|Hunt and Pat both have killer nicknames and Paddler of the Year nominations.
Who gets your vote?
While the Southeast has not traditionally been known for its large waterfalls, a crew of young “hucksters” has been chasing rain and redefining the paradigm. At the forefront is Pat Keller, who has more Southeast waterfall first descents than anyone else (Check out his Alabama first from late 2011 HERE). We caught up with Keller and fellow paddler Hunt Jennings after their side-by-side second and third descents of 80-foot Cane Creek Falls in Tennessee. — Chris Gragtmans
Canoe & Kayak: Pat, tell us about your history with this waterfall.
Pat Keller: I first saw a picture of it when I was 14 years old and in a freestyle kayak program for kids. It was a spectacular scene … the main flow thunders over the Cane 80-footer, and a small sliver falls off of 120-foot Rockhouse right next to it. Anywhere you have two rivers crashing into the same pool, you’ve got a special place. I knew I would run it.
Why hadn’t anyone stepped up to it?
It’s a tall drop with a very dangerous undercut in the landing zone on the right, and it is also difficult to catch with enough water.
Can you walk us through your first D?
I had a solid safety posse that day, and I felt good about my chances of running the waterfall correctly and coming out away from the wall. Typically with a big drop, I’ve got a bunch of nerves, but on that day all felt right. I peeled out of the last safe spot and rolled it over the edge, having a great line. Once at the bottom, I could see that the undercut was far, far worse than I had thought, and I gave thanks that I was able to be successful. Dream accomplished … can’t beat that feeling!
What did it do for your waterfall exploration fever?
Waterfall fever is part of who I am. What started as playing with wood and foam boaters in tiny creeks progressed into personal first descents on increasingly complex rapids. Before I knew it, I was standing at the edge of a previously un-run waterfall, the line in my mind clear. While the dangers changed, the feeling—and the drive for more—never changed. It’s the best feeling there is.
Hunt, what were you thinking when you arrived for the second/third D attempt?
Hunt Jennings: It was a big day for me because I had just recovered from a head injury sustained from a waterfall of the same height. In spite of the mental challenges and some criticism from peers, it was time to get back in the game. As soon as I saw the left (previously un-run) line, I was feeling good about it. Next issue … safety. Only three people in the group, how can we do safety AND media? That’s when the tandem descent idea came up.
What was the experience like?
Hunt: It was incredible running such a big drop simultaneously with a good friend. I was depending on him, and he was depending on me. This made it much more dynamic and much more meaningful.
Pat: Hunt’s a great kid to be in pursuit with—stoked, knowledgeable, careful and humble. We did a series of warm-up exercises above the waterfall to get warmed for impact and surfed an awesome wave at our put-in to relax. As we peeled out above the drop, I glanced over as Hunt fell away. “Good luck buddy!” I then turned my focus to my line and that one last curler before the edge. After free-falling down the beast, I landed with my boat a little less than vertical and rocketed safely out away from the falls. Hunt stuck his line with nothing worse than the wind knocked out of him, and we celebrated by paddling under adjacent Rockhouse Falls and admiring our spectacular surroundings. Amazing day!
So are there any other possible First D’s in the forecast?
Hunt: There are ‘unspoken limits’ in this region, and everyone seems to gravitate toward the classic runs. However, there are many, many 60-plus-foot waterfalls left, and hopefully we can continue ticking them off!