Green River Narrows, NC
(this is the main drop of Gorilla)
In the morning I looked for an omen. The night before, after a fine day on the Narrows, I'd decided to run Gorilla Rapid, barring an unforeseen reason not to. My stomach churned and twisted around its burden of eggs. The only thing left between me and that rapid was a final choice. Gorilla and Sunshine are easy to walk, and portaging had, for me, become routine. Sometimes the most formidable barrier to running a rapid is breaking out of a comfortable rut.
I'd been unemployed for several months, and paddling hard, paddling well. Gradually my statement "I will NEVER run Gorilla" became suspect. I began to scout the drop more carefully, to watch the strokes and body language of boaters who run it. In my mind's eye I saw myself barreling through the notch and soaring 20 feet down into a narrow slot on a freight train of water--with a big smile on my face.
I was ready as I ever had been. My companion was Leland Davis, who had recently documented his 200th run on the Narrows. Leland promised to give me the same clear, expert guidance that he had on my first run. Wesley, feeling under-the-weather that morning, had opted to run shuttle.
Pencil Sharpener is the first drop below the place where you normally would get out to portage Gorilla. You can't run Pencil Sharpener and then portage because the rock wall is sheer and slippery along the left bank. "Don't boof at all," Leland said. "I have pitoned harder here than anywhere else on this river. Just drop off straight; it's deep."
I followed instructions, then joined him in the eddy. I love following Leland. Nobody leads better. The next move was to ferry across to an eddy against the wall on the left. It is a small, boiling pocket with a view of the Notch. Leland said "You can't come join me; just watch from here." The Notch is a twisting drop of four feet about three short boat lengths above the main drop of Gorilla. It is the crux of the rapid. Leland's words of wisdom didn't exactly jive with the line in my head, but I trust him. He said "Go fast and get on the left bit of water. Go straight--don't point at the eddy. The best place to catch the eddy is toward the bottom. If you miss the eddy, go left, because you will be too far right." And he went.
I ferried across to the boiling pocket eddy, and looked through the notch. The moment of decision. At this moment, it is all or nothing. My feeling is not so much one of joy or certainty, but a certain calm and yes, I confess, resignation. Once you commit to a serious rapid, nothing can save you but your own skill and a certain amount of luck. My insurance was current, my skills up to the challenge, and I was prepared to face the consequences.
In my memory there's no clear image of what happened. I remember seeing Leland's grin as I powered into the Notch. He said later he was thinking "She looks great! Why hasn't she tried this before now?" but he also says I wasn't on the left bit of water. The bow of my Creek 240 buried in the boiling water at the foot of the Notch. I braced on the right and my paddle swirled downward. I was glad that I'd put on my nose clips; I'm tired of sinus infections.
Later it occurred to me that whenever Leland grins at me from some micro eddy above a drop, I always have a bad run.
I think my bow was in the foot of the eddy on the right as I floated upside down. I pushed across underwater to set up for a roll. I hip snapped and got a glimpse of air, then fell under as my paddle dropped downward off the edge. I was mostly backwards with my bow a little to the right as I fell off the right side of the drop upside down.
It was instinctive to tuck tightly forward, and to pull my padded elbows in close. I bounced on my head and back on the shelf that extends from the right about 15 feet down the drop. Twice more I impacted rock, and then I was in water. I began to arch up for a roll, and got clocked one more time, solidly, in the head. My appreciation of my new carbon fiber helmet increased steadily.
On the back side of Speed Trap, a stout hole in the outflow of Gorilla, I rolled up and paddled toward the eddy. My sprayskirt was off and my boat half full of water. Woozy, I flipped entering the eddy and floated upside down onto the rock at the foot of the eddy. Below that rock are two thirty foot slide drops, known as the Green Scream Machine. I was stable, resting upside down on my life jacket on that rock, and took a moment to think. Option A: I could shuck the boat off me and try to climb up the slippery rock to the log and out of the river. If I failed, if I slipped on the rock, I would be swimming the Green Scream Machine--on the wrong (left) side. Option B: I could push myself upright which would knock me free from my tenuous perch on the rock, and be swept into the Green Scream Machine with a boat full of water.
I chose Option B. I pushed myself upright in time to see Leland flying off Gorilla. I put my sprayskirt back on, to keep the other half of the boat full of air and ferried out to the right side of the current. While falling over the horizon I glanced up to see Leland getting a ticket in the Speed Trap.
The direct line through the Green Scream Machine is fast and dramatic like a roller coaster. You plunge over a long slide, slow suddenly between the two drops, then sweep over the second. The holes are substantial, so you punch out the right corner at the base of each slide. I teetered in the swirls between the two drops, but kept it right side up to plunge over the second slide and out at the bottom.
Joy bubbled through me as I slogged toward shore; I was not horribly injured, in spite of having just answered my nightmares. I was also grateful for all the time spent fooling around in roll sessions with a boat full of water. Handling a swamped boat had turned out to be an important skill.
I successfully, if shakily, paddled the rest of the river, walking Groove Tube and Sunshine. My head pounded, and the headache lasted for three solid days. My back felt surprisingly good; perhaps the crunching released some stress lodged there from years of raft guiding. I can scarcely believe that I ran Gorilla so poorly, and that I am not paying a higher price for my inaccuracy. I am grateful to be alive and walking to paddle another day. I can't say if or when I will try the Monkey again. If I do, I expect to portage the Notch on the right, and then run the hero drop, to see what it is like right side up.
There was no witness to my supremely ugly Gorilla run. Leland was above the drop, and there was no video, no camera, no other boater. We had the river to ourselves, just like we like it. And I could be making the whole thing up.