” which boasted several potted begonias, a collection of pizza pan peace emblems, and a “Deadhead Country” sign. We eddied out, drawn by the smell of pepperoni and the sounds of Jerry riffing over Branford Marsalis. A bearded guy wearing tie-dye took our order, offering us a joke with our sodas.
“You know what it takes to circumsize a whale?” he asked. “Fore-skin divers.”
After devouring our artichoke heart-and-portabello mushroom pizza, we crawled back in the boats and headed down the Gorgarama Shoals. Mark surfed a few waves, while I took the cautious routes, still not over my earlier dumping. Soon we floated up on Donny Dutton Park, a concrete take-out where those who don’t want to run Nantahala Falls end the day. I beached the Aire and ambled down a well-beaten path to scope out the falls.The Big Drop
Nantahala Falls is rated a Class III now, but it becomes a Class IV at higher levels. It used to be rated a Class V (for experts only), but apparently paddling technology has bumped it down. Certainly many novices and intermediate paddlers make it through the Falls every day in the summer, but from the overlook I didn’t hold out much hope for myself. The last drop looked too rough.
But you only learn by doing, so I jumped back in the Aire and paddled out into the entry rapid, with Mark behind me so he could recover my boat after I took the plunge. I made it through the Top Hole, the first drop of the falls, without incident. But there were three or four playboaters surfing the Bottom Hole wave from below, and I tried to avoid them by going right. Too far right, it seems. The Aire shot out from under me and I was underwater in just seconds, surrounded by millions of bubbles.
When I came up, a beautiful, tanned young lady threw me an orange rope and reeled me in, while Mark chased down the Aire. As I stood on the edge of the right-side eddy catching my breath, I watched paddler after paddler bite it and come bobbing to the surface, many of them coughing and spitting. Throw ropes whizzed through the air constantly, as noble kayakers ferried half-drowned newbies to safety. It was all hilarious to watch, especially since I’d just been one of the hapless victims.
We took out at the public ramp just above the Nantahala Outdoor Center. After deflating the Aire, I started looking around for someone to take me back upstream to the put-in while Mark stayed with the boats. My thumb was ignored by more than a dozen yuppies in SUVs, but then two young men in a F-150 with Georgia tags pulled up with whitewater canoes in the back.
“You going to Ferebee?” the passenger side guy asked, tilting up his cap visor.
“No, I’m going up to the public put-in,” I said.
“Hop in,” he said.
I jumped in the back of the pickup with the two Dagger canoes and hung on for dear life as the driver floored it, sending empty beer cans and a tire iron clanking across the bed. No sooner were we on our way that the driver lit up a suspicious-looking pipe and passed it to his buddy. I can honestly say that the next 7.6 miles were more of a wild ride than any of the rapids in the Nantahala. Weak-kneed, face flattened by the wind, I crawled out at the put-in and kissed the ground.