Our new travel editor, Jess Daddio, is a top-notch whitewater paddler, but she wasn’t always a bomber boater. Here she describes one of her first creek boating, class-IV runs.
It’s my first time creeking. The crystal blue waters of Whitetop Laurel near Damascus, Va., are swollen from weeks of winter rains and snowmelt. Along with my kayaking guru, Brandon, I am perched on a rock below a six-foot drop called The Notch, reading the water as it surges and bubbles.
“Whatever you do,” Brandon tells me, “do not take a left stroke.”
The Notch is situated to the left of a solid rock wall. To be caught in that wall-side eddy means certain carnage.
“The strokes come much slower than you think,” continues Brandon. “You don’t need a lot of speed. Just keep your boat angled to the left and pop off it.”
I nod. Brandon slaps me on the back and turns to retrieve his boat upstream. I swallow hard and follow suit. Wedging myself into my kayak, I cinch the back band tight. Despite the cold, my palms begin to sweat as I wrap them around the paddle shaft.
I habitually replay every swim I’ve ever had just before entering a rapid. Today proves to be no exception. The film reel starts. I shut my eyes.
“Stop it,” I mutter. “You will not swim.”
Brandon looks back at me and nods. Ready? I nod back, peeling out into the current. Brandon comes to the lip of the drop and glides off the left side into the eddy below.
I’m only a boat length behind. Within seconds, I’m at the edge of the drop. I lily dip my right blade into the current, not wanting to gain too much speed. Then, for reasons unknown, I throw a powerful left stroke as I soar off the drop.
The bottom of my boat smacks the surface. The pour-over from The Notch pounds my upstream side and catches an edge. I brace, managing to keep my head above the crashing. The current pushes me into the right eddy. I feel the side of the boat thump the rock wall. I go under.
Beneath the surface, thundering water sounds much quieter. Trees and sky turn impressionistic. I set up and roll. Another thump. Still against the wall. Try pushing off. Roll again. Not enough hip snap. Back under the water. Forgot to breathe. Lungs are straining. Do not swim. Roll again. This time, I’m right side up but on a rock.
Brandon is out of his boat on the other side of the river, yelling something. I scout the line for The Slot, an even bigger drop below The Notch. I know where I need to be. I back off the rock and peel out. A wave grabs my edge and I brace, praying that I ride this one out. It lets go, and I straighten up in time to pencil over the edge.
When my boat surfaces, I paddle to Brandon. He pulls my boat to shore.
Yanking my helmet back, he whips his off, shoving his red hair in my face.
“Do you see how many gray hairs I have now?!” he yells.
“But I didn’t swim.”
I did it.