FLOOD STAGE CHAOS ON THE UPPER WATAUGA
Section 3, Above the gorge, near Banner Elk, NC: July 4, 1989
By Fred Seifer
Dave and Bruce had dropped in on Monday, July 3, 1989, evening after spending four days paddling in West Virginia. I had not planned on paddling on July 4th, but I was juiced up with the arrival of Dave and Bruce. On our way to the Watauga we checked the Doe Gorge which proved to be too low to run, estimated level approximately 300 CFS. When we crossed the Elk River, we knew that the Watauga would be cooking as the Elk was screaming out of its banks. The bridge t the put-in for the Wautauga was completely submerged. The river was well into the trees - flood stage Watauga!
Obviously, the Watauga Gorge was out of the question. Leon then suggested running the upper section, above the gorge, stating that it would be "a quick flush." I wasn't too excited about "a quick flush," as it didn't seem much like a challenge. I did, however, decide that I might as well paddle as I had driven all that way and wanted to wet my boat. The water was typical flood stage - fast, scurrile, and muddy brown.
We all hit the river with hopeful anticipation. Bruce took the lead with Dave and I approximately 30 yards behind and Leon and R.B. bringing up the rear. I kept a watchful eye upstream, spying for floating trees and other flotsam. After approximately five minutes on the river, things started getting interesting; i.e. big scurrile water, 8 - 10 foot waves, and pushy cross-currents. I thought to myself, "this is no flush." Then we encountered two big holes, back to back, which we all managed to maneuver through safely. The adrenaline was pumping, as well as the anxiety level.
At this point, I realized that this was, in fact, no flush, but rather a locomotive out of control, a train I no longer wished to be riding. Unfortunately, there was no way off. The water was moving at approximately 10 -20 MPH (it seemed like 100) and before I could eddy out -- "Where were the eddies?" I saw Bruce Hayes drop into the ugliest hole I had ever seen. He just disappeared. I took a half dozen quick "paddle fu" back sweeps to alter my point of impact to approximately ten feet off to the left of Bruce's line, to avoid the heart of the hole. I was back endered and flipped. I went into a tight tuck to protect myself, waiting to get oriented and to roll. The problem was that I never surfaced -- that is, I was doing a "mystery move" upside down in my Dancer XT. After waiting approximately five seconds, I started to think about punching out; however, I never had a chance. Suddenly, I was being slammed from all sides by the most turbulent powerful water that I had ever experienced. I was violently ripped, separated, from my boat.
I opened my eyes, expecting to see the light of day -- instead, I encountered nothing but silent "brown darkness." I think I still had my paddle in my right hand (though I am not sure), but at that point, I just started dog paddling (I think I was also kicking my legs, but I'm not sure). My eyes were darting around, searching for signs of light to help me orient myself. Nothing but brown darkness everywhere. I couldn't even see my hands. Only once, for a second or two, did I think that I was going to die. After dog paddling for what seemed an eternity (that actually, in real time was probably no more than ten seconds), I thought maybe I'm paddling in the wrong direction, maybe I should dive for the bottom -- that is, if I knew where the bottom was. I didn't have any sensation that I was making any progress. I felt suspended in time, in brown darkness. Just then, my head broke surface, without warning. I went straight from darkness into the beautiful light. I don't remember that first breath. I don't remember gasping for air. What I remember was thinking, "I've got to get out of this wave train, I've got to get to the shore."
As I paddled to the shore, I noticed that my life vest (an Extrasport Rogue) had been completely unzipped while I was submerged. The only thing that had kept it on were the waist ties at the bottom. Should I take time to rezipper the vest, or just swim like hell to get off the river?" I kept swimming and entered the tree line. Trees everywhere, with water flushing through, carrying me along. I was headed right for a small tree -- a nice clean tree trunk. At first, my instinct was to grab the tree, but then Neally cartoons started flashing in my brain, pictures of kayakers eating tree trunks in flood stage rivers, followed by the image of a kayaker pitoning on a tree with his feet. Resisting the strong urge to grab the tree, I quickly brought my feet up to meet the tree trunk. With a hard push, I directed myself toward the river right bank, out of harms way. I managed to stand up in still water and climb up to the bank. I stood there, stunned, scanning my body to make sure I was all there, in one piece.
I could see R.B. and Bruce Hayes working their way out of the water on river left. Then I heard moaning and turned to my left, behind me, to see Dave Jordan crawling out of the water, 20 yards upstream of me. Gasping for air, he asked if I was okay. Still bending over, he made the sign of the cross on his chest. We closed the distance between us and hugged each other, glad to be both alive.
Everyone was now accounted for except for Leon. Where was Leon? Dave and I started bushwhacking down river. We found Leon's yellow Dancer approximately 100 yards downstream, wrapped end to end at the level of the cockpit which was facing downstream. At first, we thought Leon was still in his boat. Realizing that not to be the case, we continued searching for the missing boater. Without success, we decided to walk out, back to the put-in, a mile or so upstream, hoping that Leon would turn up. On the way back, R.B.'s boat was spotted, floating in a thicket, upright and intact. We grabbed his blue Reflex and carried it out. When we arrived back at the put-in, no one was there. Hitching a ride with a bystander who happened to witness the river carnage, we proceeded down river again, this time along Highway 321, paralleling the Watauga. To our collective relief, Leon was with Bruce and R.B.. He had stayed with his boat and was unable to break out of the wave train until he finally decided to swim for shore, abandoning his boat to the current and trees.
Everything, everyone said was entering my mind in a staccato fashion, piecemeal. Leon had dislocated his left shoulder, R.B. had hyperextended his legs. For the most part, there was quiet, few words were actually spoken, just a lot of long somewhat empty stares. Everyone seemed to be off in their own little world reliving, reflecting on their own unique experiences.
How could five experienced Class IV/V boaters be so cavalier as to get on a flood stage river that no one really knew, especially at that level, which probably was an all time high, with only the one simple statement, "it will be a flush." Speaking only for myself, in retrospect, I guess I had an attitude (though I never would have admitted it to myself or expressed it to others openly) that I "couldn't be touched." I had a bomb proof role (on side and off), a solid combat hands role, plenty of nasty hole experiences with good hole escape techniques, experience on both tight technical and big Class IV/V water, with competence. This near miss has definitely put things in proper prospective. No more brown water runs on unfamiliar streams that can't be scouted. No more leaping without looking. I hope to be a much more cautious boater in the future.
Epilogue: To date July 7, 1989, three days after the event, four boats and two paddles have been recovered, three of the boats, including my own, having been wrapped on trees.