Dooley Tombras’ Open Boat Horizons

Die-hard single-blade Tennessean believes the future of open canoeing is bright

By Conor Mihell

It’s impossible to extinguish canoeist Dooley Tombras’ passion for navigating gnarly Southeast whitewater in an open-decked boat. Amidst one of the best spring paddling seasons in memory, conditions couldn’t be better for Tombras, 29, of Knoxville, Tenn., and Asheville, N.C. local John Grace, the founder of Lunch Video Magazine, who are working on Uncharted Waters, the sequel to their acclaimed 2010 film, The Canoe Movie. In the past two months Grace has captured Tombras and his stalwart paddling buddy Matt DeVoe nailing first open-boat descents on some of North America’s hairiest Class V creeks. All this excitement has corresponded with a new fleet of modern, user-friendly boat designs like Esquif’s wildly popular L’Edge, the Mohawk Maxim and Jeremy Laucks’ paradigm-shifting Blackfly Canoes, pushing OC-1’s popularity to an all-time high.

Canoe & Kayak magazine caught up with Tombras in the wake of Ain’t Louie Fest, a nine-day, cult-like gathering of open boaters celebrating spring on the rivers and creeks of the Southeast, to talk about paddling whitewater with a single-blade.

I’ve heard you’ve had a big spring season for whitewater in the Southeast. Just how much have you been boating?

Dooley Tombras: It’s been pretty awesome. We had our first big rain early, around the first of January and we got out on the Santeetlah [in North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains], which is one of the hardest in the Southeast to catch. It’s usually either flooded or two low. Then things froze up for about a month, but around February 1st things thawed out and it really hasn’t stopped raining ever since.

Because we’re filming and running with John Grace and his crew we have some pretty solid rescue support. With Matt [DeVoe] and Eli Helbert, we ran the Raven Fork, which is probably the best run in the Southeast. Then we made the first open canoe descent of the Road Prong. What was so exciting about that is that we think it’s the steepest run that’s ever been made by canoe. It drops 750 feet per mile. There are other runs like the Raven Fork with similar gradient, the catch is you’re usually not running it all because it’s a portage fest. The crazy thing about Road Prong is that it’s all runnable. It’s a true 750 feet per-mile express run down the mountain.

The other first descent was on Triple Falls on the Little River [in North Carolina’s DuPont State Forest]. The river drops 125 feet in three monster drops. But the biggest adventure was last Sunday. We hiked into the gorge of the Horsepasture River [in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina]. It was one of those classic spring days in the Southeast with fog and mist coming off the water. We were running big Class V stuff and the visibility was so bad that you couldn’t see more than the top or the bottom of the rapid.

So I take it filming has been going pretty well? We’re just ecstatic about it. We have a bigger budget this year and that means better cameras, better editing and more innovative filming techniques. The plan has always been more about exploration, about taking the canoe where it’s never been before and documenting it to show people what’s possible. We’re headed to Quebec this spring—that’s really the Mecca of open boating. And then we’re going out to Colorado this summer for the opposite reason. There are very few open boaters out there and the mentality is that you can’t canoe in the Rockies. Then we have our eyes on two first [open canoe] descents in Mexico.

How was Ain’t Louie Fest 2011? I’d say we had 100 to 200 open boaters here for it. We got a lot of rain and it timed out perfectly. A favorite part for me was the big race on the Upper Tellico. First the under-18 paddlers started, then a minute later the average Joes went, and one minute after that the sponsored paddlers started. With 52 boats on the river and there were a few NASCAR moments.

What’s your take on the state of open boating right now? It’s like night and day compared to five years ago. I’ve been paddling for 15 years, and when I first started I never met anyone younger than me, I never heard of anyone getting into the sport, there were no new boats and all I heard were stories of people quitting. But in the last five years no one has quit, there’s a bunch of young paddles and the new boats are making things less frustrating for beginners. It’s like we went through the Dark Age and have now entered the Renaissance.

It’s always been easy for new open boaters to be adopted by the community and that’s been strengthened through the online community on Facebook and Cboats.net. I think we’ve hit a critical mass. People are getting fired up and getting their friends into it. Canoeing is never going to be as popular as kayaking but I think there will always be open boats. Like John Grace said, there’s a reason why canoes have been around a lot longer than kayaks.

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