Late in October, I went on a whitewater kayak trip with other Carolina Canoe Club members: Russ, Chris, Brian, and Dana. We ran the Pound and the Russell Fork, which only have dam releases in October and we wanted to catch the last release of the year.
We all took a half day of vacation Friday, met up at REI in Durham, loaded all of the gear in and on Russ' big diesel truck, and headed up to a remote corner of Appalachia. It is an area on the Virginia and Kentucky state line, which is coal country. We passed numerous coal mines and you could see coal seams in the rock where roads are cut into the hillsides.
Our destination was an "interstate" park that is in Virginia and Kentucky, the Breaks Interstate Park. The Russell Fork forms a gorge that is known as the "Grand Canyon of the South". The gorge itself contains class IV and V+ rapids, which are much too advanced for me right now. We were going to do a couple of sections before the gorge that go up to class III+, the Pound and the Russell Fork BEFORE the gorge. We met up with the Smith River Valley Canoe Club (SRVCC) from Virginia.
We camped in the park, which has very nice facilities. It has hot showers, clothes washers and dryers, and a lodge with a restaurant where you can get a hearty breakfast.
The forecast called for hard rain Friday night. It rained quite hard on our drive up to the campground, but let up when we arrived. Brian called the lodge, and it had rooms available. It would be $12 each to camp per night, $25 each to share a room. We choose poorly. We choose to camp. As soon as we paid for the campsite (the camp office had a sign "No checks or refunds"), the sky opened up. We had to pitch camp in the pouring rain. I had my tent up the fastest, the tent was pitched and I was in my sleeping bad in well under 10 minutes. I had the tent and sleeping gear in a dry bag. First I pulled my rain jacket from the top of the bag and put it on (I knew rain was in the forecast), I pulled out the tent from the dry bag, closed the bag, pitched the tent, and threw the bag inside the tent. One quick run to the truck, and I got the other two bags of stuff. It poured throughout the night. I tend to overpack for trips, but I was VERY glad to have brought a spare pare of jeans. Everything I had on then was soaked.
We got up in the morning and headed down to the lodge for breakfast. The lodge sits on the edge of the gorge, but was enveloped in fog. The fog was thick, but it was supposed to clear up later in the day. I had a hearty breakfast of biscuits, scrambled eggs, bacon, coffee. No gravy for me thanks, I may regret that later (especially if I am upside down in the water). I managed to pour half the coffee on the table and got some on Russ. I wasn't allowed to pour my own coffee after that. The top of the pot was stuck, and I put too much angle on it. The top popped open and coffee was everywhere.
We figured out the shuttles for the day, changed into paddling gear, and headed to the put in, which is right below the Flannagan Dam. We started a little further downstream to avoid the outflow from the dam. A couple of guys from Lexington, Kentucky joined our group: Sean and Zack (Zack hardly said a thing all day, so I may not have the name correct). In all we had 17 people, most of whom were in kayaks, but some were in whitewater canoes.
Dana had been on the river before, so we tried to follow her lines.
I got my first combat roll of the day in the Pound. I scraped the bottom of the river with my right arm and shoulder before rolling up.
We then entered the Russell Fork itself. We needed to go under a bridge, which has an old dam below it. You can only safely go one way, between the right most pylons of the bridge. When you go between the right most pylons, you go over a tongue of water, and you have to angle left. We all went single file and I was through fine.
We then came to the 20 Stitches rapid. We got out of our boats to scout the rapid. It looked easier on the left side since the right side had lots of boiling water. The plan was to eddy hop a couple of eddies before hitting the main part of the rapid on the left side.
I blew past the eddies (I need to work on catching eddies in faster water), waved to Russ on my way by (who was sitting in the second eddy), and went for it. According to witnesses, at the bottom of the rapid, I was airborne a few seconds, then flipped. But I rolled right back up and received kudos for my rolling timing and technique. That was combat roll two for the day.
A little later, I flipped and rolled in a section that goes below a bridge. I'm not sure if it was here or at 20 Stitches, but we were very surprised to see that Russ was swimming. Russ is a very experienced kayaker and teaches the whitewater safety clinic for the club. I wasn't a big deal since it happens to everyone at some point, there were plenty of people to help, and Russ didn't have to swim far.
Next came a rapid Dana called "Eddy Land". It is best to hop from eddy to eddy to the bottom. Towards the end of the run there's a no named rapid that also requires you to negotiate around rocks.
We all made it to the take out. You have to be sure to stop at the Garden Hole takeout, otherwise you're in the gorge. The takeout was a zoo. There was a race through the gorge that day (which sounds crazy to me). There were lots of different kinds of boats, including longer race boats. You could also could see some of the different subcultures of the kayaking world. There was some loud music blaring and we joked that many there probably smoke herbage. Of course, that's probably why they can paddle the gorge.
