By Burt Kornegay
Western North Carolina’s Rocky Broad is a river that gets up and goes, making up in spirited descent for what it lacks in length. Barely ten miles long from its start at the junction of several creeks, the river rushes south in a boulder-pinched channel between Burntshirt Mountain and Rattlesnake Knob, dropping 120 feet a mile on average, then turns sharply east at Bat Cave and plunges even more steeply down the Blue Ridge escarpment to Lake Lure at Chimney Rock.
On January 20, fellow open boater Pat Stone, kayaker Mark Jaben, and I paddled the escarpment portion of the river, known locally by paddlers as the Lower Rocky Broad. The river has carved a stunning gorge in this section—so deep that in winter the sun doesn’t rise high enough to send rays down to the bottom, where cold shade pools for weeks. Though it was sunny and 60 degrees on the rim of the gorge, 1000’ above us, many of the rocks we saw in the rapids were capped with ice, and icicles hung from the cliffs.
This was Mark’s first descent of the river, my second, having been down it with Pat in August. Because it’s close to his home, near Fairview, Pat has run the Lower Rocky Broad probably more than any other canoeist, over 100 times, which has prompted me to nickname it the “Stoney Broad.” Pat’s developed a picture of every rapid in his head, and he has a feel for what it’s like to run each one. Almost as important, Pat knows where it’s legit to put in and take out, and where, if you try to get on the river without permission of the landowners, which is almost everywhere, you’re going to brew trouble both for yourself and for future paddlers. Without Pat’s guidance, I wouldn’t be on the river.
During wet-weather flows of 3.8 or higher on the US 64 bridge gauge, the Rocky Broad is rated Class V, and the first mile in the escarpment section has a gradient of 188’. That’s 6 times steeper than the Class II-III Nantahala rafted by thousands each summer. You won’t find thousands, not even dozens paddling the Rocky Broad, even during good flows in summer, and on our January day we saw no one else at all.
Since no rain had fallen for a week, the Rocky Broad was low, 3.4; and with two exceptions, Redneck and Walker Falls, I’d rate it Class IV, with smaller waves and less powerful currents than at higher flows. This doesn’t mean the rapids were any less steep or closely spaced, however, and they lived up to the river’s name, Rocky. The boat-wide slots we needed to get into, the right-angled turns and constant maneuvering made the Rocky Broad at that level the incarnation of technical boating.
Pat led out, tall and lean in his red Esquif L’Edge. I was in a yellow L’Edge Lite, and Mark in a green Jackson Villain. Spaced a few boat lengths apart, Mark and I followed Pat in a kind of follow-the-leader dance. We turned our boats into the same eddies he turned into, crossed the same currents, slid over the same low ledges. Then the river noticeably steepened, and we reached the first of many harder drops.
Picture this: you’ve just boated down a boulder-strewn ramp and pivoted into a narrow, mid-stream eddy, facing back upstream. The boat now holds a couple of inches of ice water that chills your knees right through your drysuit. Your fingertips, even in neoprene gloves, are cold, but your forehead and armpits are sweaty. Your companions float in their own eddies a few feet on either side, but the current rushes past noisily, making it hard to talk.
Confined to your own thoughts for a few moments, you look up and there’s the rapid you just ran, nakedly exposed, its whitewater tumbling through a maze of rocks. The rapid is not distant, like a picturesque ribbon of white in a landscape, calling for pleasurable contemplation; it’s right there in your face. And you wonder, “Did I actually paddle through THAT?” Your mind plays through a flip, a missed roll, and a bruising swim. But you don’t dwell on it; the next rapid is growling at your back. Its noise converges with the other, making your eddy feel like an uneasy pause of water between full-throated drops.
You crane your neck to look downstream, feeling a little disoriented by the over-the-shoulder view–your body facing one direction, your eyes the other. And here’s what you see: rocks bared like a row of irregularly worn dark molars, and there’s a tree trunk plastered against one of them, wrapped in a bark of ice. The river squeezes between the rocks and is sucked out of sight. You want to grow your neck like a giraffe for a better view, but all you can “see” is the sound of a watery commotion below the horizon line. It’s at a moment like this when you (I, at any rate) may think, What am I doing here?
Pat shouts, “Take the channel to the left of that middle boulder. Go in with right angle. You’ll see a small FU rock coming up. Go left or right of it, either side is good, but don’t let it FU up. Then follow the current, take the boof, and catch the right eddy at the bottom.” I note that he does not say “try to catch the right eddy.” He wants us in it.
I give a couple of taps with the palm of my hand on the top of my helmet, “Got it,” and glance at Mark. Pat peels out into the current, turns downstream and strokes forward to pick up speed, his gaze hawk-like on what is now rushing into view. I watch the angle of his boat, count his strokes. I’ve run enough rapids to know that being in the right place with the right momentum at the get-go means that everything else coming in the meat of the drop will be easier to handle. Pat slides behind the boulder and is gone. After a few seconds I see the white tip of his paddle blade sticking up from below—“Next boat.” Saying to myself, “I can do this,” I ferry over to Pat’s staging eddy, and Mark slides into mine. I take in a breath to buck myself up, let it out, take in another and propel myself out into the current, feeling it grab the hull and turn me towards the drop. For the next few seconds it’s me, the boat, and the paddle negotiating rock-obstructed water maddened by the pull of gravity, the fundamental force of the natural world.
I say “a few seconds,” but it’s not a temporal experience. Rather it’s the sense of sliding headlong into a kind of throat with two mouths, past the teeth of one, riding tongues of current towards the other, and down below, out of sight somewhere, the must-make eddy at the head of the next drop. To capsize on the way is to be eaten. I see the FU rock and skirt right. Then a left-turning neck of churning water comes into view, a crux move. I stroke twice to gain speed, angle left, lean the boat, bank off a rock, and I’m in!
Now coming at me is the last ledge in the drop. Grabbing its lip with my blade, I pull up with my knees to lift the bow and throw the boat forward—out and over the foaming white hole below, to land just beyond with a reassuring “boof.” There’s the eddy on the right, with Pat floating in it, overhung by a leaning crag. I see the mouth of the next rapid just feet away, with the back of the eddy bleeding out into it. My paddle turns into a claw as I pull towards Pat. I breathe, relax, smile, raise my paddle for Mark, and listen to the roar.