Pigeon River - NC/TN        

January 6, 2004

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The Hypothermic Trip

 

My Account

So on Sunday we made plans to go run the Pigeon. Called the power plant automated number. They said they'd be releasing Mon - Thurs. Tuesday (today) worked best for us. We decided to meet at the takeout at 1pm.

We, actually met early, but didn't get on 'til shortly after 2. Karoline came along to run shuttle for us. She's awesome like that. Before we met Brandon, Matt and I looked at the putin and saw that they were releasing out of three generators. I didn't know what the "good" levels were. Brandon's only done it a few times. Matt's never been. Just didn't even think about it. But, I'm giving too much away.

We finally got in and tried to ferry across below the dam to the calm spot where the creek feeds in on river right. I didn't make the ferry. It wasn't because of bad technique. I had a good angle and was definitely paddling, the water was just too fast and my boat too slow. Matt had the longest boat, so had the best shot at making it, but we just peeled out and headed down. I eddied out near what was probably Razor Rock. Matt missed the eddy and thus ended up in the lead. I peeled out and followed as close as I could. Very soon, I decided that the water was just too high. It was big, pushy water. It was tossing me around pretty good, although I was still able to stay close to where I wanted to be. If I was struggling, I knew Matt was having a hard time. And, this was the entrance rapid. I yelled up ahead to "Eddy out!" There was a big rock and eddy downstream. I was planning on us all catching that, then telling them that we should get off now where the road still runs beside the river. There was no way we were going to be running anything harder than that. Oh, did I mention that it was blowing snow like crazy - upstream into our eyes? Cold? Yes, quite.

That eddy was big, river center but closer to the left (near the road) than we were at the time. After we decided to get out, then we could head to shore and grab the small eddies there. The only problem with that plan was the Matt didn't make the eddy. Instead, he flipped in the process. Tried one roll and then pulled. He does everything he's supposed to, feet up, together, downstream, holding onto his paddle and boat. Except, I don't want him to do that. It's cold I want him out of the water NOW. And, he's not going to make it anywhere in this water pulling on a boat. So, as I paddle up to him, I'm yelling "Let go. Swim." He's river right, fairly close to some good eddies. I can't tell if he doesn't hear me or not, but he's still holding the boat just floating.

In the beginning of the swim, he's going through big waves (not over, but through). At one point I was sure he was going to recirc-ed in a big hole, but he flushed on through the edge. I was even on top of him part of the time yelling "Let go. Swim!" Then, I looked at his face and realized he was disoriented, couldn't hear me, or something. He looked confused, dazed, cold. By this point, the waves/holes weren't as bad as before. Not flatwater, but not as bad. Finally something got through to him, he let go and charged for shore. Luckily he was passing a good eddy at that point. Last I saw was that he was hanging onto shore, so I knew he could make it out from there. Knew he would be fine once he got out of the water, he was wearing a lot of layers. But, told Brandon to stay with him while I went after the boat. Brandon said ok, and started to ferry over.

I chased that stupid Whiplash for what seemed like forever. I was holding onto it for most of the time. I'd hold it with one hand and tried to get my tow tether undone. Finally got it free and tried to clip the boat, but lost it in a wave. Paddled back up (or down) to it. Tried again, but this time my hands are so cold that I can no longer just reach under the boat to feel where the webbing handle was. So, I dropped the tether and started trying to bulldoze it. Did I mention the water was pushy? I'm a little G-Force trying to push a barge. Ok, trying to keep the boat's ferry angle correct isn't working. It's still just going where the current wants it to. I did manage to get it to the left. That side had better eddies and was close to the road. I even had it so close to the eddies. There were two rocks sitting close to the bank, with a foot or two gap between them, the boat and I went through that gap, but the current, instead of it turning into the either eddy, just shot the boat straight out in to the current again.

Finally I got to a section of water that was relatively flat (only class I) and was able to not worry so much about a line or staying upright, but got beside the boat and flipped it upright (i think i even did an H-O-G rescue on it!). Then I was able to see the webbing and clip my strap to it. After that it took less than a minute to get to shore and into a micro eddy. The bank there is fairly steep, but only about 10 feet high. It's covered with loose rock and boulders, which didn't help. The best part of the whole deal was getting out of my boat, finding somewhere on the bank it would rest, then trying to get the 150 lb full-o-water whiplash up. It probably took 10 minutes or more to get the water out. Then, all I had to do was hook up my throw rope and haul it up the bank.

When I got it to the road, Karoline, who'd been following us in the car, saw me and drove down where I was. Unclipped the Whiplash and scrambled back down to hook up the G-Force. Back up to pull. Finally got it up and we were loading the boats on the car when Brandon came down and eddied out below us. Matt was walking down the river right bank and came soon. He was joking and being his usual self, so we were no longer as worried about hypothermia. So, we lowered Matt's boat back down, used my webbing as a makeshift tow tether to attach the boat to Bb's quick release rescue harness. He ferried the boat across. Matt got back in (he still had his paddle) and they started to ferry back with the understanding that if they couldn't make the ferry attempt, to peel out and meet us at the bridge downstream. Both made it back with no problems. Loaded up, then, Matt and Karoline ran shuttle back to get Matt's car while Bb and I waited (not enough room in their car). By this point there's a half inch of snow on the ground in some spots. We got cold waiting and so picked up what gear we had and started walking up the road towards where they'd be meeting us. Made it all the way to the bridge before Karoline came back and told us Matt would be drive down after he changed into dry clothes - a very good idea.

