Traversing the Obed’s Whitewater with Class V Boater Kirk Eddlemon

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OUTDOORS_0723_2Before Day Two of my whitewater kayaking lesson with guidebook author Kirk Eddlemon, I made a mental note to ask him about a rapid I’d seen on the Obed Wild and Scenic River map: Widow Maker. But I didn’t want to know anything about it until I was out of the tiny green boat and safely on dry land.

The day before, Eddlemon wasn’t sure he should even take me to Clear Creek, a tributary of the Obed, for the run of four and a half miles from Barnett Bridge to Jett Bridge. I had struggled with every aspect of the sport.

Turns out I do not like being upside down underwater, not for five seconds, not even for two seconds. This is one of the first things you learn, how to keep your wits underwater and execute what’s called a “wet exit.” You turn upside down and pull the handle on the front of the elastic cover (skirt) that seals your cockpit and swim out of the confinement to the surface. I coughed. I sputtered. I cursed. We were on the Little River above Peery’s Mill, in a pool, not moving water, much less whitewater.

Turns out that, no matter how hard I tried, I could not paddle a whitewater kayak in anything resembling a straight line. It did not matter that I had paddled thousands of miles in canoes and touring kayaks. Eddlemon’s patient instructions seemed to have no effect on my navigational line, which resembled the course of a waterbug on methamphetamine. I understood the function of the four basic strokes—the forward stroke, the stern draw, the sweep and the bow draw—but I could not execute them if a paddle were held to my head.

After about an hour and a half, I started to feel constricted and claustrophobic in the little cockpit, with the elastic, girdle-like skirt band around my abdomen, the helmet, the sides of the cockpit constricting my hips and knees. “I’ve got to have a break,” I said.

“Have you ever given a lesson to someone my age?” I asked Eddlemon, thinking that at 57, I might be too old to learn this.

“I’ve been working with an 80-year-old woman,” he said.

Eddlemon’s two-volume guide, Whitewater of the Southern Appalachians, is a remarkable achievement, testifying to his passion, knowledge and mastery of a difficult sport where failure can have dire consequences. At 34, he has been a serious kayaker for 15 years, which does not seem that long, considering the encyclopedic and detailed nature of his books. He’s what is known as a Class V boater, someone who runs impossible-looking cascades where the wrong move could be your last. But his teaching impressed me as much as his books and his boating skills.

Eddlemon, who is affiliated with Ace Kayaking School, said something to me that kept me going on Day One, even though I was a walking creek, the Little River sloshing around in my ears and sinuses.

“Hey, we’re just going to run the river this afternoon. Don’t worry about all those strokes.”

I’d been trying too hard. On page one of William Nealy’s book Kayak, he writes, “Be Loose… [Don’t be the] tight kayaker [who] fights the river or you will get creamed.” The cartoon shows a kayaker tilting to the side, his mouth open in horror, eyes bulging.

We were running a four-mile section of Class I water (“Fast moving water with riffles and small waves,” according to American Whitewater) that I’d done a few times in a canoe and touring kayak, from Townsend down to Foothills Parkway. About the time I made it through a couple of mild rapids and gained a bit of confidence, I wobbled into what’s called the eddy line at the bottom of a rapid. This is the place where the water that has been pushing through a gradient or constricted area flattens out and swirls, the current pushing into the opposite direction of the rapid. You’re supposed to turn into these areas to relax, but it takes a certain technique, a lifting of the knee and a turn of the torso that’s counterintuitive, at least counter to what intuition I possess. Instead of crossing the eddy line and leaning gracefully, I flipped and did a wet exit. Coughed and sputtered and gasped.

Eddlemon helped me empty the Liquid Logic Flying Squirrel of water, helped me get the skirt over the cockpit and patiently explained, once again, with a new metaphor, how the currents of an eddy work. I think he used a traffic pileup comparison. He assured me that I was fighting against millennia of evolution to do the things he was asking of me today.

“We were not meant to travel through the water in this way,” he said. He assured me that every beginner has trouble with the eddies and being underwater.

About two-thirds through the run, he started talking about Day Two and how much I would love Clear Creek. At this point, I was thinking that if I was having this much trouble on the Little River, a stream I was familiar with, how would I do on this wilderness stream that would have bigger water and more technical rapids?

Eddlemon’s enthusiasm and his apparent confidence in me steeled my resolve, and something that happened at the takeout, beside my car, seemed a good omen of sorts.

At the passenger door of my car, Eddlemon said, “I’m glad I looked down. Come here and see.” Right beside where he was about to step to get into the car, a small copperhead was curled. He found a stick and gently moved the writhing varmint into the kudzu so that he could get in for the trip back to his car. This guy was some kind of snake whisperer. I needed to find out what else he would do.

That night was an uneasy one. I tried to keep a positive, upbeat attitude about the next day of my whitewater lesson, but my family trait of worrying was getting the best of me. One of William Nealy’s “Basic Precepts of Serious ‘River Fear’: If you think you’re going to die, you probably will.” Not that helpful, William.

I got to the Obed Ranger station a half hour before Eddlemon, indicative of one of my bad habits in whitewater: being overeager to execute moves before I should.

