We all need a place where we go to recharge and refocus. Bonding with a River is kayaker Andria Davis’ story of how she found just such a place and what it means to her.
I started boating in the mid ‘90s on the Chattooga River, located on the border of South Carolina and Georgia. I had been into mountain biking and climbing and had recently stumbled into raft guiding. I loved how fun kayaking looked, and it didn’t take long before I started asking to borrow kayaks to join my raft guide friends for their after-work paddle.
I was immediately enamored with kayaking. I loved being down in the water and feeling every current. I started to learn to roll and went out on the river every chance I got. The kayakers that I paddled with all took play boats (creek boats were only for creeking back then, so unless you ran Overflow and the Green, you only owned a play boat) down the Chattooga, squirting every eddy line, splat wheeling every rock, and surfing every hole and wave. I was keen to learn all of these tricks and threw myself out there, playing the river. Because there was so much play to be had, these amazing paddlers never hesitated to run Bridge to Woodall (a short, easy section) with me before they headed down to the Five Falls (the class IV/V gnar) without me. Those were glorious times—hot summer days, cool water, splashing, swimming, and laughing out on the river. It was magical, and I decided that I would dedicate my life to it.
I had been borrowing boats during this time, so my boating was all over the place. The kayaking world was between designs, and I would paddle the river one day in an RPM, the next in a Pirouette S, and the next in a 3D. I couldn’t find a boat that I really clicked with, and I remember the day it happened. I was paddling the Nantahala on a mission to play at my favorite spot, Quarry. It was the summer of 2000, and I was in a Pirouette S. As I caught the eddy at Quarry, I wiped out about 3 paddlers in short little boats. Oblivious, I was grinning ear to ear in my red Pro-tec as they all gave me dirty looks and rolled their eyes. I was definitely not cool. I saw this girl in a yellow Pyranha InaZone. She was my size. She got in the hole and ripped. It was love at first site. That was my boat. I needed to find one quick!
I soon got an InaZone (and a better helmet), and my paddling life took off. I quickly became a solid intermediate boater, paddling class IV runs like Chattooga section IV at 2.5’ and the Upper Gauley. Not long after that, I got my first creek boat, a Pyranha Micro 230, and I asked a friend to take me down the Green Narrows. My love for the steeps kicked in, and I became obsessed with class V creeking. Every time it rained, phone calls were made, jobs were quit, and my boat was loaded up heading for the hardest thing running. Soon this passion took me out on the road, searching the U.S. for all the good class V. I rapidly became scared, humbled, and exhausted. Things had become too serious all the time, and I wasn’t having fun. I began to question my motives and myself. I had become lost.
Many people get to this point in their paddling, and they quit. Usually, it really is time for them to move on—time to get a job, start a family, or find a different sport that doesn’t scare them to death. However, the deep love that I had for the river on my first seasons on the Chattooga was embedded in my soul. I couldn’t move on to something else in life without a deep sense of loss. I wasn’t going to run away with my tail between my legs. Not only was I going to have to face this fear, I was going have to unbury that love. The two went hand in hand.
For me, I had to think about what it was that ignited those first sparks. It was the feeling of being down in the water and feeling all of the currents. Just thinking about it as I write this brings waves of excitement, joy, and passion through my veins. What I needed was a home river with a spot that I could go to for recharging. I needed a place that was beautiful, secluded, and powerful, yet playful. It needed to be a deeply spiritual place that helped me remember what it’s all about. It needed to be fun but also challenging.
There are many rivers to choose from in my home of Western North Carolina, but there was one that I kept returning to. I hadn’t consciously chosen it; I just kept going back there time and again, and pretty soon this became my spot – Jaws on the Nolichucky River. It’s a rapid that has a slab of rock that creates an awesome hole – so awesome that it got the name Jaws for its ability to eat boaters. This spot has all that I need: a quiet, back road drive to clear my mind on the way there, no crowds, a spectacular canyon setting, and tons of fun play boating. To top it all off, I get to run several rapids on the way to the spot, plus squirt defined eddy lines, surf many warm-up waves, and I don’t have to run shuttle; so I can even go there by myself.
I’ve had all kinds of days at Jaws. I’ve solo surfed in the freezing cold rain with vultures circling above me, and I’ve splashed around laughing with friends on hot summer days. We’ve eaten berries from the shore before swimming through the hole for fun. Sometimes we bring a raft and a boogie board and a truckload of friends and family; and sometimes my husband Leland and I get there and it’s kinda high and stompy, and we both get worked and a little scared. It has many different moods, and I like them all. That is part of what I go to a river for: to be in tune with the natural flow of the cycles. Somehow being in that free-flowing canyon and feeling the river reminds me why I paddle. It brings me back to me. It scours out any doubts and fears that I have. It teaches me. It cleans my soul.
I know that all things, including people and spots on the river, are temporary. I enjoy this place in time when I am young and healthy enough to surf while this spot exists. Not long ago, there was a spot at the end of the Nolichucky gorge called Cowbell. It was a compression spot that drew squirt boaters from all over. Cowbell created a culture of squirt boating community, with some people getting their boats chopped especially for this spot. This was their magical place. Floods came in 2004 that rearranged the riverbed and washed away the compression. People do still go there at certain levels, but it’s just not the same. For most everyone, the spot is gone—and with it an entire culture. So I know there is danger in defining my whole boating existence in one spot. If time dictates that I need to move on, I will.
For many people here in Western North Carolina, the Green River Narrows is their spot. It’s a special river to me, too, and it satisfies me on a different level than Jaws. The Green is an amazing gorge, but it’s located in a very urban area. The drive there is traffic-y, and my nerves are often jangled before I even get to the river. When I get there, the parking lot is often crowded with tons of personalities. I pick up all of this different energy right before we load boats and fight traffic to the put-in. As most people know, the rapids on the Green are quite intense. I love the intensity – I love putting on my full face helmet and my elbow pads and brawling it out amongst the gradient and rocks. I am a creek boater, and I live for that combat. The Green is my yang spot, meaning that it satisfies the part of me that needs some “grrrr.” However, all of this intensity often leaves me feeling depleted. The Green leads me to a different space in myself. It is one that I like to stay in touch with, but it is not the original space. It is not the one that will keep me coming back on the soul search.
So for now, Jaws on the Nolichucky is it. So if you text me to go to the Green, and I say, “No, Jaws is running!” – now you know why. I’ve got to get to Jaws before the free-flowing river drops to a low summertime level. For now, it’s spring; the river is running powerful, clear and cold. The canyon walls jut up to meet the ominous grey sky. The buzzards are circling, and Jaws is calling.