By Eric Jackson
I get asked from people everywhere I go… “Why did you move to middle Tennessee, to Rock Island?” My answer is always the same.. “Rock Island is the best all around winter whitewater kayaking in the USA. It has the warmest climate with great whitewater.” There is Epic play boating, river running, creeking, and waterfalls. The waterfalls seem endless in this area, many are still unrun. There is a 50-60 footer that has one of the most perfect looking lips that runs right into Center Hill lake that I discovered while fishing out of my Ranger Boat. (you can’t paddle there easily and it is cliffed out, so having a 250 hp Evinrude to get you the 10 miles to it and pick people up will be perfect!)
This past band of rain, about 3″, delivered the goods for as many waterfalls as you could get to in one day. Dane and Nick spent the morning figuring out just watch driving route would get us to the most falls and prioritized them. They had about 5 falls over 50′ for a total of about 2 hours of driving. That is a crazy concentration of runnable falls and it didn’t even count the 20-50′ falls in between on the same creeks or different ones. By the end it was decided that Ozone was worth checking first. We pulled in, seeing the falls from the truck off the main road. It is a daunting looking drop, guesstimated at around 100′, but we didn’t measure it. That wasn’t the important part, it was simply deciding to run or not run it. The creek is tiny so the flow 10 hours after the rains stopped wasn’t quite optimum, but not far off. The question, first was whether there was enough water to soften the landing, and the second question was whether you would scrape at the lip or not, which makes setting your angle on a big drop really difficult. Pat Keller did the first descent of this drop last year and he pitched over the bars and was ejected out of his kayak at the bottom.
I had already decided that I wasn’t going to run this one, at this level, or perhaps at any level. I never write anything off, but I knew that it was challenging enough to drop a big drop properly and adding the low volume landing and the potential scrape at the top would only complicate and lower my chances of “success”. Nick really wanted to run it and was scouting hard, while Dane was approaching it from the point of view that he was going to run it, unless he really didn’t like something about it. He watched the video of Pat running it about 10 times and saw where the issues were with Pat’s run, a luxury that Pat didn’t have a year ago. Dane decided that down the middle, at the speed of the flow would be his line. Sometimes you back paddle to go slower than the water and fall into the curtain more, sometimes you paddle a little faster than the water to get out and away from the curtain a little if you don’t want to go behind the curtain, but most often going at the speed of the water is the simplest and ideal speed.
We scouted from below, from above, from a tree, and scouted some more. Finally, Dane, Nick, and I got dressed, with the idea that Dane would run it, but he wanted to look one more time after he got dressed. You could see his mind going a mile a minute, running all of the scenarios through his head, how to do it right, how to screw it up. Nick was doing the same, and so was I but I was doing it from the perspective of how Dane or Nick would fall and land, versus how I would, in this case. I think I am less nervous when it is me doing the scouting for myself, as you are just a spectator, or on safety and watching your kids run something this far out on the edge of the what is possible is clearly a defining moment, or could be. The downside of doing it wrong is a lifetime of paying the price, or worse. The upside of doing it right is just another self affirming moment that you can do something that nobody else can do, so that you can move on to the next one. Of course it is fun, but the fun is the overcoming of the challenge, of employing the years of learning, playing, studying, thinking, practicing, and overcoming smaller obstacles. When Dane decided it was “go time” and that he was going to put in 100′ above a 100′ drop and float into it, pitch vertically and try to control the vertical plunge and land in a way that is injury free and you can paddle away, he wasn’t trying to set any records, or find fame, fortune, etc.. He just wanted to run Ozone Falls, a local waterfall that he learned about last year when Pat came from NC and ran it. It isn’t Dane’s biggest waterfall, either, but this one he woke up in his own bed in Rock Island and then drove the 45 minutes to it.
