I don't like to criticize people who boat alone for a couple of reasons: (1) I do it myself. Well, OK, not on anything hard; the most difficult river I've ever paddled unaccompanied and with no other boaters in sight, is the Ocoee, a couple of weekdays last summer when I took the southern route home from Colorado (it was wonderful, putting on at 10:00 AM and having the river to myself, and seeing that even a battered and beat ol' river like the Ocoee can be beautiful when it is not polluted with hypalon, ABS, and polyethyline). (2) Everything one does in life is a matter of balancing risk, whether consciously or not. If someone finds that the risks of boating alone are balanced by the pleasure he gains from being out there on the river by himself, no one should second-guess him. We all weigh the risk of driving to work against the value of our earnings, and drive to work. Some people just have a greater tolerance for risk, or receive a greater reward from boating alone, than others.
But the decision to boat alone should be an informed decision, informed by experience and, if necessary, by research. Yesterday, July 4th, I was on the Cheat Canyon in West Virginia with three companions; Jeff Davis in an open boat, and Sally Resnick and David Hafera in kayaks. The level was 2.4' at the Albright Bridge, rising to peak at 2.5' before we got off -- somewhere around the high end of "low" or the low end of "medium". During the course of the day we saw about thirty other boaters in groups of three and four, one pair, and... one guy, who passed us in the Class III- stretch below Big Nasty, boating alone. We were going to get to see this guy again.
As we were eddy-hopping down Even Nastier, Jeff and I wound up in the same mid-river eddy near the bottom, and I noticed someone in boating gear standing on the left bank, scanning the river but not paying us any attention. We ferried across and introduced ourselves, and asked if there were a problem. Yep, there was. This young man, whom I'll call George, had flipped and bashed his hand, and dropped his paddle. "When I came up", he said, he could not find his paddle anywhere. We assumed this meant he had made a hand roll, perhaps in a convenient hole, or, if we didn't assume that, at any rate did not call him on the story. Subsequent observation convinced me, at least, that he was just sort of glossing over an out-of-boat experience.
I carry, instead of a spare canoe paddle, one of those cheap Mohawk or Carlisle (I cannot tell one from the other) touring-kayak breakdown paddles. This thing cost a mere $19.95 and is worth every penny of it. I bought it because, for an additional $9.95 one can get a pair of T-grips that snap into the two halves. I cut down the shaft of the female end as much as possible, and drilled three new holes for the catch -- one hole for the T-Grip, with a 0 degree feather, and two additional holes so I can make a kayak paddle with either 0, 45, or 75 degree feather. The result is two spare canoe paddles, one too short and one wayyyyyy too short, which can form a slightly long (~205 cm) kayak paddle with a choice of feather angle and no handedness, since the blades are symmetrical and a lefty can just reverse them. If two people on the trip lose their paddles, they both will have to use paddle halves with the T-grips attached. The very short paddle is probably a good length for a sitting kayaker. Of course, if you want to really see something funny, you need to watch a kayaker trying to get down a whitewater river with a canoe paddle -- even a very, very short canoe paddle!
So, back at Even Nastier, we helped George not find his paddle, then I gave him my breakdown, and he accompanied us for the rest of the trip. As we floated, he told us of his flip and implied hand-roll, of how he always boats alone, even though his friends and classmates at WVU in Morgantown think he is crazy, and how he has successfully boated the Upper and Lower Yough, among other rivers, including many personal first descents. Some of my friends looked askance, but I assumed he knew what he was doing. I know other people who boat alone, and George was clearly not an idiot; he told me later that he is in the process of applying to several doctoral programs. I told him that if he needed to dash down the river at the rate he had originally passed us, to meet someone, or whatever, to just leave the breakdown on top of my van at the takeout. Fortunately, he elected to continue with us, since this was his first time on the Cheat.
All seemed to go well. George was able to manage with my funky excuse for a kayak paddle, though I took the cheat route on the rapid just above Cueball, explaining loudly that "the slot's a lot of fun on a warm day, but in this drizzle I'm taking the right side", and George followed me while the others ran the slot.
