“There’s a place on South Fork River
Where clear waters tumble and spill
Over moss covered rock formations.
A place called Andrew’s Mill.”
It was during the spring of 1961 that I discovered whitewater. As barefoot boys in cut-off jeans we braved those
daunting combinations of rushing water and high graniteledges literally by the seat of our pants! We knew nothing of hydraulics, hypothermia, or undercuts. Perhaps we represented the epitome of youthful naivete; I don’t know. I do know that we were good, bold swimmers and knew every rocky nook and cranny both above and below the surface of that stretch of river. Somehow we knew–intuitively sensed–that a swim in April had to be quick and to the point, followed by some time spent stretched out on the sun-warmed rocks; we were either reptiles or amphibians to be sure.
We rode the infamous Death Ride with a flair and pizzazz that only young males just beginning the rut could show. From the Death Ride it was on down through the rapids and the long slide into the dreaded Jackson’s Hole, a dark depression hidden in the bedrock far below the water’s surface. It had been said that no living man had ever found bottom there and that long ago a Mister Jackson had perished in attempting to do just that (sometimes name commemoration is not a desirable thing). Below the Jackson’s Hole the river split and we went either way, depending on how we felt at the time. The right fork flowed through a calm pool and near a rock overhang that still possessed the smoke stains of campfires from time immemorial–the soot would not rub off onto our fingertips. It was also there that I once found a fine quartzite projectile point wedged high into a crevice (I still wear it around my neck as a talisman–it keeps me in touch with a magical past).
The left fork was a continuation of the swift water snaking its way through rocky mazes until it reached a place where the two forks of the river converged. This place was known as The Sand Bar. Here we got out and walked the half mile upstream and commenced another ride. Shuttles were simple in 1961.
By late July or August the seats of our jeans had worn away and patches were required to cover our adolescent cheeks. I still remember when the iron-on blue jean patches came out and made my mother’s life a little easier.
The 1962 Upgrade: That summer it was Goat who first showed up with an inner-tube held under his arm. We watched in awe as he bounced down The Death Ride, cushioned from the butt-bruising rocks by this evolutionary descendent of Mr.Goodyear’s wonderful discovery. It was only a matter of time before we were all pestering Mr. Thomas (of Thomas’ Service Station) for possession of one of those vulcanized castoffs no longer reliable enough to insure safe transport for those souls riding in the Fords and Chevys that rolled along the roads of Madison County. Soon we all had inner-tubes and were therefore equals.
It was in those inner-tubes that a group of us finally made the expeditionary journey between Watson’s Mill and Andrew’s
Mill. As with any expedition, this one required careful planning–one day’s worth–and the use of automobiles for what I would come to know as a “shuttle” many years later.
The distance was great–perhaps four miles–and not one of us knew what riverine denizen or geological obstacle awaited us. For sustenance I took a Coke along on this first trip but had forgotten to include a bottle opener. Goat solved this dilemma since he possessed the fine skill of opening it by a forceful downward slam with the heel of his hand against the top of the bottle cap as it rested against that perfect lip of rock. Of course he quickly slurped that first fizzy eruption that leapt from the bottle, but that seemed a small
price to pay for a specialist. Even though Goat had failed a schoolgrade or two, he was much smarter than the rest of us in those things in life that really mattered. We all looked up to Goat.
The 1963 Upgrade: At the river it was Jerry who first
showed up holding, in both hands, a truck inner-tube. We watched in awe as he bounced down the Death Ride sitting HIGH above the butt-bruising rocks on this evolutionary descendent of Mr. Goodyear’s wonderful discovery.
Once again we all beat a path to Mr. Thomas’ Service Station for possession of one of those vulcanized castoffs no longer reliable enough to insure the safe transport of those heavy loads heaped upon the backs of the draft vehicles that rolled along the roads of Madison County. Soon we all had truck inner tubes and were therefore equals. But while my friends still made the daring journey between Watson’s Mill and
Andrew’s Mill, I remained behind and continued to whirl down the Death Ride and brave the Jackson’s Hole. You see, I had found another use for the truck inner tube; I had discovered that it would transport two people quite comfortably! Let me explain:
Every summer the pretty girl from New York would journey to Georgia in order to visit her Grandmother, and the pretty girl from New York was so… pretty! She had this long amber hair that trailed her every fluid movement in much the same way that the long green river moss told the secret of the river’s current. Her skin had the cast of a late afternoon summer’s sun and I was sure that her striking features had been copied from an illustration in a classic storybook. She spoke English certainly, but from her it was a strange, confusing patois and she had to occasionally repeat things for me. Somehow she seemed to understand me just fine because she always smiled when I spoke… sometimes even laughed a little as she mimicked my Southern drawl. Coupled like matching spoons in that truck inner-tube, we braved the Death Ride and the Jackson’s Hole, over and over, all summer long. 1963 was a very good year.
“One by one they departed,
To destinations many and varied.
One here one there like cobbles
Their beloved river might carry.”
The next summer the pretty girl from New York didn’t
return. Her grandmother said that she had a job and had met
someone special. That summer my truck inner-tube remained idle and retreated to a dark corner in my father’s barn where it gathered dust and lost most of its buoyancy. Also, Goat left and no one seemed to know where. His family simply moved away unannounced, perhaps even unplanned. Goat never talked much about his family anyway. A few years later Phil Ochs would put it to eloquent lyrics:
“Passions will part to a strange melody.
As fires will sometimes burn cold.
Like petals in the wind, we’re puppets to the silver
strings of souls, of changes.”
The 1965 Upgrade: That summer it was I who first showed
up with the yellow air mattress under my arm. They watched in
awe as I bounced down The Death Ride and swiftly made my way
through the rapids and down the long slide into the dreaded
Jackson’s Hole. Even though my chin was often chapped red and
my chest made raw as the result of a long day spent upon that
canvas air mattress, it was well worth it. I was faster by far and held more exacting lines over those granite ledges than any of those still clinging to their cumbersome inner-tubes.
Yellow was the color of the sun and that horizontal wing-like platform was the precursor of things to come!
“There’s a bit of ol’ Huck in all of us.
For me it was there in the Sun
On the rocks of the South Fork River,
In those days of carefree fun.”
So here I am, many years later and still caught up in this delightful game we play upon the dancing waters. Dan, Hank, Tim and Todd are now the friends with whom I brave those daunting combinations of rushing water and unyielding rock. And, for over three decades now, I’ve spooned with the pretty girl from South Carolina as we’ve taken a joyous ride over the many ledges in life, cushioning one another whenever the ride gets bumpy.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Ken (Hope you enjoyed the ride)