Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Easter Weekend: Lower Noli and Toe Gorge

Note: this post is out of order.

Stay off the Grass!

Rich posted a kayaking trip on the Carolina Canoe Club's list for Easter weekend. He suggested some rivers near the Nolichucky Gorge such as the lower Nolichucky and the Toe Gorge. The Nolichucky gorge was running at a high level, so he wanted to provide options for people that didn't want to run it. Since it was early in the season, I didn't want to make my first descent down the gorge be when it was at a high level. That was a good call since on the same weekend a paddler has his shoulder separated in the gorge. The gorge is long, remote and has no road access. If you have a bad day, you could have a VERY bad day.

I made a last minute decision to load up the gear and head to the mountains. We didn't get Good Friday off of work, but I had vacation days available. We were having company for dinner on Easter, so I could go up Thursday after work, paddle Friday and Saturday, and come home Saturday. That gave me plenty of time to unpack, mow the grass, etc. before company arrived.

I was heading for the Nolichucky Gorge Campground, which is in Tennessee and is nearly a five hour drive from home. I was leaving after work, so I would arrive in the dark. I called the campground to get a reservation, and they were not amused about my late arrival. I left as early as I could and hit the road.

I reached the exit in Erwin, Tennessee I needed for the campground. It was around 9:30 pm, which wasn't too late. I found the side street I needed, crossed the Nolichucky River, then made the turnoff for the campground. I discovered the road to the campground is a little over a mile long. It hugs the river bank and is only a single lane wide. On the right and quite a ways down in most places is the river, to the left the hillside. There are turnouts along the way, but in most places if you encounter an oncoming car, someone has to back up. Luckily I only encountered one oncoming car.

I crossed a little bridge, then arrived at the campground. After a couple of minutes, the campground manager showed up. I paid for two nights of tent camping. I then got a long story about how long it took to get the grass in good shape and to STAY OFF THE GRASS. No problem. I was also told to "not fall in the river". Now that made me a little nervous. How close IS the river from the drive? It was really dark, I couldn't see much, and it would be very rude to turn on the bright headlights.

I drove around the campground and found the perfect site next to the river. It was really dark, so I pulled off the road a bit to light up the site with my headlights. My tent is very easy to setup since the poles are built in, so I had it pitched, sleeping bags inside, etc. in under 15 minutes. Sure enough, I hear "Buddy, you need to MOVE your car off the grass"! OK, it's a VERY strict parking policy.

The campground is extremely convenient. It is the take out for the gorge and the put in for the lower Nolichucky. If you only want access to the river, it's $3 a person. There is no charge if you are camping there. The campground manager is very strict. He is on you like white on rice if you cross his bridge, demanding $3 a head even if you are only visiting someone. I said he was like the troll under the bridge in the fairy tale Three Billy Goats Gruff "Who's that tripping over my bridge?". Many paddlers refuse to go into the campground and put in further downstream, missing some rapids to avoid dealing with him.

It turned out that it must have been frog breeding season. There was quite a ruckus. That wasn't too hard to tune out even though there must have been frogs right outside of my tent.

But later the real show began. I was awoken by the sound of squealing brakes, then the sound of a train engine straining to push a train up a hill: "SCRREEEEECCCHHHH....whump whump whump". This happened several times throughout the night. When I got up in the morning, I could see that across the river there is a railroad track. It's coal country, so the train ran many times a day. It 's a typical pattern since the easiest place to run a railroad in the mountains is along a river. Note to self: remember ear plugs next time.

Lower Noli
I got up in the morning, had breakfast, and made coffee. Rich was having everyone meet at 11 am, so I had a lot of free time. While seated at the picnic table drinking my coffee, I saw a pickup go through the campground, go past my site, then come around again and park at the site next to mine. Turns out it was Garrick, someone I've paddled with a numerous occasions.

I noticed a group gathering, so I went on over to check it out. I had not met Rich, so I didn't know what he looked like or what he drove. I asked three guys "Are any you Rich?" They laughed, then said "boy, he's sure blunt". Two of the guys were Jeff and Casey from Knoxville.

