Kayaking (and my first near-death experience)

For week 20 I decided to do something that I have had on my “to-do list” for a long time: Kayaking. I went down to the Hiwassee River in Cherokee National Forest in Reliance, Tennessee. I met my buddy Daniel there, who I somehow had managed not to see in over two years. He has been kayaking for about ten years, so he was the perfect person to show me the ropes.

We originally planned to start at 10AM, but due to some complications I didn’t get there until after 10:30 and Daniel got there around 11:30. While I waited for him to arrive, I wandered off to enjoy the scenery. Wandering off alone is one of my favorite things to do and having no cell service there was an extra cherry on top.

Lots of fisherman were out taking advantage of the low water.

Fisherman on Hiwassee
And the fog on the water made everything beautifully picturesque.

Hiwassee 2
Even the geese were out enjoying it with their babies.

Baby Geese on Hiwassee

Once we met up and got situated we left my car at the take out point and drove up to the put in point near the Appalachia Powerhouse. Then it was time to put on the gear. This involved multiple layers and lots of tugging, tucking, and pulling. While it was warm outside, the water was about 55 degrees so I needed to layer-up. For the record, 55-degree water feels surprisingly icy. I had on a tank top, two water resistant shirts, a dry top, a sprayskirt, and, of course, a lifejacket.

Kayak Gear
Once I was outfitted, it was time to make sure the sprayskirt fit the kayak. A sprayskirt is used to keep water out of the hull of the boat. The top fits snuggly around the torso of the kayaker, and the base fits around the edges of the kayak. The first sprayskirt we tried was incredibly snug, both on me and on the boat. Once we got it on, Daniel had me try to pull it off by a handle attached to the front of it. I pulled and pulled and pulled as hard as I could, but I could not get it to budge. He even had trouble removing it. I asked him if it was important for me to be able to remove it myself. He explained that this was how you got out of the boat if you happened to flip over. “So, in other words you die?” “Yes.” (More on this later.) Fortunately, he had another one that fit better which I was able to remove by myself.

Ready To Go

We thought we were finally ready to go when a man walked up and told us that the river was running low and that there wouldn’t be a water release until 1PM. Apparently, the water was originally supposed to be released at 11AM, but the TVA just decided to go rogue and delay it. So, we sat and waited. It wasn’t long before we heard the siren signaling that another generator was opening and that water would be coming soon. Finally the “bubble” reached us, the water started to rise, and we were ready to put in.

About to Launch

The Hiwassee has Class II rapids and is a 5.8 mile run from the power house to the Reliance Bridge. When I heard that it was Class II, I thought “oh, this will be no big deal.” Boy, was I wrong. First, as I have discussed many times before, I lack coordination. So just getting the basic paddling down was difficult at first. I kept finding myself spinning in circles. I had this same issue in a canoe last year, so I have determined that my body is lopsided. It also took a lot more work to keep the boat moving than I expected, it wasn’t long before my arms started to ache.

Out on the Water
For the most part the day was uneventful. That is until we hit a series of ledge drops about halfway though our trip. When I started going through the rapids I didn’t have great control of the kayak. I made it though a drop or two and then the boat started turning sideways. I knew I needed to face forward so I tried to turn and correct myself. That is when something caught my paddle and ripped it out of my hands. I no longer had any control of what was about to happen. I was just along for the ride.

The boat was now completely parallel with the rocks. I went over a drop and felt the kayak start to tip. I knew exactly what was coming next. The boat was about to flip. I took a deep breath and was suddenly under water, upside down, and still in my boat. The average person can hold their breath for about 45-75 seconds. This time is lower if you are in cold water. When the water temperature is below 60 degrees, as it was that day, that time is decreased by about 70%, with an average duration of 15-45 seconds.

My first thoughts turned to what Daniel taught me. Don’t panic. Find the handle of the sprayskirt. Pull. Get out. Everything went in slow motion. As soon as I was upside down I started searching for the handle. There was just enough light that I could see the edge of the skirt. However, I could not see handle, and I groped for it in the darkness. The best way I can describe what I saw is when movies show someone trying to get out of a car submerged in water. I could see the water rushing around me as a searched for the release. Finally, I found it. I pulled as hard as I could and ripped it off the boat with my first try. If I was in the original sprayskirt we tried, there was no way I would have been able to get out … unless I suddenly Hulked out from the adrenaline. As soon as I had the sprayskirt off I pushed myself out from under the boat, surfaced, and gasped for air.

I looked around and saw Daniel coming to my rescue, but my paddle was nowhere in sight. I pushed the kayak against the rocks and onto its side to get the water out. I emptied it the best I could and got back in. However, I no longer had the momentum to get over the rocks and had to get back out of the boat. The is when I started getting pulled behind it, getting dragged over the rocks. Probably not my best idea. I was finally able to stabilize it, but not before it filled back up with water. I don’t remember how this happened. I stood in the rapids holding my boat, unable to move.

