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.

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