I asked the ranger, Chance, if she did much paddling on the Obed. She said it was not her first choice of recreation. She preferred rock climbing.

“Why’s that?”

“I took a long swim on the Obed,” she said, which in understated whitewater terms meant she’d fallen out of the boat and had to battle for her life among the rocks and turbulence. “After that I decided I’d rather die quickly than slowly.”

When Eddlemon got there, she told him there had been three rescues over Fourth of July weekend, and they chuckled and shook their heads. One group had camped and not secured their boats properly so that the river took them away that night. There were other shenanigans typical of holiday weekends when the water is higher than usual and people’s desire for adventure outruns their common sense and ability.

Normally, Eddlemon runs the Obed system in the winter and early spring. Because it’s a free-flowing river, its current not provided by dam generators, as on the Hiwassee, the Ocoee and the Pigeon, among many others—the Obed system is rarely runnable in the summer months. Today, Eddlemon said, the flow—at 500 cubic feet per second—was ideal for a beginner run.

We would stop at the head of every rapid and Eddlemon would quiz me on how I thought we should run it, and then I would follow his path as best I could. He seemed to float in the air through the turbulence. He could turn sideways and seemingly stop in the churning water whenever he wanted. When I went through, nothing seemed slow, and nothing felt smooth. Sometimes I hacked at the water as if to punish it. I am glad there are no photos of my face as I came out of rapids.

“Just look where you want to go,” said Eddlemon, referring to rotating the torso and using the hips and knees to control the boat. He had a way of simplifying what seemed horrifyingly complex in the heat of a run.

By the time we stopped for lunch on a flat rock, I had gained some confidence from the fact that I had stayed upright. This water was much bigger than the Little River’s rock-clogged riffles, and the turns had to be executed more quickly and more accurately than on Day One.

After lunch we went through a couple of slots, small openings between rocks, and we crashed over some drops, where the spray rose above my head and soaked me with cool water. The drops or ledges were my favorite part.

“Just square it up,” he said, “and paddle steady.”

After a particularly long run, a rapid that seemed endless, I came out at the bottom in the “calm” water (another eddy line) and found myself underwater. I tried to stay under until Eddlemon came to do a “T Rescue,” but just as he knocked on the hull of my boat, a signal to reach up, I had grabbed the loop of my skirt to wet exit.

The swim drained me of some of the energy and confidence I had attained to that point.

As if to challenge my resilience, Eddlemon had me lead a few runs after that, and other than bumping into large rocks (“It’s best to hit them straight on,” he said) and pinwheeling through a passage, I remained upright. The last one was a double drop that ended in a high-five from the teacher.

“I can ask you now, I guess. Was that Widow Maker?”

“Widow Maker is on the Obed,” he said. “We’re on Clear Creek.” I was always worrying about the wrong things. Eddlemon went on to explain that knowing the dangers (like the undercuts below rocks on our run) enables paddlers to avoid them and that some of the rapids got their names in the mid-20th century when people were running these rivers for the first time. Typically, they ran at low water, and the Widow Maker had what’s called a “pin rock” that snagged a canoeist.

It was a great relief to be on land and hauling the boats up to the parking lot. After the struggles of the first day, I was glad to have forced myself to follow Eddlemon down Clear Creek, and I was able to calm down enough to appreciate its wildness in the sections of flatwater: the hemlocks and rhododendrons, the seeps that dripped like rows of rain drops, and big sandstone boulders that had, over time, tumbled from the ridge line thousands of feet above us. One of them resembled a grouper the size of a moving van. Eddlemon, a geologist by trade, described how the gorge had been formed through the force of the water, wind and time. We were greeted by no one other than a kingfisher and a cormorant on the river.

It occurred to me that, exhausted as I was, the run had to be particularly tiresome for Eddlemon to not only get himself down the creek, albeit a tame section for him, but to also shepherd a novice through tight passages and watch every move I made. I needed a beer.

Eddlemon, on the other hand, asked me to run a shuttle for him. He was going to run a stretch of the Obed solo. As he peeled out in the current on the Obed, I realized that this was the kind of sport that could claim you in the same way that those eddy lines were grabbing the hull of my kayak and trying to pull me over. The attraction was palpable. We live in a region rich with wild rivers and creeks that give you access to scenery only attained by negotiating with whitewater. And to think, we almost allowed the Obed to be dammed in the 1960s, a colossal blunder averted, in part, by the work of people who wanted to run free-flowing whitewater and to keep it unspoiled and rich with wildlife.

Featured photo at top by Kirk Eddlemon. 

Outdoors Columnist |

Kim Trevathan's Voice in the Wilderness takes readers on an exploration of the Knoxville area’s outdoors. An associate professor at Maryville College, he teaches creative nonfiction, journalism, fiction, and nature writing. His books, all published by the University of Tennessee Press, are "Paddling the Tennessee River: A Voyage on Easy Water" (2001), "Coldhearted River: A Canoe Odyssey Down the Cumberland" (2006), and "Liminal Zones: Where Lakes End and Rivers Begin" (2013).

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