“For the Love of it: A Month of Driving, Gradient and Friendship”

Featured in the January/February 2006 American Whitewater Journal, page 16.

Tells the story of friendship and adventure while competing in a month long creeking competition called TVF.

Link to AW story: http://americanwhitewater.org/content/Journal/index/issue/1/year/2006/


Stan Guy on Suck Creek

 In the spring of 2005, a new kayaking competition was born. The Total Vertical Feet (TVF) Creeking Contest (also known as “March Madness”) pitted 19 southeastern teams against one another. The goal was to see which team could hurl themselves down the most river gradient during the month of March. The rules were simple: form teams of up to six paddlers (at least two had to complete each run together), and go creeking. A list was made of the total gradient of each creek in the southeast from put-in to takeout. To earn points teams simply paddled as much as possible and reported total earnings each day. As expected, a month of daily kayaking produced all the usual clichés: poorly tied kayaks were launched from moving cars, state troopers were busy writing citations, broken boats and sore backs required duct tape and ibuprofen. But, most importantly, friendships were sealed and incredible paddling experiences were created. By the end of March we had great stories to remember and some of us had even made new best friends.


The Green Narrows

The TVF competition was created by one of Chattanooga’s most respected creek boaters, Ben Friberg. Ben dedicated his time to create this contest while also managing Steepcreeks.com, a website providing southeastern creekers with a great resource for information on and history of our steep whitewater. Ben is one of those guys who is always a joy to see and his hard work to promote creek boating is derived purely from his love of it. He is not out for recognition, and mentioning his name in this article will surely make him mad. But, without his creativity and enthusiasm, many of us might have spent March on the couch. Thanks Ben.

The anticipation leading up to March was tremendous. Teams were formed. The rules were written, leading to much debate in the online forums. Everyone had a strategy. Best of all, the trash talking began. A few teams guaranteed total gradient in excess of 60,000 feet. Yes, 2,000 backbreaking, butt-jarring feet per day. In late February, two competitors training for March Madness racked up six runs on Bear Creek in one day. Bear was worth 857 feet per run and fast runs can be made in 45 minutes. And yes, the rules allowed for paddling the same run as many times in a day as desired. These guys dropped nearly a vertical mile in one day on the same creek. If teams could drop a mile every two days, their gradient for the month would surpass 75,000 feet. With hopes of much rain in the Southeast, teams looked toward March with the same anticipation as children waiting for Christmas. Everyone was amped and we all stocked up on spare gear and painkillers.

March 1st began for me at 6:30 a.m. Chris and Stan, two of my teammates, pulled into my driveway and started loading boats in the snow-covered front yard. I was on the Internet checking gauges and soon we were on our way to Little River Canyon. The month started dry and we had to paddle whatever we could find. LRC is not exactly a creek, but it was a great way to warm up. As we drove to Alabama we spoke of strategy and joked about past trips. Chris and I have been friends for many years. Stan, I barely knew. I had seen him during past summers leading raft trips on the Ocoee. In 1976, his family’s rafting company was the first to offer trips down the Ocoee. Growing up, Stan spent his summers around the outpost and had guided since he was 18. His kayaking began many years before and had matured into his life’s passion. A year earlier Stan had decided to switch from a traditional paddle to hand paddles. One day he arrived at Overflow Creek and discovered his paddle had not made the trip. He only had a pair of hand paddles with him, and so the legend began. Now, a year later, his hand paddling was smooth as butter and he could match any move a traditional paddler could make using only his hands. Stan stood out not only for his hand paddling, but because he was truly the nicest person I had ever met. On that first day we logged two trips on LRC and racked up 1,100 feet in freezing conditions. It was not extreme kayaking, but it was nonetheless an awesome trip. I had spent the day with an old friend and made a new one.

The first week of March Madness produced controversy. The rules for the contest were under debate. Should a team’s run be counted if the water level was below what most considered minimal? Should a team be allowed to paddle easily-accessible short runs 10-20 times per day and rack up huge numbers? Our team took heat for paddling the Ocoee. Yes, I know, the Ocoee is lame for a creeking contest, but there was nothing else to paddle. The Narrows of the Green, which ran almost every day during the month, was limited to being counted four times per team during the entire month. As you can imagine, limiting the allowed number of Green runs upset the teams based near Asheville. This contest was new and the rules reflected the best guess as to how this style of competition should be managed. This was the first TVF March Madness and it was more or less made up as it went along. Of course, all of the debate would have ended if the rainfall had increased. The month started dry, but many teams made the most of it and logged double-digit runs on Class III-IV. Personally, I did not mind doing laps on the Tellico. In fact, the marathon nature of the first part of the month was great training and resulted in everyone being in solid shape when the rains finally fell.

