May 26, 2016

Watauga River – Blevins Road to Riverview Drive

  • 6.88 miles
  • 5:02 duration
  • Quote of the day: “Never follow the girl in the skirt. It will get you in trouble every time.”

It was time for some more river action, and LakeBum (Rob) and I decided Sunday of Memorial Day weekend was a beautiful day for it. I published news of our plans in a couple of different Facebook groups and on Slack, and immediately heard from a couple of great friends that they would like to join us.

Mrs. Jack (Dori) of Cache Cracker Jacks was the first to respond. I was thrilled that she would be able to go because she has been working a lot of long hours lately. Plus, she had not been able to paddle with us all of last year and was excited to finally be hitting the river. She spent Saturday cleaning up her yak “Heather Patrice” and all of her gear in preparation for the trip.

The other friend joining us was Lob the Huntsman (Ray). He had purchased a new kayak over the winter and was ready to try it out. He was also excited to have the opportunity to log some boat only caches.

I picked up Dori and her boat, and then we met Rob and Ray at the take out at 9:00 am. Here we loaded all four boats into my truck and I drove us to the Blevins Road boat ramp where we would begin our trip.

As promised, the weather was perfect; 79 degrees and sunny. A light wind blew across the water helping us to stay comfortable. Dori was a bit nervous since she had not paddled in a while, but Rob and I assured her that she would do great. The water level was low and slow today since TVA was not generating at Wilbur Dam.

We launched our boats and lazily floated along the first, calm section of the river. My companions’ boats made for a colorful sight on the river. Ray’s new boat is a bright yellow and white Pelican kayak. He joked that he had thought of calling it the S.S. High Visibility. He also mentioned that if he were to buy a red helmet to wear while paddling it, he could call it the S. S. Banana Split. The red helmet would be the cherry on top.

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Dori’s Heather Patrice is a hot pink Sun Dolphin Aruba 10 – the same model as my green rec boat. When looking for a name for it, she wanted something using H.P. for hot pink and came up with Heather Patrice.

As usual, Rob was paddling his yellow Blue Hole canoe named Minion.

I was amazed at the tenacity of some kind of flowering bush that had found a home in the rocky cliff along the far side of the river. This was the same spot I had observed on our last trip where water is continuously running from the soil between the bedrock and the bottom edge of the cliff.

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When we reached the first set of rapids, Rob led the way. Dori followed him, and I could hear her “woohoo” and see her signature “paddle up” pose as she passed through the rapids. I went next, aiming for the biggest waves possible, confident that my spray skirt would keep the water out of my boat and looking forward to being splashed by the cool water. As anticipated, I received a face full of cool water.

Ray brought up the rear, and unbeknownst to me, followed my route closely. For someone in an open cockpit – especially one as large as his – this meant that he took on quite a bit of water when he hit the biggest wave. He ended up soaked from head to toe and with a lot of water in his boat, which made it suddenly very hard to navigate.

We pulled over to shore so that he could empty the water from his boat, and we joked with him about wetting his pants (with river water – not the other kind). This reminded me of a time when my dad was living in a retirement home late in life. A server in the dining room spilled water on him, wetting his pants. One of his table mates – a woman who fancied him – leaned over and whispered, “Don’t worry Walter. We know it wasn’t an inside job.”

While Ray was emptying his boat, I proclaimed, “Never follow the girl in the skirt. It will get you in trouble every time.” This was in reference to my having a spray skirt and thus aiming for the big waves and splashes, but the others decided this could be good life advice as well.

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Since it was such a beautiful day, we were sharing the river with a lot of other kayaks as well as fishing boats. Unfortunately, many of these fishing boats like to anchor in the middle of rapids to catch the fish hiding among the rocks. This can make it challenging for us to navigate our way through. The next set of rapids was clogged with three different boats, and we paddled around in the calm water above it for several minutes waiting for them to move along and clear the way for us.