A little later Rich's group gathered in the same place. Our intrepid group consisted of:
  • Rich
  • Rich's daughter Sarah
  • Robert
  • Gretchen
  • Ian
  • Donna
  • Mona
  • Myself
We were starting at the campground, so we needed to position vehicles at the takeout. When we got back, it was time to don the gear and get ready to go. I was surprised by the number of people wearing full dry suits. It just seemed too warm. I was told "but the water is COLD". The air temperature is 85 degrees! I stuck with Neoprene, paddle jacket, etc. but they convinced me to at least put on my paddling pants. That was a good call since I would have died in the dry suit.
Radio Tower Rapid, Lower Nolichucky River
We then headed down the lower Noli. The biggest rapid was Radio Tower rapid, and that wasn't too big. There were a couple of swims in the group, but I did not have any out of boat experiences.

It was a great way to work on basic skills and to get out on the river on a beautiful, warm spring day.

We arrived at the takeout, loaded up gear, and headed back to the campground. I offered beer, and Ian gladly took up that offer.

But Which has MORE Food?

When I go on kayaking trips, I bring food for breakfast and for packing a lunch. I don't cook evening meals (helps to limit the amount of junk I have to bring as well). Generally we go out for food and malted beverages. Apparently there aren't many options in Erwin Tennessee. I was told there were only two kayaker approved restaurants: one that served beer, another that did not. We were going to the Mexican restaurant that served beer.

Jeff and Casey were part of our dinner group. Casey was funny because when he ordered, he asked the waiter "Which burrito has MORE food?". The burrito that came out was as large as a infant! He finished the whole thing. The next day I asked him if he was still digesting that monster. I was thankful to be on the OTHER side of the campground.

Has Anyone Seen a Drunk Brunette?

When we were back to the campground, it was time to make a camp fire. Someone had left a bunch of good firewood at Garrick's site, so we moved the wood to where they were starting the fire.

While we were gathered around the fire after sunset, a couple people come up and asked "Have you seen a drunk brunette? She had dinner at the campground, had some wine, walked off, and we can't find her". Uh. No. So they started looking in tents and around the campground and couldn't find her.

The next morning I saw one of the "searchers". I asked if they had found their missing camper and if she was ok. It turns out she was fine. She went to her own tent after dinner (and didn't have that much to drink, thank you) and went to bed. They didn't do a very good job looking for her the previous night, so you know who had more to drink.

Casey was there and said "Geez, I would get in a lot of trouble if I lost a FLASHLIGHT".

Toe the Line

Saturday our group was going to go down the Toe Gorge, another new river for me. The Toe was a bit more remote and about an hour away from the campground. I packed my lunch, broke camp, and loaded up the gear.

We had the same group as the lower Noli along with some additional paddlers. We also had Danny, Lorraine, Debbie, and Jo Anne (and a couple of others). We positioned vehicles at the takeout and started off.

The Toe has a lot of fun play spots and places you can work on skills such as catching eddies. In one rapid I managed to go right into the hole, was flipped, blew the first roll, set up properly and was up on the second attempt.

A little later I did manage to have an out of boat experience, but not a swim. I managed to get pinned up against a rock and then flipped over in really shallow water. I was banging on the river bottom, so there was no room to roll. I tucked up, pulled off the spray skirt, and got out of the boat. I decided to not try and push off of the bottom since I envisioned doing something bad to my shoulder. With help I was able to get back in the boat in the middle of the river.

We stopped for lunch along the river. It turns out Rich picked the spot for a reason. Rich cajoled us into trying a stunt called a "deck dance". One person positions himself in the hole while two other people stay outside of the hole and provide stability. A fourth person comes along, gets out of his/her boat, dances on top of of the kayaks, then gets back into his/her boat. Ian would be in the hole while Mona and I would stabilize him. I don't recall who the dancer was, but Rich kept trying to get ME to be the dancer. Uh. no thanks. Sadly, we never got ourselves positioned quite right.

