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Triple Play

“Do not disrespect the Linville.”

The phrase repeats itself in my head as I trudge down the trail in the pre-dawn August light.  The class-V Linville River is one of those forces of nature that you never feel like you can quite “dial in.”  It is a stunningly beautiful river that has carved its way deep into the surrounding wild country to form an immense gorge.  It requires a 1.5 mile hike in, and a similar length hike out, both with significant elevation changes.  The first time I paddled the Linville, I was 100% mentally and physically drained when I reached the take-out, and even more so after hiking straight uphill for an hour back to the cars.

Now, my buddy Adam Herzog and I are attempting three runs in a day of the Linville.

Whitewater rivers are quick to humble when we insignificant beings start looking at them as notches on the belt.  And this isn’t your average whitewater river. “Pride goeth before a fall” is very true in my experience, and I want to make sure that what we are doing today is for the right reasons.  This river will not forgive us for missed lines, but as Adam says, completing three runs on the Linville would be nothing short of the best day of whitewater in the Southeast.

Daylight arrives, and a gray, ominous morning mirrors the uncertainty of our thoughts.  We arrive to a river that is higher than I have ever paddled it, and has the brown, flooded hue that automatically makes rapids look more threatening.  We put on with Adam leading the way, and cautiously move downstream, knowing that new wood hazards could be in any of the rapids.

There are three words that accurately describe running the Linville at that level: riding the lightning.  The rapids are beautiful, aesthetic, fast, and powerful.  The desired lines are surrounded by a morass of very large holes and undercut rocks.

We pick the river apart efficiently and silently. After two hours of focused battle with the river we find ourselves at the take-out, humbled and relieved. Run #1 was encouraging, but I pray that the river is dropping.  It is 9:45 a.m. and I have already finished a section of river that took me no less than nine hours my first time down it.

Then the heavens open up with a torrential downpour.  Adam and I stew in our own thoughts as we make the descent back into the canyon.  To our dismay, the river has risen a good three inches since our last run.  I hit an energy gel to keep my energy up, and after a quick discussion with Adam, we put on.  This will once again be the highest that I have run the Linville.

With the lines fresh in our heads, Adam and I leapfrog down the river, ever-conscious of the other person’s well-being.  I misjudge one of the rapids in the first part of the gorge, and soon find myself surfing a large hole that is fortunately in a fairly inconsequential place.  After a quick fight out of it, I reprimand myself for the lapse in concentration and swear to stay on top of my game as we move into the larger rapids of the run. Adam acknowledges my mistake with a quick head-tap “are you ok?” signal, and then turns silently to continue downstream.

The rain keeps falling. My brain is beginning to go numb from the onslaught of massive whitewater and brutal hiking, but both Adam and I enter a zone of seamless, deliberate kayaking.  We proceed with the silent communication that can only occur between two friends who completely know and trust each other’s abilities, and our positive thoughts seem to manifest perfect lines through the class V+ maelstrom all around us. An hour and fifteen minutes later, we’re once again at the Conley Cove take-out, exhausted and speechless from the beauty and power of the Linville at high water.

“I’m done,” Adam says. “Don’t try to change my mind.” I am exhausted as well, but I think I might have the reserves for a third run.  We both put our boats back on our heads and begin the slog up the switchbacks for the second time. Adam and I are falling apart.  My eyes feel like they are receding deep into my skull, and my head is throbbing.  My muscles aren’t sore, but instead feel numb and utterly useless.

An hour later, upon reaching the put-in for the third time, we are greeted by two simultaneous miracles: the sun comes out, and a large group of our friends meets us for the final run. Adam decides not to bail, and we put on the river with a crew of eight others behind us.

Adam slips up in one of the biggest rapids, Jailhouse, and recovers by doing a heroic pushup off of a dangerous undercut rock that almost swallows him.  It’s very clear that we are on borrowed time, and we need to knock this river out before our bodies are no longer able to function properly.

After eleven hours of paddling and hiking, we drop into Cathedral Gorge. The whitewater in that section of river is fast-paced, stacked up, and carries zero margin for error.  The Linville storms through a final series of cascades, and some of the rapids almost seem to have a living feeling of malevolence and danger.  Somehow we make it safely through this final challenge, and a weight lifts off our shoulders after we’ve successfully navigated the exit rapid, Last Chance to Die.

Adam and I float downstream and give each other a big hug. This day was everything that we had envisioned and more: physically challenging, infinitely humbling, and possibly the most stacked line-up of whitewater that we have ever experienced. In spite of the successful realization of a very ambitious goal, we know that the river simply granted us safe passage, and our respect for the Linville has never been stronger. •

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