Finally got loaded up and headed to the takeout for the gas station so Bb and I could change. I really wasn't all that wet. My feet were slightly wet from having to step in the water getting out of my boat, but they weren't too cold. My hands had been really cold. Bb had the same problem. Once out of the water and doing the initial boat draining, they warmed up quick, but tying boats on cars had zapped 'em again. Keeping them in pogs as much as I could helped, but didn't get them real warm. Actually it's 6 hours later, I'm sitting in a fairly warm building with my coat and a toboggan on and my hands are still shaking a little.  I think I might have banged them up a little, have been waiting for them to completely thaw to make sure they're just bruised.

Matt and I actually went straight from eating supper down there to roll practice in JC. The water was comparatively warm. It took me a long time to get the thought of intentionally getting wet through my head. It was a hard concept to think of right then. I was ok in the pool, but even after changing into dry clothes, wasn't ready for the cold outside. My ears, my hands, and face were immediately cold again.

I'm now ready to head up to my shack and huddle with the heater 'til I finish thawing. Then, go to bed and hope the heater can keep it toasty in there in spite of the forecasted low of 8 degrees (and that's the low for those down in the cities.  I bet it'll be colder up here!)

Oh, you should hear Matt and Bb's sides of the story too. Especially Matt's. The play by play of what he was thinking leading up to and following the flip is pretty interesting.

It's fun to be crazy, especially when everyone makes it through with few lasting effects.
It did make for what I hope is a fairly interesting story.

 

Bb's Account

during the recent brief spell of unseasonably warm weather, i managed to arrange a paddling trip with two friends for today. we were wise enough to look ahead and see the freezing weather in store, but decided that we had the technology to stay warm nonetheless. so we set ourselves up to meet at the pigeon river at 1300 today.

we arrived, ate lunch, went to the put-in and suited up. several layers later, one friend ran our cars down to the take-out with karoline, who ran him back so we could begin together. we prayed and got on the river.

we had noted beforehand that every river level in the area was listing far above average flow rates, including the seldom-running dry bed of the old pigeon river now called "the dries," which name was earned by the damming of the pigeon and the bypassing of the water beyond that stretch until the water was released to the exact place where we put in. we had also noted that rather than the usual single generator pumping water into the river, all three generators were working to direct the recently rain-enhanced lake excess downstream.

no big deal, i thought. it'll make the run more fun to have more water.

note to self: beware the danger of excess.

since i have not run the pigeon in several months, and since i was buried under several layers of neoprene, nylon, and polar fleece, i thought that the unusual amount of throwing around i was experiencing immediately upon entering the first rapid was nothing extraordinary and i would just have to pay attention more carefully to make up for my apparent clumsiness. i was having fun. i was warm and upright and the waves were big and the pigeon smelled like it always does. snow scattered itself on my boat and in my eyes and i thought, "this is new. this is kinda cool. i can dig on this."

behind me, i heard jess call "eddy out!"

good idea, i thought. we should get together and talk about what's coming up. i yelled at matt ahead of me, "eddy out!"

we found a great big eddy behind a house-sized rock and jess and i piled into it. matt worked his way into it a little farther downstream, but the next time i looked his direction he was upside down. i pointed this out to jess. matt didn't seem to be having very good luck setting up his roll. his paddle was all over the place and pretty quickly, i saw his head pop up. he was out of his boat and swimming before we could reach him.

it took jess several times to yell at matt to let go of his boat and swim ashore. nothing was registering to him. he knew what he had to do. he knew he had to swim, but his body wasn't responding. it was very cold. he hadn't rolled because his brain stopped working when he was underwater. it's the kind of thing that happens to intermediate paddlers. it was very cold and matt went into mild shock.

finally, he let go. i escorted him into an eddy downstream while jess chased his boat. matt hiked down until he could find jess and his boat, and i paddled slowly down the opposite side of the river to better see both him and jess whenever she came back in sight.

it took a long time to find jess. she eventually joined up with karoline, who was following us on the road in our car. jess had decided that there was far too much water in the river, a decision she was going to share with us in our first attempt to eddy out. she had hoisted her and matt's boats up the bank to the car. we eventually got matt over to the other side, went back to the takeout, changed, and had dinner.

quite an eventful day, all in all. not one i care to repeat. maybe i'll wait until the weather gets a little warmer, or maybe i'll just make sure not to combine so many difficult factors to make a paddling trip challenging.

more fun for later. still loads to learn and loads more fun to have.

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