The take out was next to a bridge and was a fairly steep hike up rocks. I carried my gear up to my car, then helped others with their boats. Rich is an open boater, so we used a rope to haul his canoe up the bank. A couple of other people also took advantage of the rope lift.

On the Road Again
Rich had suggested a scenic route for me to take to get back to I-40 and home. It was a two lane mountain road with lots of switch backs. I crossed the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Eastern Continental Divide, and saw many fisherman fishing for trout in trout streams that ran along the road. I had plenty of time to view the scenery since I was behind a pa pa going 25 MPH even if the speed limit was 45. I'm amazed that he has any brakes left since he would hit the breaks on EVERY turn, even if going uphill.

It was another great paddling weekend in the mountains.

Click here for more pictures.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Nantahala Kayaking Weekend

The Nanty - Cold fun

Garrick, a fellow Carolina Canoe Club member, organized a Nantahala club trip for mid April. I have paddled with Garrick many times. The Nanty is a class II-III river that you can have a lot of fun on since it has quite a few play spots. It also has great places to practice boat handling skills like catching eddies, surfing, and ferrying across the river. However, the Nanty is always cold. Should I wear Neoprene (wet suit material) or my full dry suit? I could boil alive in the dry suit and I haven't practiced rolling in it. I chose Neoprene. I did get cold at times, but no one else in group wore dry suits either.

On Friday I worked at home so could load up gear during lunch and be ready to go as soon as possible. Leaving from home also helps me shorten the drive a bit and avoid some of I-40.

I posted on the club's list that I would like to carpool if someone was interested. Bret responded and we determined that our schedules would be compatible. We both would leave after work Friday and both wanted to be back fairly early Sunday evening. Bret is a local kayaker I had never met before. Of course we knew a lot of the same people and it turned out we BOTH also work for IBM. We decided to take my Civic since it gets much better mileage than Bret's big van. Having someone ride along made the five drive more pleasant and cheaper.

Ian, a new kayaking friend of mine from Johnson City Tennessee, met us at the campground. He wasn't going to paddle but wanted to check out the events at the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC). The NOC was having a freestyle shootout where amateur and professional play boaters competed. Gear vendors would also be there with boats, paddles, etc. you could try out on the river.

We camped at Turkey Creek Campground, which is a very nice campground. We camped next to a babbling brook that runs through the campground. We were close to the facilities, but not TOO close. This was convenient for when you wake up in the night and hear the running water.

I got up in the morning and made my coffee with my Jet Boil and French press. I gave Ian some coffee (he packed VERY lightly). He then decided that HE needed the French Press for his Jet Boil.

I started packing my lunch, which usually includes a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. PBJ is good since it's still edible if smashed and you don't have to worry about food safety. On Friday I picked up a loaf of whole wheat bread from Whole Foods. When I opened it up, I saw that it was MOLDY.

The group was meeting at the NOC to set up shuttle. The group consisted Garrick, Garrick's daughter Aly, Wendy, Bret, and myself. It was a perfectly sized group and everyone had been on the river numerous times.

Setting shuttle was easy since we had three vehicles plus I could haul four boats.

We had a nice time going down the river. It was overcast, so I wasn't going to roll on purpose. I did practice catching eddies, ferries, etc. Every time I got splashed by a big wave, I'd say to myself "yup, that water is COLD".

We had lunch at surfer's wave. It was good to get out of my boat since my ankles were hurting. My Happy Feet were not so happy.

Third Time's a Charm

On Saturday Endless Rivers was sponsoring a competition for running Nantahala Falls (The Nantahala Open). They made up all sorts of different categories. People ran the falls on an air mattress, in an empty kiddy pool, in a kayak seated backwards, on a boogie board, purposely going into the top hole (and having a hard time getting out), etc. I should have won the "persistence" award. As is typical for me, I flipped in the bottom hole. I was shocked by the cold water and rolled SO hard, the boat came out of the water and I flipped over to the other side. On my second roll attempt I rushed and brought my head up (which makes it near impossible to get upright). The third time was the charm. All of this is on video. I'll work on my form at roll practice. Keep...the...noggin....DOWN....

