Sunday, August 24, 2008
Between a Rock and a Raft Place
On the last day of our vacation in the North Carolina mountains, I went on a guided trip down the Nantahala (The Nanty). I had been on the Nanty several times before, but I wanted to be with a group. I joined a trip run by the Natahala Outdoor Center (NOC) (I took my first kayak class with NOC two years ago). The Nanty is a fun river with class II and III rapids. Rapids are classified from I being the easiest to VI often being fatal. I currently can handle up to most class III rapids, especially when someone can tell me the easiest route to take.
There were four members in our party: guide Michael, husband and wife team of Doug and Mary, and myself. It was a beautiful warm sunny day. Of course, being a dam released river, the water was very cold. The water is cold primarily because it has spent several years at the bottom of a reservoir before being released from the dam. You must use the appropriate cold water gear in case you become separated from your boat and become a "swimmer".
The Nanty is a popular river for kayakers AND rafts. At times, there can be a solid line of rafts going down the river at any given time. Rafts, however, can be the bane of kayakers. Often, the people in a raft don't have control of their raft. Some rafts will try to purposely run down kayaks (this happened to me several times that day). And worst of all, a kayak can get stuck under a raft. This is why kayakers call rafts "floating undercuts".
An undercut is rock along the river bank that has been eroded at its base by the main current of the river. Fast moving water is flowing under the rock, and since it's in the main current, anything in the river is drawn towards it. This is a very dangerous place since objects like kayaks can get pinned in the undercut, and the person in the kayak may not be able to get out of the boat. Unless you have gills, it is not an oxygen rich environment. Therefore, since kayaks can get pinned under rafts, the rafts are "floating undercuts".
Our group was happily going down the river, when our guide Michael suggested that we try to get into a particular eddy. What is an eddy? A eddy is a calm spot on the river that forms behind something like a rock. When water goes around an obstruction like a rock, it creates a vacuum behind the rock. So water in the eddy is actually coming upstream. When going down a river, you go into eddies to take a break.
I didn't hit the eddy, so I went for the one right after it. A raft was leaving that eddy and appeared to be going downstream. It wasn't. I was between a rock and the raft and flipped over, so I was then upside down between the rock and the raft. I tried to roll myself back up a couple of times, but the raft was in my way. I bailed out of my kayak, and ended up UNDER the raft. A few seconds later, I popped up on the other side of the raft. By now Michael had paddled over to me, I grabbed back of his boat, and he took me to shore. After Michael arrived on the scene, rafters got my boat and paddle, paddled over to me, and had me get into their raft. The raft guide bailed out the water, had me get in the kayak on the raft's edge (balancing on the edge while trying to get the spray skirt on), and launch into the water from the raft. And I had to be quick since we were approaching another rapid. I think the guide would have pushed me off of the raft if I took 10 seconds more. Pretty cool. So rafts CAN be a good thing on the river.
A little later, we are all going single file down a rapid. Doug flipped over. I made the mistake of following the same line down the river and was watching him, and I flipped over. And behind me, Mary flipped over. I was upside down and the river bottom was banging my shoulder. But happily I rolled myself back up a few seconds later. By this time Doug and Mary were out of their boats. Being able to roll yourself back upright in current when you did not intend to flip is called a "combat roll".
The last big rapid on the river is the Nantahala Falls, a class III+ (or III depending on who does the classification) rapid. There's a viewing area where people can watch the carnage and professional photographers are setup to take your picture as you run the falls.
I successfully ran the falls the first time I did it, and hadn't done it successfully the subsequent times. I was having a good day and was feeling good in my boat, so it looked like I would have a better outcome. I made it over the hardest part of the falls. Great since that was where you get your picture taken. I am in pictures 4, 5, 6, and 7 (I couldn't get links directly to the photos).
At the bottom, I lost my balance and flipped over. But I did a quick roll and was back up in no time. Since I didn't swim and chase after gear, I would consider that a good run.
I had a great day on the river. I ended up with three combat rolls (and compliments for each), I ran the falls without swimming, and I launched off of a raft.