By Heather Huckeba
This story began back in 2005. Spring of 2005 is when I attended my first Arkansas Canoe Club School of Whitewater Paddling. I didn’t really know yet if whitewater paddling was something I would stick with or not. I was interested – definitely interested. Yet, if there had been a category in high school for “least likely to one day become a whitewater kayaker,” I would have probably won that category. After all, I’m rather risk-averse (which is a much more polite way of saying I’m a big chicken). Nonetheless, I had gone out and bought a used whitewater kayak, which I got to paddle several times that winter/spring.

My paddling strategy in early 2005 was to avoid those darn eddies as much as possible since I was MUCH better at staying upright if I didn’t have to go into those bothersome eddies. I was fascinated to learn during ACC’s “Canoe School” that there were actual techniques that let you catch an eddy AND stay upright, all at the same time. So, the summer of 2005 was when I would find out if whitewater was really for me or not.

A more experienced whitewater open-boater friend had invited me and some other newbie paddlers to come along with him on his annual trip to the Nantahala River in North Carolina. We had heard the Nantahala was REAL whitewater, and so I decided if I could survive the Nantahala and still think whitewater was fun, well, then maybe this kayaking thing really was for me after all.

Prior to my maiden Nantahala trip in August of 2005, I didn’t know anything at all about the Ocoee. In the summer of 2005, I didn’t know what state the Ocoee was in; I probably didn’t even know how to pronounce it! But I did make this pronouncement: “I will NEVER paddle a river like the Ocoee. That is NOT the kind of whitewater I want to paddle.” Don’t you hate it when you say things like that out loud?

I survived my first trip down the Nantahala in August 2005. Not only that, but my first time down Lesser Wesser Falls, when I made it to the bottom and was still right side up, I have to liken the feeling I had to what it must be like realizing you just won a gold medal at the Olympics. Seriously – that was the feeling I had. It was awesome, and I was hooked. I worked the rest of that summer and fall learning to roll (and had a beast of a time with it, at that). But I persevered, and got my first combat roll in March, 2006 on the South Fork of the Little Red.

Spring of 2006 I went to both the Missouri Whitewater School, as well as the ACC one, and – WOW – in May 2006 I did the Cossatot Maiden Voyage! I ran the COSSATOT Falls (all of them!)! I really wasn’t sure I would EVER do that! Then, even more remarkable, in the fall of 2006 I paddled Upper Richland. RICHLAND CREEK! I really didn’t think I would ever paddle Richland – maybe not even LOWER Richland, let alone UPPER! Man, I was really into this whitewater kayaking now!

Spring of 2007 I did the ACA Instructor Development Workshop and Instructor Certification. 2005 to 2007 had been an awesome roller coaster ride as I improved my paddling skills, made new paddling friends, and had a blast discovering new things about myself and what I could do – all thanks to whitewater kayaking. There was just one thing that kept coming up… “Have you run the Ocoee yet?” “Oh, you are so ready for the Ocoee.” “Haven’t you run the Ocoee yet?” “You really should go run the Ocoee.” Uh, but…I will NEVER, EVER paddle a river like the Ocoee. Okay, yes, I had heard quite a few paddlers talking about how much fun the Ocoee was. (FUN!?! The Ocoee???) But I also had heard (and read) about quite a few horror stories, not least of which, of course, was the death that happened during 2005 and which had formed that first and lasting impression of the Ocoee in my mind as a deadly river. So I made a resolution: if (IF) I was going to paddle the Ocoee, I didn’t want to just “survive” the experience. I was going to paddle the Ocoee on my own terms and in my own time. I was going to run the Ocoee when I got to the point when I WANTED to run it.

That time finally came this past September. This was the plan: I signed up for two days of private instruction with Endless River Adventures located in the Nantahala Gorge. Friday we would paddle the Nantahala, and then, if my instructor agreed, on Saturday we would go to the Ocoee. I drove over to North Carolina on Wednesday so that I would have a free day on Thursday to explore the area or paddle on my own. Thursday morning I decided to take the opportunity to visit the nearby Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. Unfortunately, it got in my head that while on my stroll I really, really wanted to spot one of the little orange salamanders that live in the forest, and hopefully, snap a photo of one. I was probably 1.8 miles into the 2.0 mile hiking trail loop, and I still hadn’t spotted one of the elusive buggers. Just then I spotted a little gleam of bright orange on a fallen tree up on the bank above the trail. Could it be? I scrambled up the near vertical bank toward the orange spot on the log. No salamander: just a leaf. It occurred to me as I teetered on the edge of the bank above the trail below, that I really should just sit down on my butt and scoot myself back to the trail. The voice in my head told me “you’re really not coordinated or athletic enough to jump off this bank,” and then I jumped anyway. I felt my right knee flex unnaturally back in the wrong direction as my sneakers hit the dirt. I crumpled to the ground with a sickening feeling in my stomach. Surely my chance to paddle the Ocoee was very likely crushed in that instant, along with some tendons and ligaments in my knee.

