“When A Plan Comes Together”

Featured in the November/December 2008 American Whitewater Journal, page 18.

Tells the story of a paddling trip to Colorado that should have been a train wreck, but we dropped a vertical mile on Oh Be Joyful Creek.

Link to AW story: http://americanwhitewater.org/content/Journal/index/issue/6/year/2008/

Dave Levitt firing up Dead Zone

 How often do paddling trips work out as planned? Not as often as we would like. I’ve had my share of arriving at the put-in to find river levels too high or too low. Important gear is sometimes left in the garage. I have seen paddlers use two elbow pads duct taped to their head for a misplaced helmet. How often have your paddling buddies been late meeting you? Or not shown up at all? My favorite frustrating moment of paddling is when you spend hours driving to the river to find the put-in road closed to traffic. Just getting to the river can be a major undertaking. So many variables can keep you from your perfect day of paddling.


On the other hand, sometimes everything works out in your favor. The most rewarding trips can be the ones you gamble on for water. No one else thinks your chosen creek will be flowing, but somehow you know there will be water. Sure enough, as you arrive at the put-in at daybreak, the level is perfect, but dropping. As you finish your run, other paddlers are showing up a bit too late. While the rest of the world is having their morning coffee, you’re changing into dry clothes after an amazing sunrise paddle.

A few months ago I committed to a paddling adventure that was most likely going to become a train wreck. The plan was to fly to Colorado, find a boat, drop a vertical mile on a Class V creek I had never paddled, and be back in the office four days later. The creek was Colorado’s Oh Be Joyful and to pull this adventure off was going to require paddling this amazing monster 14 times in one day. Actually, the paddling was going to be the easy part. Here’s the story:

My buddy Chris and I started our adventure by sprinting through the Chattanooga airport trying to catch a flight. We were late. Imagine that. Our first major fork in the road came when Chris declined the rental car insurance upon our arrival in Denver. I thought I should speak up, but he travels more than I do. I was sure he knew what he was doing. The nice man at Hertz presented us with their top of the line four wheel drive Jeep Grand Cherokee. This behemoth of a gas guzzler was brand new with only 29 miles registering. I knew renting a car this nice was a huge mistake, but it was our vacation. Why not live a little?

Off we drove to Crested Butte. Our journey was shaping up. We met David on the way and by early the next morning we were scouting Oh Be Joyful surrounded by beautiful mountains. Snow still covered the towering peaks and our breath turned to vapor as we labored up the put-in trail. We spent the day scouting every foot of the one mile run. This creek is amazing. It drops 400 feet in nonstop slides and waterfalls. There are only a few traditional rapids requiring boofs and technical moves. The rest is continuous sliding and dropping. The run is fast and has few eddies, one horizon line after another for a mile. The initial thought of paddling this mile long cascade 14 plus times in a day seemed impossible. But, why not try it? We were already there and the following day promised to be an epic adventure.

Hiking back to the car reminded me our quest was far more complex than just dropping a mile of gradient. Somehow, we had to drive this four wheel drive trail 14 times. The road is really just a hiking trail. Vehicles are allowed, but calling this a road is a stretch. Just getting the truck to the trail was unlikely. We were going to have to drive across the Slate River. For you fellow eastern boaters, imagine driving a brand new Jeep through the Nantahala River and you can imagine our required river crossing. The place to cross was thigh deep, graveled and presented 800 cfs of current. Chris had signed the paperwork so he took the driver’s seat. The rental insurance we passed on sure sounded good about now. We thought we could make it, but the water was going to crash over the hood. A few ounces in the air intake would kill this beast. Problem solved with a tarp. We wrapped the entire front with a blue Wal-Mart camping tarp held in place with a few yards of duct tape. The front of our Jeep was going to be submerged, but just maybe the tarp would prevent the water from flooding the intake. I couldn’t believe it, but our Jeep made the crossing. If the Slate rose much higher we would become permanent residents on the far side. Oh well, there are worst places to be trapped than the take-out of Oh Be Joyful.

