I never made it to the Ocoee with the ancient boat. The Ocoee was a river I was perfectly happy in.  Even on a bad day, I knew what to watch out for and where I could fudge the run.  I’ve been nearly drowned there, and I’ve done some of my most controlled paddling there, and everything…EVERYTHING… in between.

So, I wasn’t going to learn anything there about paddling unfamiliar water in my long, obsolete creekboat.  I’ll say now that it was a Savage Gravity.  Savage was the brand name- and it wasn’t the only Savage boat I ever owned, just my least favorite.  The model was called ‘Gravity’.  It was a pumped-up version of their whitewater playboat, the Scorpion.

I don’t recall how I got it, to tell you the truth.  I did a couple of deals here and there over the years for boats- some Dagger work in trade for one of their canoes, for instance; and I recall having worked on some Tshirt designs for Savage, though I don’t remember how the deals came about, and I don’t remember any of the shirts ever being produced.  Also, there may have been some logo work done with Mike that went haywire.  Anyhow, back then I was young, the economy was booming for advertising illustrators like me, and I didn’t yet have kids… so I had the time AND money to collect boats and weird stories about how they’d been got.

To get on unfamiliar water, I went to a river called the Cheoah with Mike, taking only the old creekboat so that I’d have no choice but to paddle it.  I should have taken my reluctance to paddle the thing as a subconscious prompting that I just wasn’t happy with it.  It nagged at the back of my mind all the way to the river.  The Cheoah is one of Mike’s favorite rivers now.  It was opened to recreational kayakers only a couple of years ago after its bed had been dry for decades. Mike was very complimentary about the run, and got me excited at the idea too, finally.

So.  The Cheoah. It’s not the smooth, wide run of the Ocoee. The rocks in it are sharp and formidable.  There’s a waterfall. It’s not Western Whitewater, like the Grand Canyon would be, but it wasn’t what I was used to, so it would serve a good purpose.  Before we go farther, I should point out that the purpose it would serve would be to unman me, make me worry that I’d die either on the Cheoah, or in the Grand Canyon, and lead me to do something that would make Mike really, really mad at me.  Looking back, I can’t decide how bad an idea it was; whether it was a truly horrible idea, or just a crappy idea that was just what I needed anyhow.

Fred and Kathy joined us for the run, and so did Drew Armstrong, one of the most amazingly competent men I ever hope to meet.  He once pronounced that he knew of a dozen or so ways to start a fire without matches or a lighter, then went on to demonstrate six or seven, even allowing the rest of us to give it an unsuccessful shot. You’d think that the fun and camaraderie would calm my nerves about my old creekboat. Nah.

This old boat was long and straight, tippy side to side, and made to keep your knees low for a sleek profile.  It was awful.  It was so old, and the intervening years had seen boats with higher knee placement, much more volume, and shorter length come into style.  The new boats were much more stable and yet easy to turn.

For a forty two year old like me, the low knees placements were murderous.  In fact, I suppose they turned out slightly less than murderous, because I lived.

The run was a cramped, uncomfortable, unstable mess from the beginning.  This thing was fast in a straight run, but there’s very little room for that on the Cheoah.  What there is room for is ducking and dodging between things and sprints to nearby eddies where the length of the boat worked against me badly.  I brought the boat to see if it was the sort of thing I could sit in for sixteen straight days out West.  I discovered that I couldn’t sit comfortably in it for a single run down a new river.

The discomfort of the boat and my estrangement from kayaking resulted in panic upstream of the waterfall. The waterfall has a tricky lead-up to it, too.  That didn’t help.  Nor did the fact that I had to be lead down some sneak routes coming into the waterfall area.  When I finally worked and sweated my way to the set up point, I guess I felt I had a handle on things.  You were supposed to run toward the fall, aiming at a jutting rock.  The water rushed across the rock and would sweep you to the right as you dropped over.  That’s not as tricky as it sounds, and I could visualize it.  Of course, I can visualize flapping my arms and flying around, too.  I ran at the rock and instead of shooting nearly straight over it, pushed only slightly to the right by the force of water, I shot sideways to the right and plunged down where I didn’t want to be.  I landed badly, fought for control, and lost it. I’d flipped the boat, panicked, bailed out, and swam for shore before good sense kicked in.

A lot of other people worked very hard to retrieve my boat for me.  I lost a new water bottle, lost my pride and lost every bit of self-confidence I had.  That was probably a good thing.  I had become pretty complacent about the Grand Canyon run.  Old memories of competence on unfamiliar water led me to think I could weather whatever I needed to.  Not so.  I vowed not to take my old creek boat, even though the cost of a new boat was out of my reach and I was so out of touch with kayaking that I had no idea what boat might suit me anyway.

Mike, as usual, came to the rescue.  He loaned me a wonderful Dagger brand boat called a Mamba.  I wanted to get back on the Cheoah and shake the fear I had of it now.  So the next day I ran it in the Mamba, not entirely upright, but always in the boat.  Rolling the Mamba the next day above a narrow run, I felt some control return.  I was thinking while I was upside down, not just panicking.  I rolled the boat and went on.  That was what I needed:  to learn that I could panic, and to learn that I could keep from panicking.  My choice.  I wasn’t ready to run off to the Grand Canyon, but it was as close as I was going to get.

Mike wanted to borrow the Savage Scorpion for a race during Memphis In May.  I was glad to agree.  In a fit of pique at the miserable, awful boat, though, I went ahead and listed it on Craigslist.  I figured it would take a month or two to sell and by that time Mike would have raced it and that’d be that.  It sold within hours.  And another boat I had.  Mike was rightly ticked off.  I’d agreed to loan him the boat and then sold it.  In my defense,  I can’t think that Mike would have done very well with it.  It was a wretched thing altogether.  After letting me know I’d been a thoughtless (insert favorite rude name here) Mike forgave me, and I gave him the money from my two boat sales for the Dagger Mamba he’d loaned me on the Cheoah.  I should have charged more for the boats… obviously they sold too quickly to be priced well, and if I’d gotten more money for them I could have afforded a camera to take on the trip with me.  But I was now out of discretionary funds and it was time to pack.