Pushing limits on a dawn-to-dusk packrafting adventure
We left the Nantahala Outdoor Center bunkhouse just after sunrise. It was our first time on the Appalachian Trail, which we followed steeply uphill above the Nantahala River as the sky brightened. My wife was joining me for the hiking portion of my first packrafting adventure. A shakedown day trip to get a feel for the sport. The plan had seemed challenging but manageable when I proposed the idea months before. But with every high step atop another rock or root, I began to wonder if, yet again, I was trying to do too much.
The goal was eight miles up the A.T. to Cheoah Bald, with 4,000 feet of elevation gain, followed by a similar descent on the Bartram Trail for six miles to the river. My wife planned to skip the Nantahala’s cold water and read a book at the put-in, while I completed a leisurely eight-mile float down the swift class II+ river back to the NOC. I’d retrieve the truck. We’d go out for dinner. Toss in hot showers, cold beers, and a second night in a private bunkroom. The whole thing seemed downright civilized. Unlike other trips, there was no intention of any dirtbag hijinks like frantically paddling through a storm before nightfall, hitchhiking, or gas station sandwiches. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, our morning went great, filled with plenty of classic A.T. experiences. We met a thru-hiking “family” who had been nicknamed the K-pack, given the “mom” and “dad” both had names starting with K. Meanwhile, their cat—carried in a baby sling—had a name starting with a hard-sounding Ch. Close enough.
“We need trail names,” I declared, referring to the common A.T. tradition. What were our most distinctive characteristics? I was carrying a packraft crammed into my daypack, while my wife carried our lunch, leftover pizza. I extended my sweaty hand to an imaginary hiker. “I’m Loop Raftwalker, and this is my wife, Mozzarella.”
“Mozzarella?” asked my unconvinced wife, proudly blowing a snot rocket.
“Well, your payload is pizza,” I reasoned. “What about Mozzarella Rocket?”
“Ooh, Rocket. I like.”
Henceforth, we felt like real Appalachian Trail hikers. The feeling slightly diminished when we met a real southbound thru-hiker. About 70 years old, the man was finishing up the final few hundred miles of what he’d started last year. Next, we encountered a real trail hog—a rattlesnake that refused to move aside despite us clearly having the uphill right-of-way. We soon stumbled across one of those classic western North Carolina waterfalls, with crystal-clear water pouring over moss-draped rocks.
As the hours mounted—five hours up to Cheoah Bald, a scenic half-hour lunch break, and three hours down—we began to wonder: why are we doing this? Our legs went from “good!” to “fine!” to “FINE” to “tired” to “dead” to “who built this trail anyways? This is way too steep of a trail.”
On the Bartram descent, we crossed paths with two backpackers hiking entirely naked. When they saw us coming, these two anti-chafing experts hurriedly tucked bandanas over their waist straps. I foolishly tried to ease the awkwardness with a casual, “How much further?” The front dude swung around to the rear dude, giving us a view of what river runners call a sketchy horizon line.
And so, after nine hours of hiking—not six or seven like I’d hoped—on two ridiculously scenic and steep trails, we reached the put-in. At 4 p.m. The NOC restaurant closed at 7 p.m., and if we missed that, we’d have to drive all the way to Bryson City—a ghastly 20 minutes. I quickly pumped up the boat. A half hour later, I bid goodbye to my wife, reading by the river, and I pushed off into the current. Luckily, I’d practiced paddling my new packraft a few times, so I didn’t expect any delays on this speedy stretch. A day prior, I’d run laps through Nantahala Falls and taken it to Surfing Rapid to get a feel for how it handled in whitewater. A bit like a cross between an ultra-light ducky and a squat river-running hardshell.
After a mile or so, I paddled into fog hovering ominously above the water. A moment later came the loud crack and rumble of thunder. When the rain began, the temperature plummeted. My wife had raingear and layers, but with limited shelter at the put-in, this wasn’t ideal. I vowed to drop my head and dig in with every paddle stroke, ignoring any and all distractions—like the big one I’d encountered yesterday.
I’d done a quick lap in my hardshell, and halfway down, I’d bumped into four self-guided visitors in a rental raft with the stern mildly wrapped against a driftwood log. My attempt to help quickly devolved into a comedy of errors. Each time I said, “Move forward,” the four young men rocked their torsos forward, like they were students in an impromptu dance class.
“No, move your whole bodies forward,” I clarified. They craned their whole bodies forward even farther, but they didn’t actually change seats. I pointed at the two guys in the rear compartment. “I mean physically move into the front of the boat!”
And then, for some reason, the rear-seated guys swapped positions with the two sitting up front.
“No, you guys stay put,” I blurted, trying to stop the chaos. But it was too late. All four were now in the exact same predicament but sitting in opposite places.
“You all need to be in the front of the boat,” I said, paddling next to them.
And, finally, they did it! They came free of the log and floated downstream with the current. But all four of them stayed in the front compartment of the raft, which was now front-loaded and spinning out of control down the Nantahala.
“And now you need to move back!” I shouted, immediately regretting it. All four of them started moving to the rear of the raft.
“I mean!” I practically screamed, adopting my old raft guide person. “You need to return to your original positions, each at roughly the corners of the raft, and you all must face the same direction, and oh f*** it! I’m sorry! I have to meet my wife for dinner!”
I left the foursome spinning down the Nanty (an extremely safe river), like a satellite falling from orbit and made it just in time for dinner, which I guess is kind of my thing.
But now I was racing in my packraft through a developing rainstorm. My wife was probably dripping wet at the put-in. My body ached from exertion. Dusk was approaching. I had to get to my truck, pick her up at put-in, and—oh wait! Suddenly, just ahead was Surfing Rapid. I zipped into the eddy and looked left and right. Would one little surf be that bad? I ignored a flash of lightning, followed by the crack of thunder four seconds later. I vowed to afterward drop my head even lower and dig in even more with every stroke to make up for just one little surf.
I kept my word about the first two parts after lingering for the shortest session of a half dozen surfs, tops. The storm soon ended, and I reached the take-out at the NOC around 6:15 p.m.. I was surprised to see my wife sitting patiently in a lounge chair on shore. She told me about her own adventure. At take-out, around 4:45 p.m., she’d watched the sky suspiciously and decided to hitch with a pair of dirtbag college kayakers. They took her on a round-about quest, for 30 minutes, to find a gas station with $5 sandwiches. Then they dropped her at the NOC.
When it came to the question of hiking up the A.T. and paddling down the Nanty in a day, the answer was a resounding sorry about that, babe. With a hiss, I deflated first my packraft and then my pride. After quickly changing into dry clothes, I strolled with my wife into the NOC restaurant, with an easy 20 minutes to spare.
Cover photo: The author hikes the Appalachian Trail in western North Carolina. Photo by Ina Seethaler