Finally, I was able to see a clear path and led the way through this next set of rapids. At the bottom I eddied out next to the cliff to shoot video of the others coming through.

This is a magical time of year in the hills of Tennessee. There are many dairy farms along the river banks, and we enjoyed the antics of frisky calves among the herds. While Rob and Ray stopped on an island for Ray to find a geocache, Dori and I delighted in watching several calves play on the bank of the river. One little trouble maker chased a family of geese that were near the river’s edge.

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Two others engaged in a head butting contest on the hillside. It was if they were playing “King of the Hill” by locking imaginary horns. We were amazed that they managed to stay on their feet and not tumble downhill.

As I observed the herd, I thought about a book I recently read; “Leaving Time” by Jody Piccoult. Although a work of fiction, it goes into great detail of the herd dynamics of elephants.

Elephants live in matriarchal groups made up primarily of adult females and young males and females. Each baby is raised and protected by the group. Males leave the herd at age 12-15. It appears that cattle may be the same with all of the babies being protected and cared for by the female adults in the herd.

Those geese that had been chased by the calf eventually swam upstream. There were two separate families and it made me smile to see each mom and dad leading their fluffy babies up the river.

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Our next stop was at a cache site that is one of the more challenging on this river “Watauga Adventure – Geochuck.” When our buddy BackWoodsAng placed this one, he originally just threw the container up into a cave from his boat. Rob was with him, and made Ang climb up and place it properly.

Reaching the cache is no easy feat, but Ray handled it like a pro. At our instruction, he nosed his yak into a crevice in the rocks and carefully stood up in the boat. That takes a great deal of skill and balance! He then lifted a knee atop the ledge on his left and nimbly made his way up to the cave from there. He made it look easy, but I know from experience that it isn’t. He even managed to re-board his boat without mishap, an even more amazing feat.

Just downstream from this cache location is the Smalling Road bridge. Built in 1941, this is a one-lane truss bridge. We cross this bridge during our shuttle trips and pass under it on each trip down this section of river. As we approached, I commented to no one in particular that no matter how many times I float this river, I always seem to take a picture of this bridge. It holds some kind of appeal to me.

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On this trip, I noticed that hundreds of swallows that have nests along the underside of the bridge were swarming about. They raised a cacophony of noise as they swooped in and out of their nests.

Rob hid a cache on the support of this bridge a few years ago. He and I had looked to see if it was still there on our last trip, but did not spot it. Emboldened by his successful standing and exiting of his boat at the last cache, Ray repeated the performance here so that he could check for himself that it was gone. It was, so Rob will need to stop and replace it on a future trip since none of us had a magnetic container with us.

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Just past the bridge we stopped at a beach to stretch our legs. It was still a bit early for lunch, so we decided to wait to eat. I had a snack while we were here to keep my stomach happy for the next hour.

From the beach we paddled across the river for Ray to find another cache. It was missing, so I provided him with a replacement container and log. We then paddled a short distance down to another favorite spot on the river. We floated in the shade of the enormous rock shelter while Ray climbed up in it to log the cache hidden there.

There is always water dripping from the rocks above you here and plenty of shade, making this a great place to rest and cool off.

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Last year, Rob’s brother Richard pointed out to me a micro garden on a small ledge about 20 feet above the water. The ledge is crowded with several different kinds of plants and water drips off of it constantly.

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After Ray had returned to his boat, we continued downstream. We stopped to investigate an overturned boat we had first noticed last month. It has moved a little further downstream, and is embedded deeper in the river bed. I know that Rob dreams of rescuing this boat, but even he admits that it has deteriorated since we last saw it.

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I stopped on a tiny island where I hid a cache a few years ago. The original container was a plastic ammo can, and I replaced it with another plastic ammo can when the first went missing. That can also disappeared so I switched to a small bison tube hanging in a tree. On today’s visit I realized that the tree it was in has fallen and the cache is once again missing. I decided to switch to a camo-tape covered pill bottle, which I covered with several large rocks in hope that it will not wash away. If that does not work, I will likely change to hanging something from the biggest tree on the island.