At the end of the first week, our team traveled to the Green for our four runs. We spent two days in paradise paddling the Narrows. Two runs per day was the goal. On the second day we arrived at the takeout finishing run number three with only 30 minutes to shuttle back to the top and put on for our last run before they shut off the water. The Green is dam controlled and we had 30 minutes to be in our boats paddling with a 25-minute drive ahead of us. As we frantically loaded gear, Johnnie Kern approached and asked if he could join us. I couldn’t believe a legend like Johnnie Kern wanted to paddle with us. “Hell yea,” I said. I grabbed his boat and loaded it onto Brad’s brand new Subaru. Everyone piled in and off we went. What we did not have time to tell Johnnie in the parking lot was that we were starting our Narrows trip an extra three miles upstream. We were putting in at the powerhouse in order to maximize our day’s TVF score. Johnnie was a little surprised when he realized he now had to paddle an extra three miles of slow moving Class III whitewater. He was a good sport about it and assured us he needed the workout too. Ten minutes prior to dam shutoff, we found ourselves nearing the put-in. Brad was pushing his brand new Suby to the limit and everything looked great. A second later, however, kayaks were launching at 60 miles per hour from Brad’s car. One boofed the hood, the other ripped the rack system off the roof. Our great day was spiraling. Johnnie’s brand new prototype creek boat skipped across the oncoming lane and lodged itself in the far ditch. Brad was starting to cry. Honestly, I really just wanted to paddle with Johnnie Kern and I refused to let Brad’s car being partly destroyed prevent it from happening. I loaded the boats again as Brad stared in disbelief at the dents and scratches on his brand new car. I assured him it would be best to still paddle. With one minute to spare, we slid into the river. It was great being rushed and I swear it helped Brad forgot about his car for a while. The Green usually cures all woes of daily life. Not even a brand new car being destroyed could detract from this amazing river. On the drive home, Brad agreed: getting to paddle with Johnnie Kern was definitely worth a few scratches.

Finally, it rained. On the eighth, ninth, and tenth, Stan and I were able to log quality runs on natural-flowing creeks. Stan showed me down Citico and Double Camp at high water. Chris joined us on the Lower Cullasaja for two runs. At this point Stan and I had spent most days in March together. We had paid our dues on lesser-gradient rivers and creeks logging countless runs on Class III-IV. We were not only boating well together, but becoming great friends. Every day consisted of hours of driving in my old Volkswagen Fox combined with great paddling. My car had become our team’s official shuttle vehicle. A good friend had given this car to me a few months earlier. Actually, he abandoned it in my driveway and refused to remove it. It sat there for a month and one day I finally drove it to the store. It runs great and gets 32 mpg. I have driven it every day since. Why do the kayaks never fly off of the old, piece-of-crap cars, while the new cars get trashed?

The middle of March turned dry again. The Tellico and the Little were the only options. On the thirteenth we did perhaps the silliest thing in kayaking history. Stan, Tiya, and I arrived at the Tellico at 5:45 a.m. By 6:00 a.m. the first light of day caught us as we were boofing Baby Falls. We paddled the two-mile laps in 25 minutes. Only two of us paddled per run allowing the third to drive shuttle. Loading, shuttling, and unloading took five minutes. During each shuttle, the driver prepared peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the group. We had cases of Red Bull and allowed ourselves one per person for every three laps. We continued that way the entire day. Somewhere around run 15 I looked back to see Stan sinking. He had split his Response from bow to stern. Actually, the boat was not his, it was his father’s. I knew Stan’s father loved that kayak and I knew how much trouble he was going to be in. “The old man doesn’t paddle anymore; Dad will never know,” Stan assured me (Of course a few weeks later Stan’s dad decided to go kayaking for the first time in years and discovered his kayak looked like a clam shell). On that Tellico day we had no time to think about it. We kept a backup kayak with us on the car and Stan was back in business a few minutes later. By 7:30 p.m. we had finished 22 Tellico laps and dropped more than a vertical mile. One lap was disqualified because I finished it on my own while Stan hiked back to the car. The sun went down during the last trip and we dragged ourselves to the car in the dark. It was exhausting, and some would argue just plain silly, but I would not have traded it for the world. It is not often you watch the sun rise while creeking and paddle until it sets. We took the next two days off.

