Times Out

Article Published: Dec. 9, 2010 | Modified: Sep. 7, 2011
Times Out

From left, Dave Simpson drops into Bump & Grind, as Cooper Lambla observes.

Photo by Jesse Wood

Last week's rain flashed the High Country and gave kayakers a three-day window to paddle the Watauga Gorge, a classic whitewater run on the North Carolina-Tennessee border.

In a normal wet year, there is enough water to paddle everyday during the High Country whitewater season, which spans from early November to early May, Michael Mayfield, a local paddler, said.

Unfortunately for kayakers, this hasn't been a wet year. The southeastern U.S. has been in a drought since March because of the global weather pattern, La Nina.

"There have been many days this fall when the gauge (for measuring water levels) wasn't even working because the river was so low," Mayfield said. "The river hasn't been this low in 70 years."

Though Mayfield has paddled the gorge more than 350 times since 1978, he has only run the gorge once since March when "suddenly the river went from running all the time to not at all."

The Watauga Gorge run begins at Guy Ford Road near Bethel and flows into Tennessee. It is 5 miles long, drops 100 feet per mile, and flows through a rugged, remote wilderness.

"It's beautiful. It's pristine," Isaiah Stronach, a local paddler, said. "It's classic whitewater."

In the mid '60s, the East Tennessee Whitewater Club paddled the Watauga Gorge with canoes, at least 16 feet long and made of fiberglass, which broke easier.

"In the '70s, it was considered outer limits steep," Mayfield said. "It's not in that category any longer. There are much steeper things people have run."

Since then, kayakers' skills have improved, and modern kayaks have been developed with safety and treacherous water in mind. This technology and increased boaters' confidence to explore more extreme whitewater areas caused Watauga Gorge's difficulty rating to be downgraded.
Still, the river commands respect.

"You never know when you are going to get a beat down. The best way to approach a river is with humility," Stronach said. "It's a solid Class 4 run with a little bit of Class 5 thrown in to keep everyone honest."

(Stronach explained the international scale of whitewater difficulty ratings and compared Class 1 to waves in a bathtub and Class 6 to Niagara Falls - a death wish.)

Because of the challenging, continuous rapids, seasoned boaters initiate first timers down, showing them the lines and the surprises of the gorge, such as a drop in a half mile rapid called Edge of the World, where the horizon disappears.

Experienced kayakers paddle appropriate lines according to a river's flow levels, which are measured in cubic feet per second (cfs). For the Watauga Gorge, 250 to 400 cfs is an ideal flow, though it has been run lower and higher.

"The Watauga is an incredible river because you can run it at so many levels. The lower the water, the steeper the run becomes, almost a creek feel," Stronach said. "Once you have more water, it takes on that river feel and the lines become wider.

"High water is whole different game. Trees fall into the river. Holes become much bigger and violent. The speed and movement of the water is greater. Your anticipation has to be on point because you can misjudge something and end up in a bad situation."

Lee Belknap first paddled the gorge in 1982. For many years, each spring, Belknap would drive from Virginia or South Carolina to kayak his favorite river, the Watauga.

"I tell people there are two kinds of boaters - the backpacker and the motorcyclist," Belknap said. "The backpacker is there for the nature, and the motorcyclist is there for the adrenaline."

These days, the motorcyclists are outnumbering the backpackers. They tend to fade away, though, Belknap said, because it becomes too dangerous for them to feed their adrenaline addiction.

"I've always liked the aesthetics," Belknap said. "There's a few of us out there who still like the intricacies of the water and enjoy the scenery."

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