Powell River - Appalachia to Big Stone Gap, Virginia


AKA: The trip where I almost died three times
(only slight exaggeration, that's really how my mind thought of it that day.)

Date: April 13th, 2003       Gauge Height: 3.6 Feet

I swam yesterday .....first time in a year.  Yes, the last time was April 7th when I demoed an EVO and Brandon saw me go airborne in Lesser Wesser.  I'm not happy.  I was totally exhausted (just ask the people who talked to me the night before), I probably shouldn't have paddled that day.  The Powell was running 3.6ft.  For comparison, the highest we'd run the Powell before was 3.3ft.  And .1ft on that river makes a pretty big difference in its behavior.

The first two drops were ok.  Beau ran the "meaty" line on the first while Beth and I did the scrapy easy route.  We scouted the second, watched as Beau boofed, and then did the same ourselves.  I went a little farther left and submerged under the hole, popped up upright.  They said it looked cool, they couldn't see me through a curtain of spray.

So, then Beth got endered and flapjacked backwards at the start of "the hectic section" (my name for it), bounced off some rocks on the bottom and didn't even try to roll.  Beau went after the boat.  I made sure Beth was ok in the eddy (She almost always has her own paddle. Says that's how she was taught.).

Then, I went down to try to help Beau.  So, I was watching him and also trying to watch what I was doing.  That's how I ended up in the hole.  It flipped me as I came through and when I rolled up, it had me in it's teeth.  So, it flipped me again and I could feel that I was still in it.  I started bouncing off the bottom.  I remember rotating around, I'm not sure if I was trying to change positions to possibly get washed out or what.  But, when I started hitting the rocks, honestly, I panicked.  Although, looking back, my thoughts were "I'm going to have to swim.  This is bad."  Especially with Beau chasing Beth's boat downstream and Beth upstream and walking down the road.  Luckily I came up near an eddy, grabbed my boat and stroked hard.  The paddle was upstream of the boat, so it came too.

Beth's boat had broached about 50 yards downstream of my position with Beau eddied behind.  I got out, took a breather before emptying my boat (which didn't have airbags since they had gone to North Carolina the weekend before.  Gotta remember to get my loaner gear back.)  Beth was on the opposite side of the river than us.  Seems like that's always the case.  So, Beau walked up to me, got my throwbag as it's the longest, and Beth swam across with a line for safety.  Once I saw they were done, I hugged the bank to paddle down to where they were.

I mentioned Beth's boat got broached (try saying that a few times).  We got to play with setting up anchors and using the swiftwater rescue systems we'd learned.  We ended up just hooking a line to Beau's rescue vest and letting him jump over to the rock that had the boat pinned (it was fairly close to the bank.)  He jiggled it and shoved while we pulled and eventually it came off.  We had the line tied to it, so it didn't go any farther.  It did get a nice oilcanned bruise from it's trauma.  There was a lot of current pounding that rock.

This was the beginning of the "hectic section".  I was ready to be done then.  That would've been ok.  Beth agreed, but was ok with getting back in.  There were no more incidents until the Class 4 - Slam Dunk.  Beau led.  I caught every eddy there was to catch in that section, which made me happy.  Just a few weeks before, I'd had problems catching the eddies on the Noli Gorge.  But, I had entered "Survival Mode".  From one of my eddies, I saw that Beth had once again come out of her boat at Slam Dunk.  I was too far back to see the reason behind this swim.  Much later, I found out that she'd once again been endered and maybe even flapjacked backwards.  This time she did try to roll, but on the set-up, banged her elbow hard.  That decided it, she was coming out.  Luckily, an eddy was close by and she easily reached it.  Unfortunately her boat didn't have the same luck.  Beau started after it.

So, now it's my turn to run Slam Dunk.  I don't remember much about this rapid.  I do remember looking at it from the road thinking to hug the left bank on the way down.  I also remember Beth standing in the eddy down below pointing left.  So I went left.  That's all I know.  I was in "Survival Mode".  I tend to run things pretty well in "Survival Mode", but I don't usually remember much about them later.

I briefly caught the eddy Beth was in, long enough to make sure she was ok.  Heard about the elbow, but she didn't seem too worried, so I wasn't.  I told her to walk on down (she's no longer on the road side, but managed to get down), and I paddled on.  Eventually caught up with Beau and the runaway boat, but we just couldn't corral it.

Once again, not thinking as hard about my line as I normally would have, I ended up somewhere I normally wouldn't have.  The hole didn't look that mean.  But, when I went through, it decided to have a little fun with me and spun me back around into a sidesurf. Now, I like to sidesurf little holes, when I choose to do so.  I don't like big holes deciding for me.  I had my right brace down and my left knee up. It was probably the picture-perfect sidesurf.  But I was not happy.  This was not the day for it.  Beau was eddied out below.  I was panicked.  I'll admit it.  I don't like big holes.  Most people who know me know that.  Beau especially knew that.  Remember, I was physically and emotionally exhausted.  I was yelling at Beau, "Get me out, Get me out!"  I realized at the time even how silly/stupid/childish/helpless I sounded, but didn't really care.  He very calmly (way too calmly, in my opinion.  He could've at least been a little worried) told me to paddle.  But, I didn't want to abandon my brace.  I was bouncing around in there for what felt like forever.  Eventually, it bounced me farther toward the eddy beside it so I stroked.  Grabbed the rock and hugged it for awhile.

