Getting Religion in Wilson Creek Gorge

Wilson Creek Gorge

There’s this fabled river gorge in the center of the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge in North Carolina; Wilson Creek Gorge. Panoramic slabs of granite draped across the valley floor, the creek coursing through its folds. House-sized boulders scattered like a giant’s marbles. Steep, forested ridges to either side. My fly-fishing friends love its pools and shelves where trout lurk. Many of my whitewater paddling friends hold it as an almost sacred place – especially the 2+ miles of the gorge where eight Class 4 rapids (and more Class 3’s) are nestled like freshly hatched water-dragons. It’s even a designated Wild and Scenic River by the National Forest Service. But for a variety of reasons, my career as a reasonably competent class III/IV canoeist failed to ever include a trip to Wilson Creek Gorge.

That fact had become a bit embarrassing. Wilson Creek is easily within my whitewater day trip region. Whenever I had to admit to another boater that I’d never been to Wilson’s I got these puzzled looks. Then I discovered stand up paddling on rivers and for 2 years I was back to easier rivers building the skills I’d need to confidently SUP the great, classic whitewater runs of the Southeast. Back in December I missed a mission to the 5 Falls section of the Chatooga River – a more well-known classic run thanks to the film, Deliverance – with a group of WWSUPers intent on spending the time to work out “clean” runs on each of the class 4 rapids. When I saw the videos of that trip I was as ripe with jealousy as I was amazed with the style, talent, and effort that group displayed. Just wow! (Trey Knight, Ben Moore, etc.)

Delane Heath showing off his duct tape patch

On a Thursday afternoon this past January one of my oldest paddling friends, Delane, invited me to play hooky from work the following Monday to paddle Wilson Creek. I could resist no more. The water level seemed right. The weather not unreasonable for January in the Southern Appalachians. I made arrangements with my work team and started trying not to think too much about my impending baptism. 

Several years ago Delane had started running off to Wilson Creek on what seemed a more and more regular basis. Since then I’ve seen that pattern in other boaters working their way through the progression of “whitewater madness.” They become disciples of that gorge for a season or more. Some will drive 150 miles round trip on a weekly basis paddling the creek at the lowest levels imaginable as well as the terrifying heights to soak up its lessons. Based on Delane’s own trip report blog, betweenswims.com, he went there a lot a few years ago. In fact – go read his history of trip reports on Wilson Creek to really get a feel for it. The first one is March 16, 2008.

The fact that a friend who knew me well as a whitewater boarder … and was also a Wilson Creek devote … made a big difference in my ability to say “sure” so easily. If Delane went out of his way to invite me then maybe I AM ready for this grand southeastern test-piece. He’d already been with me at the Upper Russell Fork, Big Laurel Creek, and other notable streams. It felt like part of a very natural progression.

I considered putting the word out that I planned to run Wilson’s but chose to keep things low key. I would be a guest to this group of friends who loved to play in the cascading beauty of their Wilson Creek Gorge.

Heath Cabin near Kibler Valley, VA

The trip began Sunday evening. After a shift at the Green Heron Club in Danbury I raced home, gathered my gear and bolted up to Dry Pond, VA, to hang and talk paddling with Delane and Kevin. Kevin is a Wilson Creek disciple too and freshly returned from 3 years in the Rockies … where he claimed not to have done much paddling. We stayed in a sturdy cabin built by Delane and his dad. Thick log walls made of trees cut and squared on site. We talked about paddling trips past on river distant and near. And while Delane and Kevin chewed over some of the finer points of Wilson Creek the details seemed unimportant to me. I had little context for the approaches and contours of Boatbuster or Triple Drop – tho I nodded as though comprehending. What I did receive was a vision of a rocky river with both boulder jumbles and ledges of varying heights. …and beauty all around.

I awoke around 6am to snoring, ran outside to pee and jumped back in my bag to wait for the others.

I awoke again at 7am to find Delane and Kevin outside in the morning chill with all of their gear as well as my SUPerCharger loaded up on Delane’s truck. Whaa? (Those dudes are awesome!)

Three hours later we arrived at the put-in and met our group lead (sorta) by one Jennifer Smoak; confident, easy going, and just a little suspicious of this dude with the heavy slab of plastic. With her a band I can only describe as perfect dirtbag archetypes – full of laughs, slapstick and mad skillz. After 15 minutes on the water I wanted to call them the Creek Monkeys; Josh, Jevon, Lindsay and Zack.


Wilson Creek Gorge at minus-9 on boater's gage

One of the top goals I specifically set for this trip was to avoid injury. With the intense spring paddling season around the corner the last thing I wanted was to be layed up. I know it sounds crazy – why even risk paddling a steep creek full of boulders if avoiding injury is the top priority? I guess avoiding injury really isn’t my number one priority.  Anyway – I pledged to heed the advise of my paddling companions and to portage without shame as might be appropriate.

The visual gage on the way into the gorge read minus-9 inches. It would be scrappy – but not too pushy. Very low but still enough water to float and have fun with a little hardy creativity. The hardest rapids would be down to class 3 which was reassuring for my inaugural trip. The shallow rock exposure would be my greatest danger. 

