“The rain is falling. We know where we want to go … “
The torrential rainfall in the Southeast meant one thing to stalwart North Carolina kayaker Pat Keller: Fall Creek would be raging off the Cumberland Plateau, maybe scouring a deeper landing for Ozone Falls, one of the biggest paddling prizes in the region. Maybe.
There was good reason the triple-digit vertical drop had never been run. Arriving Wednesday to see the tiny Tennessee creek swollen, Keller and his small crew of friends began studying the entrance flow, putting together the “puzzle pieces” of the various hazards standing in the way of a first descent. “There’s a lot of factors that were really frightening,” Keller said.
First was the high flow over a flat-to-vertical lip: “That makes it really hard to set your angle,” Keller notes. Then there’s the normal creek size to consider, which, “makes a pretty shallow landing pool.” Add in the sheer height to compound the landing risk: “The impact’s exponentially larger the higher you get … talking bone-breaking, face-smashing, any of the bad things--knocked unconscious, break your neck.” Oh, yeah, and don’t forget the rapid 100 feet downstream of the landing pool, blocked by a log and a nasty rock sieve: “There’s a lotta factors that stack up to why it hadn’t been run,” Keller concluded.
But this is fairly typical winter conundrum for Keller, who’s notched more than his share of firsts. He and Chattanooga paddler Hunt Jennings had recently scored side-by-side second and third descents of 80-foot Cane Creek Falls, while last winter, he and fellow Asheville, N.C., kayaker Chris Gragtmans were part of a crew that opened up Alabama’s Noccalula Falls. So atop Ozone, Jennings, Keller, and Gragtmans weighed their options.
“Honestly, it looked like even with the perfect vertical line, you could knock yourself out or break your back,” said Gragtmans, who decided to test the landing by sending his boat over the falls empty. It resurfaced and washed into the sieve. He and Jennings opted to set safety below the drop.
Keller was scared. But, scared for a different reason; he saw a line. “I knew I could do it … you’re scared for a good reason because you know you can accomplish it, believe in your self, your training and your visualizations.” Knowing he didn’t want to land flat, or plug the landing and go deep into a shallow pool, Keller felt right about the water level over the smooth lip. He understood his only landing option and felt good, “putting the puzzle pieces together.”
Check out the Keller’s take on breaking the 100-foot Ozone layer, above, and stay tuned to Canoekayak.com for Keller’s full breakdown of the drop.
Where’s the POV footage? His helmet cam’s likely still at the bottom of the river (as is the GoPro that was strapped to Gragtmans’ kayak). After the drop, the crew measured the drop at 101-102 feet. And regarding Keller’s auto-ejection, they’ll leave that to the critics. Says Gragtmans, “I believe that the general consensus is that world records don’t count if the paddler ejects, but first descents do. Different people may have different opinions, but as far as I’m concerned, if they line it up and take the hit, even if it results in ejection, it is the first D.”