The Life-Saving Vision

I came within a nickel of drowning in the Chattooga River.  Maybe I would have if it hadn’t been for my boys.

Bo, L, Mark and Jack Stith
Bo, L, Mark and Jack Stith

The Chattooga, which begins in Western North Carolina, near Cashiers, and runs southwest, between South Carolina and Georgia, is a National Wild and Scenic River. Some say that when the river is up Section Three is the ultimate and ideal challenge for a boater in an undecked canoe.

Back before the book and a movie of the same name, Deliverance, made the Chattooga famous, a bunch of us would to go down there on a Friday evening and camp by the river, at Earl’s Ford. Next morning we’d put our canoes in the water and paddle Section Three.

This trip was in December. The river was high, it had been raining a lot, but I had never overturned on previous trips and I had no intention of going down that day either. Way too cold for that.

The Narrows
The Narrows

But I did go down, in a place called The Narrows. The river, squeezed together, speeded up there. And the haystacks  –standing waves — got bigger. describes The Narrows this way:  “Canyon walls pinch the water forcing currents to the bottom of the river to reemerge as ‘wave trains’ or a series of fairly uniform standing waves coming one right after another.  The deeper the river the higher the wave trains.”

I don’t know how big they were that day, big enough to pour over the sides of my canoe and drive it under.

I was in trouble the moment I hit the water. It was so cold.  And I hadn’t put my life jacket on properly, hadn’t tightened it around my waist. My life jacket flared out over my head and I went under.

There was no possibility of swimming to the bank — there was no bank — just rock walls on either side. The only way out was down river, through The Narrows.

I was not afraid, that surprised me the most. Not afraid of dying, not afraid of drowning. And I was drowning, all I had to do was relax. And then I had a vision of my three boys.

I grabbed my life jacket, pulled it down between my legs and got my head out of the water. Between haystacks I could breath.

The next we tried to salvage a boat we found pinned against rocks. The Brother Dave, L, me. I don't remember the guy with the paddle.
The next day we tried to salvage this boat which we found pinned against some rocks. That’s Brother Dave, L, and  me. I don’t remember name of the guy with the paddle.

I had to get out of the river while I could still move. It was so, so cold. When the current ran me into a boulder near the end of The Narrows I grabbed my chance. I hauled myself out of the river and crouched there, waiting for my friends to come for me.

I was saved by a vision of the future I did not want: I did not want another man raising my sons.

Postscript: I stripped off my clothes, trying to get warmer, trying to stop shaking, and paddled the last few miles, to the take out at Highway 76, in my skivvies.

Coming Friday: SOB


Paddling the Neuse, Part 2: Going the Distance

Before someone gets the wrong idea from this post I should say this: I’m glad I paddled the Neuse River last year.

Mike Johnson
Mike Johnson

I had a terrific partner, Mike Johnson of Franklin, N.C.; we met two wonderful river angels, Bill Hines of Oriental and Ronda Hughes of Seven Springs, N.C.  I learned some things. It was interesting.  I might do it again someday.

OK, that said:

I was surprised at how much my 225-mile trip down the Neuse was like hiking the Appalachian Trial from Georgia to Maine.

In one major way, however, it was unlike the hike — I was not certain I could make it to the end. On the thru-hike I had no doubt, ever, that I would finish, assuming I wasn’t killed, injured, or got sick. Or had to go home to take care of an emergency.

Arriving at Oriental, N.C., the end of the trip.
Arriving at Oriental, N.C., the end of the trip.

I had my doubts about finishing the river trip when I woke up on the morning of what was the eighth and final day because I knew we’d have to battle wind and rough water. 

But, first, the similarities:
•        I was tired at night, exhausted is more like it.
I thought Mike, a retired Navy commander, and I were going to more or less float down the Neuse. But to make the miles we wanted to make, to get to the spots where we wanted to camp, I had to paddle almost constantly. We averaged almost 30 miles a day, with a top day of 36.5 miles.  My sit-on-top kayak, a Hurricane Skimmer, was part of the problem. I bought it to dink around in Stump Sound, near Topsail Island on the coast, and for that it’s perfect.  But paddling it down the Neuse, trying to make miles, was like paddling a bathtub — I had work it it.

•        I blistered.
On the Appalachian Trail the sides of my heels blistered when I failed to replace my worn out boots quickly enough. On the river, my feet were fine, of course. But the rest of me blistered even though I applied lots of sun screen and wore a wide brim hat. It was 90-plus degrees most days with little or no cloud clover and no shade. I fried, even my lower lip.

•        I had little appetite.
If I couldn’t get to a restaurant I didn’t eat much of anything. I was the same way during the first few weeks on the trail.

•        The best part of the day was the end of the day.
When I hiked all day, up, down, up, down, I really looked forward to getting where I was going. I felt the same way after I had paddled all day.

  • And, yes, just like the trail, I lost stuff.

I lost so much stuff on my thru-hike I stopped blogging about it. It was embarrassing. On the river trip I lost a knife scabbard, no big deal. But when we got to Oriental and began going through our gear, loading my kayak on Brother Dave’s truck, I couldn’t find my cell phone.  Bill Hines called Blackbeard Sailing Club, where we camped the night before, and asked if anyone had found and turned in a cell phone.
No luck.
There was the slimmest of possibilities that I had left my phone at the spot where I had pitched my tent. [I live in hope.] So Dave stopped by Blackbeard on the way back home, to Knightdale, N.C., and there it was, laying in the grass.

  • Like the trail, the river has angels too, and I met two — Hines and Ronda Hughes. Ronda fed us and let us shower at her home and camp in her back yard; Bill loan us sea kayaks and got us through the waves to Oriental.
  • Brother Dave drove to Maine to pick me up when I finished my thru-hike and when Mike and I got to Oriental, there he was.

Like the A.T., the second half of the Neuse is  a lot more difficult.

Near its headwaters at Falls of the Neuse the river isn’t much bigger than a good size creek. For the first 100 miles or so, as the Neuse gradually widens and deepens, you run into a lot of obstructions, strainers, they’re called. They let the water go by, but they don’t let you go by. Countless trees have fallen into the river.   Some limbs are sticking out, some are just beneath the surface. They are not a big problem but you have to stay awake.
A few miles before you get to New Bern the Neuse begins to widen dramatically. It’s a mile wide at New Bern. It looks like the ocean, with waves and white caps if the wind is up. From New Bern on it gets wider and wider, about two and a half or three miles wide by the time we reached our destination, Oriental.

Choppy waters near Oriental
Choppy waters near Oriental, N.C.

Bill, Mike, and I camped the last night at the Blackbeard Sailing Club and when I woke up I was not sure I could make it to Oriental. Paddling in what amounts to the ocean is nothing like padding in a river. There is no current to help you. And for part of the way Bill expected that we would have to paddle into the wind and waves. He was right.
It was not an easy day for me or Mike, but doable, thanks to Hines.

Coming Monday: An Out Of Body Experience