Crossing the Slate was only the first challenge. Three feet of snow blocked the trail. We tried, but the Jeep couldn’t make it. Time to shovel! Hand paddles make great snow shovels. After a couple of hours of removing mud and snow Chris hopped in the driver’s seat again and hit the gas. No problem, our little Jeep cruised straight up and a few minutes later we were at the put-in.

Our plan was coming together. The last ingredient required was a kayak. My friend Nick who lived somewhere north of Crested Butte had a spare creek boat. He had brought it from Tennessee a few weeks earlier. All we had to do was navigate the treacherous trail back to the Slate, cross the Slate, find Nick, find the boat, return tonight, cross the Slate again after dark and begin our 14 lap quest at sunrise. Yeah, right!

Avalanche Rapid

Finding Nick was absurdly easy. We drove north towards the pass and jokingly asked a girl who was mountain biking if she knew a guy named Nick. She asked if we meant the Nick with really big hair who just started working in Gothic  as a cook. Sure, we said. That sounds about right. She gave us directions and even told us which building to search. Sure enough, as we walked through the door, there stood Nick in an apron placing dishes on a table. He had the kayak and even volunteered to help with shuttles the next day. We returned to Oh Be Joyful, crossed the treacherous Slate for our third time and set up camp. Sleeping under the stars we fell asleep with thoughts of our coming day swirling through our heads. Until now, the many distractions and impossible logistics had made the adventure seem out of reach. I’m not sure I ever imagined actually getting the opportunity to drop a vertical mile on Oh Be Joyful. The odds of just getting there, finding the Slate low enough to cross, finding OBJ at a reasonable level to paddle from sunrise to sunset, digging the snow out of the shuttle road for our Jeep to pass were all unfavorable. Plus, we were camping at an elevation of 8,000 feet, the water was freezing, and I had never paddled here before. To add to the unlikelihood of success, we had to keep from getting injured paddling 14 laps, keep the Jeep running for 14 hairball shuttles, and hope our boats and paddles stayed in one piece. As I drifted off to sleep, the whole venture seemed silly and unlikely. “Who knows how the day will play out, just be happy knowing you’re in such a beautiful place,” was my last thought of the day.

Sunrise. Time to go. David and I geared up. Chris had drawn shuttle duty for the first laps. David knew the run. If I could stay on his tail I might be able to pull this off. The first laps were freezing. Our hands were frozen after the first strokes. The put-in for OBJ is a fitting warm-up for the run. You climb in your boat, slide into an eddy, peel out and fly off of a 15-foot waterfall called Heart Attack. Upon landing there is no eddy; the race is on. A few long slides pass, a rapid with a nasty ledge hole appears and then you catch an eddy above Deadzone, the 23 footer. Coming from the south, waterfalls are not my forte. This thing sure seemed taller than 23 feet as I flew off of it. The landing hurts a bit as you pencil in. You surface, blow the snot out your nose and get back to business. Slides, more slides, a huge slide called Avalanche and finally you’re approaching the grand finale. A rapid into another slide into another huge slide, a 90 degree turn to your right, followed by a 90 degree turn to your left and then fly off of a 15 footer called Oh Be Grateful. This last one is really tough. If you mistakenly go off the middle you will land on sharp rocks. If you go off the right you will piton into really sharp rocks. The line is to hug the inside of the left turn and charge left towards the cliff wall. If you make the move the rapid is very smooth. If you screw it up, as I did three of my first four laps, it really hurts.

By lap five we were dialing it in. Paddling the entire run from Heart Attack to Oh Be Grateful only took 15 minutes. Wow, dropping 400 feet in fifteen minutes is really fun! The shuttle took about the same amount of time. 800 feet per hour was a nice pace. The day was warming and big haired Nick arrived with hot coffee to fire us up. Around lap seven I noticed a windshield wiper lying in the back of our shuttle rig. As I picked it up I thought how nice it was for Chris to hunt for litter while driving shuttle. Then I realized the back of our rental Jeep was not quite the same. Our Jeep was a bit shorter than the last time I saw it. Chris had backed our rental Jeep into a tree during the last shuttle. He seemed confident he could repair the damage, so I smiled and refused to get distracted. I knew the run now. David let me lead a few laps.

