March 7, 2015
SF Holston gauge = 1710-1640cfs
Joe and I met Kevin, John, Joey and Vince at 11:00 in Damascus. I was happy to join such a small, solid crew since the run would be long and in cold water. Local law enforcement pulled over next to our line of boat laden Subarus in the parking lot at Cowboys to good-heartedly tell us we were a little “special” for getting on the river this early in the year. The creek banks were still snow covered at the put-in and the trees covered with ice. The high was set to reach 50, but I am sure it did not get out of the 30s along the creek. We ran into our friend Randy W from Raleigh at the Creek Junction put-in and hit the water right at 12:30. 12 miles and 5 hours later, we took off cold, tired and happy.
I knocked out my first swim of the year and the first of the day for our group at The Slot. I ran it first, did not execute my plan very well and penciled in with left to right angle. I expected to shoot back out of the water like I did the last time I ran the slot, but instead found myself bouncing around upside down at the bottom of the drop, banging against the same rock over and over. I did not roll up and the boat did not wash out. What did happen is that I pulled the skirt and broke the stem to my GoPro mount. Because my tether was tied to the mount, the GoPro was lost.
Armed with that visual of how NOT to run the slot, everyone else aced their lines and held a better right to left angle, especially Vince. Joey submarined and shot back out in a cool stern squirt. Kevin was nice enough to document everyone’s run through the slot and immediately paid for that kindness a few hundred yards downstream by becoming the second person in our group to take a swim. With our swims behind us, Kevin and I stayed dry, if not warm, the rest of the way. John later joined in when he flipped during a rock spin, a move which he repeated again later in the day, just in case anyone had missed it the first time. Joey held out till we were almost finished with the run before he hit the water without his boat, which left Vince and Joe as our only two dry hair paddlers. All swims were quick and self-rescues. Joe did jump in the river, but it was to help out Ed, who had joined us at Straight Branch. And although Vince stayed in his boat all day, he was missing his drain plug, so I am sure he got plenty wet too, which means that no one was probably all that dry and toasty when the sun went down.
I love the section that includes the slot and the rapids below it, as well as the action packed, continuous stretch below Taylor’s Valley, which might be the most fun and the most memorable part of the run. But honestly, the whole creek, from top to bottom is just excellent, definitely one of my favorite places to paddle.
Four years ago when I last paddled Whitetop Laurel, it was just Kevin and I. It was the same time of year, at the exact same level and the exact same weather. On that day, I found myself standing next to Big Rock Falls, late in the day, tired, shaking uncontrollably from being cold, unable to find a clean line through the rapid. It just looked like one big mess to me. On that day, I decided to walk it, which was the first time I ever walked a rapid. Typically, if I think I can see a line in something, it is hard for me to walk away without seeing if I can execute it. But on that day, I just couldn’t see how to run it. And I was cold and tired, so walking was the right choice. On this trip, I found myself standing next to Big Rock Falls again, under the exact same conditions. Our group was making the wise choice to walk it, as was Randy’s group behind ours, but Vince decided to give it a go. And after watching him make it through unscathed, I decided that I would try it as well. Honestly, I was so cold that I just wanted to get in my boat and get moving, so I hopped in and headed into the rapid. I started too far right, which had me in the current driving too far left with right to left angle, so I had to dig hard to correct and turn back, hitting the top just a little left of where I wanted to be, but I had the angle I wanted and shot through just fine. Lots of fun.
From there it was just boogie, boogie, boogie to the takeout. We paddled straight through the road side drops and by the end, I had stopped aiming for boof rocks, focusing on just wrapping up the day. I was completely spent when we reached the cars and the dry clothes were very welcomed. Kevin had stopped, as planned, at the Straight Branch access, but was waiting at the take-out to join Joe and I for dinner. Everyone else started their late evening drive back home. We picked up subs at Subway, then carried them to the Damascus Brewery, where Kevin and I washed ours down with an excellent Beaver Rage IPA and all three of us enjoyed the music by a great little trio playing that evening. It was a perfect end to a most excellent day spent on one of my favorite creeks with some of my favorite people. Good stuff.