The French Broad
Section 9 - Barnard to Hot Springs

May 16, 2009

I hit Windy Flats ahead of the pack, hoping to be setup for photos when everyone arrived.  During the break in action, I took the time to soak in the beautiful blue sky day and the quick current moving us through the valley.  What a great day.  Three kayakers popped out of Big Laurel and hit Kayaker's Ledge right behind me, so I went ahead and paddled straight into the center of the drop without scouting, not expecting much more than I had seen at the ledge during the past two club trips to the French Broad.  But when my Fun hit that big hole at the bottom, it flipped up and backwards as fast as I recall ever happening to me.  It was a spanking, but at least the water was soft.  I rolled up with a big yell and a smile that hadn't left since I first woke to find a blue sky and a river moving past our campsite at 2600 cubic feet per second.   What a ride.  It was a whole different experience from the 1900 and 1100 levels I had ran before.  I loved the whole day, all the waves and play spots, all the paddling friends on the river, the weather, the level.  All of it.  I felt lucky all afternoon.

The day before the level was a full 2000 cfs higher and no one was exactly sure what we would run on Saturday.  After an excellent dinner provided by Charlie and Cheryl Friday night, a few of us spent our walk up to Frank Bells debating how far the water could drop in one night.  When I awoke on Saturday morning, after a great night's sleep, the river was at the exact level I would have picked.  Low enough for the entire group to get to paddle together, but high enough to get the adrenaline pumping.  I stretched the back out on the side of the river with some yoga, ate a quick bite, and smiled watching Sammy's raft getting loaded onto Eric's truck because I couldn't help thinking about all the hell Mercer would have given him over that big yellow boat. 

Thirty-five of us hit the river together in kayaks, canoes, rafts and a shredder.  The biggest smiles and the most laughter came from the crews on board the rafts, but I think everyone on the river had a good day.  There were far fewer OBEs than I recall on any large trip that I've been on.  And most of those were in Frank Bells, which was just a monster when we got to it.  Pinball continues to crack me up.  I always take James' line right down the middle and each year find myself bouncing off rocks and holes the entire way down, imagining "Ping, Bing, Ding" sounds with each hit.  The wave at Sandy Bottoms was big and bad this year and I enjoyed it a lot.  I played almost anywhere that I could, but in Pillow and S, I had my head down and my paddle digging because they were rocking.  I was just super impressed with the paddling that I saw out there.  I really like watching all the different ways that people tackle the same rapid and everyone on Saturday was simply on fire.  At Kayaker's Ledge, Eric hit it first without hesitation and nailed the far right boof line.  John K and David G were both pulled back into it, but both handled it with grace and came out of it smooth.  Shane came over to scout and as soon as I told him about how the center line kicked my tail, he said "I think that's where I'm going."  And that's exactly what he did.  Sammy's raft screamed through it so fast that they shot right over the next ledge. 

At Frank Bells, I watched the SS Sammy drop out of site, then shoot back up, then out of sight, then up again as they rock and rolled their way to the bottom.  From what I hear, the SS Connie hit it first with Crystal riding the bull all the way through.  I took out at the top along with James, Shane, David G, Mick, Joe, Eric, Ann, Dave N and John K.    I could not see a lot from up there, but Joe said that there might be a center line that skirted most of the holes, so I set off with that as the only goal I had to shoot for.  Ann and I have found ourselves together at the top of a couple of these situations and this time, as I pushed off the bank, she kindly said "Good luck!"  I think that what I said was "OOOOOOH MAMA!"  Things started off well enough and I found a small eddy at the top that gave me time to set up the start of the run.  Everyone else was already gone and from where I was sitting, it looked like they all did fine.  I found the line that took me right beside the first few holes and I was appreciating Joe's tip, but from there things continued to break down and get more and more chaotic.  I'm not sure what all transpired before I found myself settling back down and upright, only to see that I was getting ready to drop into the big hole above the bottom.  There wasn't much to do other than commit to it.  I remember thinking that I didn't recall that hole being there or at least not being that big.  I also remember thinking that I wish I was a good thirty feet further right.  I felt like I disappeared into it and knew that my little playboat was getting tossed backwards again, just like at the ledge, only this time, I didn't feel like rolling, so I took a deep, deep, deep brace hoping to buy a little time and soon found myself sitting right between that hole and the big bottom one.  All I could do at that point was put my head down again and paddle with whatever I had left.  And that was it.  I was done.  Spent.  Whipped.  Awesome, awesome rapid.  Awesomer day.  Awesomist trip.  Paddles were floating, boats were floating, people were in the water.  Mr. Bells deserved a lot of respect at 2600 and it was every bit all I could handle. 

Sammy once again put together a great trip.  We had the best sites and the shelter was simply key.  I'll try to list as many as I can that were on the water this trip, although I apologize ahead of time to anyone that I miss, but everyone on this trip were simply top notch.  Sammy, James, Trent, Bev, Mike M, David M, David G, Bob R, Joanne, Ann, John S, Crystal, Kathy, Tommie, Shane, Eric J, Traci, Eric B, Joe, Connie, Bob, Charlie, Trish, John K, Rich, Amy, Lang, Cindi, Dave N, Curtis, Randy C, Mick, Bob and at least one other very nice paddler who's name I can't remember at the moment.  Will and Kayaker Bill were also on hand Friday night following their big water run.

I decided that I couldn't top Saturday, plus I left it all out on the river and didn't have anything left for Sunday.  My back and shoulders were done.  So I decided that it would be nice to wake up at the house on Sunday and packed up the gear.  After a really good meal at the Iron Horse with Eric and John, I left town, just as a twelve hour rain set in.  I don't know how next year will top this year, but as long as all the same cool folks show up, I'm sure it will be all good. 

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