Middle Ocoee Kayaking

Apr 15, 2014 by

“Pain or damage don’t end the world. Or despair or fucking beatings. The world ends when you’re dead. Until then, you got more punishment in store. Stand it like a man and give some back.” – Al Swearengen


Here’s the thing about bad swims – they are like losing a fist fight. Both have a way of haunting you until you settle the score.

The last time, which was the first time, I tried to kayak anything meaningful on the Middle Ocoee I took a series of rocks to the face, swam a few hydraulics, busted my tailbone walking the shoreline, got stung by a swarm of bees and suffered a deep bone bruise on my thigh – in that order, in less than 10 minutes.  The Ocoee beat my ass and I wanted to quit. That day Ace Kayaking‘s Kevin Palmer tracked down my boat and convinced me, in his own way, not to give up on whitewater.

Ever since I took that beating I’ve been preparing myself for a rematch to give some back. All winter I was training and preparing for one run – The Middle Ocoee. The majority of whitewater guys will scoff at that – the Middle Ocoee doesn’t even compare to the Cheoah, the Tallulah or the Green. But I’m at the place where I think all whitewater kayakers wish they could be – every rapid is fun, every river a challenge. I remember back to when I played poker professionally. I got to the point of hating poker. Nothing was new, I’d played all the rooms, was wore out on ‘bad beat stories,’ and made/lost so much money in one day, in one hand, that I was numb to the whole rotting mess that I used to feast on. I had an iPod at the table not to listen to music, but to tune out the people around me – process the deeper meaning of that!

Just like when I started playing poker, I tried to learn the ‘angles’ of kayaking. I attended winter roll sessions, studied Youtube videos (even the crappy ones by the shaft float guys) and forced myself to paddle in sub-freezing temperatures just to push myself. Dan and I took long days on our local run for ‘skills building’ as we repeated the drills we learned from Ace Kayaking School – catching eddies, peal outs, ferries, attainments and more attainments.

The first chance Dan and I had to return to the Ocoee was in late March. As luck with have it, I developed a sinus infection/chest cold two days before the trip but I wasn’t going to back out. So I drugged myself up like any American would.

We had a three-point plan for a successful revenge run:

  1. Make the ferry at Grumpys
  2. Portage nothing
  3. Refuse to swim

We warmed up on the lake, well we didn’t really warm up as much as we spent 10 minutes practicing our roll. As we were taking out, Joe and Emily with Ace Kayaking appeared with a group they’d just taken down the river. I said hi to them both and told Joe I was concerned about making the ferry at Grumpys. He said ‘you can put in just below Grumpys’ and, typical me, I said ‘that’s not why we came today.’ He gave me a look like he totally understood.

So, we headed off to the put-in. After making the ferry, I felt sky high. But not being totally warmed-up, I half-assed a boof and flipped, landing ribs first on a boulder. Here’s the video (see me bounce off the rock at 1:35 mark). I remember being under water, doing a systems check – Anything broken? No. You got this. – and cursing myself for starting off the day so poorly. I tried to roll and of course missed. I set back up and remembered what Daniel Lassiter told me at the USNWC: Hang on and roll when it feels right. I swear that’s what went through my mind. And so I held on and rolled it up. I flipped again moments later and rolled on my second attempt.

Despite still being in my boat, I found myself in Staging Eddy discouraged and full of doubt that I could finish the rest of the run successfully. I told Dan I had to piss (I didn’t) and I got out and walked up the shore to collect my thoughts. When I came back I heard Dan talking to a group of paddlers sitting in the eddy. He asked a guy, “Hey, are you Kevin with Ace?” Yes, it was.

The guy who had talked me out of my lowest whitewater moment was there, in the eddy, just running the Ocoee with his buds. And they all remembered the story about the guy who got beat up and stung. Somehow, that was comforting. And perhaps out of guilt, but probably just because he’s a natural teacher and has a good heart, Kevin showed us down the rest of the Ocoee that day. Afterwards we all went to the Whitewater Grill and shared stories.whitewater grill ocoee tn

I never hit my first roll attempt, not once all day. I flipped a total of 5 times, came up four times and once Kevin used the hand of god to get me up. Dan did much better, staying upright in all the major rapids but swimming after Powerhouse while trying to peel out in celebration.

I showed up to the fight thinking I’d knock the Ocoee out. But somehow I forgot that most fights are won by going the distance. I took a beating, but I took it like a man and gave some back.



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