A River Story

In 1975 I was a raft guide for the Nantahala Outdoor Center on Chattooga Section IV. At the beginning of one Saturday morning trip, I was sleepily giving the raft guide talk to a bunch of young guys about ‘paddle-forward-paddle-backward-keep-your-feet-up-don’t-lose-your-paddle…’.  One of the guys interrupts, ‘I BEG YOUR PARDON SIR, BUT WE’RE FAMILIAR WITH THIS CRAFT, SIR’.  In retrospect, I realize that my entire life prior to 23 years of age was lived in a pre-coffee haze.  So I raise one eyebrow and give a sleepy, skeptical ‘Really? Zat so?’  From our self-appointed crew representative, ‘SIR, YES SIR.  IT’S AN RB7, SIR. A SEVEN MAN RUBBER BOAT, SIR.’

Well, indeed they were familiar with that craft.  Turns out they were army Rangers, just graduated, and just coming off of a peppermint schnapps celebration (said celebration having ended maybe minutes earlier).

Where could you go wrong with a brutally strong crew that understands teamwork and knows how to follow orders?  Navigating rapids was a piece of cake.  Corporal Kowalski, with a gorilla build and body hair to match, contributed his own approach in the rock gardens.  He would lean over the front and push the nose of the raft right or left around the rocks.  From my seat he looked like The Hulk swatting the rocks out of the way.

When we made it to Seven Foot Falls, we went early in the string of rafts and had the expected flawless run.  We were sitting in the raft watching the rest of the rafts come through and Sergeant RB7 turns to me and says ‘So that’s it?’  Well, OK.  The water level was good, but not high, and Section IV is good solid whitewater, but maybe not hair-raising if you do it right.  Apparently the crew was not getting their adrenaline fix, so I nudged the raft off the shore and let us drift out of the pool of beached rafts.  We floated around the next bend after Seven Foot and tucked behind a rock that towered 20 feet or so over the left bank.

Never a word was said, but they all slipped out of the raft as a group and climbed up to a vantage point behind the top of the rock.  When the next raft of unwitting Atlanta suburbanites slid under the rock, the Rangers went into full ‘death from above’ mode and leaped into the raft.  In a flash, they grabbed paddles, lunches, and first aid kits and disappeared into the undergrowth.  I’m just glad they didn’t slit all the customer’s throats.  They regrouped and made another attack or two. Now they were amused.  I hadn’t thought about it till now, but I’ll bet my fellow guides were really irked with me.

When we got to Five Falls, we had good runs of First Fall and Corkscrew, no surprise.  We were sitting in the pool above Crack-in-the-Rock waiting our turn when a crew broached a raft on the log in right crack, and wrapped the raft around the log.  I’d never seen anyone do this before and never since, so this was a good piece of work.  I was eyeing the problem and dreaded dealing with it.  This was before the Z-drag technology was developed, and I figured the guides would be fighting with it for an hour trying to drag the raft off the log.

I turned to sergeant RB7 and said, completely in jest, ‘why don’t you guys take care of that?’  BAM, they were in the water and all over that raft.  I wouldn’t have thought they would have been effective in the effort, not really being whitewater types, but we come back to that brutal strength and teamwork thing.  They had the raft off the log in less than five minutes, with no casualties.

The river was at 1.85, just above the Sock-em-Dog cut off of 1.80.  Owner Payson Kennedy was actually on the trip, and I made the case for us running Sock-em-Dog, as I was pretty sure we would sail over it.  Payson turned us down (probably wisely) and it turned out that a rafter from an unguided missile drowned in the rapid later in the day.

So the crew is grumpy again about having to rope the raft around Sock-em-Dog. For a consolation prize I pushed us off early again, ran Shoulder Bone, and drifted down to that left bank rock that juts over the river.  This one is only about eight or ten feet high, but they were still able to amuse themselves mounting an attack on slow-to-learn raft crews.

‘Ambush Rock’ below Shoulder Bone is pretty much a part of river culture now, but far as I know my Ranger crew in 1975 was the first to utilize the possibilities.  If you’re on a Section IV trip and you want to up the ante, there’s always that ambush point just below Seven Foot Falls.

In all truthfulness, after this raft trip with the Rangers, I have felt safer as an American.  I swear I don’t know why anyone would ever screw with us.  I am sincerely grateful that a) people of this caliber are defending our country, and b) someone is keeping them off the street.


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