When our group arrived at the put-in to the Chattooga River, Cathy, our veteran guide, was first to exit the car and get us unloading the paddling gear. All of us were rookie staff at the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC), a major rafting company in western North Carolina, but my girlfriend Jenn and I were the only ones who weren’t raft guides. We’d simply come along to run what is arguably the most dangerous, commercially-run stretch of whitewater in the Southeastern U.S., a place made famous both by its long list of drowning victims and for its being the filming location for the 1972 wilderness thriller Deliverance.
As Cathy gave us instructions, our mixed group of guides and restaurant staff unrolled the rafts on the asphalt. Leaning on pumps, we pressed down and the forced air burrowed inward and raised slow-growing tunnels in the rafts’ yellow tubes. The sun burned in the cloudless sky, and even at midmorning, my bare shoulders quickly warmed.
While the huge raft swelled, Ben, a loud-mouthed, aging country boy, squatted beside me and smoothed duct-tape over our company logo. Bold silver lines streaked across the yellow rubber while Ben’s hairy hand pressed air bubbles from beneath the tape.
He wiped sweat from his beard and looked at me. “How you feel?”
I shrugged, but I felt nauseous. The embarrassing truth was that although I worked for a major rafting company, I feared the river. Having been in Raft Rentals for a month, I knew my river features and had often performed basic rescues, but I spent far more time lifting rafts than guiding them. The Chattooga was well beyond my skill level. The other two Chattooga guides who’d agreed to help us had canceled that morning, leaving Cathy as the only person who’d ever guided it. We depended on her to teach us the lines on this river, and on our safety kayaker, Mark, to follow the rafts and save any swimmers.
“I don’t know, man.” Ben tore a piece of tape with his teeth. “Never paddled Class V before.”
“Tell you the truth, I’m a little scared.”
I nodded and stepped back from the pump. “Me too.”
Switching places with me, Ben leaned on the pump and we both peered over the growing raft at the woods that hid the river from view. A dark trail curved between the trees and disappeared in shadow. I imagined I could hear the water hiss, the kind of sound that some boaters personify as the river’s voice, but this voice’s existence I always doubted until the day I heard big water break on rock.
The other guides laughed and sorted gear while Cathy, adrift on decades of river experience, walked between the busy crews. Testing each boat’s hardness, she pressed a knee on each tube and bounced lightly.
“Look how calm she is.” Ben nodded at Cathy, her long grey hair blowing in a slight breeze.
“Makes me feel better just looking at her.”
“Yeah. Wish someone hadn’t just drowned here.”
“That was a fluke and you know it.” Ben stopped pumping and straightened. He was tall and broad shouldered, thick and hairy around his blue PFD. He looked down at me. “That guy was out there alone.”
Which was true. One of the Forest Service regulations for the Chattooga is that each party must consist of at least two boats for rescue purposes. Only a fool boats alone.
Ben motioned to our group. “Hell, we got three boats, lots of people, first aid kits. We’re prepared.”
I stared past him into thick, summer woods. Oak and tulip poplar leaves cut green swaths across grey trunks, their branches masking the water.
Ben hunched over the pump again, and its rhythmic squeaking cut the water-thickened air. Relentless heat quieted the birds, and even the main road was silent as if all traffic had rerouted itself for this one day when we would brave a river far older than our untested selves. For a long time we didn’t speak, just forced air into growing tubes until the grey-haired woman nodded. We lifted our rafts and trekked the quarter mile to the water.
In 1974 Congress declared the Chattooga a Wild and Scenic River, which means the river’s surrounding corridor is protected from development. It seems largely unpolluted and looks pretty much like it was shown in the 1972 film adaption of James Dickey’s novel, Deliverance. River, stone, and forest. No houses or businesses mar the landscape. The hand of man, though all around and slowly closing, has not been fully felt by this place. To protect this feeling of wildness, commercial rafting companies, of which the US Forest Service allows only three to operate on this river, run at strictly enforced intervals; if you’re out there on a commercial trip, then you shouldn’t see another company’s rafts. You can really feel that it’s just you and your group gripped in some ancient rite that, at times, has instigated death.
