Gragtmans goes solo.
I rarely paddle alone anymore. I used to do it all the time when I was younger, but the idea of my own mortality is much more present now in the way that I approach moving water. I know that there is zero margin for error when I am out there solo.
On this particular day, however, I find myself at the top of a snow-dusted class V creek all alone. I got here through a series of reasonable decisions, but now I am staring at the vapor of my breath in front of me, and trying to decide what to do. Should I wait for my friends who I’ve been trying to catch on the 3.5 mile hike up this river? They may be upstream or may have already passed me on their run back down to the cars. There was a miscommunication and another group didn’t want to run this section… but I still wanted to go kayaking.
Big Creek is a familiar run, but it is running at a high level of 3.4, and I don’t know the current wood situation downstream. One misplaced log that has fallen into the river can mean the end of a paddler’s life. I calmly go through a stretching routine and take a look around at the beauty of my surroundings. I have gained about 700 feet during my hike, and due to that elevation change, the scenery has gone from mostly dry to about two inches of snow covering the landscape.
After about 20 minutes passes, some of the warmth is being sucked from my core by the still winter evening air. It’s time to do something. I put my GoPro on my bow and seal myself into my boat. Daylight is slowly fading.
The first rapid is a big one, and knocks off the cobwebs from my time out of the boat over the past little while. The water is cold, but feels incredible as my boat skips through the curlers like moguls. My hip flexors and obliques warm up with the effort, and I stop in the next eddy to do one final stretch. I also take a big gulp of freezing cold water from one of the side streams. A funny image jumps into my head of Indian Jones drinking from the holy grail.
When I hit the current after that, I know that the next 30 minutes of my life are going to be incredible. This is one of my all-time favorite creeks, and it is running at an excellent level. Plenty of padding exists over the smooth Smoky Mountain boulders, and I’m on a magic carpet ride that the Earth has created for a few lucky people. I skip and charge through holes, over drops, and from one side of the river to the other. The muscle memory is there from previous runs, and I just need to time it properly.
I keep expecting to see others hiking up the trail, but it appears as though I am the last soul on the river today. Surely the masses will show up tomorrow morning as the water drops to a more popular level.
As I pull into the eddy above the biggest rapid, I sit for a second and gather my thoughts. A new piece of wood peers up from the first drop and spooks me a bit. I walk around this first five foot ledge and put in below. There is no one to talk with about decisions. That process must occur by utilizing the various voices inside my head that present different scenarios. Zero margin for error; conservative is best. I put in and run the last 2/3 of the rapid, which is amazing! I give a loud yip, but there is no one there to celebrate with, so I just continue grinning and paddle downstream. Rapid after rapid blur by, and I never look back… there is no need to. I am one person in charge of my own destiny.
Life is so simple… river and rocks. My only job is to find where to go. My brain is still on high alert for stray wood, but I have endorphins dripping from my pores. There is nothing quite like being in the woods alone and using all of your senses to take in what’s around you.
I round the last corner to the takeout, and smile again at what I have just experienced. I must be the luckiest person on the face of the planet.
Author’s Note: Solo kayaking is without a doubt not a wise decision, and I am not recommending it. It is always best to have friends around you to share the experience with, and to assist in the event of an emergency. I have only soloed creeks that I have done many times, and I don’t go out with the intention of soloing anymore. Make good decisions, and enjoy however you choose to experience the river.