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USGS Gauge: FB at Marshall 1840 cfs.

Cast of Characters: Thirteen intrepid kayakers, assisted by two handsome shuttle buddies, on a springtime run from Barnard to Hot Springs on a Palmetto Paddlers club trip.

Paddlers: Karen Swank Kustafik, Karla Fulmer, Wolfgang Buchmaier, Charlie Smith, Tage Brunik, Steve Crabb, Deb Rosengrant, John Derrick, Les Case, David Hutchens, Josh Flynn and Isaac Jones.

Shuttle: Bradley Anderson and Sergio Aparacio.

(As observed by Karen)

ONE of the things I love about club trips is the opportunity to get on the water to meet new friends. Our group consisted mostly of Palmetto Paddlers, with some COAN (the Columbia Outdoor Adventure Network) Meetup members along with a couple of Charlotte Mecklenburg paddlers. The trip was a new run for some of us, and for others the trip offered an opportunity to retest our river reading skills on a Southeastern classic. Frank Bells rapid looms large at the end of this run; the suspense can build all day to a wonderful crescendo. Mr. Bell did not disappoint us on Saturday…but more about that later.

Bradley and I arrived in Hot Springs Friday afternoon. I have got to tell you that Hot Springs is a fun destination. There are wonderful day hikes for non-paddling companions, good restaurants featuring regional food and beer with entertaining local musicians, assorted lodging options including a campground beside the take-out (or beside the put-in for interested flatwater types), and of course hot springs. It is wonderful to come off the river and relax instead of hitting the highway. More paddlers need to make time to spend the night!

Everyone else on the trip rode up Saturday morning. Our plan Saturday was to meet at Barnard put-in at 11. Because Karla Fulmer and I were travelling with non-paddling companions, I figured that we had shuttle handled. In the fine tradition of paddling trips, I managed somehow to succumb to yet another Murphy’s Law shuttle. Hindsight shows me clearly that we should have simply run most of the shuttle on the back end of the trip; my apologies to Les Case for not limiting the initial shuttle to his single Boxter run. I do not believe that Les managed to return to Columbia on time.

Yes, readers, I did say Boxter run. One of the wonderful things about whitewater rivers is that they are surrounded by stellar roads for sports cars. Steep terrain makes for hairpin turns. Most every river trip, I hear a voice in my head telling me that I have to get my boyfriend Bradley to come back to run the same roads in his Porsche Boxter. Fun is good. Those of you who have downshifted into the turns between Barnard and Hot Springs are no doubt smiling. Love. Mountain. Roads.

At any rate, our group eventually got on the water. The level was absolutely perfect: not too pushy for first descent kayakers and not so low that the Windy Flats made the trip beyond Stackhouse impossible. We all know that a river’s personality changes considerably with level. I remember reciting my beloved Heraclites’ “never stand in the same river twice” quote at the put-in and laughing, as this would be my third visit to the French Broad since October. Each of those trips has a story. John Derrick is my witness to that.

Backstory: In October, I attempted to take a group of students from Barnard to Stackhouse. The level that day was around 1200 cfs, appropriate for new boaters. Additionally, I had so many experienced boaters with me that there was a 1:2 mentor to student ratio. What could possibly go wrong? Everything that could go wrong did. The weather turned raw and windy, our students did not have ample cold weather gear. After a couple of chilly swims, the weaker paddlers in the group were well on their way to hypothermia. I pulled everyone off the water above Pillow Rapid and we commenced a long haul down the railroad tracks to the take out at Stackhouse. John Derrick and Deb Rosengrant were among the support team that day, and both of them can attest to the wonders of a well-stocked dry bag and rescue kit. John provided lawn and leaf bag ponchos for our chilliest victims, we all contributed material for an impromptu pair of shoes (duct tape and sanitary napkins, my friend), and everyone joined in the boat hauling and morale boosting. Somehow, the group got off the river that day convinced that they had just enjoyed the best adventure of their lives. Thank God. I knew that I needed to reacquaint myself with the French Broad and to pay more attention to the voice in the back of my mind that occasionally whispers dissenting opinions about my plans. More on that later, too.

More Backstory: One thing the October trip did accomplish was to rekindle my affection for the French Broad. Talking about it with Deb and Edye, I resolved to get on that section again in order to remember the lines so we could host a Palmetto Paddlers club trip in the spring.

To that end, I organized a wee reconnaissance paddle in January. Edye Joyner, John Derrick, Tage Brunner, Steve Crabb and Ian Randolph joined me. It was cold. The water was rather fluffy: 4400 cfs. The eddies at the put-in where our October group assembled were gone. The river was honking! As we paddled under the bridge and the put-in disappeared, I wondered if I could even recognize the rapids with so many of the rocks out of sight. It turned out to be a wonderfully affirming day for “read and run” genre of river navigation. Giant wave trains and a few impressive holes abounded. We all ended that day with big grins on our faces and intentions to revisit the river for repeated runs.

I digress, I know. Sorry.

The thing is, you can never stand in the same river twice. Heraclites was right.

The Story I Have Been Promising to Tell: So Saturday’s run began with more rock visible than in January and less than in October. While some things looked familiar, there were still times that I named the rapid after we eddied out at the bottom. Oh, THAT was PILLOW. Boulder garden; must be Pinball.