The Chattooga, rich with tales of drowning, has claimed over thirty lives since the Forest Service started keeping records in 1970. Though many rivers have tragic tales, the Chattooga’s often turn grisly. Probably the most controversial recovery attempt occurred in 1999 when a female hiker, attempting to ford the river, got washed downstream, was likely pinned, and drowned in Raven Chute Rapid. After much debate over disturbing a federally protected river corridor—a controversy that sparked Ron Rash’s novel Saints at the River—a makeshift dam was built to divert the water from the rapid and recover the body. This effort failed. Later, when rescue workers tried to use cables to retrieve the body, they pulled the girl’s arm off.
Broken bodies pulled piecemeal from hazards linger in the Chattooga’s mythology. Before the 1999 tragedy, there was another drowning at a Class V rapid called Left Crack. When the ropes tightened in that recovery attempt, the rescuers ripped the entire body in half. We’d all heard these stories repeated over campfires, and generally after we’d exclaimed over some gruesome detail, an experienced guide would remind us that the victims were often careless and unprepared. On any river, the staff know the danger that they and their guests live with daily, and it seems to be an unspoken requirement of the job that guides must focus on the positive, the here-and-now, rather than ruminate on possible consequences of the trip, a dangerous habit that kayakers call “fatal vision,” which is the tendency to focus so intently on a hazard that one gets washed into it. On whitewater, projected fear often compels tragedy.
Like many unhappy people who seek a life change in the outdoors, I had lately lived in the grip of fatal vision and I hoped a season at NOC and its requisite tests on water would help me change course, to become strong, the type of man no one would want to leave. That man would never admit fear, would never turn away from big water. Maybe Jenn, who’d stayed with me through a very hard time, wanted that change too, or maybe I just imagined she wanted it. Either way, the Chattooga didn’t care; its current flowed inexorably downstream, filling low places until they flooded.
With three rafts beached on river left, our group scouted our first major drop: Seven-foot Falls. So far Cathy had chosen to read-and-run, picking out the lines from her boat and running the drop without stopping to scout the rapid, but Seven-foot required more complex maneuvers. Cathy perched on the shore’s edge and traced the line. “Ferry over to river-right, then turn downstream and angle back to river-left.” Her finger followed an obvious swift chute of water. “The river will dump you over the falls, but you’ve got to keep the boat straight.”
Jenn looked at the falls pouring over the ledge. “What happens after we go over?”
“Make a hard right turn into shore. If you’re slow, your boat will hit the rock wall and fold in half.” Cathy pushed her two hands together to mime the boat’s folding. “Just ride it out and you’ll be fine.”
Jenn, usually quick to return a smile, focused intently on the rapid. “What if we fall out?”
“You might get re-circulated against the rock, but you’ll wash out.”
Jenn glanced at me and I slipped an arm around her waist. Seeing the river disappear over the drop, I felt as nervous as she must have, but I couldn’t bring myself to admit it.
“Can I guide?” Little Corey pushed his way through the group. The shortest among us, he had to look up to address Cathy, but even in this posture, he seemed no supplicant. Curly hair pulled beneath a custom helmet, he gripped his red PFD at the shoulders and smirked.
“Doesn’t look too hard.”
Cathy looked at him a moment, shrugged, and walked towards her raft.
Ben looked at Cathy’s crew of two, leaned and spat. “Hell, Cathy. Take some more strong paddlers with you.”
“Two’s enough. Could probably do it alone if I had to.” Cathy smiled and nodded, and her two chosen crew members slid into the front of the boat and tucked their feet under the tubes. As we watched from shore, her boat, nose angled upstream, ferried from river left to right, caught a swift diagonal line back to river left, and dropped perfectly over the falls. With practiced ease she ran the exact line she’d indicated.
With Little Corey guiding, we copied Cathy’s ferry, and our entrance looked perfect. I’d only just met him, but Corey seemed to be learning as the river demanded; such moments of growth accentuated why Cathy had brought us on big water. Corey even smiled when I glanced back, but when we neared the falls, his small face tensed and he rose up off the rear tube.
Jenn looked at him. “Why is he standing?”
“Relax,” Ben said. “He’s just checking the line.”
She turned and gripped her paddle harder, shoved her right foot deeper beneath the front tube to hold herself in the boat.
Corey held our line to just above the falls, then without warning, the boat twisted sideways.
“Oh shit!” Corey tucked his foot beneath the rear thwart and leaned back, twisted his abdomen and pried hard to straighten us, but the current was too strong.
“Straighten us up!” Ben yelled.
“Hold on.” Corey aimed the stern towards the lip of the falls. “We’re going backwards.”
