July 5, 2019

Watauga River – Lover’s Lane to Wagner Road

  • 10.36 miles
  • 5:46 duration

While paddling the Sluice on July 4, LakeBum (Rob) and I made plans to paddle again the next day since we were both off work. We invited others to join us, but the only other person available was Lob the Huntsman (Ray).

I needed to be back in Gray by 3:30 for a hair appointment, so we decided to get an early start on the day. We agreed to meet at the take out at 8:00 am to leave a vehicle. We then loaded Ray’s kayak and mine into Rob’s truck and made our way to the put in at Lover’s Lane in Elizabethton.

It was another beautiful summer day. The morning temperature was 77° and the skies partly cloudy. When we started our journey there was no wind. It wasn’t bright enough for me to need my sunglasses, so I kept my regular glasses on. We had boats in the water by 8:30 and had started our paddle.

Morning dew on the forget me nots.

This was Ray’s first time on this upper stretch of river, so as we paddled we told him a little bit about what he could expect. The first .75 mile is wide and calm. TVA was not generating at Wilbur Dam until much later in the afternoon, but they were spilling. This gave us enough water for the paddle, but it was still quite shallow in some places. Fly fishermen stood in the river casting their lines, some in waders and some just wearing shorts. Along the opposite shore I saw morning walkers along the Elizabethton Linear Trail, including a woman with a beautiful husky. The water was clear and cold.

Beautiful morning on the river.

Right after passing through the first small rapid, we pulled over so that Ray could search for a geocache. It is hidden near the abandoned carcass of an old warehouse. I’ve always loved the look of this old building. There is a mural on the lower part of the building, but it is mostly covered in vegetation now.

Spooky old building.

The bow mount for my video camera had broken the week before, so I told Rob that video was his job today. I did shoot quite a bit of video with my cell phone throughout the day, and took fewer pictures than usual. Most of that was compiled in a short highlight video that you can view here.

While on shore in search of the geocache, Ray discovered a paper memorial lantern. Someone had written the name and memories of their loved one on it, and inside was still some of the ash from the tea candle that had lifted it into the air when they released it. Ray was unsure whether to CITO (Cache in Trash Out) it, or leave it be. We decided he should take it home and dispose of it properly. Even though these are advertised as bio-degradable, they can still pose a threat to wildlife in the time it takes them to break down.

Ray checks out the memorial lantern.

Near the abandoned warehouse are four square concrete structures in the river. We discussed the need to find a friend who knows the history of this area that can tell us what their purpose was. One of them has a metal gate on the side that could be raised and lowered, giving access to the inside of the structure. Rob is contemplating archiving his nearby cache and hiding a new one on one of these structures.

Anyone know what this is?

As the air temperature warmed over the cool water, a mist formed, floating just above the river. It was a beautiful sight.

We continued down the river, passing through some more gentle rapids, and stopping off so that Ray could find another geocache. A little over an hour into our journey we came to the first challenging rapid on this section – Sycamore Shoals.

This rapid requires you to do quite a bit of steering to avoid the many rocks throughout it when the water is low. There is an island here, and it is typically necessary to paddle down the left side of the island. It is only possible to paddle on the right side if generators are running at the dam.

There is one small drop near the end, and then you must navigate a tricky spot where the water coming from the other side of the island rushes in from the side. If you do not aim your boat directly into that cross current, it will easily flip you.

Rob explained all of this to Ray, and then went first to show the way. Ray followed him and I brought up the rear. We all made it through the rapid with no problems, but Ray had to stop immediately after to empty the water that had collected in his boat. Once again, I was thankful for the spray skirt that saved me from having to make frequent stops to drain my boat.

We stopped at the next small island so that Ray could look for another geocache. This time Rob got out to help him, since he wasn’t sure if it was still there. I sat in my boat and enjoyed the beautiful day.

Rob then told Ray about the next stretch of river. He explained that there are two very small drops that provide a warm up for the big event – a drop of about five feet. We all navigated through those first two drops without any problems.

We then paddled past one of my favorite spots on the river. Here, a row of jagged rocks stretches down the middle of the river. I don’t know why this place holds such magic for me, but I’ve always loved it. Pictures never really do it justice, but I always try.

Soon, we were at the “falls” and ready to make the drop. There is a very calm pool above the drop that allows you to paddle around and study the situation. Since Rob and I have paddled this section many times, we know what to look for, but he took the time to show Ray.

From above, it is hard to tell where the one spot is that you need to aim for. However, if you look past the drop, you can see a white plume of water stretching 30 or so feet past the drop. There is also a pair of crevices in the rock wall that form a “V”, giving you something else to aim for.

This is a screen shot from video taken on a past trip across the falls, The blue arrow shows where you have to cross, aiming for the white plume below the drop.

Rob went first again so that he could take photos and video of us. I went next, and missed the sweet spot. I made it over without problems, but scraped across the top of the rocks before plunging over the drop. Ray followed me too closely, and also scraped as he went across.