But, we had to get back to business.  I must not have been in there as long as I'd thought, or Beth's boat had caught an eddy somewhere because it wasn't far downstream.

Eventually came up to another chute.  Not as bad looking as the last.  But all three of us headed for it at the same time...me, Beau, and the runaway boat.  I ended up broached with my bow up on one rock and my stern pinned on another.  The other two went on downstream.  This was not good.  But not terribly bad, since it was a fairly stable position.  I stayed there for awhile.  I was hoping Beau had eddied below.  So, I waited...blew my whistle... waited... contemplated my situation and the best way to get off.  I knew eventually Beth would come downstream, but how long would that take?  We'd already come quite a ways from where we'd left her. What could she do?  All she has is a paddle and herself.

Eventually I started rocking the boat to see what I could do.  I wanted it to go around to the left of the rock my bow was on.  The boat didn't agree.  To the right was a strainer sitting about a foot and a half off the water.  Didn't want to go there.  The best way I could figure to go right would be to flip.  But, I didn't want to risk the chance of flipping over and still being broached.  So, I rocked the boat. Nothing doing.  So, I rocked harder.  When it moved, it was bad.  I was now perpendicular to the current, with a rock behind me.  Luckily, the rock my stern had been against was close enough to use my left arm to brace with.  That was the only thing keeping me upright and breathing.  There was a lot of water pounding my skirt...and me.  This is bad. I'm one rock away from being heads-down broached.  I don't want to pull out because then I'll be swimming, the boat will fill with water and be 10 times harder to get off, and there's no one around.  I had my paddle sort of propped on my right side under my elbow, trying not to let it wash downstream. I tried using my bracing arm to push towards the left.  No, the boat wanted to go right...where the strainer was.  Now, as strainers go, this one wasn't as bad as it could have been.  It was about a foot and a half off the water.  Tight squeeze upright, might get under it by ducking.  I still didn't want to try.  I wanted to go left.  Not happening.  My brace arm was starting to get kind of shaky.  So, I asked God to get me past the strainer and used my left arm to push me right.  As I came around the rock, I flipped.  There was no getting around that.  I just stayed that way.  I wanted to be upside down long enough to definitely be under the strainer.  Luckily, when flipping ever, my paddle got caught under my body, so I found it, got my hands in position and rolled.  I was shaken.  I was scared.  The empty, gnawing, pit of fear in my stomach didn't go away for several hours after we got off the river.

I'm glad it was semi-flat there.  I paddled down keeping an eye out for Beau.  Never saw him, but he yelled at me from the bank - he was hidden behind 20 feet or more of trees, getting ready to head up to the road and hunt for Beth, and me.  So, we got out the ropes, used them to haul all of the boats up the the top of the steep hill.

Beau's plan is to hike up the road, with the boats, find Beth, and run it again from below Slam Dunk and out.  He wants to make sure that that Beth and I get over it.  So, as soon as we got the third boat to the top, we hear a shout.  Beth is on the other side of the river, across from us.  Great.  (Looking back, tho, I'm glad she saw us, or she'd be downstream looking for us while we were upstream looking for her.  She made it down really fast.)

So, Beau yells back down, "Stay put!"  I go down halfway, Beau lowers the boats to me, I unclip them and let them slide the rest of the way down.  We re-stuff the rope and Beau ferries Beth's boat across behind him.  I drain mine, and meet them on the other side.  Beth gets in, we talk a little about what happened on our separate journeys and paddle out.  This was after all the hard stuff.  Good thing, because I'm totally freaked.  I'd lost all confidence in my abilities.  I was scared of rocks.  Scared of getting in trouble again.  Scared of almost dying again.  Maybe scared of panicking again in front of my friends.  I don't know.  Basically, scared.  Gnawing pit of fear.  As far as I can remember, I've never been that scared.

We got to the wave behind Pizza Hut.  Beau tried and tried to get the Huck to surf it.  I wasn't about to try.  I caught the eddy as high as I could rather than go through it.  Told Beau I'd had enough surfing for the day.  Beth opted out as well.  Finally got to the end and to the truck.

Lessons Learned

I'll be the first to say that the three times I got in trouble were my fault.  I was distracted.  I was more tired than I remember being in a long time.  I was not the most alert when we started.  I think I woke up quite a bit on the way down.  I was definitely not at my usual level of competency.  I probably should not have paddled that day.

Mostly, I let myself get distracted by gear, when I should have focused on my line and my boat placement.  I panicked.  I'm not proud of that at all.  But it's the truth.  Hopefully, I still reacted decently enough.  Looking back, the only thing I think I should have done differently (other than not getting into those situations in the first place) would be to keep trying to roll rather than swim the first time.  In the other two situations, I think I reacted as well as I could have.  I just should not have panicked. I had a lot less control over my emotions than usual, due to being so exhausted.

Everyone's ok.  Physically.  My confidence is just shot.  Not a good time for it, since I'm supposed to take that instructor course next week.  Hopefully I can get back out on something this week and get over it.  Hopefully I can get over the fear anyway.  I don't need to forget the lessons learned.

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