Monday, April 06, 2009

Guest Blogger: Bruce Litton - Video: Tallulah Gorge, Oceania

Guest Blogger: Bruce Litton

Long Trip Report For A Short Trip (subtitle: Confess Thy Swims)
I haven’t done one of these in a while but this trip deserves a report.

THURSDAY – South Sauty Creek (AL) – Matt Taylor and Jerry Fant had paddled this the day before and were raving about it. Matt and I paddled it and it was a fantastic class III-IV creek. Sauty has excellent slots, boofs, technical boulder gardens, etc., but nothing too big. We boat scouted everything except the first waterfall (the put-in rapid) and the Slot rapid. We ended up walking the Slot as it had ugly wood in both slots and the only other option was a boof that landed on rock AND THEN flushed into a pin rock. South Sauty was a great start to the long weekend of paddling.

FRIDAY – Chattooga Section 3 (GA) - We were joined by Patrick Brown from South Carolina (formerly San Marcos) and met up with Charlie Laws at the NOC Chattooga outpost. With recent rains we had high hopes of getting on a creek. The North Fork and West Fork French Broad (NC) were our first choices but they were on the low side and dropping. We thought the Chauga (SC) might be good so we went to look at the gauge nearby, but it was below minimum. We even considered Overflow Creek, but I wasn’t sure I was (or ever will be) up for that so we didn’t make the trip to check the gauge. Originally we had planned to paddle Section 4 but at 2.5’ the level was a bit too high for us mere mortals. Plan B (or C or D) was in effect and that meant Section 3. I had to do a little convincing with Matt as he wanted to go run Killer Fang Falls Of Death Creek or something (he’s young). I told him he HAD to do Section 3 sometime in his life and today was the day. It was a hoot. We did the entire 12 miles in about 3 hours. It was all read and run except for scouts at Dick’s Creek Falls and of course Bull Sluice (VERY IMPRESSIVE at that level – the biggest I had ever run it). It’s a beautiful river with great rapids and it had been over 10 years since I had run all of Sec. 3. It was also great to paddle with Charlie and go to dinner with him afterwards to laugh at all his stories.

SATURDAY – Cheoah (NC) – Matt and a couple of his friends that had joined us (Drew and Harrison) decided to do a BIG double – Tallulah in the morning and Cheoah in the afternoon. I’m too old for that much excitement and needed to do a little shopping at the NOC so Patrick, Jerry and I headed for the Cheoah. At the Nantahala we had a chance to visit with Michelle Kvanli and watch a couple of her Junior Olympic racers run the course at Nantahala Falls (BTW, the weekend before Michelle placed 1st in her slalom race – awesome!). The last time and only time I ran the Cheoah over two years ago the release was 850 CFS, and we took out before the bottom section. Today the release was 1000, and with creek inflow it was estimated to be at 1200. It was HUGE – definitely the biggest, most powerful river I had ever run. None of us knew the lines so we felt our way down boat scouting and were doing pretty well until………. Takeout Rapid (not because it’s at the takeout but because people screw up and choose to take out). On river left I boofed a pourover. Unfortunately on landing I pitoned into a rock and it bounced me right back into the hole. I was stuck side surfing in the hole. I was stable but the hole was deep and sticky, and I was stuck between the hole and the downstream rock that had bounced me into it. I rolled but was still in the hole (much to my chagrin). I tried again to dig myself out but it wasn’t happening so I reluctantly pulled the skirt and bailed. I ended up on a river center rock next to a guy who had swum out of the same hole. His friends roped us both to shore and then the search was on for my boat and paddle. Jerry and I found my paddle (broken) and Patrick found my boat about ¼ mile downstream. I was feeling pretty smug about packing a break-down in the boat until……… I discovered that the center section was no longer in the boat (lesson to you youngsters – when packing a break-down fasten it well in the boat or it will not serve its intended purpose). No injuries, but 1 broken paddle, 1 lost thermos, and 1 useless back up paddle. Jerry had decided to get off the river and as Patrick and I were getting ready to restart Matt, Drew and Harrison pulled up. I borrowed an extra paddle Drew had and they joined us for the rest of the run. Thankfully we now had a guide as Drew knew the river well and we (mostly) followed his lead through massive waves, holes, and pourovers. By then we were concerned about running out of water so we didn’t scout anything, including The Big One (Bear Creek Falls) which I never imagined I would run without scouting (we ran the center line with no mishaps). The river picked up even more in intensity. It was so pushy that constant corrections were needed to stay on course, and as I discovered later Drew was taking us down the “hero” lines. There were no more incidents until…… Yard Sale – the last rapid before the lake. I followed Drew to a big pourover boof over a nasty hole. He had not led me wrong yet so I opted to follow him down this “hero” line rather than take an easier way around (I was tired and should have). Drew hit the boof hard and flipped, but he rolled up out of the hole. I hit the boof not so hard and got sucked back into the hole. So there I was again, side surfing in a big hole. This one was REALLY deep and trying to surf out in either direction was like climbing a slippery mountain – it wasn’t happening. A flip and roll didn’t do it either and I realized pretty quickly that the only way I was getting out was to swim. A friendly NOC raft (that thankfully did not squash me in the hole) helped me get to shore with boat and paddle (which I did hold onto this time). There were just a couple of small drops left and then we hit the lake. What a day! What a river! The swims were unfortunate (my first since my face and hand were cheese-gratered on the Ocoee 2 ½ years ago), but those are just part of the game. We’re all just between swims. It’s only a matter of when.

