“Dad, I know we can hike out of here”, said my youngest son, Graham, as I looked up at the grey sky, flecks of rain touching my face. He was 15, at the time, and there was real fear in his eyes and concern for me and his brothers. I hoped he wouldn’t see the fear in mine. I knew he was wrong, but I looked up at the cliffs around us , wondering if we had any options, as I listened to the roar of the upcoming rapids. I looked at the river racing by and wanted to sprout wings and just fly out of there, but, I knew there was no turning back. We were committed and there was only one way out of this – downstream and through the Five Falls on the Chattooga River.
This river was made famous by the 1972 movie, Deliverance. In addition to making the song Dueling Banjos number 2 on the Hot 100 for four weeks (just behind Roberta Flack’s Killing Me Softly), that movie inspired a generation of new paddlers to “try” the river and virtually birthed the white-water rafting industry. That movie had some other quite memorable scenes (I never looked at Ned Beatty the same) and who could forget when that hand, holding a shotgun, burst through the water surface in the dream sequence. That movie was memorable on so many levels.
It was a rainy day in June of 2003, following one of the wettest springs we’d had in a long time. We had hit the road early for the Chattooga River and a day of rafting. My three sons had all chipped in to take me on a rafting trip down this famous river for my 45th birthday. I thought it would be a lot of fun for us to experience this together – you know, as MEN. Sort of a “Wild at Heart” experience that we could share together. My oldest son and I had done this trip the summer before, during one of the driest summers we’ve had in years. That summer some portions of the river where so dry we had to get out of our raft and drag it along. On one of the falls in this section it was so dry that our raft basically folded in half as we “scooched” our way through the V in the rock and our guide literally landed on top of us as we “fell” down the falls. That would, however, not be the case on this trip.
We had come to run section IV, the last seven miles of this scenic river and the most challenging with class III and IV rapids (and one class VI that, thankfully, the state of Georgia would not let “civilian” paddlers run). With excitement and a little trepidation we picked out our helmets, paddles and life vests and listened to our guide, Youngblood, tell us what to expect in his “sing-song” California dialect that ended every sentence with an up note and a question mark. It would be the four of us and our guide in our raft and there were four or five other groups with us on this trip. As we made our way down to the water we “met” an 80 year old woman who would be in the raft in front of ours. “This can’t be that hard”, I thought as we pushed off and took our place in line. As we passed under the Route 76 bridge I barely noticed that the water level was up 1.5 feet above normal. Just under the bridge we were caught up in the current as the grey sky began to drizzle a light rain and we headed downstream.
We moved from side to side following our guide’s, directions. “Um, let’s go right two forward, please?” as we ran through a series of Class III rapids with names like Surfing Rapid, Screaming Right Hand Turn and Rock Jumble. About 3 miles into our 7 mile journey, Youngblood, began giving us instructions on how to run 7 Foot Falls – a very tall and complicated drop that runs sideways, left-to-right. We watched as the raft with our “80 year old friend” dropped into the chute and disappeared to the left and bounced off the wall at the bottom and shot out of the fall no worse for wear. I was on the right side of our boat in the second position, my middle son, Daniel, in front of me, and my job was to paddle hard and to make sure we made the turn. We stuck for a brief moment, and I sensed Youngblood tensing up as if something was wrong. I discovered he was right as we dropped down the fall and hit the sheer rock face at the bottom. I watched in horror as the left side of our raft, where my oldest son, Ben, and my youngest son, Graham sat, climbed that rock wall as our raft rolled over on top of me. In that brief second or two, as our raft rolled I saw two things happen simultaneously. First, I saw our guide crawl, as nimble as a water spider, to the top of that side of the raft and disappear over the edge and onto the bottom of our raft – which had now become the top. Secondly, I saw Graham fall towards me, hitting me in the face with his knee, as he passed over me, and I fell backwards into the rushing waters. In the back of my mind I heard our guide’s earlier instruction – “If you fall into the river, let go of your paddle and swim to the bank as quickly as possible, or you will likely wash over the next fall!”