Garrick and Aly ran the falls before I did. Aly flipped and rolled before the falls, so they didn't stop in truck stop eddy before going over like they originally planned. Garrick went over, Aly came up and bumped him. Aly flipped and then Garrick flipped, then both rolled up and went on their way. Garrick and Aly cleaned up on awards at Endless Rivers. I think they won three nice prizes. Garrick got a new helmet, Aly got a new spray skirt, and they got a nice paddle bag.

The McNasty and Getting the Straight Shaft

We were all off the river by about 3 pm. We changed into dry clothes and went to get the cars parked at the put in.

On the way to the put in, we picked up a kayaker that needed a ride. He was very grateful, and I said it was karma. We would all need a ride at some point.

Endless Rivers was having a party after the shootout, and they advertised that Nantahala Brewing Company would provide beer, Pizza by the River would provide pizza, AND great prizes would be awarded. They were also raffling off a brand new boat to raise money for a program that gets wounded Iraq and Afghanistan vets into whitewater kayaking. If you won the raffle, you could choose ANY boat in the store, and it was only $10 a ticket. At most a couple hundred people were at the party, so the odds were not too bad since you had to be present to win.

The party started at 6, so we decided to watch the shoot out and go to Endless Rivers after the shoot out. The professionals were the the last group, and we needed to see what they could do. It's amazing what flips they can do and most of them did a stunt called the "McNasty". Eric Jackson was competing and I own a Jackson kayak (he's the founder and owner of Jackson Kayak). Should I have him sign my boat?

Before the professionals were up, we looked at gear. When were back at the NOC looking at gear, I saw Jeff and Casey, two paddlers from Knoxville I had meet two weeks previously. Our hitch hiker was part of the same group.

We stopped to look at paddles at the Werner Paddle booth. I have been using a cheap plastic paddle for years. I don't really care how chewed up it gets and I won't cry too much if it's lost. But it was time to upgrade. I talked to the Werner rep and we figured out the style, length, and blade size that would be good for me. But do I get fiberglass paddle or go all out and get the carbon paddle? The straight shaft carbon paddle wasn't that much more than the fiberglass paddle, and is SO much nicer. While mulling this, someone came up and said "I LOVE my double diamond" carbon paddle. The Werner rep insisted that that this guy didn't work for Werner. Bret didn't help by saying "Buy it. Buy it. You are DINKs, you can afford it".

We went inside to see what NOC had in stock. Aw...they only have the bent shaft double diamond ($100 more), that's too bad. A salesman comes over "I can look in the back". He came back with the 197 cm, straight shaft double diamond paddle I wanted. "This is the LAST one we have". I guess it was for me.

The person at the check out said that I needed to put my name on the paddle using a silver Sharpie (the paddle is black). "Do you sell those?" "No, but I bet you can borrow on in the bike shop". I could, and I wrote my name and number on it. When I walked passed the register, I said "I can't return it now". I then saw the Werner rep and said he should get a commission.

Where's my pizza?

We didn't get to Endless Rivers until 6:45. There was not a piece of pizza to be found! The beer was from a new microbrewery in Bryson City, Nantahala Brewing Company. The beer was good, but was the only beer style I do not like (well, not a fan of some Belgian lambic beers either): an India Pale Ale. IPA is Bret's favorite beer style and he brews his own beer. He even said he likes to chew on the hops, so overly hoppy beer is good to him. He asked if I liked the beer. I said "not so much". I did mange to get brownies. Beer and brownies, not a great combo.
They were planning on showing the video of people running the falls on the side of the building, so we had to wait until it got dark. Seating consisted of inflated rafts. Prizes were to be awarded during the video and the boat would be raffled after the video. We...had...to...stay... Getting ...very...hungry...