SUNDAY – Tallulah (GA) - It was time for the Grand Finale. I had wanted to paddle this river ever since they started releases in 1997. Saturday is 500 CFS and it was 700 CFS for us on Sunday. Paddling it were myself, Matt, Patrick, Harrison, and Drew (who would again be our guide). The first (Class V) obstacle at the Tallulah is the put-in – 600 steps into the gorge. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be (but my legs are still feeling it 4 days later). The first rapid (Last Step) is one of the hardest on the river and I completely screwed it up. I missed the line completely and pitoned briefly, went down a large drop, pitoned again, and then rock bashed down a steep slide. Needless to say this was NOT a good start, but I was determined (and the only way out was a walk back up the steps – no way). Next was Tanner’s Launch, which is the biggest auto-boof in history. If you add a stroke to it the boat practically flips over backwards. Next was Oceana. That is the most amazing rapid I had ever seen close up. The explosion of water coming off The Thing can’t be imagined until you’re next to it. I may run it some day, but on this day I elected to take the river right dry line. Maybe if I hadn’t missed the line at the first rapid I would have felt more confident and run it? I don’t know, but when you’re on the river and decide to walk a rapid it is always the right decision for that time and circumstance. Patrick and Harrison did fire it up and had great rides down the left side. The rest of the river was amazing, exhilarating, extraordinary, indescribably beautiful, and……… difficult. For me it was true edge of the seat paddling - flickering between moments of exhilaration and fear. Drew was a great guide and he said later that after we all made it through The Gauntlet (HUGE!!) he knew we would be ok. Also of note for me were Road To Aintry, which has a big slide into a big hole that I got stuck in (here we go again?) but was able to surf out, and Tom’s Brain Buster. On Tom’s Drew told us to just stay right to avoid “bad dreams” to the left. I got eddied out inadvertently, leaked out of the eddy backwards, and ran the bottom, steepest part of the rapid backwards. Another very notable rapid was Lynch’s Wrench. It was one of the few we scouted. It required a big boof off a rock flake to make it over a massive hole/seam/ugly water area. I did not want to surf that hole and thought about walking it, but I went for it and made it. Everyone paddled great. There were a few flips, a few missed lines, and a few scary moments, but no swims and no big problems. The Tallulah is truly an amazing river and despite the Class V put-in and the long lake paddle at the end I will be back to run it again as soon as possible.

What an amazing four days of paddling. It was short but intense. Except for Friday every day was at or over the limit of anything I had ever paddled. I also realized that I can do a trip like this and take off only two days of work (Thursday and Friday) and still get to paddle 4 days. Of course the front end and back end have to be done on little sleep, but it can definitely be done (I was home working by 9am Monday). In addition to the October Ocoee trip I’m going to make this long weekend springtime trip every year if at all possible. Come on and join in. You will not be disappointed.

Finally, I would like to put in a quick plug for American Whitewater. If not for their efforts the Tallulah and the Cheoah would still sit dry, as they did for 80 years. Thanks to AW and other local groups they have scheduled releases that you can plan a trip around. To paddle even one of them is worth the trip. To be able to do both in the same weekend – simply stupendous. If you are not a member of AW don’t hesitate – JOIN NOW! You also get a great magazine out of it.

That’s all (and quite enough). See you on the river.


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