With only a week left in March, we found ourselves in second place. A few teams had quit. They cited unfair rules and stated they were too good to paddle laps on the Tellico. Oh well, perhaps they missed the point. Our team not only wanted to paddle as much as possible, but we were also using the competition to raise awareness of and donations for our local Boys and Girls Club. We had sponsors donating money to the Boys and Girls Club based on how many feet we dropped. Our sponsors paid a penny per foot to the charity. Knowing our laps meant more than just a win helped keep the strokes going.

After three weeks of wishful thinking, the rains came back to the Southeast. Brad, Stan, and I drove straight for the West Prong. Located in Smoky Mountain National Park, the West Prong drops 1,360 feet. We completed two runs during the day and scored some much needed Class V gradient. It was a great day of creeking. The following day was perhaps my favorite. Stan and I traveled to the Raven Fork. The level was perfect and no other groups were there. For this run you park at the takeout and hike your boat two miles to the put-in. The hike begins by climbing straight up a mountain for 700 feet. The laps earlier in the month had prepared us well. At the top of the ascent you follow an old trail upstream a mile and half until you join the river.

I had only paddled this once before and Stan had never. We scouted everything and took turns leading. It was simply a perfect day. While scouting one of the huge slides, Stan asked where I planned to drop the last horizon line. Looking down, the last horizon line was probably 50 feet below me and I truly thought the last ledge was only five feet tall. He laughed and told me not to be surprised at what I might find after careening the first 50 feet. I definitely need my vision checked because after bouncing at 40 miles per hour I approached my five-foot ledge. I could almost hear him laughing as I flew off a 20-footer. From the bottom, I looked upstream. Stan appeared tiny as he entered the drop. The size of these drops is amazing. The creek consists of difficult 15  to 50 footers the entire stretch. As I watched Stan hand paddle I knew I was fortunate to watch a rising star of kayaking. Stan was perfect with every line. There are only a few hand paddlers who kayak this style of whitewater and Stan did it better than any traditional paddling legend could hope to. One of the last rapids on the Raven Fork is a 10-foot river-left boof called Cave Man. A tree blocked the entrance, but we managed to squeeze under it. When I paddled here before the water was much higher and the undercut on the bottom right was not in play. Today it was. Stan went first and styled the rapid. I committed a few minutes later. The tree was not an issue. A quick duck and I lined up for the boof. At the ledge I got pushed right and landed pointing straight into the undercut. I gave the rock a good head butt and pushed myself back thinking I was fine. Suddenly my edge caught and I was going back under the rock with no balance. I flipped and immediately went under. I was battling, trying to push myself out when a pair of hand paddles wrapped around my torso. Stan tackled me from behind. His bear hug pulled me straight out and up righted me. Seeing his hand paddles wrapped around my chest while I was stuck under the rock was about as cool as anything gets. He pushed me downstream and smiled. We finished with only three portages for the day. Pretty good for the Raven Fork.

On March 28th we were still in second place. The team in first was racking up laps on the Little while we stuck to steeper runs. We wanted to win, but could not pass up the steeps. Stan and I went back to the West Prong and paddled the Upper Upper, Trailhead, and Picnic sections twice. We scored 3,000 feet for the day and finished with our ritual drive home in the VW Fox. At this point we were both financially broke and our respective girlfriends had long since dumped us. We were, however, paddling extremely well and living life to the fullest. We had paddled for nearly a month straight and had more great memories of our month than most acquire in years.

