Watauga. Watauga. Watauga. No other river has captivated my attention for as long and as intently as the Watauga. I've laid awake in bed thinking about Stateline Falls many, many times; working through the strokes leading up to the drop. I've worried about it and worried about it and passed up invites to run it. In my mind, it represented the top of where I hope to get to as a paddler. Of the rivers I hope to run in my lifetime, the Watauga is probably the most difficult. Anything tougher than that is either too risky for me, just not appealing to me or is simply not realistic given my set of skills. So the Watauga has long represented a high water mark for me, a goal to strive for. I had said all along that if an invite ever came within a week of me paddling something challenging, I would run it. I had plans to make a low water run on Wilson Creek with my good friend Joe. My gear was packed and I was ready to go when Ricky called to ask if I wanted to run the Watauga. I called Joe and, having listened to me talk about the Watauga for years, he insisted that I not pass up the opportunity. He probably figured it would be a way to get me to talk about something else for a change. The temps were going to be in the 50s in Boone, the level was perfect for a first time run, I paddled Whitetop Laurel the week before. Everything was perfect. It was now or never, so I said yes.
Having guided me on my first time down two benchmark class IV runs, Wilson Creek and the New River Gorge, in 2008, I could not think of anyone I would rather have with me on this new benchmark than Ricky.
We met at his house shortly after 10:00. Leland Davis was at the putin getting ready to teach a class, so we knew that we had at least one option for a ride back. We were on the water and paddling under the bridge, which felt like a very symbolic portal to me, around 1:00.
Ricky explained all the lines that needed explaining and other than that, I just followed him, watching where and how he went over each horizon line, just as I did in 08 on WC. He paddled super clean and had nice lines all day, which made my job of following him much easier. I don't remember much about the Cabin rapid, but the first class IV rapid, Bump and Grind, got my full attention and I remember thinking that it was VERY well named. For most of the run, I was pretty happy with my paddling, except for three ferries that I did not make, which led to me running rapids on the fly and not on the lines that Ricky had laid out. In each case, everything worked out fine and I kept my hair dry, but it showed me that I did not need a level any pushier than what I had at the time. There were a couple of pretty important braces along the way that kept me moving in the right direction. Sh%tKicker may have been one of the rapids where I blew the ferry at the top. Knuckles may have been another, and I know that Heavy Water was the third. After Sh%tKicker, we stopped to scout Hydro. Ricky laid out the line, which looked pretty difficult, but I watched him execute it perfectly. I said, as recently as this week, that I have a hard time walking away from a rapid when I can see the line. After watching Ricky, I knew what to do. And I knew that I knew what to do. I could see the line and could visualize myself running the entirety of it. But I really, really wanted to run Stateline at the end of the run and my gut told me that walking Hydro would help insure that I reached that spot dry, warm and confident. So I walked it. And I don't feel bad about it at all as it worked out perfectly.
I loved the boofs in Split Decision, it was one of my favorite rapids. Vernon's Folly was a handful, as was Edge of the World and Blow Job, but they all went fine. At Heavy Water, I didn't think I was high enough to make the river left eddy and the rocks guarding it were approaching fast, so I turned and worked as hard as I could to get right and miss the holes on that side. At Knuckles I was not aggressive enough in my ferrying and could not get to the eddy on river right, so I had to run that rapid somewhat blind and luckily came out of it unscathed. And in there somewhere I remember tons and tons of boogie water, ledges and boofs. All significant, challenging and fun. A favorite was one that Ricky called "Follow Me". He gave me no description of it, he just said follow me and hit a good right stroke at the right time. I asked "how will I know when to hit it?" His reply was "Oh, you'll know." The drop off the right-to-left boof into a fast moving chute of water in front of a large boulder was a fun surprise.
Ricky wanted to run Stateline without scouting, as it could only serve to make me nervous. I had studied photos and videos of the rapid for so long that I knew I did not need to see it. I knew what to do. But I really wanted a photo of me running it, so I gave Ricky my iPhone in the eddy above it. I knew by Ricky's yell at the bottom that it had went great for him. I waited until I saw him on shore giving me a thumbs up, then pealed out from the Chapel Eddy. My plan was to reach the micro eddy just above it, then spin back around and hit the falls with the left to right angle that I have visualized for so long. But halfway to the micro eddy I changed my mind for some reason. I have no idea why. I turned toward the drop, took a few strokes to get the angle I wanted, but I pretty much went straight over it, enjoying the view on the way. You only get to see a view like that for the first time once. I saw the pocket of white approaching and thought "this might not be good." I pitoned on the rocks, putting a nice dent in the bow, then flipped. Ricky gave me great advice earlier in the day. He said that if I flipped at the falls, to not roll up immediately. He said that it would feel like I was stuck in the curtain, but that I would not be. He told me to just hang out and wait until I reached cleaner water. So when I flipped and felt all the water hitting the boat I thought "man, it sure feels like I am stuck, but I'll trust Ricky on this one." I waited and waited and waited, then finally rolled up when I felt a little green water. As it turned out, Ricky had some problems with the iPhone, so no pics of me running it, but it made for one hell of a great memory.
With Stateline in the rearview, I thoroughly enjoyed Boof Falls. Last Hair went fine and the boof at Rewind might have been the most fun I have ever made. Super, super, super good day on the water. Could not have went much better.