I walked down the trail with my kayak, fully dressed, and would be waiting at the bottom for when he landed. Nick was on the lip to signal Dane’s approach. At this stage there is nothing you can do but wait and watch. Running a waterfall is easy- paddle up, float over, and gravity does the rest. Running a waterfall in a specific way that you land how you want takes skill. The higher the waterfall the harder it is to land at an acceptable angle, the more skill it takes. At 100′ boofing, or landing at all flat on a falls like this (low volume) would destroy your back instantly, it really isn’t an option and is the single thing that you are trying to prevent. Pitching over the bars and landing on your head is not fun, but it is the best of the screw ups you can do. You are most likely going to be ejected from your boat instantly, as your boat stops on the surface of the water, but your body continues into the water ripping you right out of the boat. Typically kayakers who are ejected are not hurt seriously, as long as the pool is safe to swim in. Dane said all of the right things- setting his plan up to go vertical, planning each stroke, or lack of stroke and body position to assure to go at least to 90′, and perhaps more. For this reason, I was comfortable that his run would not cause serious injury, as he is really good at controlling his boat while falling. Still, I sit there waiting for Nick’s thumbs up. He gives me the “spray skirt on” signal, which for Dane means about 60 more seconds. then the “it is a go” signal and he aimed his camera at the lip. I had my GoPro Session on my head and just let it run.
Dane’s head appeared at the lip, then he started the roll over the lip… it seemed like a long time as I was monitoring his angle from the top, hoping he does it right. He pitched to vertical and I was happy. His boat fell perfectly for about 80′ and then he opened up slightly and it went past vertical to about 110 degrees on the landing. You could hear a loud “Whomp” on the landing, where the stern of his boat slammed the boiling water below, and his paddle broke in half in his hands. He popped up, missed a roll, and then got his second roll with 1/2 of a paddle. I was on him right away as he was clearly hurting, but not sure if he was “hurt”. He signaled that he had the wind knocked out of him, and he wanted me to get the other part of his paddle before it floated down the next drop which was choked with trees and if it floated down it, it was gone. I knew he was fine at that point. His paddle broke and his floaty was ripped off the back of his GoPro, but otherwise everything was intact. A minute went by and he eventually was breathing fine and had a combination of being happy and disappointed with himself. He didn’t land the drop like he wanted. His body came out of the tuck at the last second, causing him to go over vertical, take the hit to the chest, and break his paddle. I was happy to see that he recognized his mistake and didn’t consider the run to be 100% fine. The reality is that it was a great line and a safe landing and one of the better 100′ waterfall runs we have seen. However, there is room for improvement, and mentally controlling the body throughout the entire drop is something that he knows needs work. A week or two of running smaller drops is all he needs, but coming from Hawaii where they didn’t get much rain, he didn’t get that practice. Anyone living on the edge or at the top of their game got there by expecting more from themselves than anyone else would expect from them. Nobody expects anyone to do things nobody has ever done before, except the person doing it.
But now Nick is at the top and Dane is letting Nick know that he hit the rock at the lip of the falls and it bucked him. This simply means there isn’t quite enough water to get over the lip clean. Dane went on the deepest part. Nick continued to contemplate the run. Eventually Dane went up to talk to him. I waited below. 30 minutes went by and eventually Nick opted out of the run. I climbed out of the gorge with my boat and we loaded up, but stayed in our drysuits. Time for another waterfall. This time it was Fall Creek Falls State Park for Cane Creek Falls. We did the drive and wasn’t disappointed when we got there. The water is super high and there would be no scraping over this lip. We scouted from river right and left and both Nick and Dane were ready to go without much fanfare. I climbed down into the gorge with my boat and set safety again. This time Nick would go first and Dane climbed out on the lip on river left to give me the thumbs up. It came quick and Nick rounded the lip perfectly, dropped vertical and fell into the curtain, stayed vertical to the landing, and popped up pointed downstream and upright. It was a perfect run. This was the ideal waterfall run. Nick was fired up. After skipping Ozone, he made this one really count. Dane walked back to his boat and dropped over shortly after, also perfectly vertical, but rotated left slightly. He landed it exactly vertical as well, but broke his paddle, his second for the day. After going a year without breaking any… “when it rains it pours” I guess. Both of the boy celebrated and thanked me for doing safety. I was proud of the job they both did in the planning and running of these drops. We decided to go back to Rock Island for a 60,000 cfs run down the river with Emily. Staying in our drysuits, we drove the 30 minutes back home, picked up Emily and hit the high water Caney Fork. Big waves and really fast water just before dark was a great way to finish an epic day…
But it continues… We woke up to more high water and went to the Crooked Fork with Stephen and Albert, with Clay on shuttle. Nick, Dane, Emily, and Stephen’s first time on this one. More waterfalls, but smaller ones. The final rapid below Potter’s falls was epic. A double boof along a wall that looked cool and was a blast to run finished off that day…
Now the bigger rivers are full of water and the kayaking continues…. Caney Fork at 12,000 cfs now…:)
p.s. See you on the river!