Well, the Southeast finally got some rain! 3-5 inches in the Western North Carolina area put every single creek that you could possibly want to run at a high or blown out level. Toxaway was too high, Ravens Fork was running, and the West Prong was juicin! Our sights today were set on a different creek however, in the Boone area. I have done the Elk River once before, and I remember it being a super quality run, with good class 4-5 and two absolutely incredible waterfalls, one 35 feet tall, and the big one somewhere around 50 feet tall.
In spite of the fact that everyone that I called said that this river was too high, Adam Herzog, local guru, was pumped on doing the run, and willing to see what happens. Oh yeah, did I mention that last time I ran the Elk the indicator gauge(Watauga) was at 1200? Today it is at 6500! Anyways, Zog took me down this run last time as well, and is a very safe, very solid paddler to follow down the river. Also joining us on this adventure is Spencer Cooke, who in spite of being a gnome, is the man in a kayak, and behind a camera(thats the only reason I hang out with him anyways!).
The crew during the shuttle.
The highlight for me over anything else on the last run was the 50 footer at the put in. You literally put in, paddle through a bit of class 2, and if you want to, run a very large waterfall! I broke my paddle with the huge impact last time, but otherwise it was a clean run. I had heard that the two pockets on each side of the curtain get really horrible at high water, so I was not expecting to get to run the drop today, but theres always a chance...
Upon arriving at the put-in, the river was a nerve wracking site. Standing waves and deep boily water mached past where there was a small shallow slide last time. The Elk appeared to be running somewhere in the vicinity of 1000-2000 cfs. Very hard to gauge though. Paddling up to the drop to scout, I could not believe how much more of the lip was underwater than last time. That is a horrifying horizon line if Ive ever seen one! We hopped out to look at the drop, and although it was super intimidating, it certainly looked doable. A quick scout from the bottom revealed the hazards of the drop. The two pockets on each side of the waterfall had big boils backing them up, and were recirculating very powerfully back into the waterfall. The left pocket went behind the curtain, a very scary thing to look at. Spence and Zog opted out, but I was feeling pretty good about it, and walked back for another look from up top.
My heart was in my throat looking at the falls from the top, but I felt confident in my ability to stick the line, and privileged to be given this opportunity at such a high flow. We had decided that because of the massive amount of aeration at the bottom, and the fact that ending up in either of the pockets would be absolutely horrible, I should land the drop at a 45 degree angle rather than the preferable 80 degrees for a drop of that size. I got in my boat, did my warm-up, and everything was great cruising up to the lip until a big log popped out of a boil right next to me! I did not at all want to be falling with that thing beside me, so I turned around and took about 8 or 10 hard strokes upstream to separate myself from it. I was still moving downstream towards the drop however, and turned around just in time to line up with my curler and watch the world open up in front of me...
Big waterfalls are an entirely different experience than any other aspect of kayaking because of the self control that is needed to successfully run them. Every single instinct that you have as a kayaker is telling you to paddle like hell and charge the lip. The key, however, is slowing down to the speed of the water, and not disconnecting from it, but sticking to the angle of water with your boat as you go off. The last stroke is the most important part, and should be held fairly vertically and given only slight pressure until about halfway down the drop, to stabilize the angle. My last stroke on Elk Falls was a righty, and I got just a little bit too gung-ho with it, pulling myself a bit too flat before tucking up on the way down. I felt myself engulfed in the vail after a long, long fall, and landed at about 40 degrees. This angle made my boat arc up very quickly, and my head took a pretty big hit on my cockpit rim through the sprayskirt. I planted my left blade coming out of the tuck to charge for my life if I saw myself being sucked into one of the pockets, but I was safely in the main flow and at the bottom of an incredible waterfall!
The drop was an awesome experience, but did take a ding out of my eyebrow. An important thing to remember about hard whitewater is that it is not by any means an individual activity. Spencer and Adam were there for me to offer the safety and support that they could if something were to go wrong. It is important for everyone to take into account that when you run a big drop, your mistake is not only your own problem, but could lead to friends putting themselves in danger coming after you. Short of this, noone wants to ruin their day to hike another paddler out of a gorge and take them to the hospital because of a dumb decision. Be safe out there.
Anyways, in spite of the cut in my eyebrow, we decided to continue on with our adventure. After running the first drop of the gorge and subbing out through a monster hole, Adam matter-of-factly told us that this was way higher than he, or most likely anyone else has every paddled the river. The whitewater was a combination of class 5 steep creeking and Zambezi style drops. Pretty nerve racking! The drops linked up like crazy, and we needed to scout a number of them to make sure they were still good to go. After getting out of the main flow and catching an eddy just above the inescapable lead-in drops to Twisting Falls, we were faced with a couple of options to proceed. We went ahead without boats, and quickly decided that the normally-run mini gorge after Twisting Falls was not an option. Some of the ugliest keeper hydraulics ever, and the fact that the running 35 footer would probably mean getting sucked behind the curtain, made us decide to go high and portage the set. The 45 minute portage was brutal and very scary for a person as afraid of heights as I am, but we made it, and paddled the class 3 boogie to the car with an extreme sense of relief that she let us pass unscathed.
The aftermath: two stitches on the forehead. Things happen off of big drops, even with a good line.
Anyways, I hope that everyone else got on some good whitewater with the rain. See you on the river!
Download Elk Falls video HERE.
All photos and video taken by Spencer Cooke, Effort Inc. Thanks for being there man!
**Check out the money shot of this sequence in the Spring issue of Paddler/Kayak Magazine.**