Another Christmas in the Trenches
Flash Floods and kayaks on christmas eve
In South Carolina, it had been raining for five days. For two of those we had been out west, or at least as west as we could get with only half a weekend before we had to be back home; we’d been climbing in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge with some friends I had made in Costa Rica, and it was the nicest weather we had ever had there in the winter. The girls’d probably thought my brother and I were a pair of snowbirds after all our talk of base layers and hand warmers in chalkbags; we spent that weekend climbing in the sun.
As we crossed the South Carolina state line on our drive back home however, heavy drops of rain began to pound onto our windshield, and we wove our way past ditches under water and over bridges threatening submersion. Kyle and I peered out our windows into the dreary haze. Kyle was watching the road; I was watching as the creeks filled up.
My brother and I spent the next two days at home. It was the longest span of time we had been there together since August, when I had gone to Costa Rica and he had driven west to California, both looking for something that our old home didn’t have; both trying to escape the threat of ending up where we’d begun. On Christmas Eve of 2015, we found ourselves happily back where we’d begun.
We’d been watching the rain since we got home, checking the creeks and streams near the house any time we drove to town, with a possibility in the backs of our minds. There was one river in particular, a fifteen minute drive or so away, that we wondered about every time we saw a crest of whitewater disappearing underneath a bridge. I was sitting in a Publix parking lot when my phone buzzed in my pocket and I opened up a Snapchat from our buddy Rob, who lived in town. It was a video he’d shot standing on the bridge above the river in question; he had pulled over to the side of the road and had walked out in the rain to film it, and he narrated it as well in case I hadn't got the picture.
“So...” his voice announced above the roar of water maybe thirty yards below, “this is Little River right now...”
Kyle and I drove home to get the kayaks ready. We told our folks about our plans and my father threw out a shaka. Mom, on the other hand, was not as stoked. “I get worried you’re gonna die every time you do it,” she explained, sounding more like Shmi Skywalker than ever. I explained to her that this was nowhere near as dangerous as podracing, or even driving a car for that matter. I’ll take strainers and thunderous holes over texting drivers any day.
Even as I made the justification, I knew it wasn’t exactly true. The thing about a flooded river is that it’s unpredictable. We’d done the same run for the first time two or even three years earlier, when we were starting out in college and didn’t know a single thing about how to handle whitewater. That time, we’d slid down into the rapids with our skegs still down, and I had watched in horror as the bottom half of a tree thicker than my waistline went on ahead of me down the run. We still didn’t know much, but K and I were on the other side of a NOLs course down the Green River carving out Desolation Canyon, and we had enough experience now to regard the river with a little more respect.
“It’ll be fine,” I promised Ma, and we threw our spray skirts into the van and hooked the battery back up and headed out into the rain.
Twenty minutes later, we met Rob on the bridge above the river, and from our high ground, scouted our line out from above. We decided we would paddle out hard from the left bank, aiming for the far right side and a downstream V that would hopefully take us down a steady-looking wave train and spit us out into the smooth water right before the thicker stuff. Past this—and it was getting foggy now, so the farther stuff was hard to see—two thin trees reached out from underneath the rapids, possible strainers but probably too small to worry seriously about. We aimed to shoot to the left of the trees because the other side looked unpredictable and rough. We’d have to get as close to the small trees as we could to avoid the left-hand bank, because we couldn’t see it well and we didn’t know what kind of debris had gotten caught near it in the last three days of rain. Past this, the river turned and it was hopefully smooth sailing to the sandy takeout; we couldn't be sure; we could no longer see beyond the veil of fog.
We went to get the boats out and some quick math informed us that we only had two. Rob said he didn’t mind waiting at the take-out and letting me and K take a run down first to check things out and get a lay of the place, so as the two of us started down the steep embankment with the kayaks in between us, Rob disappeared into the murky woods to meet us at the sandbank a half a mile down.
K and I worked our way down the muddy hill and crossed beneath the bridge to the spot where we would put the boats in. This path of travel led us directly past the first line of coughing rapids, and we saw that the water was moving a lot faster than we’d thought. This was to be expected. When planning out the timetable for any trip like this, we’d learned already to factor in a ten minute span before the kick-off, to be set aside for indecisive wondering about whether or not this is actually a good idea. “I don’t know about this one, man,” is a good thing to say a couple times to fill this period.
Eventually, our ten minutes were up, and we got into our boats and put the spray skirts on around us. Kyle went out first ahead of me, and I watched him paddle hard to reach the downstream V before the current rolled him off into the rapids. Before he made it there, I pushed my paddle hard into the muddy ground and slipped in to chase him down. In my periphery, I watched him make it to the V, but I was focused on my own trajectory and the current pushing me downstream. I made it with no margin, and then I was off into the wave train taking the crests of whitewater head-on, slapping them with my paddle and struggling to stay upright. The water was cold as it sprayed my face. I remembered that it had been at least a year and a half since I’d encountered Class 2 rapids.