We had a long wait for the shuttles back to the campground. Sean didn't have anything warm or dry to wear, so Bill (a SRVCC member) loaned him a Polartec top. Sean commented on the relative ages of people there and says to me, "you're like what, 28?" I replied, "No. Try again. A lot higher than that". He was shocked when I said I was 40. I said something like "yup, I'm old". Justin pipes up, "You ARE old. But you're cool...for an old guy". Sean had to get on the road so I ended up with the Polartec. We knew the SRVCC folks were in the same campground and I was able to hand it back to Bill as we drove by his campsite.
While waiting, we watched kayakers slide in their kayaks down the hill into the water. Some did a little flip or twist before hitting the water.
The road out of the Garden Hole takeout was interesting. It is a single lane dirt road, steep, has sharp switch backs, and we had to get up that in a big truck loaded with people and gear.
We stopped at the campground office and bought firewood. We asked the ranger if they had beer. He said that it's a state park and alcohol isn't allowed, but wink, if you behave, it's ok. The closest place is three miles up the road towards Elkhorn City. We headed to camp and got the fire going and hung up the gear.
Now what to do for dinner? There weren't many options. There's the buffet of fried foods at the lodge, the "Rusty Fork" and "La Mesa Grande" (allegedly a Mexican restaurant), both of which are in Elkhorn City. We were told to NOT do the buffet by someone who suffered through it the night before, so it was off to Elkhorn City.
We picked the Mexican restaurant. When we ordered, we asked what beers they had. None since we were now in a dry county in Kentucky. The Mexican restaurant was a bad choice overall. The service was slow. The mole sauce on Dana's Pollo Loco was 'like Chef Boy-R-De'. But this is where the chicken dance meme started. When Dana said her dinner wasn't that good, I said "so you're not going to do the chicken dance then". Then everyone started doing the chicken dance song. It gets worse. There was a toy chicken in the restaurant that did the chicken dance if you pressed a button. Russ, of course, presses it. The chicken dance starts blaring, and everyone in the restaurant looks. From that point on in the trip, people would spontaneously do the chicken dance.
Saturday night turned out to be quite cold. I was thankful for the sleeping bag liner I had that adds 15 degrees of warmth to the sleeping bag and for the thermal underwear. Chris heated up a rock by the fire and brought it into his tent, and that worked great for him.
In the morning, I had to put on damp, cold neoprene. An extra neoprene top and pants are on my Christmas list now!
We then had a repeat of Saturday: breakfast at the lodge, figure out the shuttles, put on paddling gear, head to the put in. We were able to arrange for Russ' truck to be at the takeout so we could get on the road sooner. One odd conversation happened while we were waiting. Several SRVCC folks said to me, "You sound JUST like that guy on "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me". Peter Sagel? "YES, HIM!". huh.
On Sunday we had 13 people in our group. Sean and his friend had to head back to Lexington, and some SRVCC people headed home. We also picked up a couple of new people.
We went through the same sections of the Pound and the Russell Fork. However, the weather was much better. The sun came out and we had blue skies.
Chris managed to swim below the dam. This was after saying he hadn't ever swam in that boat (he now has multiple whitewater kayaks). He provoked the river gods.
I flipped and rolled in 20 Stitches. But overall, I was feeling more comfortable on day two. On Saturday, I hadn't been in my boat on a river for a couple of weeks and I didn't know the river. On Sunday, we knew what to expect and the weather was much better. I also got great advice from the SRVCC folks, which helped a lot. They noted that I needed to lean forward more, paddle more aggressively, and use my hips less to steer the boat.
Dana had a swim on Sunday as well. In the end, we had three swim team members: Russ, Chris, and Dana. Brian and I didn't join the swim team that weekend.
Chris then told me that Bill, from the SRVCC, was out to get Brian and I. He thought we should ALL be on the swim team. I came up to the last big rapid of the day, the one where you have to negotiate around rocks. I see Bill sitting there behind a rock. I THOUGHT he was out to get me. No, he was trying to show me the route. I flipped and was heading for a big rock. I rolled before hitting it, but now I was going backwards down the rapid. I didn't get myself stabilized, and flipped again. I rolled up, and was now heading for another rock. I flipped for a third time, and beaned my beanie when I rolled back up. Rocks are hard, which is why helmets are good. But I made it through without swimming.
We knew what the takeout looked like and headed right for it. We loaded up the gear, got into dry clothes, then broke down camp.
On our way home, we stopped at one of the gorge overlooks. You could see the water far below and could hear the water. We watched a group of kayakers go though one of the large rapids. A couple of kayakers did flip and roll, but the size of the rapids compared to the kayakers is amazing. If you look at the pictures I took, the last couple are from the overlook. You can barely make out the tiny kayaks on the water.
Click here to see photos I took. The pictures were assigned locations, so you can see on a map where they were taken (a couple locations are best guesses).
There were professional photographers taking pictures:
- Shot of me at 20 Stitches rapid
- Better shot of me at 20 Stitches
- Me rolling in 20 Stitches
- Me after rolling in 20 Stitches
In the map below, A is the put in at the dam. You can see the road to the take out at the bottom of the Breaks Interstate Park. Bartlick Road is where we crossed under a bridge and over an old dam.
View Larger Map
video coming soon
Russell Fork 2008 video via http://www.betweenswims.com/
I am at 2:45 in the video.