I was trapped in a flipped kayak, hanging upside-down in the ice-cold river. I couldn’t think. And I certainly couldn’t remember the roll technique I’d just learned. The current was spinning me downriver, where another foaming rapid bared its rocky teeth. So I did what any other air-breathing animal would do: I panicked. I bailed out on my paddle and started flailing my arms in a desperate attempt to get above water. When that didn’t work, I pulled the release strap on the skirt and wiggled out of the boat. I popped to the surface moments later, blue-faced and foggy-headed, and grabbed onto Gene’s kayak to catch my breath.
I was trying to Eskimo roll on the Nantahala, a loud, hard-flowing whitewater river in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains. My friend Gene—a class V kayaker—had already talked me through the roll technique dozens of times that morning: Tuck your body, cut your paddle, snap your hips. It seemed so easy above water. But every time I flipped, the words fell out of my head and washed downstream, and all I could do was flounder in the freezing flow until Gene rescued me.
“Stay relaxed out there,” he suggested. “Next time you flip, clear your head and count to three.”
On shore, I tried to knock the water out of my ears, which were still ringing with the underwater sound of the river. Then I climbed back into my kayak—an oversized Dagger from the early 70s that looked like a long, ripe banana—and paddled out into the current.
Veils of morning mist still shrouded the river. In the gray gauze, Gene and I eddy-hopped through Patton’s Run, a bouncy rapid with a 90-degree bend, and played in the splashy wave train below Jaws, a fin-shaped rock in the middle of the river. At Delabar’s Rock, we haystacked over large tongues of whitewater. My head still felt cloudy, but it was starting to shake loose.
Next up was Whirlpool—a sudsy, squirrelly rapid with a great surfing wave. Gene demonstrated a few Eskimo rolls in the rapid, then asked me to give it a try.
The wave knocked me over instantly, and my mind was swallowed up again in the underwater surround-sound—a dull, low-pitched ringing that drowned out my thoughts. It reminded me of lying on my back in a bathtub while trying to listen to a radio in the other room. Only this time, the radio was my own muffled brainwork.
Nothing was getting through the river’s garbled static. Like a hooked fish fighting the line, I frantically flapped around underwater, then squirmed out of the kayak again.
Usually, after I wet-exited, Gene tried to come up with something positive and encouraging to make me feel better: “You almost had it … You’re getting closer … Your set-up looked really good …” But this time, he gave it to me straight: “You’re scared.”
It took a few seconds to sink in. He was right, dammit. I was scared to death. I wasn’t trying to roll. I was trying not to drown.
We paddled silently downstream for a while. Steep granite cliffs blocked all but a sliver of sky. Ahead, I could hear the churning, crashing sounds of Nantahala Falls — a class III rapid with swirling suckholes and skull-cracking rock ledges.
Gene whirled his index finger in circles, signaling me to eddy out above the rapid. I ferried across the river and was paddling toward the pocket of calm water—when my kayak unexpectedly skimmed a rock and flipped.
It caught me completely off guard. I didn’t have time to think about my roll. I didn’t get a chance to get scared. One second I was talking to Gene, the next I was blowing bubbles.
Once again, the hollow hum of river water clogged my ears. I started to panic. I reached for the release strap, then stopped myself. I counted one … two … three … and suddenly, in the river’s voice, I heard my own. It said: tuck, cut, snap.
Keeping my body close to the boat, I twisted my paddle and flicked my hips toward the surface. I felt the kayak rotate. And the next thing I knew, the river was below me again.
I pumped my fist and screamed—a deep, throat-scorching screech that sounded strangely like the ring of the river. Gene hugged me, and I almost flipped over again. We high-fived our paddles and slapped them against the water. Not even the noisy Nanny Falls could drown out our hoots and howls.
We finished our run down the falls, snaking smoothly along a seam of current and splatting onto the frothy foam below. The sun had burned off the mist, glossing the water with white light. I wasn’t scared now. And for the first time all morning, my mind was as calm and clear as the river below me. •