June 23, 2018: Day1/7  

The day started full of sunshine and strutting.  Sitting in the soft green moss at the confluence of Panthertown and Greenland creeks we dangled our feet in the freezing water  and arranged our gear under a tight canopy of rhododendron. I used my Iphone to take a short video of the “origin of the Tuck” and reviewed the plan. I would lead on my inflatable standup paddleboard, my sons Luke and Austin would follow in their kayaks and John would go last on paddleboard acting as the “safety boater”. I stood up on the board and floated into an eddy.  I watched my grown boys on the riverbank test kayaks and equipment; spray skirts, foot pedals, helmet straps and paddles. I taught them well  on rivers like the French Broad, Ocoee, Chatooga, Big Laurel, Tallulah and Nolichucky.

Standing up on a paddleboard and moving fast down a shallow rocky creek is intoxicating but unforgiving. If the the fin catches on a rock the board stops abruptly and the paddler is launched forward on outstretched hands, much like a snowboarder “catching an edge”. The dark canopy and tea-colored water made avoiding rocks a real challenge but John and I did well and enjoyed the sense of flying downstream. Passing through exotic highland bogs at an elevation of 3,700 feet the rocky banks were softened by lacy Appalachian shoestring ferns, spongy green mosses, white reindeer lichen, pink shell azaleas and mountain doghobble.

All this became a green blur at the first bend as  the rhododendron grew taller and constricted and the sun broke out. Suddenly the creek disappeared over the horizon and we pulled over to scout  Upper Warden Falls, a 45-50 foot rock slide. John and I portaged river left while the boys eyed the drop. We joked that the physics of creek boating becomes more challenging at our age. Luke and Austin slid over portions of the falls “testing it out” and landed in the deep pool below. There were several of these large slides and we became bolder with each one lying down like riverboarders.

The dense foliage on the riverbank loosened up a bit giving us windows to view the wide escarpment. This “valley” sits high and spreads for miles with huge grey granite domes and walls visible to the north and east and west. It felt like we were paddling on top of the world descending in a broad rift, truly the Yosemite of the East! For several miles the river bank opened up giving  wide choice of downward paths and an ever increasing view of the surrounding valley. The tannin water spiraled deep into smooth holes in the rock, sometimes three or four clustered together.  Austin, Luke and I jumped in laughing and tumbling over one another until we finally got spit out sending us down a slippery 75 foot rock slide. We paddled and portaged deeper into the gorge under a gloomy sky. It was like moving  down a thick broken plate, smooth and fissured folding the four of us into a funnel. The sun was lowering over a large granite dome to the west as we paddled downstream.

The boys were exhausted after hours of climbing in and out of kayaks, dragging the 40 pound boats  over boulders, lowering them down slots and crevices. It was certainly easier for John and I to hop off our paddleboards and carry these light inflatables by the handle. Luke’s eyes were sunken and wild ever since “lunch”. While John enjoyed a nice sandwich, chips and a cookie my boys were given rations; one tuna packet and one energy bar and some water. Austin put on a sheepish grin after this and just nodded and smiled  when I apologized for not packing a bigger lunch. These are large boys; 6ft. 3 inches a piece!

The 6 miles to the Rock Bridge (end of the American Whitewater “East Fork of the Tuckasegee” section) took us 6 hours. It was getting late so we quickly portaged up and down the steep private lands to the left past the unrunnable waterfall. It was  2 more miles down to the Tanasee reservoir. I had little idea how far that really was! In the comments section on the East Fork ( American Whitewater), John Pilson says, “FYI, there are a few big drops down from Rock Bridge before the Tanasee Reservoir that I’ve hiked but it was before I thought about kayaking much. That land is private land. Wonder if anyone has run em?”

Rock Bridge Rapid

We pushed on leaving the relative comfort of Panthertown to uncharted waters with little chance of rescue. Pushing  deeper into the gorge it engulfed us. The black granite walls rose high and narrowed and the light was diffuse and hazy. Green moss hung down from the banks and slimy green algae glistened on the smooth rocks. I crossed the slick rock face, my left hand grasped the safety line holding me on the high pitched granite wall, my right hand holding the paddleboard which dangled down over the water. My eyes were blurry and there was a wet breeze funneling up from far below. I tried not to look down, grateful my sons had already gone around. Below was a high volume boulder pointed up like an anvil with logs jammed on either side. This was a disappearing sieve from which even a body recovery would be impossible. The east fork of the Tuckasegee river disappeared into a thundering blackness.  

The boys were perched precariously high on a ledge with their boats. It was  dark and very slippery. John and I locked eyes and had a silent conversation, “we’re screwed; can’t go upstream, can’t go downstream and it is getting late. No more fun time; let’s solve this”. Austin and Luke stayed with the boats, John climbed up the west bank and I went up the east bank. It was very steep, high appalachian climbing, vertical, root by root. I stopped and looked up, discouraged by the steepness and the unlikely chance of a passage around this enormous drop. The next ledge was a deer path, narrow and perched along the jutting gorge rim. Exhausted I followed it all the way up and over and down the quarter mile to the Tanasee Reservoir.   I ran back to the group and found John shaking his head, no luck on the west bank. We have a trail, I said, grab your boats and watch your step.

Resting on the sandy beach of Tanasee Creek Lake we gazed up into the dark slot. Luke pulled out his drone and flew it straight up the falls documenting the gnarly drama. Unrunnable, barely hikable and grateful not to be spending a cold and hungry night in the gorge we celebrated with whoops and dancing and paddled the mirror-like reservoir to our camp.

Stay tuned for daily logs of the rest of their trip!

Places to Go, Things to See:

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