I hobbled the 0.2 miles back to my car and used an NRS webbing strap to secure two ice packs to my knee, and downed a slightly greater-than-recommended dose of Advil. On my drive back to my motel room, I stopped for a sandwich and drink. The cashier looked up nervously from the cash register after ringing me up. “Uh, sorry, it’s $6.66.” Good grief! I’m not superstitious, but even I had to admit, things were really not looking very optimistic at this point. It sure was starting to seem like maybe I wasn’t meant to paddle the Ocoee after all, at least not yet. After a dismal night thinking about how I had ruined my vacation, I awoke Friday morning to dark skies, a steady rain, and a swollen knee that I could neither bend all the way, nor straighten. I could barely put weight on my right leg without the knee feeling like it would buckle right out from under me. I wrapped it up, sucked it up, and limped off to discuss these new “developments” with Endless River Adventures.

I met with my instructor Juliet from ERA and broke the news (there really wasn’t any way to hide the fact that I could barely walk). She was very accommodating and willing to let me reschedule. That SEEMED like the practical, smart thing to do. But I also thought that maybe, just maybe, sitting in the boat wouldn’t hurt my knee. I finally asked that we give it a try. I honestly wasn’t sure if I would even last half an hour in my kayak, but there was no way to know how it would be unless we just tried it. So we headed up to Queen Anne Lake for some flat water work first, and to test how it would be for me to sit in my boat and paddle and roll. The flat water work went well, and my knee felt no worse for the wear after I got back out of the kayak. It was still sore as heck, but no worse, and nothing I did while paddling, including rolling or edging, seemed to aggravate the injury. So after that off we went to the Nantahala to push it some more. The day on the river went well, and Juliet announced that we definitely should go to the Ocoee on Saturday. I couldn’t believe this was happening: was I really, finally, going to paddle the Ocoee? And was I actually going to do so when I could barely even walk? Friday night was more ice on the knee and more Advil.

After the steady downpour that had lasted all day on Friday, Saturday brought bright sunshine and clear, blue skies. It was a postcard day. As we drove over to the Ocoee, Juliet told me the choice was mine whether to take my Diesel (and we would more just run the rapids and see the river), or to take my Jackson 4Fun (and then we could stop more along the way to play). Why was I even considering this, I thought! “Take the Diesel, take the Diesel!” I was shouting inside. “I think I’ll take the Jackson,” I said. What!?! I’m about to paddle the Ocoee, the death-trap river that is larger than life in my head; I can barely walk; and now I’m passing up my trusty, security-blanket, go-to, bullet-proof Diesel!?!

While I was waiting for Juliet to run shuttle, some other paddlers arrived and remarked about how “flooded” the river was. Flooded!?! I had noticed the brown, muddy color which seemed unusual, and remembered the hard, steady rain from the day before. Ugh, why hadn’t I chosen my Diesel? We put on just below Second Helping. Juliet had me ferry back and forth, knock some rolls off, and try to surf a little in a wave hole. It was probably half an hour before we moved downstream, and then it was only a few more yards to a good eddy line for stern squirts. We worked on stern squirts there for quite awhile, before I finally couldn’t take it any longer. I confessed: I really, really wanted to know what was just around the bend downstream, and so we finally started moving downriver.

Along the way Juliet had me work on surfing out of a ledge hole. This is an area I am very weak at, but she kept me at it until I was able to become more calm and comfortable and able to work my way front wards and backwards to the edges of the hole while side surfing on either side. At another stop, I got to work on flat spins. Flat spins are something I have always wanted to do, but had never been able to pull it off. Trust me, I was grinning from ear to ear as I finally got my very first flat spins. They were fast, awkward and shaky at first, but then slower and controlled. Wow, what fun! I was doing flat spins…on the Ocoee! Oh so much fun…Ocoee…!

Of course, there were the rapids, too. Moonshoot…Double Suck…Double Trouble. With each rapid we ran, my confidence just kept getting higher and higher. The giant waves were such a hoot, I couldn’t keep the smile off my face even in the middle of the rapids. Just below Double Trouble we stopped for a snack break. I really wanted to blurt out how much fun I was having, and how it was also nowhere near as hard as I had imagined it would be. But I remembered River Karma, and had the good sense to keep my mouth shut. Flipper…Surprise…Tablesaw…Diamond Splitter…Accelerator…Cat’s Pajamas, Hell Hole…and, finally, Powerhouse. At the bottom of Powerhouse, the last rapid, I nearly exploded! I was grateful for the ¾ mile flat water paddle to the private boater take-out, just so I could bask in the joy of the day.

I am so grateful to Juliet and Endless River Adventures for my incredible two days of instruction. ERA had been highly recommended to me, but I wasn’t really sure what to expect. The experience exceeded my highest hopes. Juliet seemed to know when to demonstrate for me, when to give feedback or pointers, and when to just let me keep plugging at something new on my own for awhile. I know that if I had not felt so incredibly comfortable with Juliet, I never would have considered going to the Ocoee with my bum knee. Along the way I also got some “sports psychology” which has helped me to think about and evaluate my own sense of risk and responsibility on the river. If anyone is looking to take your skills up another notch, I really cannot recommend ERA instruction enough!

September 15, 2007: I ran the Ocoee. I didn’t die. I didn’t get hurt. Heck, I didn’t even flip except when I was playing along the way. I never felt out of control or in over my head. Most of all, I had a BLAST! The entire day, the entire experience, was so much more wonderful than I could have ever have imagined! The Ocoee is FUN! Now, I wonder what river I will NEVER paddle next…?