This story is originally featured in the June 2011 issue of Canoe & Kayak magazine, on newsstands now.
IN THE EYES OF AN 11-YEAR-OLD CANOEING IN WHITEWATER FOR THE FIRST TIME, the 3-foot drop of Oblique Falls on Tennessee’s Hiwassee River must look like Niagara Falls. Each year, the tiny ledge on the popular beginner’s stretch sparks dozens of new paddlers. It’s where Matt Thomas, 25, had his first open-boat taste of whitewater, bumping and grinding tandem “coal barges” down the Hiwassee’s Class II rapids with the Boy Scouts of America (BSA)-sanctioned Hubert Bennett Jr. Canoe School.
That such an adventure opportunity still exists in our risk-adverse society is inspiring. The Canoe School got its start in the ’70s, when the late Bennett Jr., based in Cookeville, Tenn., began offering youths two-day introductory whitewater lessons through a local paddling club. When current scout leader Steve Isbell got involved in 1997, Bennett Jr. supplied him with a sizable quiver of canoes, gear, and the solid foundations of the program, which is now administered under the auspices of the BSA.
Isbell, a veteran canoeist, has the daunting task of coordinating parent instructors and multiple groups of eight to 10 kids in tandem canoes for a weekend of paddling on the Hiwassee. Canoe School mornings are spent learning safety procedures, paddle strokes and basic whitewater maneuvers. The kids’ confidence typically soars after the Oblique Falls run, which is followed by front- and side-surfing sessions.
“You see some of the little guys and the gunwales of the canoe are practically in their armpits,” Isbell says. “But they’re loving it. At that point I said, ‘this is so cool.'”
Like other Canoe School participants, Thomas eventually graduated from cumbersome tandems to solo boats, and with Isbell’s guidance he experienced more challenging rivers like North Carolina’s Nantahala. Today, he’s a Canoe School volunteer and proud member of the “Lost Tribe” of open boaters-a loosely organized collective of primarily BSA grads who earned their nickname after Southeast single-blade pioneer Michael “Louie” Lewis encountered a sizable Canoe School group on the Hiwassee a few summers ago. Lewis wrote on a popular open-boating Web forum (CBoats.net) that he had “discovered a Lost Tribe” of young canoeists hiding out on central Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau, and the name stuck.
The Canoe School has grown substantially since Lewis’s “discovery.” Both he and Knoxville-based canoeist Dooley Tombras have loaned boats and gear to Isbell’s program, and have welcomed the Lost Tribe paddlers on rivers throughout the Southeast as a part of the annual Ain’t Louie Fest spring gathering. Tombras’s exploits in 2010’s The Canoe Movie made him a headliner when he helped instruct at last August’s Canoe School and then led a group of advanced Scouts down the Ocoee River.
“These kids are the future of open boating,” says Tombras, who’s already signed up to assist with this year’s Canoe School, August 19 to 21. “You look at their faces and you know they’re having an absolute blast. Frankly, I think it’s just awesome.” – Conor Mihell