On the 29th Stan and I headed to the Toxaway. The Toxaway can be a brutally unkind river. It is full of both wonders and misery. The slides are huge, hundreds of feet long, and they drop at a terrifying gradient. The speeds reached while sliding down these monsters are faster than my beater car’s top highway speed. The run requires three of the worst portages known in the Southeast. As usual, Stan was flawless. His hand paddling allowed him precise control. One portage ends at the top of a hundred foot long narrow slide called Land Bridge. You actually walk out on a huge slab of rock that acts as a bridge over the river. To enter the drop, you seal launch off the downstream side of the bridge and land in the falling waterfall. This is only the start of the rapid. I went first and from the bottom looked up to see Stan launch. He was already perched on the rock bridge facing downstream. From this distance he appeared to be tiny. I could see him tapping his hand paddles on. He then reached forward and with both hands gripping the lip of the ledge he flung himself perfectly into the waterfall. I have seen video of the world’s best paddlers dropping these falls and have been fortunate to watch a few of them in person, but Stan’s line was absolute perfection. He glided to the bottom.

If you are new to the Toxaway, Land Bridge is usually the biggest rapid you have ever paddled. Then you paddle the 30 feet of flatwater below and eddy out above Wintergreen Falls. While scouting Wintergreen you realize that it will be the biggest rapid you have ever paddled. Wintergreen is absolutely amazing. I have no idea how big it is. It is so much taller than other rapids there is nothing to compare it to. It makes Stairway to Heaven on Bear Creek look child-sized; Gorilla on the Green looks like an amusement park compared to this one. Plus, there is no portage. You have to run it. The drop consists of three giant slides. The first and last are almost vertical. Wipeouts on Wintergreen often include spinning around backwards after the first slide and stern pitoning into a ledge at forty miles per hour. This results in being ejected out of the back of your kayak and dropping the last huge slide on your butt, backwards! Before running Wintergreen I usually feel as sick as kayaking ever makes me. Afterwards, I feel as great as kayaking ever makes me. Once again, Stan was on the money. We paddled the last section talking about our adventures. With the Toxaway, the fun is not over when you get off the water. The take-out is actually an old road that is gated and you must carry your gear four miles straight up the mountain to the car. Two hours with sixty pounds of stuff on your shoulder going uphill gives you time to reflect.

The following day we hit the Tellico for 12 quick runs. I know it sounds ridiculous to call 12 runs quick, but after our month it was. On March thirty-first Tiya, Stan, and I spent our last day logging seven laps on Johnnies Creek. Johnnies flows into Little River Canyon. The level was pumping and to be honest much scarier than I had anticipated. Tiya knew the run and took turns leading us down. On the first run my creek boat split apart. The boat had been brand new on March first and had kept me very safe for the month. It somehow seemed appropriate for it to give out on the last day. Thankfully, we had a spare and later in the day Stan and I paddled for the last time that month. We raced the entire run and although I was in solid paddling shape I could barely keep up. Remember, I had the paddle. Following my new friend was awesome. There is certainly no one else I would have ever wanted to follow. We finished our last run of the month at sunset. Later that evening, we learned that we had won the first TVF March Madness.

During our month of paddling we racked up four runs on the Green, four on the West Prong, two on the Lower Cullasaja, one Raven Fork trip, one Toxaway trip, seven laps on Johnnies, two on Little River Canyon, seventeen Ocoee laps, one Double Camp, three Citico, and forty-three Tellico laps. We logged 254 miles of kayaking, 4,128 miles on the Fox, watched nine sunrises, broke four kayaks, lost two girlfriends, destroyed a brand new Subaru, raised money for the Boys and Girls club, ate hundreds of PB & J’s, and dropped over 30,000 vertical feet of gradient. Most importantly, I made a new great friend. 

The months following March Madness returned to normal. I stayed busy with my business. Stan made plans to finish college and returned as the head guide and trip leader for his family’s rafting company. Our lives became very busy with our seasonal jobs. Stan and I saw each other every few days on the river. Nothing ever had to be said, but the great bond of friendship from our month’s adventure had forever tied us to one another. We both knew we had discovered a great kayaking partner and looked forward to years of paddling. 

While working one day in July, I was told about a terrible accident involving a raft guide on the Upper Ocoee. The guide had swum towards a pinned raft in order to help out. While swimming through a relatively calm section of water upstream of the pinned raft, the guide was pulled under into an unknown sieve. The guide who lost his life was Stan. 

Stan was much more than an amazing kayaker. He was without a doubt the most amazing person I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. He treated everyone as if they were his best friend. He was only twenty-three, but knew everything about life. He knew that relationships with family, friends, and how you treat people are miles more important than any other goals in life. Stan inspired everyone who knew him.  

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