By Will Taylor
Southeast boaters have been watching Noccalula Falls for years. The 90-footer that flows through a park in Gadsden, Alabama looked clean, but rarely had enough water to contemplate a run. When whitewater stalwarts Pat Keller, Isaac Levinson, and Chris Gragtmans met at Noccalula on the rainy afternoon of Nov. 28, the river was bank-full. Noccalula was good to go.
"We were happy to find it was runnable," Gragtmans said. "Then it's like, 'Oh shit, it's runnable.'"
Forgoing the planned rock-paper-scissors game to determine the first descent, Levinson and Gragtmans gave Keller the go-ahead. After an hour of scouting and setting safety, they watched from the riverbank as Keller launched into the storm-swollen river. John Grace, a videographer, was filming.
“A couple of waves on the way in made it complicated; the lip was one of the most terrifying things I've seen when it comes to waterfalls,” Keller said. “It had a bump under the surface that changed the water's trajectory, shooting you farther out than you wanted.”
Despite the technical entry, Keller ran a clean line off Noccalula, throwing his paddle about halfway through the nine-story plunge. After a tense six or seven seconds, he emerged from the spray pumping both fists overhead.
"I was so excited that within 15 seconds of Pat running it I grabbed my boat," said Levinson, who took the plunge with a GoPro video camera mounted on his helmet. The resulting footage—rendered first in dramatic slow motion and then at full speed—takes armchair paddlers along for the ride of their lives. Keller wasn’t as lucky, losing his camera to the falls. "I took a pretty savage hit at the bottom, impacting a little over the bars, getting ripped back, and my legs coming free of the kayak."
Gragtmans went next. He ran clean, tucking to keep his boat vertical, but unlike Levinson and Keller he kept his paddle. It snapped across his chest on impact, knocking the wind out of him.
The trio collected the pieces and reached their cars just in time to greet the police, who had been called by a concerned bystander.
"At first they were trying to be intimidating," Gragtmans said. "We responded by being professional. We showed them that we're not idiots, that we have goals, and that there are no signs that said we couldn't run the falls."
The cops let them go.
Now that the good people of Gadsden know that there are kayakers in their midst who may want to run Noccalula again, there's a chance they'll post signs forbidding it. That would be a shame, Gragtmans said. "Running it proves it's navigable. Hopefully in the future it's open for other people who want to throw themselves off that lip."
John Grace's upcoming movie, "Land of Giants," will tell the story of kayaking the Noccalula and the other waterfalls on the southern edge of the Cumberland Plateau. (Click HERE to read more.)
"In all my years of travel, I've never seen so many huge, clean waterfalls that close to each other," Grace said. "It's great to finally catch the descent of Noccalula on video."
Land of Giants will be released online at Amongstit.tv before the New Year.