Things started out well. Twisting our way through the jumbled rocks and boulders at the put-in. The Monkeys, including Delane and Kevin, couldn’t keep their low-volume play boats (very small kayaks with low decks on the front and back) flat in the water. Either the bow was up in the air to slap a rock face or the stern was up. I lumbered along just a little behind doing my best to squeeze the large and heavy SUPerCharger between and over the shallow rocks. At the manky rock jumble above Ten Foot Falls the group decided there was no way my 36″ wide board would fit down the narrow, class 3 entrance. I gladly portaged and met them in the pool above Ten Foot.

Ten Foot Falls is a 45 degree slide about 10 feet high with a reasonably safe, albeit shallow landing. I got a look at it, received a couple of tips from my companions, and hopped on the board and ran it. With the water just a thin, swift sheet across smooth bedrock, controlling boat angle was a challenge. In the end I slid down sideways on one knee, bobbled through the landing, but managed to delay my first real swim for a bit.

As we moved on downstream through Boatbuster, Dental Work, Bitchslap, and many other dewatered class 4 rapids, I began to feel some sense of control and confidence. I wasn’t falling in every rapid – so that was good. And of those falls, sometimes I only fell on the board – and that was even better. Overall I felt strong and in control … not to mention inspired by the Creek Monkeys’ discipline of play and appreciation for my stumbling version of it. For a real taste of the Gorge check out these videos shot that day by Delane and Otter at the end of this post.

But I was having a hard time warming my feet up. In fact, by the time we arrived at Razorback I had very little sensation past my ankle … which makes standing on an undulating slab of plastic that’s skidding over and banging into rocks very challenging. I’m working on an upgrade to my foot-gear but the experience of standup paddling with completely numb feet did teach me a bit more about posture. Since I couldn’t count on my feet and toes to make nuanced adjustments I had to focus on balancing over two stumps. Without toes to rely on I was forced to a more erect and effective posture out of necessity.

Typically I have to wrestle with my attention to maintain posture but with the fear of imminent dousing in the cold creek my focus shifted from “posture” to “don’t fall!” Less thinking and more doing. Isn’t that the key to doing anything well? Recognizing and accepting that lesson along with laughing through the discomfort is what got me almost to the take out. And in retrospect, the beauty of the Gorge itself was another helpful distraction.

The exhilarating flow of the afternoon came to a sudden halt on a little tongue of water about 200 yards from the take-out. The water arced to the left in the most graceful way forced in that direction by a slab of bedrock that rose almost to the surface. Total drop was no more than 12 inches across a 10 foot long chute. A very simple Class 1 feature. Barely noteworthy. I set up to smoothly pivot through the channel with all the remaining grace I could muster.

Unfortunately I dropped my rear upstream edge at exactly the wrong moment. The current washed up the rear left deck driving it down suddenly. Not an unusual experience SUPing on mountain creeks and I casually ‘high-sided’ to correct the error. In that process something happened that I could never repeat … the tail of the board struck the riverbed, the right rear side of the board struck the barely submerged slab of rock, and with an audible sucking sound it was suddenly pinned flat to the riverbed. I, of course, stumbled over the bow into knee-deep water. I grabbed the bow handle to pull it free but with water pressure that had to be well over 350 pounds the SUPerCharger was suddenly immobile under a 6-inch deep stream of creek water.

Delane, Kevin, Josh and Jevon all very generously gave up a full hour of river time – and a second lap on their favorite river – to work through the extraction process. Ultimately we used two heavy duty throw ropes totaling 150 feet to set up a z-drag that eased the 65 pound plastic board from the river’s grasp. I owe those guys big time for the effort, enthusiasm and tolerance for chilly discomfort. Only one of us was in a leak-proof dry-suit which is so much less than optimal for working in very cold swift water on a January afternoon in a deep, shady gorge.

Stripping off my wetsuit 15 minutes later at the parking area next to the road was heavenly. Pulling on dry pants, socks, sweater, cap … ooo that was good! I was spared a “bootie beer” by my comrades despite the pinned boat and 2 occasions when I was separated from my craft. Instead I was strangely (to me) congratulated on a solid PFD at Wilson Creek. Delane handed me a really exceptional stout beer and we celebrated the day. With my toes finally warmed and reconnected to my central nervous system the primary goal of remaining injury-free was achieved.

I came away with an awareness of what is required to run the Gorge clean and in control from “the Mank Above Ten Foot” to the bottom of “Razorback”. It is all very doable on a stand up board. In fact it is possible to run that creek on a SUP with the same level of styling play that kayakers in playboats (like the Creek Monkeys) bring to it. I’m not there yet, but with practice and training…

I believe my discipleship in Wilson Creek Gorge has finally begun.

SUP SPLAT SPIN

Shot and edited by Delane Heath

Wilson Creek Jan 26

Shot and edited by Otter Browning

#TripReport #wwsup

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