I’ve always thought owning a motorcycle would be the coolest thing; my reasons for thinking so could be that my mom’s dad had bikes when I grew up or the fact I was never allowed to ride them because my dad’s mom was an X-Ray tech who’d seen one too many bad accidents. My grandfather most notably had this gorgeous BMW touring bike which as a kid I thought was the fastest thing in the world, and it shocked me when all of sudden I found one day he had sold it and he walked away from bikes entirely. Years later, when I thought about buying a bike, I asked him what made him stop riding because I’d never heard a reason.
“Well Cam, I was about 60 at the time and I went out riding one night by myself. I was cruising along the back roads like I usually did, when I looked down and realized I was going 120mph…and that I wasn’t scared. I was comfortable doing that speed. I went home, parked the bike in the garage, and immediately posted a for sale ad in the newspaper, because when you stop being scared is when you start doing stupid things”.
That memory hit me as I paddled through the rapid Second Ledge on Section III of the Chattooga River. Swirling current at the bottom of the drop flipped me over and as I tried to roll up I felt something hit my helmet and rip it off while my forehead started dragging through the sand. Immediately, I rationalized that without a helmet it was much safer to be above water then below water, so I pulled the grab loop on my spray skirt and swam out of my boat. The others I was with helped me pull the gear to the side and empty out the water while they explained that their frantic waving and yelling was to tell me I had forgotten to fasten my chinstrap above the rapid and that’s why my helmet had been ripped off; I’d become too comfortable and I did something stupid.
Earlier in the day, I had started off cautious, being on real whitewater for the first time in several years. Four of us had decided to spend the day running the 10 miles from Sandy Ford to Highway 76; I was invited on this trip by 2 others who are avid whitewater kayakers but the 4th member was a green amateur complete with rented inflatable kayak and the same helmet Burt Reynolds would have rocked in “Deliverance” if Burt Reynolds skull wasn’t already impervious to damage from forces of nature. Section III isn’t a deathwish kind of paddle, I mean they rent kayaks out for people to paddle down unassisted for heaven’s sake, but it is a solid Class III stretch of whitewater. It also cuts through the best river scenery South Carolina has, and most of the danger stems from paying more attention to the landscape than the rapids you’re in.
We were on the water by 11am and within minutes we hit the Narrows, the longest and most beautiful rapids on the entire section. Steep rock walls line either side of the river, and you can’t help but rubberneck as you paddle through the narrow ribbon of water that gives the rapid it’s name. I was nervous until I blew through the first wave without even a bit of trouble and I realized that it was like riding a bike. The first time that I went down through the next rapid, Second Ledge, it went well. I flipped after making the drop, but I was able to roll myself back up almost instantly. At the bottom, I pulled over to the side to take pictures of the rest of the group as they paddled the rapid and I took off my helmet so I could see better through the camera. After everyone else had taken their turn, I went back up stream and that’s when the unfortunate incident with my helmet coming off happened.
While not a major tragedy, it did sober me up for the rest of the trip. The two people who put together this trip had a sobering event that took place over the next 8 miles as the 4th member of our group gave up; they were simply not able to continue paddling and spent long amounts of time able to do nothing more than float. Our leaders had not considered that, what was easy for them, was the edge of the impossible for him. When we finally got off the water, some 8 hours after starting, I talked with them as we drove to pick up the shuttle car about how experiences like this are what made me extremely picky about who I take into the woods. Ignorance of what you are getting into will quickly turn bad what started as a good day.
Even experts can lose sight of the most basic things that are there to make sure you stay safe. Lynn Hill, arguably the greatest female rock climber in history, had a horrible accident in France where her elbow was dislocated and her foot broken after hitting a tree at the bottom of an 85 foot fall. The reason she fell? Before starting the climb she started talking to a passing hiker and she did not finish tying the rope to her harness, so when she slipped there was nothing to slow gravity down. In 2008, a very experienced whitewater kayaker drowned in flat water because when they sealed their spray skirt to the rim of their kayaks cockpit, they tucked in the grab handle that’s used to break the seal and allow them to swim to safety if they’re unable to complete their roll. They apparently rolled over, and somehow were unable to roll back up. The grab handle couldn’t be pulled, so they couldn’t escape.
Our complacency didn’t cause anything as grave as that; only an hour after reaching the take out, I was sitting at the Humble Pie pizza parlor tucking into one of their signatures pies called “The Squeal” (it is the river “Deliverance” was filmed on after all). 3 hours and 15 minutes of driving home gave me plenty of time to think about the mistakes and carelessness that led up to all of the problems we had that day. Whenever I see in the news about some group that’s had to be rescued in the middle of winter, I always wonder what made them think it was a good idea to visit the Smokies in a blizzard while wearing nothing more than T-Shirts and blue jeans. Their answer is probably the same as what I said after my helmet got ripped off and what Lynn Hill said when asked about her fall:
“I just wasn’t thinking”.
So please, enjoy the beginning of fall and go and have a lot of adventures; just don’t be careless like I was.
Amish in the sense that, at one point, my family helped others raise barns.
Now I build websites to help others build their businesses.