His voice submerged beneath the roar of falling water. Sitting in the bow, I looked back towards Corey, but the stern had disappeared first over the ledge, and for a moment I could look over the lip at falling water, and then the whole raft tilted over the falls. When we hit the water below, the stern slammed into the rock face, and Corey dove forward, landed belly-down on the center thwart. The boat folded in half, rebounded and whipped back into its oval shape, and we spun, eyes wide, to the beach.
As our crew pulled the raft onto the beach, Mark, our safety boater in a kayak, ran sweep. Just like us, Mark’s entrance to Seven-Foot Falls seemed perfect, but at the edge of the falls, his bow nosed into a wave and he flipped, shot over the drop, and landed upside down at the bottom. As the current pushed him towards us, he rolled up and drifted, his face slack and staring. His paddle hung loose in one hand, and he bunched his left shoulder against his body. When he neared shore, he said, “I think my shoulder’s out.”
While Jenn and I stood back, Ben helped Mark from his boat and held him steady at the waist. Cathy bent Mark’s arm at the elbow so his hand pointed out in front of him, and then she pulled his upper arm away from his body. With the ball free, she rotated his arm in a half circle so his hand traced an arc from the tree-line before him to point directly at the sky. The ball eased back into the shoulder socket.
“That’s got it.” Cathy smiled and stepped back. Little more than a minute had passed since Mark’s injury, and already she had taken control.
Mark rubbed his shoulder. “Thanks.”
“Should we tie it up?” I said.
Cathy shook her head. “Not on whitewater. Could get caught in the sling if he swims. He’ll just have to support it with his other hand while we paddle him out.”
Mark held his injured arm and watched Cathy. “Never seen anyone reset a shoulder that quickly.”
“Can’t believe it worked,” she said.
Ben stepped forward. “You’ve never reset a shoulder before?”
“Nope. But I’ve seen it done a lot.” Cathy shrugged, returned to her boat, and unpacked our lunch from a red dry-bag. She moved with easy grace, flowing like water around rock, and the rest of us stood stunned. Somehow her confidence eased her reaction to stressful situations and allowed her to take effective action. Ball slides into socket. Dusted hands. No doubt. No mistake. It was the confidence I had come to find.
Since I’d first arrived at NOC, I’d often wondered if the calm the experienced displayed under pressure, like Cathy’s easy resetting of Mark’s shoulder, was a hard-won asset found through years of working out of their comfort zone, that liminal area where fear tests those who enter, a test that can only be passed through effective action. As a sixteen-year-old Nantahala River guide, Cathy had come upon a man who’d had a heart attack while paddling, pulled him from the water, and administered CPR even though, as she admits now, he was long past saving. She recalls crying on the ride home, and when asked why she can hold her emotion in check during traumatic experiences, she only says, “I deal with it and fall apart later.”
Maybe this is a philosophy formed in fire, a part of the self that the experienced have faced and made peace with. Engulfed in Class V whitewater, an adventure seeker’s eyes go wide and she finds that the feeling she’s been skirting all these years is nothing more than the age-old fear that life will halt. And when she’s faced her fear and comes up breathing, she learns that positive action is the antidote to self-doubt. Rather than trying to control the situation, she works with it, a lesson similar to that found in the popular teachings of Buddhist nun Pema Chodron: “[S]ticking with uncertainty is how we learn to relax in the midst of chaos.” Face chaotic situations with openness and the comfort zone expands. It’s the positive side of being an adrenaline junkie, I suppose, a growth beyond the selfish desire for thrills.
But I’d also heard stories where the daring went big and failed, where the boat flipped and eyes got one last look at the breathing world. For Cathy, who nearly drowned on the Ocoee River in Tennessee, that moment narrowed her focus until breathing became her only sought-for action. As she recollects that experience: “If I could have spoken, I’d have been saying breathe.” It’s so hard for us to let go of the only gift whose value requires imminent death to fully appreciate. Maybe our resistance is why the current is so strong: the water must force its way inside of us, fill the lungs before we will finally listen to the river’s voice, that sound like our better self that is always speaking but seldom heeded.
After our embarrassing run at Seven-foot, we’d switched guides and done well, but Jawbone, the fourth rapid of a harrowing stretch of river called Five Falls, had a more difficult entry and posed much greater consequences if we made a mistake. Here the river broke into a long white pour that crashed against and split around a giant, half-submerged boulder called Hydro.
