It’s been one week since my last swim.
One of my favorite podcasts is In Between Swims. If you read this blog, you should subscribe to that podcast. The host, Jeff McIntyre, interviews boaters and asks them to tell about their last swim. If he ever asks me, this is the story I want to tell him.
I am a beater. In 2015 alone, I swam in at least 6 states. I’m no stranger to the siren call of the handle on the front of my skirt. Perhaps I know as well as anyone that swimming isn’t really that big a deal. It happens to everyone- after all, we are all between swims.
A few weeks ago, I took a trip through Tennessee and among other stops I had the opportunity to stop by Rock Island, home of Jackson Kayak and some of the superstars of kayaking. I took a tour of the factory where I got to see the newest Jackson kayak, the Traverse, go from rotomold through assembly and inspection all the way to shipping. At the end of that visit, I asked Eric Jackson if he was planning to kayak later that day. He told me to meet him at his house at 3:00 PM. So I did.
Rock Island is not a large park, as whitewater locales go. The park surrounds a short natural flow section of the Caney Fork river, between several dams that form lakes above and below but preserving a low-volume, wide curtain waterfall emerging from a high cliff wall, with rapids including 20 foot waterfalls, a feature EJ called “sieve city,” and a few large wave trains. American Whitewater lists a play hole downstream of the powerhouse, but little else, and says that the hole becomes too intimidating for most at 7000 CFS. When I arrived at the park to wait out my meeting time with EJ, Stephen Wright was doing loops in the hole at 12,000 CFS.
When I arrived at the Jackson household, I saw Dane’s black Sprinter RV parked with a stack of Karma creekers loaded on the trailer behind. “How do you feel about waterfalls?” EJ asked me. “If we do waterfalls, maybe we can get Dane to come too.” Dane was upstairs in his bedroom editing videos when EJ asked him if he’d like to come with. But while setting shuttle, we stopped to scout the waterfalls, which was when I learned that EJ and Dane were operating on old numbers – the waterfalls, he explained, are runnable at this level, but not a comfortable first run for someone new to the river. So we would just do the wavetrains downstream of the powerhouse, but Dane might not be interested anymore.
Thankfully, when we got back to the house, Dane had already switched from PJs to a union suit and had his drysuit ready to go. The three of us hopped in Dane’s RV and headed down the road to the park.
“Got your GoPro?” EJ was nonchalant about these rapids. Earlier, he’d explained the section as “just a class 3 with some big waves. You’ll be fine as long as you have your roll.” What I’d held back on mentioning was that I’d only paddled my Karma one day before this, and only once had I even tried to roll it. So I was a bit fearful getting on to that river, but when EJ asked if I was ready, I said yes. Before we peeled out into the current, Dane was already surfing his second lap through the first wavetrain. EJ peeled out first and signaled for me to follow. At the top of the third eight-foot wave, my GoPro smashed into the bottom of his boat, and he laughed; we were all having a great time. Well, casual play to them, molar-grinding adrenaline to me. I was off line a moment after that, with EJ yelling toward me from the other side of the river. I was intimidated by the size of the waves and rushed to the nearest eddy, on river left, but it was a bad eddy, with the confluence to the powerhouse outflow adding turbulence. I had to ferry across the wavetrain again to get back into the river right eddy, where Dane did laps around us as EJ explained my error to me and offered his second bit of paddling advice. “Your goal in kayaking is to learn to paddle with a broad external focus.”
I was suffering from tunnel vision, and my lines were suffering as a result. New boat, new river, good company, but I’d been feeling shaky lately; just a few weeks ago, I took a long swim at the takeout to the Yough Loop, and the memory of that failed roll was fresh in my mind. Rolling the Karma had been a challenge when I’d tried others’ boats in pools; in fact, on my very first attempt, I swam in the pond at the National Whitewater Center in Charlotte. I’d learned to roll it in the pool, and I’d righted it in a few deep braces and a single roll on the Holly a few days earlier, but I still felt off.
For the next section of the river, my guide offered me a choice between two lines. I thought it over and answered, “I’ll go with the big waves.” He explained the line, and ended with, “If you flip over, roll up. If you flip over again, roll up again. That cool?” Seconds later, we were in the next wave train, perhaps a bit smaller than the first but this one had some holes too, one nearly riverwide. I dodged the first big hole, struggling to keep the boat pointed downstream and upright in the funny boogie water, which though it had been described as class 3 was some of the most turbulent water I’d ever encountered. It reminded me of the Gauley, more in terms of volume and turbulence than any other aspect. Moments later, my GoPro video records my famous last words – “Oh shit.” The wave I am entering is at least a boatlength high, cresting into froth at the top, well above my head. I go over. I set up for a roll, but can’t find the surface with my paddle. I wait a moment hoping to flush into calmer water. But the calmer water never comes, and after two tries I consciously reasoned that it would be worse to run out of air in my boat upside down than outside of it. I pulled my skirt.
It’s very rare to pull your skirt and not feel a pang of regret along the way. I usually feel it the moment I let my right hand off my paddle, before I’ve even fully committed to the swim, but seldom do I act on that hesitation. As I tumbled out of the boat, still in the mank of the wave train, I realized this would not be an easy or short swim. EJ yelled, first cheerfully then sternly, “Grab your boat! Grab your boat!” But I was somehow drifting away from it even as I tried to paddle upstream, and I made no progress. 60 seconds later, EJ had my boat, I had EJ’s paddle, and Dane had me dangling from the rear grab handle of his pink Zen, helping me toward the second or third addy after the worst of the waves. No matter how many times I view the video, I can’t figure out how EJ managed to get himself and my flooded Karma into the eddy and to the rocky shore without a paddle, but I suppose that’s part of what makes him EJ.
Standing on the bedrock of the shore, I hauled my 103 gallon creek boat up and began to empty it. I took off my helmet and set it down, noticing the flashing red light on my camera. I laughed and quipped to the two world-champion paddlers who’d rescued me that there was no way I could live down this swim: everyone would have to see the video, after all, of my day paddling with Eric and Dane Jackson. “Far more embarrassing things have happened to all of us.” He gestured to my helmet, and I handed it to him. He swiped his finger over the lens and stared into it. “And that concludes James’s Brave Wave rapid run, but now we’re going to run one more rapid, it’s going to be amazing – he’s going to do the entire thing in his kayak.” Prompted, I promised the camera that I’d style the last rapid.
And I did. Clean line, over or through the biggest waves, careful but comfortable, and made the required ferries. We made it to the boat ramp at the top of the lake below, where Dane helped me load the boats and called a friend over to take our picture.
Jeff McIntyre asks boaters to tell the story of their last swim. When he asked EJ a few years ago, the story that was told was from “back in the nineties.” When I am asked, I hope that this is still the story I get to tell.