liveonearth (liveonearth) wrote,

River Tales: Section IV Checkout Day

Every time I talk with certain old friends, we trade stories from our years of working and playing on the river. I have so many such stories that when someone asks me to tell them a story, I have trouble selecting a single one to tell. I have long thought that I should tell those stories in my journal. So I will begin. Mind you, many of these stories have no particular beginning, end, or point. They are simply stories. Here's the first one.

First, here is a picture of the rapid Jawbone at somewhat lower water than the level on the day of my story:

I trained and checked out on the Chattooga in 1989, with a company called NOC. I had been kayaking and canoeing since I was a child, but in retrospect I was still a child when I began guiding. The US Forest Service regulates the three permitted commercial rafting operations on the Chattooga. All three companies are required to put their new guides through a minimum training. Each new guide is required to complete at least 10 training trips on section IV, which is the more difficult and dangerous section of the river. At NOC new guides often must make more than the required 10 trips, until they can demonstrate true proficiency on the water.

I had completed nine of my required ten trips, and on the tenth trip I had no expectation of checking out. I knew I was no good. I was barely getting down the river, barely in control of my raft, barely connecting with my customers. The water levels had been easy during my training, 1.4-1.6 feet on the gage at the highway 76 bridge. But the river is hard, even at moderate river levels. Seven foot falls flips a lot of rafts. And the Five Falls, a set of five rapids near the end of the run, is enough action and enough risk to wake up the most jaded guide. So on my tenth training trip, I set out with low expectations, hoping only to survive the day and not disgrace myself.

When training on this run, a veteran guides goes in the raft with the rookie guide. The idea is that if the rookie looses it, the veteran will bail out the run and save the crew from undue risk. The guide in the boat with me for my 10th run was Marty Pribil, a dry-witted blonde veteran. I didn't know what to say to him, and he wasn't very sociable, so I did my usual spiel, teaching the customers how to sit, paddle, and move in the boat. It went well enough, though I felt insecure with Marty silently watching me.

I am a lefty guide, so I sat on the left side of the stern of the raft, and Marty was on the right side of the stern of the raft. Marty is a righty guide, and it is very hard for a guide to sit on their on side in the stern of a boat and not actually steer it. I made it through Screaming Left Hand Turn, Woodall Shoals, Seven Foot Falls, Raven's Chute, and the first three of the Five Falls without major trouble, and without notable help from Marty. The level was 1.6. Jawbone was the next rapid.

Jawbone is a complex rapid with several turns required. Halfway through the rapid there is an undercut rock called Decapitation that flips boats and pins things too. At the bottom of the rapid is another dangerous rock called Hydroelectric rock, with a small tunnel under it. At the top of the next rapid there are more undercuts, and tunnels and other traps below.

I entered Jawbone with my usual lefty approach, but Marty didn't like it. Lefties and righties run that rapid differently, because when you're a lefty you can avoid Decap rock without so much help from the crew. But Marty, begin a rightie, was used to using the crew for all that. He began positioning the boat with his paddle, and barking out commands to the crew. He was so military, loud and decisive, and they responded with vigorous strokes and aced the run. I was deflated. He was so unhappy with my approach that he could not let me guide the rapid. I hadn't expected to check out, but I had hoped not to be humiliated.

I don't even remember running the final drop of the Five Falls: Soc'm Dog. The level 1.6 is the cutoff of that rapid, so if the water appears to be a hair OVER 1.6 we would walk the customers while the guides run the rafts through a shallow side channel known as the Puppy chute. I guess we must have run the Puppy chute, because I think I would have remembered running Soc'm dog at 1.6. It's a big drop and at 1.6 it packs a wallop. You yell to your customers to get in the bottom of the raft before going over the edge, to reduce the numbers of them that collide with each other and get injured. When you sit in the back of the raft it flings you forward onto your customers. Makes for great action photos. But I don't remember any of that from that day.

I don't remember either when I was told that I checked out, but I did check out that day. And I learned something about guiding from Marty's desperate salvation of my run. I had no idea my crew could paddle like that. So it was worth something to me that he took control. Even though, in his own words, he was too scared to let me screw it up. The next time I ran that rapid, I succeeded in screwing it up. But that's another story.

One more shot of Jawbone:
Tags: chattooga, georgia, guiding, river, south carolina

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