It was a cold Saturday in May. The sun was shining, but winter had yet to let up on her grasp. I was sitting on the bus, doubled-up in nerves as we were shuttled to the Cheoah river. Being a new Cheoah guide, a million thoughts ran through my head…the good, the bad, and the ugly. I held my breath as the trip leader called out our guide pairings. When he said my name and my partner’s I instantly began to shake, having never worked with this particular veteran guide. That aside, it was my first day on the Cheoah to jump in the stern of the boat and call all the shots–if only he will let me have the first run in the bow so as to see this wild river once more before I begin to grab the reins. It was such a gut-wrenching moment. Alas, we arrived at the put-in and I did my best to keep a straight face. Whoops, I threw my helmet and dry bag right in a pile of red ants. The trip was jumping off to a fine start.
As we unloaded the boats off the top of the bus I did my best to console myself. You are a GREAT guide. Period. Enough said. Come on… you’re checked out for high water trips on the Nolichucky, surely this will be a walk in the park. Oh man, these other guys are SO freaking experienced. Yeah, guys–were are the others girls at? They aren’t! What are you doing here?! I have got to prove everyone wrong! As my stern guide trained our guests on land I rigged the gear down in our boat. I was so nervous that I could barely tie a girth hitch to secure the med kit into the boat. I didn’t know how he liked the back of the boat rigged and I didn’t want put anything in his way–I mean, this river is INTENSE. So I decided to tie it to the outside of the stern.
Finally he finished training the guests. I was waiting impatiently to ask him what he wanted from me as his bow guide. Every raft that goes down the Cheoah with our outfitter has 2 guides: one in the stern and one in the bow. The stern guide still calls all the shots like traditional guiding; the bow guide is there to make sure the boat is squared up to all the bodacious hydraulics on the river. It goes unsaid that bow guides are also there in case the stern guide goes for a violent swim. I will admit, I can’t remember exactly what the stern guide said, he wanted but it was vague at best. Couple that with my fear of being too active in the bow and throwing strokes that would counteract what he was trying to do. Bow guiding on the Cheoah is a delicate balance of letting your stern guide run the show and not overstepping his lead, but knowing when to throw in the appropriate draw stroke to keep the raft out of danger. You can see my dilemma.
!We were steadily making our way down the first section of class II’s and III’s when we finally reached our first troublesome rapid of the day: Half-Cocked or Land of a Thouasnd Holes. This one is a true class V. I turned around and shouted to my stern guide, asking what the game plan was. I had navigated this rapid enough in my training pod to know that we needed to think left, visualize left, and be left. Right is an absolute no go! He just said “Keep the boat left, Sam!” As if this were some simple task!
We approached the top of Half-cocked and I began to wonder why were starting so close to the center of the river. Oh crap! There’s no way we are gonna have enough momentum to pull ourselves left. What is he doing?! I immediately began drawing the boat left as hard as I could. I was hanging out over the front of the boat like a mermaid on the figurehead of a great ship. I was pulling with all my might, repeatedly, using my entire body. Oh! get ready for the lateral wave. Brace! Brace! Pull! Pull LEFT! HARD! It was too late! The lateral wave hit us from the left, rocket-launching us out into the center of the river. We landed on some scrapey rocks, lost all momentum, and the guests were floundering around on the bottom of the raft.
In the seconds following our horrible trajectory, the stern guide struggled to call commands and get the guests back into the proper paddling position. Wait–there’s still one more obstacle to navigate and then we can muscle our way through a couple hydraulics. Wait! Which side of the pour over rock? Where is he going?! That’s it, I’m drawing us RIGHT of the pour over! Draw, Sam! Draw! You can imagine the surprise I felt when I heard the voice from the back of the boat yell “Draw LEFT!” Oh Crap! My attempts to pull us right and his telling the guests to pull us left turned us sideways in front of this 6 foot pour over. No amount of momentum could save us. We hit the pour over completely sideways. I immediately jumped to the high side of the raft and grabbed the perimeter line.
I managed to grip for dear life and stay within our perpendicularly oriented raft. I looked behind me and the poor stern guide was pinned under the boat. I selfishly held onto my paddle. Just drop the stupid paddle and pull the guests back in the raft. No! Keep the paddle and work around it! I need two hands though! Oh keep the paddle and deal with it later. I hopped down in the water. Surprise! It’s only waste deep right here! Thank goodness I had kept my paddle–everyone else had lost theirs. I carefully maneuvered the raft off of the stern guide and he carefully climbed back in to the boat. We managed to recover all of our guests and everyone seemed to come away unscathed. With a quick “are you injured?” I was able to rule out any gross trauma they might have incurred.
An hour or so later, after things had settled down a bit, we stopped at water break. The stern guide revealed a pretty deep laceration to his hand. Whoops! He prefaced it with “I never tie my med kit to the outside of the boat! Especially not where it could snap up and cut my hand!” I was feeling pretty terrible at that moment. I didn’t mean to cause him injury, I was just so nervous at the beginning.
After water break we tackled all the class IV’s and V’s with finesse and somehow made it down the Cheoah quite successfully!