Lapping tough creeks is such a unique experience. You find your groove and just keep cruising. We love it. There is really no conversation, just a lot of smiling, hooting and nodding. Nothing needs to be spoken. Life is perfect.

As we completed lap ten we felt a bit of relief. In five hours we had paddled this creek more than most locals paddle here in an entire season. I knew the run, knew the little annoyance rocks, knew the spots to float and where to charge. The beauty of this valley is amazing. The rapids all flow together. No eddies, just keep it in the current and make subtle moves.

Bad news, David’s boat cracked. It was repairable, but he was going to need some time to fix it. Chris geared up and off we went. Five more laps flew by before David was ready to go. I sat the next two out while Chris and David paddled. I had already secured a vertical mile for the day and can not describe how happy I felt.

Ode To Joy Slide below Avalanche

David needed two more for his mile. The water had risen quite a bit and the run became very pushy. The last two runs were amazing. We started the day on low water and finished in high flow. The level had doubled and the holes were getting scary. The last two laps flew by and we finished our journey by early evening.

The Jeep was still running, but looked terrible. It was time to hit Crested Butte for a big meal. The Slate was really pumping and looked impassable. What the hell, we taped the tarp on and started to go for it. At the river’s edge we realized a tire was leaking. The Slate seemed to be rising by the second, the sun was setting, and air was hissing from the punctured tire. We had to change it. The four of us could have gotten jobs with a NASCAR pit crew from our tire changing performance. A few minutes and Chris was plowing forward. The hood disappeared under a wall of water, resurfaced and submerged again. To all of our surprise the Jeep charged out of the deepest portion of the crossing and literally boofed the far bank with power to spare. One kayak flew off, but we made it. Our perfect, unlikely, one-in-a-million day had actually happened.

Our trip was not yet complete. We rested the next day and set our sights on Clear Creek of the Arkansas. It is beautiful, continuous and really fun. No eddies, just miles of cruising. The creek flows through three mini gorges. They are tiny, tight and fun. This was Chris’ day and David and I took turns paddling and shuttling. Chris is a hand paddler and his hands paid the price. After the first couple of runs we had to chip the ice off of his vest, helmet and hand paddles. He doesn’t wear gloves, so his hands are always submerged in the ice water. Due to the cold water, no gloves, and hand paddling, Chris’ hands swelled into giant balloon animal looking pudgy stumps. It was disgusting, but he didn’t seem to care. I guess the cold water had long since numbed the pain. He looked liked Eddy Murphy in Dr. Klump. Thankfully, when the day ended his hands returned to normal. Chris’ perseverance paid off as he may have become the first hand paddler to drop a vertical mile in a day.

Townsend’s bloated hands after handpaddling a vertical mile

Time to head home. Our trip was perfect. Despite the rental car damage which we expected to pay for out of our pockets, the trip was unbelievably fun. I would not have thought in a million years that our plan would come together.

Back at the Hertz office, we were late for our flight. Filling out the miles of paper work for the damage would make us miss our flight. The nice Hertz man came out, inspected our completely destroyed Jeep and checked it off as being fine. Chris and I stared at each other in disbelief. How could he not see that the tailgate looked like we hit a telephone pole going thirty miles per hour in reverse. Plus, the spare tire was in use and the normal wheel was tied to the roof! The shuttle bus was leaving for the airport. What to do? Another Hertz customer was standing by watching the whole affair and spoke up. “Did you use your Discover Card,” he asked. Actually, we did use a Discover Card when renting the Jeep. He explained how Discover has guaranteed rental car insurance. The damage was covered. We jumped on the bus, called Discover and made our flight.

Discover picked up the repair bill and we completed the most unlikely paddling vacation we had ever dreamed of. Life, like the river, throws so much at you. After all of these years I still enjoy the many misadventures as much as the rare perfect trips.

Sometimes, the plan actually comes together.