And here is what is so wonderful about club trips: everyone looks out for one another. With Steve Crabb leading alongside me, we picked our way through the lines, setting up guidance from the eddy below. John, Les and Tage served as sweep. In between, we had a great variety of boaters. I have got to admit that I had some hesitation when David Hutchins signed up, admitting that he had just purchased a whitewater boat, and had one Lower Green run to his credit. I understood that he has a wonderful boating resume, and I can now attest to his ability to read water and brace. His line through Pinball, as seen from below, was textbook. He pulled off a Class III pivot followed by a just-in-time brace to slink through a boulder garden with style. Proof in and of itself.

We took a leg stretch at the Sycamore Shoals surfing wave, but the level was a bit too high for play. Well, for most of us to play, anyway. Tage enjoyed a very dynamic surf, much of it sideways. We enjoyed watching. We soon moved on, taking lunch at Stackhouse before entering the appropriately named Windy Flats. This section is notorious for its unrelenting headwind. Even during our January high water outing, the Windy Flats demanded effort, stinging our faces with frigid spray off wind whipped whitecaps. Thankfully, Saturday’s conditions were not as brutal, but our effort was substantial nonetheless. At last, we rounded a bend and caught sight of the Needle Rock atop the island that splits the river into a “heroes right, sneak left” configuration. Kayaks Ledge loomed ahead, and everyone eddied out to wade ankle deep into poison ivy and discuss the advantage of catching the river left eddy versus blasting straight through the center right line. Ever helpful, Steve eddied out on river left and clambered onto the ledge, providing feedback to approaching boaters with his signature “ you are here” school of river running hand signals. Clean runs were enjoyed by the entire party, and spirits soared as we floated on toward the last big challenge of the day.

As I described previously, Frank Bells rapid looms large at the end of the run. And, as I also noted before, I sometimes disregard that inner voice of mine….

One can hear the roar of Frank Bells well before one arrives. If one has any doubt, the river splits here as it does at Kayaks Ledge into another “heroes right, sneak left” arrangement. On Saturday, I was exclusively in the company of heroes. As we approached the island, I was thinking about the location of that river right spot from which to clamber onto the railroad tracks and scout the rapid. Steve offered an option that seemed logical: we could scout the crux of the run from that large river left eddy…..the one we had visited during our January trip. That visit, of course, had been accomplished by eddying out part way through the ‘sneak left’ channel and walking over land. No problem. The eddy was undisputedly large in our memories, and a decision was made to deploy from said eddy.

Steve sallied forth with half the group in tow while I hung back to share our strategy with the rest of the adventurers. We could see the helmets of a few paddlers who appeared to be hung up on the rocks approaching the target eddy, but after giving them a few moments to get situated, the rest of us headed on down. Surely they were ready for us.

As I stroked into the entry, a panoramic yard sale came into view. Deb was neatly eddied out in the bottom right eddy, looking upriver at the festivities. Ronnie’s upside down Crossfire floated downstream. I managed to scan the line and pull into the bottom edge of the by now very full staging eddy. That eddy sits atop two impressive holes, and it was flowing out backward toward those monsters. Charlie was on the edge nearby, holding on to a tree limb to prevent him from backsliding. I realized that my window was limited and promptly ferried off to run the rest of the rapid, an act of sheer self-preservation.

At the bottom, I found John, who was chasing Ron’s boat and asking about Karla. Karla’s RPM was eddied out to the left of the bottom hole, but she was not anywhere in sight. After some frantic shouting, we understood that she was OK. It turns out that Karla herself reached that strategic eddy, but sacrificed her boat to the voracious backflow after using all her energy to attain the eddy while joining in Steve and Wolfgang’s pin and broach approach. These details I discerned later over dinner with Karla and Sergio. Ask Karla about it sometime; she is a wonderful story teller.

At any rate, some of us were at the bottom of Mr. Bell’s rapid. Others remained in the notorious eddy, a few decorated adjoining rocks. One by one the parade of remaining boaters made their way through the beautiful chaos that is Frank Bells. Les lost momentum in the bottom hole but executed a beautiful roll in the funky boiling water of the river right eddy. Wolfgang had a spectacular run, partially flipping in the top hole and riding his side rail over the big hump before flipping fully upside down in the bottom hole. We waited, expecting to see his head pop up downstream as Frank claimed another victim. Instead, we saw Wolfgang’s blade emerge in a full fisted setup position, followed by a fluid roll. The crowd went wild; Wolfgang definitely gets the MVP award for his run. I believe that he credited Les for advising him to wait until the boat settles out before rolling!

David walked the bottom half of the rapid; but earns mad props for a dry-hair run of a very challenging river for someone new to whitewater boating! In my book, catching that eddy is the newbie equivalent of cleaning the run. Kudos!

This was a trip from which campfire legends are born. You know, the “no shit; there I was” variety, the kind that my friend Charlene Coleman owns in abundance. This was also a trip that inspired me yet again to resolve to strengthen my skills, take more clinics, hit the gym and the river a bit harder and to return for more.

Anybody up for a French Broad trip? We still have something to tell Frank!

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