We huddled on shore just above Jawbone, and when Cathy asked for volunteers to guide, only one raised his hand. Blake, sluggish and with belly hanging from beneath his PFD, hitched his swimsuit and smiled. “I’ll try not to mess it up.”
“This is no joke,” Cathy said.
“Course not.” When she turned away, Blake grinned.
Cathy pointed out the line just to the left of Hydro. “Skirt the rock, then pull off fast at river left before the next drop.”
“Looks hard,” Blake said.
Cathy nodded. “It is. But you can do it.”
Jenn stepped forward and studied the river with the guides. Usually she was quiet and standing in back, playing the role of passenger, much as I was. This was the first time she’d physically put herself on par with those doing the guiding, and others noticed and fell silent. Finally, she looked at Cathy. “What if we miss the pull-off?”
“You’d have to run Soc-em-Dog. At this water level, you’d flip and get re-circulated until we got you a rope.”
Though Jenn was renowned for her constant smile and easygoing nature, her face had pulled to a tight, concentrated stare that fixed on Soc-em-Dog. It forced the rest of us to look too. We stood on tiptoe and eyed the roiling hydraulic on river-right. It spanned half the river and whipped a brownish froth like a tornado laid sideways in water.
“Soc-em-Dog,” Jenn said. “That’s where that guy just drowned, right?”
Cathy narrowed her eyes. “We’re not thinking like that. You can do this.”
Just then I regretted encouraging Jenn to get into whitewater sports. Even though she had come on this trip of her own accord, I still felt responsible, since coming to the NOC was first my dream, and as either companion or caretaker, she had followed. As the sheer force of water at Jawbone swept the last of my courage away, it seemed laughable that I’d ever expected to inhabit the riparian world as comfortably as Cathy did. Now I just wanted to make it to the take-out.
Cathy stood very still like she was listening to some minute sound beneath the water’s roar, that riparian voice that only the experienced could hear. She pointed again to Hydro. “There’s a submerged hole running through that rock. Sometimes it gets clogged with branches, and if you go in, you’re pinned and that’s it.” She turned from the river and looked at each of us.
“We don’t want to find out if it’s clogged.”
When she finished talking, she turned away, and again her small crew paddled smoothly through the rapid, perfectly executing the line she’d identified.
Blake smirked. “Makes it look easy.”
“It ain’t.” Ben turned and growled into his face. “Don’t say it is.”
“Don’t even think it.”
“Okay, dude.” Blake stepped away from us. “Okay.”
Ben took the front. Jenn and I sat in back, and though she kept looking at me, I stared at the rapid ahead. I felt she wanted some reassurance I could not offer; we’d come this far and there was no way to leave the gorge on foot. All any of us could do was paddle.
Blake braced himself on the rear tube and we ferried into the current. “All forward!”
In rhythm we leaned forward and cut dark water with white blades, then gritting our teeth, we flexed our abs and rotated, pulled hard against the water.
“Dig it in!”
Knuckles white, we attacked the rapid. Paddles jammed in subsurface current and their red shafts rose from water. We were headed for the chute just left of Hydro and what seemed a perfect line. Then just upstream of the rock, the current forced the boat sideways and slammed us broadside into Hydro. In seconds the water turned the raft on its side, its bottom slapped flat on Hydro and wrapped around the huge rock. Blake and I grabbed the side ropes, now running horizontally above us, and scrambled up the raft and on top of Hydro. Jenn clung to the bottom tube, her lower body hidden in white froth pulling her towards Hydro’s submerged hole.
Though an experienced raft guide would have stayed on the high side of the raft, I acted on instinct and climbed Hydro. I lay belly down on the rock and reached for Jenn. “Grab my hand!”
She looked right at me. Her face was as white as the water that broke around her. I stretched but could not reach her without falling off the rock. All she’d have had to do was reach up, just a little, and I’d have her. I knew I could pull her up. I had the strength. If she’d offer her hand, I would not let her go.
“Grab my hand!”
Still she ignored me and clung to the bottom ropes as the water pounded the raft. When the raft finally shot off the rock, Jenn screamed and plunged beneath the water. That fast. I saw her open mouth, heard her scream, and then there was only white froth where her face should have been.
