“The Edge of the World”

Featured in the January/February 2010 American Whitewater Journal, page 32.

Me and a friend try our luck at paddling waterfalls in the southeast.

Link to AW story: http://americanwhitewater.org/content/Journal/index/issue/1/year/2010/

Standing beside a popular roadside waterfall you’ll hear the tourist chatting about scenic beauty, the local good ‘ole boys talking about tubing, and the kayakers debating lines. Even the kayakers’ perceptions of the waterfall will vary greatly. A beginner may see an unrunnable rapid, an intermediate may see a fun drop and an expert may not even get excited. All paddlers have an evolving idea of an acceptable height from which to launch a boat. I can remember my first three-foot ledge as a beginner. Even though my Mirage was four times longer than the height of the drop, I thought it was amazing I survived the descent. That three-foot horizon line looked like the edge of the world.


 Paddlers keep pushing the limits. It’s hard to believe the world waterfall record was recently set at 186 feet! Personally, my vertical limit has stayed around 25 feet for a decade. Single drops higher than that have always seemed a bit much—at least until recently.Maybe a mid-life crisis drove me to it. Attending my 20-year reunion and discovering my high school buddies  are now grandparents didn’t help. For whatever reason I decided it was time to try waterfalls in the 30 to 45-foot range. It was time to see what all the fuss was about. By gosh, it was time to huck some drops! This new waterfall mission started with a bit of planning. Who would join me? Where are the closest 30 to 45 footers? Is my health insurance paid up? These were all important questions. Matt Wallace joined in the quest and with a little research we were off to our first waterfall.

The drive gave us a chance to chat waterfall technique. When do you tuck? How are you supposed to spot your landing with your eyes closed? Do these big time waterfall guys really pour several gallons of water in their boat? Is it better to throw the paddle or reference it? Joking about this stuff was more fun than considering the serious possibility of becoming maimed.

A bit off line at Cannon Falls in Georgia

Our first big waterfall was a rolling lip 40 footer. No rocks at the bottom, just the hard hit of falling 40 feet. The approach was Class II and a perfectly placed limb made a great marker for lining it up. Standing at the lip of the drop looking down on the tree tops I suddenly remembered my fear of heights. Time to get back in my kayak where I felt safe! As I paddled into the rolling lip entrance I reminded myself to keep it straight. I was on line and the kayak accelerated in an indescribable way. I saw the landing, threw the paddle and tucked like there was no tomorrow. WOW! That barely hurt! I didn’t even flip! I couldn’t believe it: That was freaking fun!

 The adrenalin was pumping and the drive home was full of waterfall talk. We were both surprised by the minimal hit. It stung, but it wasn’t bad. It reminded me of tackling someone in football. Our first big waterfall had been a success and we were stoked to prepare for waterfall number two!

 Our next waterfall opportunity came a few days later. The adrenaline had worn off from our first success, but a slight pain in my lower back and neck persisted. I convinced myself it was just a nice reminder of the importance of a good tuck. For waterfall number two we chose the center line at Little River Canyon Falls. This is about a 30-foot vertical drop. The center line is only runnable at high water. This day we had very high water, 30 inches on the gauge or about 6,000 cfs. Watching 6,000 cfs fall 30 feet is not reassuring. The hole at the bottom was huge. The approach was full-on. Plus, the line at the lip was 100feet from shore. Scouting from 100 feet is not ideal. The line was to drive right, bust through a Rock Island size hole, punch a stout diagonal wave, line it up and fly off. Matt’s line was good, which left me at the top by myself. I handed the camera to a tourist and went for it. 6,000 cfs is a lot of water for a southern creeker to pound through. Surprisingly, I held the line and approached the lip exactly where I wanted. Some primal and instinctive reflex took over and I boofed the crap out of it. There I was, flying through 30 feet of air completely flat with the perfect boof. What had I done? I couldn’t resist, the pad looked so inviting. Time to tuck! Boooooof, the landing was smooth! The huge boil in the landing zone made my flat kayak land as if it was landing on a giant bowl of Jell-O. It didn’t hurt at all, in fact, it felt great! Waterfall number two was more fun than number one. Once again, a good tuck made the day.