I took the first big drop alright, the nose of my kayak disappearing momentarily underneath the brown and churning water, and rode the chop for a few dozen seconds before moving out into the stretch of smoother water. It was steady here because there were no big rocks to stir the river, but the current was still moving pretty fast, and it was moving us head-on toward the pair of trees in the thick of the bigger rapids. I took a better hold of my paddle and started pushing hard toward the left of them. I knew those trees too well and didn't care at all to get to know them any better. See, three years ago, when we had run this river for the first time, I had hit some chop here and had taken a high wave on my side, and my kayak had flipped and I’d pulled a wet exit because I didn’t know yet how to roll the damn thing. Kyle had been on the sandbank then and Rob, who’d been ahead of me, had pulled into the eddy at the take-out, shouted, “Trevor flipped!”, and then promptly rolled over in the eddy himself. Kyle was confronted with the time-sensitive task of deciding who to rescue—me, Rob, or the paddle Rob had let go of, which had proceeded to drift downstream around the riverbend. He had rescued Rob, and I don’t hold it against him, although the paddle might; it was never seen again.
Now years later, I was watching K go down in front of me, following him into the line we’d scouted from the precipice, when all of a sudden he turned his nose sideways and starting paddling hard toward the left-hand bank. This was not what we had talked about. We’d decided we were going to shoot just to the left of the little trees in the middle of the river, steering clear of the bank and whatever treacherous debris might be caught up over there. But Kyle was fleeing the intended path and aiming for a little sluice around a meter or so from the bank. He was maybe twenty yards in front of me. I decided not to follow him; I turned instead to face my line beside the trees.
When I neared the place where he had turned away, I understood what’d made him change his line. What we had taken for a run of smooth water from the distance of the bridge was actually a pour-over, a particularly aggressive drop-off the fault of a line of rock that wasn’t quite as swallowed as we’d thought. The gist of it was, if I stuck to the line I was currently riding, I’d scrape the bottom of my boat, turn, go over a small waterfall sideways, and roll. I had no—absolutely zero —intention of rolling again, in the same place, into the same icy water, and having to swim my boat the rest of the way to the take-out. I didn’t want to be a liability. I also didn’t want to get hypothermia on the hike back to the highway. Effectively, I would have to get away from the pour- over. I dipped my paddle into the roaring waters and turned my nose to the left-hand bank.
I’d drifted past the place that Kyle had begun his turn, and so I was already behind his pace. Up ahead of me, I watched him dip into the sluice and navigate a run between two rocks that made a little passageway, barely big enough for a kayak to slip through. He came out the other side alright, not swallowed by the hole or anything, so I made the sluice my aim. As the running water pushed me down the line, I headed for the bank and the little waterslide that would run me through the sluice. To my more and more immediate right, the crashing water of the pour-over reminded me that I was on a clock. A few feet from the sluice I realized that I wasn’t going to make it in, or at least not properly. If I made it in I wouldn’t have the room to turn, and so I was going to be going down sideways, which effectively meant that I was going to roll over. I looked to my right at the water running over rock, the thunderous pour-over that could also swallow me if it wanted. I thought things over for about a half a second and turned my nose to face the pour-over head on.
I had a breath or two to stare at it before I hit the thing. Ahead of me, Kyle turned around to glance at me and noticed that I hadn’t made it to the sluice. Then I lost sight of him as the whitewater rose around me and the bottom of my boat kissed the rock, and I went over the drop and raised my paddle to keep from losing it the current. I didn’t roll.
Instead I stayed upright and ran the wave train out into the calmer water. I heard Kyle shout from somewhere up ahead of me, “Yeehaw, Jester’s dead!” His tribute to the river. I paddled through the slower water, maneuvered around the low-hanging branches of a tree that had fallen to span the river like a covered bridge, and eddied out beside the sandbank where Rob and Kyle were waiting for me. We dragged our boats to shore, celebrated our little victory.
After that, I waited at the sandbank as Rob and Kyle trekked back through the woods to run the river one more time before we called it a night, and went back home to spend that Christmas Eve with our families. I stood watching for them, but sometime in the fading light a line of fog descended and the way I’d come was blocked; I could no longer see into my past. I wondered if Kyle had remembered to warn Rob about the pour-over before it was too late. I stood there shivering on the gray landscape underneath a tree’s thin branch, the only shelter from the icy rain. Half an hour later, they pulled up into the eddy. Both of them had made it to the sluice; I was the only one who had had to take the pour-over. We threw our skirts into the boats and started up the long hill to the woods.
Kyle and I would come back three or four days later, when the entire county was under a severe flash flood watch, when the bridges were closed off all over town and the lakes were higher than they’d been in years. We checked the run out from the bridge and it was bigger than we’d ever seen it; the trees we’d used as bearings, the ones that had rolled me over on our first trip down all those years ago, were gone, completely drowned by the cold water running down here from the mountain. We went down through the woods to see it from the sandbank and we found the take-out under water. We stood there in the woods for a long time, looking out between the trees at the rapids rolling water and the pieces of the forest that the river had taken down, and now carried off to parts unknown. We stood there in the woods until the sun went down, then walked away from the river, back up to the road. We had nothing left to prove and we didn’t want to die. That sure did make our parents happy.