Serious and Sobering Lesson
By: Alfred Crabtree (Pikeville, Tennessee)
Serious and Sobering Lesson
I was driving home from an exhaustive wake-boarding trip on Saturday,
when a text came in. Sunday I was invited to paddle the Caney Fork
during the dams generations pulse on the backside of Center Hill Dam.
K-bo and I had done it a couple of weeks earlier with a large group of
people, and it was quite fun. Some of us wanted to do it again, and the
idea of doing it with a smaller group of people sounded good to me. I
got home and found my cousin had flown in unexpectedly and was visiting
my dad. She's from Austin, TX, and a cubicle dweller who has recently
found the beauty and activities we offer her in TN. I though it would be
great for her to come out with me in the double kayak and paddle the 9
miles with the aid of the generation schedule. It's kinda like cruise
control; you can paddle when you want, drift when you want and still
make good time. She was a little tentative and nervous; in the morning
she told me of a premonition she had of the boat tipping over and
drowning. I went to great length to explain to her she's not
encapsulated in the boat, it averages 2 to 4 feet deep, no white water,
the two man is extra roomy, and I could carry the brunt of the paddling
effort if need be. No premonitions, just anxiety. "Don't let the fear
take the wheel and steer", an Incubus quote I often use..
So we go to the put in at the dam, and there is the generator output; a
large white mushroom of foam, perhaps 30 feet in diameter looming in the
distance. There is a sign that says "102 people have died here, 101
weren't wearing a life vest." She's still a little nervous. One of my
good pals pulls up, high fives - a little conversation about the sign;
how alcohol was a stat we'd have liked to see in it. A good few minutes
of reassurances to my cuz, and the others arrive..
Pretty soon two of us leave to stage a truck at the takeout, 9 miles
down the river. I'm driving and so is another. Right when we get back to
the ramp, I get a call from my cousin, and it's garbled. She's telling
me something important, I can tell, but what I don't know. I turn the
corner and we make eye contact and put down the phones, knowing we will
continue the conversation in person. I see that she is stressed; My
buddy whom I high-fived earlier has gotten in his kayak and instead of
heading downstream, wandered towards the dam, intent on getting a good
photo of the foam boil.
I was told he seemed to be fine; he was in choppy water but not near the
boil; much closer than the spectators felt comfortable though. Still, a
hundred yards, give or take.
Then he disappeared.
A few minutes later, HALF of his kayak floated into view, along with dry
bags, boxes, etc. Everyone was mortified. Scanning the horizon, nothing,
absolutely nothing was seen. A truck pulled up, and people who had seen
the episode go down from a much higher, better viewpoint had called 911,
and said his vest was on the beach. Or maybe it was one of our group,
who had paddled out a little bit to get a better vantage point saw it -
it's unclear to me, since I just pulled up onto the scene. People were
crying; fifteen minutes or so had passed. The thought of death weighed
heavily on all of us. TWRA had come down, and ordered a boat put in.
When their boat pulled up, our pal came out of the bush along the base
of a cliff and retold his story.
Everything was fine, he was even in a calm pocket, when all of a sudden
a six-foot wave capsized him and left him scrambling for his life. He
had to make several different attempts to approach the shore as the
chaos made some swim methods untenable. Face first, swimming the crawl
meant taking mouthfuls of water. He eventually went to his back or side
stroked his way into calmer waters, and eventually the shoreline. Safe.
We were all so relieved when we saw him, many hugs and tears were
This person is a very conscientious, safety oriented dude. He made a
decision that almost cost him his life. Sometimes, in the things we do,
ignorance creeps in and can cause mayhem. I say ignorance, because he
had no idea that the power of that generation flume could reach out so
far away from where it appears the chaos is limited to. I want to make
it clear that this is not a shaking your finger account of what
happened. That easily could have been me. I do stuff like that. We all
do; rigging ropes, traversing exposures, stepping over logs without
seeing whats on the other side. Assumptions are made, guesses are made,
leaps are taken.
I'm just glad he is OK.
I know, one day, I'll lose a friend, or they'll lose me. On a beautiful
day, without a care in the world, doing the things we love, with people
we love. I think the takeaway I'm trying to share with you is to really
take it all in that every time we share an adventure with our peeps,
something very serious and sobering can occur, and if it doesn't -
that's a win.
Oh yeah - my cuz? Well, she got in the boat with me anyways and the rest
of us finished the paddle. We found a dry box with our buddies personal
effects in it two miles downstream. Kind of a win!