While waiting for it to get dark, we were visited by someone who had WAY too much of the free beer. He started ranting about how much of the country is owned by the banks. He ranted about how GW Bush and Obama signed treaties that may cause the UN to take over our national parks and bring in foreign troops. "HOW many guns do YOU have? I have THREE. You're going to NEED them." We all tried to tell him that we didn't want to discuss those topics. Garrick was able to back away and escape. I was trapped. Smile. Maybe the crazy man will go away. "You think I'm CRAZY?" uh, yeah. Where's your tin foil hat? I found out later he was one of the people from the pizza place that didn't provide enough pizza!

We got to see the video of Garrick's and Aly's run, and they each won a prize. I was next in the video, but didn't win anything (sniffle). I didn't get the boat either. That's fine since it was a worthy cause to donate to.

We stayed until nearly 10 pm. Since nothing in the tiny town of Bryson City (which doesn't even have a Wendys) would be open, we headed back to the campground.

Down the Nanty in Sunshine

Sunday morning we broke down camp and loaded up the car. Jeff then walks buy. I said "It's YOU again!" Jeff retorts "Of all the cheap gin joints in the world..."

Sunday was much nicer than Saturday. We had perfectly clear skies and it was sunny. You could actually warm up if you stopped in an eddy that was in the sun.

Wendy was going to meet us at the take out at the NOC to set shuttle. She wasn't there yet, so Bret and I went into the outfitter's shop (DANGER, this could get expensive). Bret bought a pair of pogies to keep his hands warm. The salesman that sold me the paddle asked how I liked it. "We're about to give it a try now".

We setup shuttle and got on the river.

Garrick showed me how to do a trick called a "pop up". You put the bow of your boat into a wave, lean forward, and you can get vertical.

Seriously, Where's My Pizza?!

We paddled by the pizza place that is on the river bank. This was the place that allegedly provided the pizza the night before. I SO wanted to yell out "Where's my pizza?" Oh, psycho man ranted about the number of guns he had. Move along...

The new paddle is simply amazing. It is so light and you can do more with less effort. I held it up like the holy grail. I let Bret borrow the paddle, so now he wants one.

Then it was time for the falls again. I did not want to lose my new paddle! I lined myself up and was on my way. I thought I was home free. The eddy I wanted was so close...But....I must have hit the edge of the bottom hole and went into a slow motion flip. Perhaps I could have saved it with a proper brace. But over I went, clutching the new paddle. Again, I was shocked by the water. I blew the first two rolls. I was up on the third attempt and had an ice cream headache. At least there was no swimming and scramble for gear involved.

We changed into dry clothes, retrieved the cars at the put in, and loaded up the cars. The smelly wet gear went into a large trash bag for the ride home. We said our good byes, and headed home.

Click here for more photos from the weekend.

Monday, April 12, 2010

My first tri - Beaverdam Olympic distance triathlon

My first ever triathlon was on Saturday and I think that it went pretty well for a first effort.

Leading up to the race, I was very nervous about the swim portion, both because I am new to swimming and because it was an open water swim in the spring. There was a lot of obsession about the water temperature. When I first started thinking about trying an open water swim, the water temperature was in the 40s. I read a lot of concerns about last year's event -- water cold, neoprene swim cap needed, etc. Since our winter was particularly cold this year, I was afraid that the water wouldn't warm up in time. Fortunately, we had a string of warm days and that got the water temperature to a comfortable wetsuit temperature in time.

The week leading up to the Inside-Out Sports Olympic Triathlon at Beaverdam, I was nervous and excited. I kept on telling myself, "You can do this!" Then I comforted myself by saying, "It'll all be over next Sunday." People told me my training was solid and I tried to believe in it.

As the name of the event indicates, this was an Olympic distance event. Olympic distance is 1500 meter swim, 40k (24.8 mile) bike ride and 10k (6.2 mile) run. This event was actual a 1 mile (1609.3 meter) swim, 26.2 mile bike and 10k run.

