Monday, May 9, 2011

Nolichucky Swim Team

Nolichucky Gorge CampgroundHave Gun Will Travel
My kayaking friend John was a trip coordinator for a paddling trip on the Nolichucky over the first weekend in May. The Nolichucky is a class III-IV river in North Carolina and Tennessee. It is a long eight mile run, parts of which are challenging. The toughest parts are in the first two miles, so if you have problems, you could have a long day. The Noli is also remote. Once you start, you are committed.

I told John that I wanted to join the trip since I had a new Wavesport Diesel 70, a much bigger boat than I had the one other time I had run the Noli. The Diesel can handle fairly big holes, which would be very helpful on the Noli.

I also carpooled with John. When I arrived at his house, as a joke he showed me a pellet gun that he wanted to bring (back story: on recent trip, a guy I carpooled with was seriously thinking of bringing a real handgun. What the heck FOR?!).

Since John didn't have the roof rack installed on his car, we loaded up my CR-V. We were on our way in record time, all loaded up and on the road in under 15 minutes.

We hit horrible bump and grind traffic on I-40 around Greensboro and Winston Salem. Even with the bad traffic and a dinner stop, we still got to the Nolichucky Gorge Campground a little after 9 pm. This made the campground manager happy since he doesn't like people to arrive too late at night.

We selected a camp site on the river. This was the first time John had a river side site in the campground. It worked out well since it would get sun in the morning.

It was a mostly clear night and I saw a shooting star (it was supposed to be a peak night for a meteor shower). There was a crescent moon over the river and you could see the entire sphere of the moon. A clear sky meant that it got cold. Everyone knew to bring ear plugs since frogs were making a lot of noise and the coal train runs throughout the day and night. The train's brakes make horrible screeching sounds when the train comes around the bend.

Saturday Noli - Introducing the Swim Team
The paddling group was going to meet at 11:15 am on Saturday. This would allow people to drive up in the morning if they didn't want to camp Friday night. John and I went to McDonald's in Erwin Tennessee to have breakfast and to use free Wifi. We couldn't believe the LONG line at the drive thru and that a lot of the people waiting in the drive thru were puffing on cigarettes.

When we went back to the campground, I killed time by reading, gathering up gear, and making my lunch.

The Nolichucky was around 1300 cfs, a perfect level. Our group on Saturday consisted of: Rich from Asheville, Ken from near Columbia SC, Jim and Kat from Raleigh, John from Durham, and myself from Apex.

The shuttle for the Nolichucky is very long. Normally paddlers pay $20 to hire a local shuttle driver. We couldn't fit all the boats, people, and gear onto one car, so we needed two drivers. One person in the group said "So, $40 divided by 6 is...$5 each." Well, not really.

When we got to the put in, we had to negotiate sucking mud and gnats. Luckily the gnats were not an issue once we were on our way.
On the Rocks Rapid, Nolichucky RiverEntrance rapid and On the Rocks were not problem for me and my hole munching Diesel. It was going to be a great day!

Rich, however, swam at On the Rocks. I got his paddle and threw it on the bank on river right. Rich was out of the water on river right and Jim pushed his boat to the bank. We yelled at Rich to GRAB his boat since it the current was taking the boat. We weren't really in an eddy and the next rapid Jaws was just ahead. Rich then fell into the river, so he had to be rescued again. Rich's boat also went downstream. Jim and I corralled Rich's boat on river left, Rich was on river right. Using a carabiner I loaned to Jim, Jim towed Rich's boat across the river. John had to go upstream and retrieve the paddle I tossed on the rocks.

Ken also swam at On the Rocks, but it wasn't nearly as dramatic.

Jacked By Hungry Jack
We all got out to scout Quarter Mile rapid. The tricky part is the entrance, the rest is mostly class III boogie water (about a quarter mile long) where you dodge rocks and holes. The very end is Murphy's ledge, which is a three-foot river-wide ledge. At the entrance you have to get on a tongue of water and eddy out, then you can line yourself up and continue with the rest of the rapid. John got in his boat and showed us how to do it.

I got back into my boat and started off. I was too far left and missed the tongue. I was quickly turned around and flipped. I was bounced up and down while upside down and I was going right for Hungry Jack, a large hole you don't want to be in. I wasn't in a good spot to roll, so I bailed out of the boat.

John was the only person in his boat and came out after me. Both my boat and I went into Hungry Jack, which luckily spat me out and didn't recirculate me. John said that this was the first place I yelled "OW" since I was smacked against a rock. This is also likely where my boat was dented. John said my boat went into Hungry Jack, came up on its stern and then was smacked on a rock.

