The Watauga Gorge.
It’s been on my mind ever since I started kayaking. It was the run, the one everyone would skip work, reschedule meetings, and ditch class for. It’s one of the Southeast’s whitewater gems, and the weekend I was in Damascus, Va., for Trail Days, the Watauga Gorge was running.
We left Sunday morning at the crack of noon (at least, those were our intentions). By the time we were geared up and at the put-in some 45 minutes away, it was nearing 2 o’clock. We waited under the blazing sun, in the heat of the day, panting in our dry suits and half-dehydrated from the previous night’s festivities. I, of course, was feeling ever so nauseous at the thought of the paddle to come and was grateful I’d scarfed an egg and cheese bagel that morning before my appetite had completely disappeared.
There was a big group of us going down – 10 deep to be exact. I tend to prefer paddling in smaller groups, but I didn’t mind so much this time; most of the group were the guys who taught me to paddle, the ones who’d seen me come up choking for air, carp rolls, and smack rocks with my face time and again. Whether they were tagging along for front row seats to the carn fest or to act as genuine moral support is hard to tell (although I prefer to think the latter).
When we came up to one of the first major rapids, Bump & Grind, I’m sure I was green with terror. It wasn’t that the rapid was particularly big and scary (class IV), but the fact that I was entering the Watauga. River. Gorge. In kayaking, hesitancy kills. I’d psyched myself out for so long thinking I couldn’t handle anything above a class IV, that by the time I was actually floating toward the class Vs, it was all I could do to dip my blade in and pull my boat forward. I got pinned sideways on some inconspicuous rock, sliding down the slot at Bump & Grind backwards, but I was fine. Something clicked, and I finally realized: I can do this. Much like my first time down the Upper Yough, that gnawing nervousness faded and grew to pure, giddish enjoyment.
Even as I sat above Stateline Falls in the Chapel Eddy, saying my final prayer before plunging over the lip of the 16-foot falls, I wasn’t nervous so much as stoked; this was by far the biggest stuff I’d ever paddled, and I couldn’t have been happier to be sharing the experience with the guys who introduced me to kayaking. Although my line sucked coming off Stateline and I swam deep beneath the falls, finally surfacing after nearly 20 seconds of being tossed and churned beneath the curtain, my mood was hardly dampened (although I wish I’d stomped it). Until next time Watauga…