I must have been excited, I went to early packet pick up on Thursday and packed my transition bag immediately. Thursday might have been a tad early to pack for a Saturday event!

Race number, white swim cap, race t-shirt

On Saturday morning, I got up early to arrive at the Beaverdam Recreation Area at Falls Lake before the recommended 6:45 am arrival time. I set up, brought my bike and transition bag to the transition area, and set up my gear. Then I got my body marking done and my timing chip. My body marking was mostly off before we even got into the water. I'm not sure what was up with that. They put your race number on your arms and they put your race age on your calf. After that, a group of us gathered near the beach to watch the buoys for the swim course be placed. Just over 200 people registered for the event.
Transition area: bike gear on the right and running gear on the left.

Just before the transition area closed, I got my wetsuit. There was a brief pre-race meeting then and most people got into the water to acclimate. I did a little swimming, tested my goggles, made sure that my goggle straps were secure under my swim cap so that they didn't get knocked loose, etc.

The swim start was in waves. The blue wave, made up of younger guys, went first. Three minutes later, the yellow wave of older guys went and three minutes after the yellow caps, the white wave of women and remaining men went. My swim went as expected, which is to say, not quickly. I was pretty comfortable in the water and I felt that my sighting went pretty well. I was back of the pack but I knew that I would be and I was surprised to see at least one yellow cap in my group. I did bump with someone between the first and second buoy when one of us got off course and I passed someone near the end of the one mile swim. When other swimmers saw the inflatable "burning man" marking the end, they started to sprint. I have one swim speed so I just kept on going and concentrated on passing them in the transition area.

See the orange buoy on the right? That was the first one on the swim course. The flags in the foreground indicate the exit from the swim and route to T1.

As I exited the water, I got the wetsuit pulled down to my hips and then I scampered over the timing mat to the transition area as quickly as possible.

T1 went well. I could probably have pulled the bottom of the wetsuit off a little bit faster and I should have shoved my food into my pockets or left more in the bento box and not had anything in transition but overall, the transition was respectable.

I ran to the mount, dismount line, got on my bike and I was off! About 10 minutes into the ride I noticed my bike was noisy and realized that my cadence sensor was rubbing so I unclipped my foot and kicked it to stop the rubbing. That seemed to do the trick. (Note to self, check for rubbing when unloading bike from car.) When I previewed the bike course a few weeks before the race, I noticed that it was a bit hilly -- about 600 climbing feet over the 26 mile route. I passed several people on the bike and had a solid middle of the pack finish in that segment. I was not happy to see the speed bumps that I had conveniently forgotten about on the way to transition area and I was a little bit intimidated to see people already on the run course.

T2 went well. Just rack the bike, swap bike helmet for running hat, change shoes and off to the run.

The run went pretty well. I felt like I was running very slowly. If someone asked me how fast I was running I would have underestimated my pace. The course was entirely within the park. It was out and back and out and back. I found this difficult to race because when you passed someone going the other way you did not know if they were on lap 1 or lap 2 (ahead of you or behind you). There was a water stop .1 from the transition area and then at the turn around and then the one near the transition area had a 5k timing mat that runners crossed the second time by, then back to the turn around and then to the finish. The course is relatively hilly. There was good camaraderie on the run. There was good camaraderie the bike too but especially on the run.

I talked to several people on the run. I was with one woman for the second half of the run. After we made the final turnaround for the finish line, I said something like, "We've got this one!" to her. We chatted a bit and someone we had passed earlier, a young guy with a shirt that said "Just Run" on the front and XC on the back, decided to sprint past us with a hundred yards to go. He had a 21 on his left calf where they put your competition age. I guess he didn't want to finish with the middle age women.

The finish area, another competitor approaching the finish line.
There was a DJ that played during the event and that made the finish seem a bit festive. I stayed for the awards and saw that someone that I ride with from time to time won my age group and that someone that I know from the gym placed in her age group.