For almost the entire rapid I was bounced off of rocks and went into and out of holes. See the human pinball! My knees were banged up pretty bad and at the end, were bruised and swollen. John kept coming over so that I could grab the back of his boat. I did NOT want to go over Murphy's ledge. We got separated several times and John was in parts of the rapid he really didn't want to be in. I kicked, but the current was strong. Eventually I got to shore, at the last eddy before the ledge.

John then chased after my boat. After spending a few minutes crawling over rocks and trying to avoid poison ivy on the shore, I eventually walked up the rocks to the railroad tracks. When I saw John and my boat, I scrambled down to the river. That's when I saw the huge dent in my boat.

After seeing what happened, the rest of the group carried their boats over rocks to avoid the entrance move.

On Sunday I met a rafting group at the take out. One guy asked "That was you swimming yesterday?" "Yes" I said. "Oh, we felt bad for you. That had to hurt.".

Since both the boat and I were banged up, I decided not to deal with Rooster Tail rapid. I got out before the rapid and climbed up the bank to the railroad track. It was a tough portage.

No one swam in Rooster Tail, but John did his usual line on Rooster Tail: he flipped and rolled.
Rooster Tail Rapid, Nolichucky River
By this time I discovered that my choice of paddling clothes was poor. I wore Neoprene shorts and top and a spray jacket. I was in the cold water a long time, the wind was kicking up, and it became cloudy. I was COLD.

At the take out, John said I was a "trooper" for paddling it out to the end in a banged up boat. I said "Did I really have a choice?"

User Error
When we were back to the campground, I called the dealer where I bought my boat just six weeks before: Endless Rivers Adventures. It looked like my boat was ruined, so I wanted to see what might be covered under a warranty. I identified myself and said that I recently bought a boat AND signed up for their Thanksgiving Costa Rica trip. Ken, one of the owners, said that this was a "user error". This is ironic since I am a software tester! My coworkers laughed and said "Gee, even on weekends your defects are returned".

Ken dismissively said that "No material could withstand that sort of impact." Too bad. How sad. "If you put it in the sun, it MIGHT pop out". I didn't believe it.

Local Cuisine and Audry Saves the Day
For dinner Saturday, Jim recommended a local restaurant that has home cooking (translation: tasty, but expect a lot of calorie bombs). I was drawn to the "pan fried" chicken, which was very good. I lessened the damage by having a salad and baked potato rather than mashed potatoes or the various fried side items. I don't think green beans really count as a vegetable if they are cooked in fat back.

After dinner Jim had us going all over Erwin Tennessee. He kept telling us a story of how in the past an elephant killed a man and they hung the elephant as punishment. Several of the stores were supposed to reference this event, but we never saw anything.

We then got lost on the side streets. I drove, so I turned on "Audry", the GPS. Audry took us right to the campground. Everyone laughed when Audry said "arriving at Noli Gorge Campground". "She SOUNDS like a paddler (Noli is the nickname for the Nolichucky. I didn't want to type Nolichucky into the GPS).

Shuttle Driver
I woke up Sunday morning feeling like someone beat me with a rubber hose. Jim offered to switch boats around so that I could use John's Diesel, but I didn't want to damage someone else's boat. I was bruised and sore, so I figured it was best to be conservative. This was a good call since there were seven swims in the group Sunday, three of which were at at same time.

Jim graciously fed us all ham and eggs. I showed Kat the wonders of a French Press, which made better coffee than her instant coffee.

Bob Wiggins and his son Bob from Asheville were joining the group Sunday. Bob has a huge ancient diesel Suburban that seems to be held together by rust. But it's the perfect paddling shuttle vehicle since Bob said he could fit ten boats on it. Since I decided not to paddle Sunday, I would drive shuttle. Everyone appreciated it and jokingly asked if I wanted $20. "Nah, paying it forward with karma points." Driving the beast up the mountains was quite a challenge. The seat couldn't be adjusted and I could barely press the gas pedal. It was so loud, people would look when I went by. I brought Audry along to make sure I didn't get lost on the mountain roads.

I went into town to have lunch and to use the Wifi at McDonald's. I dried out gear, napped, etc.

It was getting to be about 4 pm and I was getting worried. The group was on the water at 11:00 am. Where WERE they?!

Finally Kat and Jim showed up. Kat shook her head and said "It was quite an adventure". Bob had broken his wooden paddle at Jaws and swam, plus there were many other swims.

Throughout the day, I had my boat out in the sun on my roof rack. I had the dented part exposed to the sun. Nearly 90% of the dent popped out by the time Kat showed up. I asked if she believed in miracles and showed her the boat. Everyone was amazed by the self healing boat. It's battle scarred with scratches, but at least it can be used.

It was a really fun group to paddle with. At some point we will have a reunion of the Nolichucky swim team and run the river again as a group. John said that I would have the award for the "longest" and "ugliest" swim. In total there were five swims on Saturday, seven on Sunday.

Click here for more photos.