Over the Easter Holiday a few pals and I took off to paddle a 32 mile stretch of the Big South Fork which flows north from Tennessee to Kentucky. We didn’t really know what we were getting into which seemed innocent enough at the time. Our stoke certainly outweighed our concerns.
We went into the trip with the better part of three days to paddle the river and run a few rapids. Hudson, Jon, and I took to a single kayak and a 17 foot canoe which was a great choice because cramming three people in that canoe would have been agony! We all slept in hammocks and had plenty of food and a few cold ones to last us on a leisurely pace.
After opting for a front end shuttle which I highly advise (so many pros that the $60 fee was totally worth it) we somewhat nervously set off to paddling back to our truck. The nerves came from not knowing exactly what was coming around each bend. We did a little homework and knew there were two portages (carrying your craft around a particularly gnarly section of rapids, class 4 from class 2) but besides that we didn’t have a clue as to what was where. It was awesome!
It took us some time to get into the flow of things figuring out the best way to pack the canoe, reading the river, and learning out how the boats liked to be treated. We had all been on aquatic adventures before but for the three of us to be on this river in these boats was all new!
We quickly came to understand the magnitude and timelessness of this form of travel. People have been traveling by water for thousands of years. With a decent flow and steady paddling we could cover the entire 30 mile distance easily in a day with fully packed canoes. You could never cover that distance with that much gear on foot. The wind and flow of rivers offers so much exploration and opportunity for discovery.
Another thing that quickly struck me was the tranquility and stillness that hovered around the river. The remoteness of the area certainly helped but its as if all the creation around us was so content that there was no need for unnecessary noise. Everything was the way it needed to be so everything continued on the steady course of life. It was amazing to be able to pass through these moments and become a part of them, sharing in the simple goodness of life in this pocket of a wild land.
In a very similar way that sound tracks create mood, tension, and suspense in movies the slow crescendo of the rapids without the sight of them in front of us caused an uneasiness and stirred a dormant doubt to the forefront of our minds. “This sounds like a lot of water… Are we going to make this one?” All the quiet is stirred into chaos and white noise. The river shifts from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hide and reveals a more brutal side of its personality. With courage and adrenaline pumping we threw anxieties into the river and plunge into the white water. Always trying to find the driest line as the currents twist and pull us in hazardous directions. The waves break heavy on the bow of the broad canoe and the fore paddler is always in for a few buckets worth of water in the heavy rapids.
If I could do it over again I certainly would, but with a few more dry bags and an awareness that upon flipping anything of value should be lashed to the boats otherwise it has the opportunity to be swallowed by the river. We had a few casualties at one particularly gnarly rapid that was composed of a couple shed sized boulders in the center of the river that constricted the passageway to narrow corridors on either side. We chose to go left as the water quickly pushed us to the right. We broadsided the forward boulder which sent us sideways into the second. Then we watched as the entire flow of the river climbed into our canoe quite helplessly. Bottoms up. Luckily no one was hurt and I didn’t lose my camera, which I was convinced I lost until we righted the canoe a few hundred yards and five mentally torturous minutes down stream.
Moral of the story is wear your life jackets, make sure anything you don’t want to get wet or lost is put in a functional dry bag secured to the boat, wear sunscreen, and prepare yourself to have a boat load of fun. Cheers!