 With two big drops under our belts we started to feel good with our waterfall quest. We were solid with holding our line, tucking and dealing with the paddle. I needed to work on controlling the angle for landing. No more boofing! With no rain in the forecast I headed to an old faithful to learn how to better pencil. Baby Falls on the Tellico became my practice field. Plus, climbing back to the top each time for another run was a nice workout. Like many southern boaters I’ve logged countless runs on this easy 10-footer. The problem is that I have spent 15 years boofing it. Time to practice penciling! After a few runs I dialed the stroke in. A more subtle stroke that gently pries on the water was the ticket. Nice and easy!

The downtime awaiting more rain allowed me to get my head around this new waterfall hobby. When creek boating, I try to focus on the run as a whole, not just the big rapids. Class V paddlers often have the worst wipeouts in Class IV whitewater. It’s the not-so-big ones that get you. Worrying about a big drop five rapids downstream is a recipe for trouble. But running big waterfalls can make one rapid your  whole day. The size of the drop requires you to focus and channel all of your energy into one series of moves. A few crucial body movements will make or break you. It becomes obsessive. Every stroke is planned. David didn’t have all day to defeat Goliath. He only had a few seconds and one shot at it. With the size of these drops you have to be smooth and precise. This waterfall hucking stuff requires a lot of multi tasking. It all comes down to a couple of seconds, a few exact moves, and a bit of luck.

Our chance for our third big drop came surprisingly soon. The Smokey Mountain National Park was drenched by a storm and the mighty Raven Fork was flowing. The Raven Fork is home to one of the south’s toughest drops, Big Boy. This is a 33-foot waterfall dropping beside a large rock. I’ve been lucky to paddle the Raven many times in the past several years, but I have always portaged Big Boy. I’ve scouted the drop from every angle: left, right, downstream, upstream. Plus, I’ve hiked the Raven at low flow and climbed and swam in the pool.

This day, I put on knowing it may be time for my Big Boy first descent. I couldn’t have asked for a better day. The level, weather, everything was perfect. We knocked out the paddle down to Big Boy in only 15 minutes. My lines were solid and when I stepped out above the drop I left my boat facing towards the water ready to go. I walked to the edge for one last scout. The line was obvious: drive left, aim for the seam, take a big right stroke and land a few feet from the most menacing looking rock I have ever seen. There is even a nice diagonal wave breaking from the right to guide you. But, I just didn’t see it happening. I saw the line, but I couldn’t stop imagining flying through the air and splatting on the boulder to the right. Falling 33 feet and landing on a dry rock would be horrible. The risk seemed too great. Many paddlers run this drop regularly, but it wasn’t my time yet. My little voice sent me portaging again. Maybe one day!

Matt dropping Mill Creek Falls

The amazing fall rains kept pouring and a week later Matt and I had our chance at Mill Creek Falls. This waterfall is huge! A 10-foot boof leads into an eight-foot boof, which lands on a 45-foot slide/drop. This rapid has only been run a few times. The pool is deep, but the entrance is tricky. The first time I scouted this drop I couldn’t imagine paddling it. The encouragement came with a low water hike. I spent several hours climbing the waterfall and swimming the pool. After a heavy night of thunderstorms in the Cohuttas it was time. We met at 7:00 a.m. and set shuttle. The waterfall is only a short distance from the put-in. We hopped out to scout and my little voice gave a thumbs-up. Walking back to the top I actually felt calm. The nervous energy of running a waterfall was replaced with the focus of scouting a rapid. I went over the sequence in my mind: boof left, boof left, keep it straight, spot landing, throw paddle and tuck! Peeling out at the top I stayed focused on connecting the dots. Everything went according to plan! I  plugged into the pool at the bottom and surfaced upright and smiling. Matt flew off a few minutes later with a great line. That drop will keep us smiling for a few weeks!

I am no expert on waterfall hucking, but I can tell you it is loads of fun! Setting and pursuing individual goals is one of the greatest parts of our sport. Dropping a waterfall is certainly an exciting way to push your limits. I recently saw a picture of the three-foot drop I ran in my Mirage years ago. I can still remember how scared I was above that seemingly enormous drop back then. It’s funny how we all have an evolving idea of what the edge of the world looks like.

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