We had lunch at Cueball and when we got back into our boats I told George "now the Cheat Canyon starts to get interesting." How right I was. I just ran straight through Fist (AKA "Anticipation") since I couldn't think of any good way to explain it and a kayaker sits too low to scout it from the last-chance eddy. I think all my friends came next, and George came last while Jeff and I were bailing; that wave in Fist just throws you through the air, and always puts water in open boats. George looked wobbly coming off the wave, became too busy bracing to see where he was going, and floated up against a big boulder where the current immediately flipped him upstream. For someone who had implied a hand-roll earlier in the day, George didn't waste a second getting out of his boat this time! David charged after him shouting "grab that paddle! Don't lose that paddle" while Jeff and I dumped our boats as quickly as we could. Before David could catch up to him George followed his boat into a sluiceway in the boulder sieve in the middle of the river (you will remember that after running Fist you always move to extreme river left to head downstream). The boat did a two-point pin across the sluice and immediately disappeared completely under water -- it made a jim-dandy pourover -- while George managed to scamper up onto the small boulder forming the right side of the sluice.
After I finished dumping my boat I clambered up onto a rock one slot right of the one George was on, where I could see that Sally was out of her kayak on the big boulder forming the left side of the sluice, while Jeff was ashore on a rock ledge 50 feet upstream of the pin, keeping David in his kayak as safety boater for the rest of us. I didn't see a lot of purpose in my position, since it looked to me that George's boat was going to have to go out to the left, so I signaled Jeff, and with his concurrence boated downstream to the back of the boulder Sally was on. Some time while I was in my boat, or hauling it onto a small rock, or climbing up to join Sally, evidently George, while 'binering Sally's rope to the river-right grabloop of the pinned boat, slipped off his rock and was sucked down and beneath his boat... and, thank goodness, out the other side, where he climbed up the back of the same rock he had just fallen from.
From closer -- just six or eight feet above the river-left end of the pinned boat -- I felt more strongly than ever that all that was required was to lift the left end and pull toward the left. The right end was held down and under George's rock by the current; there was no way the boat was going to the right and not much chance it could be hauled upstream against the current. I just couldn't see any way to get down to it to get a grip on that grabloop. But by now Jeff had gotten a rope to George from above, and George had tied it to Sally's line, which was attached to the river-right grabloop. Sally moved farther to river left on her boulder, to try and pull the boat to the left while Jeff tried to pull it enough upstream to break it loose. No luck; not a budge. But, voila, Sally's rope was now stretched from a low point of the boulder, across the angled face, and along parallel to the hull of the boat. A perfect support line. I just worked my way out along the line, pulled up and left on that river-left grabloop, and the boat popped right out. While Sally worked the boat around into the eddy behind the boulder we were working from, I tossed George my throw-rope and belayed him into the same eddy. Boat and (very white-faced) boater were reunited. Now, back to... uh-oh... the meat of the Cheat.
The next rapid was Teardrop. In the pool below, Jeff, from his boat, threw George a rope while Sally and I recovered George's boat. George was improving; this time he never let go of the paddle! So what comes after Teardrop? Uhhh, just High Falls. I told George that I would accompany him in a gentle stroll along the right bank. Jeff, Sally, and David later reported that High Falls rapid was awesome at this level. Thanks, guys. After George and I got back in our boats Jeff probed a very nice sneak line down the left of Maze. I'd never been over there before, but it was a smooth, easy line. Then I told George that I have been needing to scout the left side of the gorge for a sneak route around Upper Coliseum, for club trips when someone was having a bad day, and that George's Bad Day was the perfect chance. So George followed me, and we slipped, slithered, and gorilla-walked down the left. Let it be known that the sneak of Upper Coliseum opens up somewhere above 2.5'.
I set up safety -- needlessly, since Jeff, Sally, and David had flawless runs of Upper Coliseum. We got through Middle Coliseum intact, and Jeff called George ashore to bank-scout Pete Morgan's rapid (Lower Coliseum). They found a slip'n'slide line down along the left bank, which George took while the rest of us "yee-haw"ed through Pete's. The Class II-III paddle out to the High Bridge was uneventful.
I think Jeff laid the lecture on George during our paddle out, but I didn't give him a hard time; he's not stupid and I don't think I could have told him anything he had not figured out during the previous four hours or so. I don't think he is going to do a lot of solo first descents in the future. The Cheat was beautiful at a medium level, on a mild drizzly summer day with good companions and very little other traffic (whom we only encountered at put-in, take-out, and three playspots). I sure am glad we made the long day-trip out there. I'll bet George is, too.
Richard Hopley, Rockville, MD, USA (301) 330-8265
Nothing really matters except Boats, Sex, and Rock'n'Roll