There seemed to be a problem at this point, however, as I slowly worked out what had happened. I realized that I was under the water with my paddle firmly in hand, and I needed to figure out where the surface was and then try to remember how to get there. When I finally made a decision to break the surface of the water, my son Daniel was holding onto the side of the raft near me and yelling at me me in a slowed down, deeper version of his voice. “Aaarrrre youooooo okayyyyyy?” he said, as I stared at him wondering why he was talking that way. I reached for the raft but couldn’t seem to connect and Daniel grabbed my life preserver and pulled me in closer.
What I didn’t realize at the time was I had experienced Torso Reflex and I was barely breathing, much less communicating. According to lifesaving professionals, Torso Reflex is caused by immersion into water colder than 70 degrees. It triggers an involuntary, reflexive torso gasp “that can cause the person to aspirate water into his airway and lungs, which can lead to disorientation, panic and the loss of any physical ability to swim or remain afloat.” I was all those things and more. There was some guy in a kayak yelling at us to let go of the raft and swim to shore, so, paddle still firmly in hand like a kid’s blanket, I did the best I could to follow his directions. At the bank I dragged myself out of the water and sat down still dazed and unsure of why I was feeling that way. The river guides had decided we would break for lunch and, surprisingly, none of them talked to me – they seemed to even avoid me, (That is probably just my dazed memory) as we all sat down to our sandwiches and thoughts of what was next on the river.
After lunch, we put back in the river and headed for the most difficult section of this run. Past Stekoa Creek and Long Creek Falls. Past Deliverance Rock and Raven Chute and down to Camp Creek beach – the beach Graham and I were standing on when he said, “I know we can hike out of here.” Camp Creek is the highwater take out before the Five Falls. I learner later that there is a trail that leads out from there and is the last chance to turn back. Since no one offered us that option, and since none of us were willing to ask if there was one – we all stood there, heads down, and listened as the guides loudly and seriously explained just how easy it was to die in this next section of river. We heard, again, their warnings like, “let go of your paddle”, “swim towards the bank as fast as you can”, and my favorite, “if you miss the last safety rope there is no other option than to go over the next fall on your own.” We loaded up the rafts and reluctantly completed our journey – past falls with names like First Ledge, Cork Screw, Crack-in-the-Rock and Sockem Dog. I held my breath through each one and we finally landed in the aptly named Deadman’s Pool.
By the time of our trip, according to the USDA, there had been 38 deaths on the Chattooga River since 1970. There have been a few more since. One Nashville man, about my age now, fell out of his raft and, according to witnesses, made no attempt to reach for the safety rope (a word picture that haunts me because of how dazed I know I was when I hit that water.) His body was caught under Sockem Dog for more than 12 days. I don’t know what it is inside us, that makes us want to take chances and “cheat” death, but it seems to be in our DNA. Whether it’s a storm on the sea in a boat, a sheer rock face or a raging river – there is something that calls to the deepest part of our souls, asking the question that John Eldredge asks in his book, Wild at Heart; “Do I have what it takes?” Sure, we hear our Mother’s voice, warning, “Be careful” “Get down from there” “You’re going to hurt yourself”, but many of us don’t listen. Like the old Wide World of Sports intro – we look for the “thrill of victory” or face “the agony of defeat.” (see my story, A Hobie Cat Christmas), but these stories and adventures become a part of the fabric of who we are. Not all men seek adventure, but, as William Wallace says to his Lady, near the end of the movie, Braveheart – “Every man dies – not every man really lives.”
I’m thankful for my stories and the memories I share with my wife (she can tell you some sailing stories), my sons (who lived to tell the tale of the Chattooga River) and my beautiful daughter. (By the way, we rented the movie on the way home and my boys were justifiably horrified) I’m also looking forward to the stories to come.
How about you?