“The Green Mile”
Featured in the November/December 2006 American Whitewater Journal, page 22.
About an epic day of paddling 10 laps on the Green Narrows. At the time we believed the gradient for 10 runs would total a vertical mile. We were off by a few feet so five years later Zach Fraysier and I were able to complete 11 laps in a day finally reaching the goal.
Link to AW story: http://americanwhitewater.org/content/Journal/index/issue/6/year/2006/
Hucking Sunshine 10 times was terrifying
This past July I heard the words I have dreamed of hearing for many years: “The Tuxedo Hydro Station will be running one unit at 100% capacity from midnight to midnight.” This phone recording meant North Carolina’s Green River was releasing the following day sunrise to sunset (and beyond). This rare occurrence during the summer months was the chance for my friends and I to try our luck at a kayaking goal we had dreamed up years before. We had the ambitious dream of paddling the Green as many times as possible in a single day. I am sure a physiatrist would have a field day trying to figure out what drove us to this goal. In fact, I am still not certain today why we wanted to do it—even after the fact. I do know this: my friends and I made the most of our day dropping 5,250 feet. We went as hard as we possibly could and the fun of kayaking never left us during our 14.5 hour marathon.
Jonathan Shanin and Mark Bowman joined me for this monstrous day of paddling. Our wake-up call came at 5:30 in the morning. We had gotten a few hours of sleep in a motel near the put-in. At 5:45 we were geared up and walking down the put-in trail. At 6:04 we slid in the water, barely able to see. At 6:19 I was in the eddy above the notch at Gorilla wondering whose insane idea this was. I stared through the notch reassuring myself, I have made this move many times before. So what if it was just barely daybreak and all I could see were shadows lingering below. A few minutes ago I was comfortably asleep; now I must charge this beast.
Gorilla worked out fine that first run and the notch treated us well throughout the day. My friends and I spent the day paddling, smiling and soul searching. The countless thoughts of past kayaking days filled my head while racing each lap. Amazing memories of long ago creeking trips played like a movie through my day. Completing our first run we arrived at the take-out at 6:50 a.m. We kept up the same pace until 8:30 that night.
So how does one end up paddling the Green from sunrise to sunset? My story starts in 1992. I was trying to do enders at the Ocoee’s Hell Hole when a really good boater asked me if I was interested in guiding rafts for the summer. The boater was Marc Lyle and the summer job was there on the Ocoee. Yes, before Marc Lyle designed kayaks for Dagger he managed an Ocoee rafting company. My crazy luck was to meet him one day in an eddy. I told him I might take the job the following summer, but wished to creek with him during the coming winter. I had just bought a Dagger Freefall and was fired up about creek boating. Marc and I became friends and before long he invited me on a creeking trip. Since I had only been kayaking for a year he was concerned, but I assured him my creeking abilities were good to go. My experience at the time was actually limited to floating down a couple of streams in north Georgia. I really had no idea what creek boating was, but assumed a stream and a creek must be the same. I assured Marc I knew how to creek boat and that I was more than ready for a good Class V run. Somehow I talked him into showing me down Bear Creek. Bear is insanely steep for a first timer, but I made it down unscathed. Marc could tell I had pushed my limits and afterwards asked if it was too much. “Are you kidding,” I replied. “This has been the greatest day of my life!” I had lucked into finding a great kayaking mentor. Marc took me under his wing and has inspired me ever since. Somehow, I ended up paddling Bear Creek before I knew Baby Falls existed. It’s funny what major effects someone’s kindness can have on your life.
Back tot the job at hand, laps two and three passed speedily and uneventfully. Completing lap number four we found Adam Herzog waiting at the take-out. He was looking for a shuttle and we obliged. Adam is an amazing boater. He is probably in the best health of any kayaker I’ve met. He cross trains by riding and running. Adam has paddled Linville Gorge multiple times in a day and won Jerry’s Baddle twice. This is a mass start head-to-head race which includes kayaking the Green and biking back to the put-in. Adam won this past race beating, as an individual, the teams who had multiple members to share the different disciplines. Even Adam was a bit surprised to hear we had already completed four laps that morning. Keep in mind it was only 11:00 a.m. when he joined in.
Starting with lap number five I began to fixate on the notch above Gorilla. The entire river is funneled through a gap in the rocks so tight hikers can leap from one side to the other. Running the notch is always a huge challenge for me. After a decade of regularly paddling here I still miss the eddy on the river right below the notch at times and have to run the flume direct. The feeling of missing the eddy is always such a surprise. The first thought passing in your mind is “How did I miss that?” Then your heart races as you realize you are about a half second from going over the main drop. Frantically, you straighten your boat and aim for launch pad. The entire experience is over,regardless of the quality of your line, in a few seconds.
When you are eddied above the notch on the river left you stare over your left shoulder at the move. You see the river right eddy surging below. You know how terrifying the undercut is on the right at the base of the notch. You know that it is possible to flip and run the main drop upside down. Thoughts of getting turned backwards and going over the main drop stern first add to the stress. But, you focus on catching the eddy below the notch and drive to that goal. Of all the spiritual places kayaking has taken me, Gorilla is at the top of the list. The notch acts as a doorway or gateway to another world. It may only be a rapid, but to me it is one of the perfect places in kayaking. You focus on the move and if it doesn’t work out as planned you have about a second to fix whatever craziness you and your kayak are caught up in before dropping the main falls.