The rocks below me resembled tilted dominoes, so there was nothing flat to stand on. My shoes were slick so I couldn’t walk over them without falling. Essentially, I was stranded. This is when I realized that when Daniel told me that I should never go boating alone that he wasn’t being overprotective or overcautious. If he hadn’t been there I would have been in a lot of trouble.

Somehow, he had made it upstream of me. He was already reaching into his emergency pack and pulling out a floating rope and carabiner. He tossed it to me and I grabbed it and attached it to my boat. He then started pulling both me and the water-filled boat toward him. Meanwhile, he spots the paddle finally making its way downstream. How? I have no clue. It was black and completely blended in with the water. While he was pulling me in on the rope with one hand he rescued the paddle with the other hand. I really picked the right person to go kayaking with.

Once I got to shore I started to shiver and shake. I wasn’t cold, I wasn’t (severely) injured, so we figured it had to be the adrenaline. I had a similar experience about a year ago after I passed out in a doctor’s office. This went on for a few minutes. I never really felt scared during the ordeal, more like “OK, this is actually happening. What do I have to do to survive it?” But apparently my body was reacting even if I wasn’t. I rested on a nearby island for a few minutes while I calmed down and surveyed my damage while Daniel got the water out of the boat. All I could see was a cut on my ankle, which was bleeding, but didn’t hurt. Finally, the adrenaline wore off and I started to get cold. I decided to shed my pants (I had my bathing suit on underneath) and got back in the boat to warm up. We packed up and started heading back down the river. You can’t really be scared to get back out there when you have no other way to get home.

While I didn’t really see any marks on me at the time, this is what my legs looked like when I got home a few hours later. I have some equally nasty bruising on my arm that makes me look like I am part Smurf.

Legs
For the rest of the trip I still wanted to attempt to take the drops like I did before the incident. I was unwilling to give up. I will admit, however, that I was a little scared of them now. At one point we approached one that Daniel (jokingly) referred to as The Executioner and asked if I wanted to try it. My response: “Well, I am already wet and have no pants on, so I am up for anything.” I figured nothing worse could happen to me than already did.

End of our Journey

I have not been scared away from kayaking again. In fact, I plan to try it again this summer on the Harpeth River outside of Nashville. The water there is essentially flat, so I will have a chance to develop my paddling skills before I attempt to tame the rapids again.

10 Comments on “Kayaking (and my first near-death experience)

  1. Glad you enjoyed it. I used to kayak a lot when I was in Texas. A friend of mine was instrumental in designing the first “sit on top” kayak. He was very experienced and could easily right his kayak when it rolled. I never mastered that. One day his kayak rolled. I watched, waiting for him to right it, but for some reason, he couldn’t. When I realized he couldn’t come up, it was too late–because of the current–for me to paddle to him to give him the nose of my boat to grab onto. He finally pulled his skirt off and exited the boat, but it took a long time. Turns out that he had tucked the handle of his spray skirt on the inside of the skirt without noticing it. I always checked mine twice after that. Imagine reaching for the handle and not finding it! Scary. Love the blog!

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    • That is absolutely terrifying. I was lucky that I went with someone who was really looking out for me. I was definitely a novice and would have been in a lot of danger without his help or instruction. I’m glad your friend made it out OK!

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  2. The Harpeth (and the Buffalo) are both super easy floats. I emphasize floats; very little paddling required. Get a hold of me when you get here, you can come along on the next trip that Trish and I do.

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  3. I really want to go with you on one of these kayaking trips!! Can we plan something? I’ll definitely fly to Nashville as long as Adam can come too?

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  4. When I first started kayaking I had the same trouble you did; the boat would often spin. A friend advised me to approach it like riding a bicycle; keep your weight centered. Whitewater kayaks (like the one you are using in the picture) have no keel to make it easy to turn quickly through rapids. The kayak will tend to steer towards the direction of your weight. It’s a natural reaction to lean more to that side to “push” harder on the paddle, trying to steer the boat in the opposite direction. That additional force only steers the boat more in the direction you are traveling.

    The next time you go start out thinking about your balance; imagine you’re on a bicycle. Then work on using the blades on the paddle to control the boat. It won’t take long and you’ll learn how to work the paddle without moving your weight to the side you are paddling on. Because of the balance required to stay upright on a bicycle we naturally keep our weight centered to go straight, even when putting a lot of force on one pedal or the other. And, we instinctively know to lean in the direction we are turning. Since kayaking requires one to paddle on the opposite side to turn (to turn left we paddle on the right, and vice versa), novices often lean to the side they are paddling, thinking they need to put more force on the paddle, but that shift in weight forces the kayak in the opposite direction.

    It’s much easier than it sounds. Think about keeping your balanced down the center of the kayak and you’ll pick it up in no time!

    Have fun!

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