I perched on Hydro and screamed at Cathy, but my voice was lost in the water’s hard crush against stone. I waved my arms, and when Cathy saw me, I pointed to Hydro and then to the spot where Jenn should have resurfaced. Downstream of where I stood, green water rushed for the roiling hydraulic, and for the first time, I saw the last victim’s drowning as more than a news story, and I really understood how he had become trapped in Soc-em-Dog.
Stranded on the rock, I could only watch and point, so I scanned the downstream current for some sign of Jenn. Finally, she popped up, looked quickly at both shores, then turned on her belly and swam to the nearest shore, away from Cathy and her crew.
Three people threw ropes. The orange bags soared over the water and the ropes uncoiled smoothly, but the ropes all fell short.
Cathy stood on her tiptoes and screamed at Jenn. “Swim, girl! Swim!” It was the only time I’ve ever seen Cathy lose her composure.
Jenn swam hard to river-right where a rocky crag jutted upwards to form the shore. Swift green current flushed her closer to the hydraulic, and she grabbed the rock wall, hung there a second, then slid off.
The current whisked her downstream and again she swam hard. Just upstream of the hydraulic, she grabbed the rock, and even as her body whipped in the current, she held on and slowly dragged herself up the wall. She rolled onto the flat top of the rock and lay there, face turned to sky, her body a living shape rising and falling against a jagged green tree-line.
After Blake and I swam off of Hydro, Cathy’s crew ferried across to retrieve Jenn, and we ran the rest of the river with little talk.
Only once did Blake, still guiding, flash a smile and joke: “You guys want to run Jawbone again?”
Ben turned and flexed a big hand on his paddle. Then there was silence.
At dusk we paddled across Chattooga Lake with Mark, injured arm pressed to his chest, riding on the bow. Our paddle blades cut the water in a steady, even rhythm, and everyone stared ahead at the rows of pines as if in some trance the river had induced. We didn’t talk for some time, and even at the take-out, only a few people muttered terse instructions to deflate, pack up, and drive home.
If the river silenced us by taking away our self-assurance, then civilization, with its comfort and ease, brought our voices back. We sat at a long table in a Mexican restaurant and sipped beer from frosty glasses. Hesitantly, the guides started telling the day’s stories, which revolved around their newfound skills and the belief that they’d somehow faced down big water and won. Jenn and I sat silently at the end of the table, and Ben would look at her, shake his head, and look away. Usually loud and boisterous, he barely spoke that night.
No one mentioned the event at Jawbone, that place that signaled so clearly that we had passed the point of our experience. Jenn could have drowned, a nearly fatal mistake due to poor judgment on everyone’s part, including hers and mine for joining a trip without enough experienced guides. Then again, many of us had wanted a test, and having experienced guides would preclude our being wholly challenged, so the river had only granted this wish.
In later years Cathy would reference that trip as the time she tried to drown my girlfriend, and I would look for some trace of fulfillment or regret, but her lined face was inscrutable. Whatever lesson Cathy hoped the Chattooga might teach us, Jenn and I at least learned that our hearts would never beat as hard as when their next beats were not assured.
Jenn and I don’t much talk about it, and when in 2012, nine years following her swim through Jawbone, a 58-year-old Tennessee man drowned at the same rapid, she grew silent for some time. I never told her more than that he had drowned at Jawbone, but news reports revealed that he suffered a blow to the face, broke the upper part of his back, and was lodged beneath a large rock. And worse, he was on a commercial river trip with his family.
The one time I asked Jenn about details of the swim, she recalled touching the rock as she passed through the tunnel and wondering if she would be pinned. When she surfaced, the thought of “that one didn’t kill me but the next one might” drove her to take responsibility for her own fate and swim hard rather than give herself up to the current. She’d always been a quiet fighter, and when she pulled herself up on shore, she’d passed a harrowing test. I often wondered what I’d have done if I had been swept through the rock, though such ruminations are useless, as each person’s test is different and cannot be planned. And some people, like the Tennessee man, never get the chance to fight. The river quickly decides their fate and adds to its mythology.
Maybe it sounds strange, but I think I can hear it now, the river’s voice. I feel its syllabic pulse whenever I approach whitewater. For many people, it seems to tell them to let go and live, to not fight the current within and without. That’s the popular Zen message I wanted to hear, the one that would have made me confident like Cathy, but what the water tells me is something darker. That’s why my head is always half-turned, anticipating what the river will say next. It might be the sound of my beloved going under. It’s a sound no roar can drown.
I’ll die listening.