We scraped our way through the next set of rapids, which are very shallow, and stopped for lunch. While the rest of us ate, Ray walked a short distance up stream to search for another of my caches. It was also missing, so I will have to replace it on our next trip. It is difficult to keep caches in play along rivers that routinely flood, but it is a lot of fun for us to hide and search for them so we keep doing it.

I went first through Goat Rapid, and then got into position in time to get some photos of Ray’s first trip through this fun rapid. He did great, but once again got a boat full of water. In fact, in one of the photos below you can see that his boat nearly disappears under the water. As he paddled over to shore he said, “If anyone asks how my boat handles the water, I can say it does a great job handling it. It collects all of the water inside.”

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Dori had also taken on some water going through this rapid, so this stop was a double dump.

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The day had grown much warmer – around 90 degrees – and I was looking forward to paddling under Quarry Falls to cool off. I was also contemplating doing a cannonball into the water if I could find a deep enough spot with a safe place to jump from.

As we approached the railroad bridge and the Watauga Road bridge, I pointed them out and explained to Ray where we were. He said, “I’ve always wanted to paddle under that bridge!” I replied, “Well, today is the day!”

We passed under the bridge and went through the next small rapid. As we paddled around the bend, my anticipation grew of cooling off under the falls. Sadly, they were not running today. Quarry Falls is man-made and only runs when they are pumping water out of the quarry just over the hill. I was sad that Ray was not going to see this impressive sight on his first trip on the Watauga. But, we all agreed that there will be many more trips in the future.

I asked Ray if he wanted to stop for one more cache, and he asked if he could please do that. I was glad for him to, since the next cache on the river was mine, and it needed a log sheet. I had placed it last fall, and it went all winter without being found since no one was paddling. Rob stopped to find it on our trip last month, but it had gone missing. I had a replacement container, but no log sheet to put inside.

Ray was happy to place a log sheet in the container for me if I would let him log the cache. When we arrived, I explained that I had used a fallen tree to climb up onto the high bank, and he decided that looked like the best way to do it. Once again, he monkeyed his way out of the boat and up the tree, walking across like it was a four foot wide sidewalk. After placing the signed log sheet inside the container, he backtracked, making it look easy.

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When I had placed the cache last year, it was this return trip that challenged me. I stepped out onto the upper limb a few feet, and then froze. My legs were shaking and I could not bring myself to crouch down and sit on the limb so that I could swing my legs down to the lower branch. It was only when I knew that my friend PorknBeans (Jane) was shooting video that I was able to get moving again and finish my climb down to the boat. I didn’t want video evidence of my plight showing up on YouTube!

Rob and Dori had arrived at the take out point by the time Ray and I finished at the cache site. We started paddling toward them, but became distracted by something shiny under water. It looked like a sign of some kind, but we had been fooled earlier in the day by a shiny object underwater. When flipped over, that earlier object turned out to be a computer keyboard.

Ray worked hard to flip this latest find over with his paddle, while I circled him. He was finally able to hook his paddle under it and flip it, only to have it disappear from view! Despite paddling back and forth over the area several times, we could not locate it again, so finally turned our boats downriver.

When we arrived at the takeout, Rob already had his boat loaded on top of his truck. As I paddled up I called out to ask why he hadn’t loaded my boat while he was waiting. He had some lame excuse like me being in it.

Since Rob needed to be home early, he left us there. We loaded the three kayaks in the back of Ray’s truck, and he drove us back to Blevins Road to retrieve my truck.

At some point during the trip, Dori had mentioned that Captain Jack (Tom) would be off from work the next day. Since Rob and I were both off for Memorial Day, we cooked up a scheme to paddle The Sluice. When I dropped Dori off at home, I kept Heather Patrice in my truck in anticipation of another trip the next day. She promised to get Tom’s Hulk cleaned up and ready for the trip, and we parted looking forward to seeing each other in less than 24 hours.

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