Upper Ocoee Kayaking

Jul 27, 2014 by

This is the first time in a long time that I’ve felt compelled to blog about kayaking.

The world of Class II and Class III whitewater kayaking is so exciting, very challenging and very revealing of one’s self in a multitude of ways. Stepping up to Class III whitewater kayaking will reveal the coward, the unprepared, the strong and the resilient qualities inside of everyone. I’ve been a coward. I’ve been unprepared. I’ve been strong and if you’ve seen me refuse to swim lately, you know I’m resilient. The step from Class II to Class III weeds out some people. But for those that make that step up and are enjoying Class III runs, which are the heart-and-soul of whitewater kayaking, the natural progression is to think ‘can I handle Class IV?’

The progression from Class III to Class IV, I think, is a bigger leap, and yet at the same time a smaller leap, than going from Class II to Class III. For the total noob, there’s a lot to learn to be able to run Class III. If you screw up, you swim. No big deal. Going from Class III to Class IV, it appears to be more a matter of polish and fine tuning. There’s less to learn but if you screw up, your swims are going to be long and painful.

So, to start 2014, I was in the early stages of Class III paddling. I was eager to learn and eager to write about it. But then I hit that plateau where I knew I wasn’t good enough to step up to Class IV but I didn’t have a lot of enthusiasm about kayaking. I enjoyed paddling but when I got on the river, I was working on something. Putting in work isn’t exciting and I felt like I didn’t have a lot to contribute to this blog and to other beginners.

Having stepped up at the Viking Canoe Club’s annual picnic and running the Upper Ocoee successfully, I think I’m now a Class IV boater – a very BAD one – but I think I’ve earned my Class III bad-ass merit patch.

The night before the run, I was hanging out with a Class V boater named Hisel. I was asking him about the UO, my plans to use it as a gauge to see if I’m ready for the Lower Gauley, and his thoughts on evaluating that sort of thing. He said he didn’t think getting down the UO without flipping or swimming was the best indicator. “Being able to roll up in that kind of big, pushy, complex water is more a sign to me that someone is ready for the Lower Gauley.” And there is it was – my metric (as we say in marketing).

I’d never even seen the UO’s put-in. It reminds me of the Russell Fork Gorge put-in (or Upper Russell Fork take-out, depending on your skill). A long, windy road down a hill to a landing. There is a public restroom 50 yards from the river. I hadn’t felt good all morning – I had this bad, unbalanced feeling. So, I headed up to the toilet to piss out some nervousness.

I stood above the toilet, looking down at the blue mess of chemicals and shit, and thought ‘If my helmet falls off my head and down the toilet, I’ll have a good excuse not to get on the Upper today and no one will think I chickened out.’ I measured, in my mind, the plausibility of this scheme and the cost to buy another helmet, and chickened out of my chicken-out plan. I was here. I said I’d run it, so, I was going to run it. But I was very nervous.

I do this all the time. I’ll get inside my own head and get scared, think of ways not to run something, and eventually I’ll get past that and get on with it. That’s not to say I’ll never walk a rapid or sit out a run. In moments of uncertainty, my mind races and when the fight or flight moment hits me, I usually fight.

I knew from the beginning that the Upper Ocoee was a much different run that I’d ever experienced. For instance, the put-in is like strainer city – trees everywhere. And the current – they say ‘pushy.’ You have to feel it to understand it.

The river does have a nice 30-minute warm-up before Alien Boof/Mikey’s, which is pleasant difference from the run on the Middle with the zero to 60 put-in at Grumpys. I asked the guys if we were doing Alien Boof or Mikey’s (because they’re separated by an island in the river). Hisel said we’d do both. Run Alien Boof, carry back up, ferry over to Mikey’s and run that. I said I might sit that out and he said if I couldn’t handle Mikey’s I have no business on the Olympic section. Fair enough. I hit the boof – awesome – then ran Mikey’s like a boss. The only rapid that gave me trouble on the UO was Blue Hole. An elder sage paddler John Albright said that Blue Hole was the only real spot on the Upper that could ‘rip your face off.’

The move on Blue Hole was just like Mikey’s. Take the drop from left to right, the river wants to push you right so land with an 11 o’clock angle and paddle hard to the left, dodge two massive holes, profit. I take the drop and immediately flip. Just like John said, I get my bell rung. Instinctively, I roll up. I say instinctively because once I came up I couldn’t really see anything clearly and I was in a daze. Bell rung! I heard some guys yell at me to get my attention and I got my sight back just in time to see that I was still in the rapid and now way off line. I went into the next hole and flipped. I set up, rolled again and paddled like hell to get left – pushy. I went into the next hole and flipped. I rolled and washed out.

We ran the Olympic section, Roach Motel and End of the World without incident. And when we were done I felt like singing my alma mater’s fight song. It felt like a victory to still be in my boat.

A lot of people told me before I got on the UO, that it was harder than the Middle Ocoee. Some said it was easier. Both were right. The lines on the UO were very straight forward, nothing too complicated, no big moves to make or crazy lines to follow. So, in that way, it was easier. But there is no way I could have paddled the UO without serious time on the Middle – the push is real. Every paddle stroke I took was meaningful, I braced a bunch, and I had to be very focused. Yes, the lines were straight forward, but if I got sloppy or weren’t strong with my strokes, I’d get off line and getting back online was either impossible or required maximum effort. In that way, it was harder than the Middle.

There is a moment for new boaters, or boaters stepping it up, when panic sets in – I’m offline, or, Oh god I’m heading right for that rock, or, I can’t roll in this crazy water – and we either stay panicked (and make mistakes) or focus and do something. On the Upper, panic hit me a few times but because I’d spent a lot of time on the Middle getting in and out of bad situations, usually I quickly knew what I needed to do to fix this situation or mitigate the problem. This quick problem solving was an asset on the Upper. On the Middle, you usually have more time than you realize to correct a mistake. But on the Upper, things are moving so much faster that by the time you realize there is a problem, you only have a moment to make an adjustment.

Becoming a Class III kayaker was like a summer camp – show up, have fun, learn something – in as a little as a few months.

But if Class IV kayaking was a high school, I’d be a pimple-faced freshman holding my book bag and staring blankly at my schedule, trying to find homeroom. And just like high school, I anticipate I’ll be at this level for four or more years, hoping to get in with the cool kids, trying not to get beat up.

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