Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Ocoee I-4; A Different Kind of River

Burt in need of an AIS himself
The following article is from Burt Kornegay of Slickrock Expdeitions, an ACA Level 5: Advanced Whitewater Canoeing Instructor.

Dear Single and Double-Bladed Friends,

If you’ve thought about paddling the Ocoee and wondered whether or not you’re ready to arm wrestle this big brother of the Pigeon, here are four steps you need to take to make sure you're prepared.

Step one: go to Atlanta and get some driving experience. Follow a cloverleaf up onto the sixteen-lane-wide racecourse of Interstate highways that stretch across the city—all I-20, 75, 85, 285, 575, and 675 of them—and spend as much time as you can driving with the millions hurrying home from work at rush hour. You need to have this experience because your first descent of the Ocoee will be partly spent in paddling rapids, but it will be wholly spent trying to survive river traffic that’s as heavy as Friday afternoon congestion at Spaghetti Junction.

Step two: when O-day arrives and you are nearing the river, psyche yourself into the Atlanta-Motor-Speedway mindset you developed during step one. Do this by imagining a green federal highway sign on the shoulder of the road just before you turn into the launch site at the #2 dam. It should have flashing lights and a big white arrow pointing to “Ocoee I-4.” Next, check your watch and, whatever time it happens to say, reset it to Ocoee time, which is always 5 PM.

Step three: while you idle in line with fellow boaters backed up on the concrete entrance ramp, reset your river lingo too. Forget those dozens of fancy terms and techniques you’ve learned on other rivers, like edging, balance, boat lean, vertical shaft, feathering, power face, river left, stern pry correction, underwater recovery, torso rotation, and so forth. The Ocoee calls for elemental urban boating. Go, stop, floor-it and finger is what you need to do.

Step four: forget about holes, pillows, boils, tongues, strainers, pourovers, undercut rocks, whirlpools, and reactionary waves—all those features you’ve learn to recognize in ordinary whitewater. It’s much more helpful, when you embark on the Ocoee, to read the river as a watery construction zone, “Next 5 Miles," because you are going to be faced immediately with single lanes, uneven lanes, sudden or poorly marked lane shifts, soft shoulders, potholes, drop-offs, bumps, rumble strips, and Do Not Enter barricades, with bumper-to-bumper boats pushing through manned by drivers who, to judge by the way they cut you off, are full of river rage.

As for the all-important feature called the eddy, that spot of calm water, that harbor, that place of tranquility on normal rivers where you can pull in to rest and look around at the beauty of nature while chatting with your friends—how quaint! But veterans of the Ocoee I-4 know its eddys for what they are, “Accident Investigation Sites.” You'll start to think of eddys in this way too if your virgin runs of Broken Nose, Double Suck, Double Trouble, Table Saw, Diamond Splitter, Hell Hole, and Powerhouse don’t go quite as well as planned.

We had to make an emergency exit into an Ocoee AIS one Saturday when, right off the bat two first-timers in our group flipped and swam. Once we got boats and paddles and paddlers reunited, and investigated their bruises and bent fenders, both accident victims decided to go back home, having been on the river (or, more precisely, in it), all of 200 feet. Total travel time to the Ocoee and back? 6 hours. Time spent on/in the river? Around 55 seconds.

Finally, if you can’t make it to Atlanta, at the very least drive 70 mph down I-40 West where it twists through the Great Smoky Mountains in the Pigeon River Gorge. Do it during a thunderstorm, right after a rockslide has fallen onto the roadbed. And make it a Monday morning when hundreds of transfer trucks are hauling their 80,000-lb-loads to the big box stores in Knoxville. This experience will help to buck you up for your first drop into a boulder-clogged Ocoee Class 4 while the river’s version of an 18-wheeler, called a commercial raft, bearing a load of SuperWalmart-sized passengers, is bearing down on your stern bumper. The raft will be blood-red, and in the driver’s seat will be a long-haired guide yelling to his passengers, “Paddles to the Metal!”

Take note: until this moment on the Ocoee, it’s your interstate driving experience that has kept you alive. You've not had to use the paddling skills gained from hours of practice on other rivers. But at this live-or-die moment, at this Ocoee time and place, you finally do need those skills. And when you plant your blade to start the forward stroke and build up speed, you suddenly realize that on the Ocoee I-4, a very different kind of river, you had better perform that stroke with flawless execution—not to run the rapid but to stay ahead of that raft.

Burt Kornegay

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