Select Page

Personal First Descent of the Nantahala Cascades

So far in my kayaking career, I have completed many personal first descents. Starting from my first trip down a class 1 section of the Potomac at age 4, each day on the water is a new adventure. Finding new waves, new holes, new lines, or even just new wildlife, all have been exciting. None, however, have been as exciting and heart pumping as my first day on the Nantahala Cascades last spring when I was 13. Here’s a little piece I wrote on the drive home.

When school let out at 3:00 Friday, this weekend was set to be just like any other weekend… until we realized the Cheoah and the Cascades were running…a mere 9-hour journey from our home in Washington, DC. So, like all kayaking families, we hopped in the car, drove all night, and arrived at the river early Saturday. After a morning slalom workout, we ran the Cheoah. It was so fun, and I ran a new line at Bear Creek, the far left line. Thank you, Lee for showing it to me! When we arrived at the Loop spot, I did a huge loop in my Zen (#Bigboatplaytime). It was so awesome. If I could do it consistently, it might have helped me get out of a sticky situation on Sunday.

On Sunday, after another slalom workout, we ran the Cascades. It was my first time, and it was awesome. On my first two runs styled it. Former USA Slalom Team member Sam Davis and current JK and USA Freestyle and Slalom Team member Tad Dennis showed me awesome lines, and I hit all my boofs. Super fun! But on my third run… I got worked, and this is how it happened.

Ok, here we go Kaelin… Big Kahuna- you’ve done it a million times; well not really, you’ve only done it twice… but anyways. So I’m coming down, and flip right above the point where you go all the way left, but I roll up… so that is good. After that part, I get turned around by a crashing wave and drop into a big hole right before the drop. Oh no…

So I’m surfing the big hole. I try to get out, but that’s not working, and I’m still stuck in the hole. 60 seconds later, I’m still in the hole, and I’m getting tired. I’ve been in here for a minute now, and many things are going through my head. One was “if you swim you are screwed, so stay in your boat.” The second thing going through my mind was, “Hey Kaelin, should you try a loop right now to see if it will get you out of this big hole!” I decided not to because if I didn’t get out of the hole, I would be even more tired and still in the hole.

The third thing that was going through my head was that if this was a freestyle competition, I’d been in here more than sixty seconds, so my ride should be over. So, when the nice man on shore said, “Do you want me to throw you the rope?” I said, “yes please.” So he threw the rope, and I reached out and grabbed it.

At first, I grabbed it with one hand on the rope and the other on my paddle. But the hand on the rope was slipping and let me tell you… that hole isn’t the kind of hole you want to meet a second time… So, I let go of my paddle, grabbed the rope as tightly as I could, flipped while holding the rope, pulled myself out of the hole, and hand rolled up.

Now if you were paying attention near the beginning of this story, I said I got stuck it the hole right ABOVE Big Kahuna. Also, the middle of the story says I dropped my paddle. So put them together, and you have a situation on your hands.

So, I hand paddle as fast as my little hands would go and try and get enough speed to go over the first drop… And guess what… it worked. I boofed cleanly.

Now I was at the bottom of the first drop. “One more drop to go; I’m almost there!” Now I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is my paddle is right there- five inches from my hand. The bad news is my paddle is five inches from my hand, and I can’t reach it. So when I was trying to get it, I wound up going sideways into a rock. I hit the rock; the rock hit back, and its punch was so hard it knocked me over again. I hand-rolled up just in time to see the second drop, with another big gnarly hole at the bottom.

So again I paddle as fast as I can with my hands and somehow make it over the hole and right into an eddy. Yay! I made it through Big Kahuna without a paddle and without swimming! After that, I did a cool down run on the Upper Nantahala and reflected on my wonderful run.

So, after looking at the video of me in the hole, I figured out I was in there for a minute and fifteen seconds. Now I’m driving back home and can’t wait to tell my mom.

This personal first descent may not have been the cleanest, but it sure could have been way more interesting. Thanks to Keeners for helping me stay calm in big holes and in nasty situations. You never know what will happen on the river, and I’m grateful to have spent time practicing skills and maintaining an attitude of chill to get me through a very interesting day on the Cascades.