Running this rapid always reminds me of the first time I fired it up on a hot summer day 12 years ago. I couldn’t stop smiling for a week afterwards. The “Gorilla Grin” is a right of passage. The notch is the test and the main drop is your reward or punishment. After hundreds of runs I have only screwed it up four times. Three times I ran the main drop backwards and once upside down. All screw ups were in a 11-foot kayak running direct (without aiming for the eddy), practicing for the Green race. Funny how the many good lines blend together, but the four bad ones still play out vividly in slow motion in my mind. Thankfully, I have never been hurt here. The notch reminds me how fortunate we are. I often think of the amazing kayakers who have passed between those narrow gate rocks, all with clear focus and full of heart, all of them firing it up with determined intensity. I’ll certainly never take Gorilla lightly; it still energizes me as much today as it did my first time, 12 summers ago.
Lap number five complete, I text messaged my girlfriend on the shuttle drive back to the top, “Five down, FIVE to go!” The day is starting to seem possible. We definitely will have daylight for ten runs, but will our energy last? Will the release continue as scheduled? A broken boat or injury will end this challenge and we are definitely not as strong now as we were during the first laps. The time is 1:20 p.m. and we are launching on lap number six.
Jonathan, Mark and I cruise downstream. The Green has a nice class II-III warm-up section before Frankenstein. As usual, we found our rhythm and were ready to race after the Bride. These guys are great to boat with. We kept the boats in the current leap frogging for safety through the tough rapids. The only eddies we have time for are at Gorilla and Sunshine. The rest of the run flows together as one long rapid. Jonathan is determined to fire up Gorilla each run and has smooth lines each time. Bowman chooses to walk on occasion. He has nothing to prove and only runs the big ones when his heart is fully committed. His strategy is smart and his lines show it. Lap number six turned out to be our fastest thus far: 39 minutes from put-in to take-out.
Lap seven was a tough one. I was tiring. The day was wearing me out and my lines showed it. I flipped in Go Left, flipped at Speedtrap and barely cleared the rock at Sunshine. Carrying to the car at the takeout my legs were killing me. The put-in hike is less than a mile and all downhill, but carrying a kayak seven times with wet, sandy river shorts had seriously chaffed the back of my legs. I could barely take a step without cringing. My buddies were giving me crap. Was it time to call it a day? Nope, it was time for Red Bull and Vitamin I (Ibuprofen).
Revived at the put-in, we found ourselves ahead of schedule. We actually had daylight for 11 full runs if we wanted and decided to take a break for a few. Maybe ten laps would actually happen! Feeling stronger I knew I had to do something about my river shorts. No one had a spare pair and I was not going to be turned back due to chaffing. Mark and Jonathan grabbed their gear and started walking towards lap number eight. My legs were killing me. I could not fathom another hike to the putin wearing these shorts. What to do???? Yes, the shorts stayed in the car. Besides, I had a sprayskirt on; no one would see me. No one would know, right?
Lap number eight was smooth and lap number nine was actually our best of the day. The three of us were paddling extremely well for number nine. Arriving at Go Left we were only a few feet apart from one another. Mark lead with a left angle. Jonathan and I immediately knew he was going left. As Mark committed left Jon committed to the river right line. This gave Mark enough of a head start for me to follow him left. The three of us cleaned the rapid and were through the entire drop and gone in ten seconds. A crowd of paddlers scouting from shore gave us a big yelp to encourage us downstream. I have no idea where this surge of energy came from, but I felt like it was my second run of the day, not my ninth. We hit the takeout with our fastest run and felt invincible riding back to the top for number 10.
Walking down the trail our tenth time I realized I had forgotten to eat a powerbar during shuttle. I was so amped on completing nine runs that I had spaced it. By the time we entered Gorilla for run number 10, I was out of juice. I sat in the river left eddy above the notch for a moment focusing. I had to turn my growling stomach into the desire to make this move. A moment later I was safely in the river right eddy below the notch. I couldn’t believe I had safely navigated the notch ten times today. Dropping the flume was as sweet as ever. Cruising down to Sunshine I knew what a huge challenge we had left. One major rapid stood between our goal and us, one last huge boof. I caught the river left eddy above the final move at sunshine and tried to relax a bit. I had flung myself off of this monster nine times so far today and pulled deep for one last good line. I could see the large crew we passed earlier enjoying the big rock below the rapid. Great, an audience. I was tired and really wanted to finish this day with just my friends, not with 20 spectators watching. I went for the move. As I flew off the boof I knew I had made it. Landing in front of the cave in the pool below I celebrated a second too early. The landing blew my skirt! I made it to shore as my kayak filled with water. I stepped out and hauled my boat up to drain it. Then I heard all the yelps. Oh yea, no shorts on at the moment! The crowd got a nice view of my pale behind. The last thing that group expected was to be mooned at Sunshine. Even with the embarrassing exposure, paddling to the take-out felt great. We had completed 10 runs on the Narrows of the Green in a single day.
We completed our feat at 8:30 that evening. Amazingly, we still felt strong. There was even time for another run before the sun set. It took about two seconds for us to consider and then we all agreed no-way. We were happy to stop at 10 for the day. Plus, our shuttle driver Mason had a hot date in Tennessee and we had to get him home. In the end we managed ten runs with no wipeouts. We each flipped a few times, but stayed safe during our Green marathon. Jonathan ran Gorilla all ten times and I Tripled Crowned all ten runs. The day was amazing. Of all places, Hammer Factor, an easy rapid at the end, actually gave our group the most trouble. That final rapid keeps you humble. I enjoyed the day for a million reasons, but most of all it allowed me to reflect on fourteen years of creek boating. The day reminded me that kayaking is such an amazing gift and we should each take time to share our skills with others. I am so very thankful for bumping into Marc Lyle in that eddy long ago.