Ray comes over the falls.

After crossing the falls, we paddled upstream alongside them to another geocache. It is hanging in plain site, but this is a spot that most people would never be so that doesn’t matter. Rob bailed water out of his boat while Ray opened the cache. He “accidentally” threw some of the water he was bailing out in my direction, but I didn’t mind. It felt good on the warm day.

The cache container was the local geocaching community calls a “dirty tube”, so named by BackWoodsAng. This is a section of PVC pipe that is sealed on one end and has a screw cap on the other. Remarkably, an item that most of us have in our homes and that is constructed to transport water without leaking, is far from waterproof. Ray had to pour a couple of inches of water out of it before he could retrieve the soggy log sheet.

I was unhappy with the way I had crossed over the falls, so decided to walk my kayak up and run them again. This was easier said than done. Walking in ankle deep to knee deep running water on slick, round rocks is hard. Especially when some of those rocks want to roll under your feet. But, I persevered. With one hand I dragged my boat behind me, and in the other I held my paddle, using it like a hiking stick to steady me.

I finally reached a point where I had to lift my boat over a two foot high rock ledge. Above the ledge, the water was deeper and calm. I climbed in my boat and paddle back downstream to the point where we cross the falls.

This time, my aim was better and I scraped much less. I don’t know if it was this trip or the previous one, but Rob captured a great photo for me as I crossed. We then continued downstream.

A lot of debris had washed downriver over the winter, and had gathered in eddies along the shore and against rocks and downed trees that extended into the water. I noticed the Ray was looking closely toward one such pile of debris, and realized that there was a blue heron sitting on a branch above it. He sat still as we quietly floated past, allowing me to shoot video and snap some good photos of him. I just hated that the picture is marred by a pile of trash below him.

He took off as I passed him, and I was able to capture his flight on video. It never ceases to amaze me how such big creatures can actually fly.

A short distance downstream we paused once again so that Ray could log a cache hidden by BackWoodsAng that can be reached from your boat. It was tied to a tree that hangs over the river. Unfortunately, although the paracord was still there, the cache container was missing. I took a photo and sent to Ang so he would know it needs replacing.

Needs owner maintenance.

We paused at another pile of debris because Rob had spied a plastic Craftsman box. Unfortunately, the drill that it once held was gone. Oh well, it would likely have been ruined by the water any way. He also found a dry bag that must have fallen out of someone’s boat. It had a cell phone, a pack of cigarettes, and a lighter in it. It’s bad enough they lost those, but at least their wallet and car keys weren’t in it.

Our next stop was on an island in a bend of the river where I hid a cache last October. It was on the day that Rob and Kara were married, and within sight of their wedding venue. I had a great time that day “splashing” their wedding with our mutual friend Berta.

The cache had not been sought or found since it was hidden, so this would be an opportunity for Rob and Ray to be FTF – first to find. We all exited our boats this time, and I shot video as they conducted their search. I was hoping that the cache had not washed away over the winter.

Fortunately, Rob quickly spotted it right where I had hung it in a tree. He opened the pill bottle and found a dry and empty log sheet inside.

Back in our boats, we paddled downstream. I pulled over next to some islands just before the next rapid, expecting Ray to stop and look for a cache hidden there. Instead, Rob signaled for me to come ahead as he passed, and told me that Ray was saving that cache for another trip.

Just past this fun rapid is the Blevins Road boat ramp. This is our starting point for many trips on this river, and was where Berta and I ended our trip last October. However, today we paddled on past.

Ducks on the river

We began to see drift boats with fisherpeople past the boat ramp. I say fisherPEOPLE because not all of them were men. We chuckled about one such boat that had two older women and a male guide. When you charter these boats, the guide sits in the middle manning the oars, leaving the passengers free to fish from the front and back.

In this case, the woman in front appeared to be an experienced angler. She looked the part in all the appropriate gear, and stood confidentially in the bow casting her fly line expertly. The woman in the back sat looking miserable. She occasionally swung her rod like a baseball bat and then had to stop and untangle everything before trying again.

All the while, they kept up a steady stream of conversation about cooking and whatever else came to mind. We could read the guides thoughts on his face. It was if he was thinking, “Just shoot me now.”

We passed through a fun rapid and I quickly turned around to get a photo of Ray coming through.

Rob then said, “Let’s stop for lunch after the next rapid – the one that we have to zig zag through.” That sounded great to me as it was close to noon.

I volunteered to lead the way through the zig zag rapid. It is one that we have paddled many times. It is splashy and fun, but requires you to pay attention.

I was about 3/4 of the way through when I suddenly realized I had not zagged far enough left to avoid a large rock that extends above the surface of the water about a foot. As I paddled hard to avoid it, the current swept directly at it. It was angled just right so that when I contacted it broadside, it flipped my boat over. Yes, for the first time since I bought Huck two and a half years ago I flipped him.

I had let go of my paddle, but a young couple on inner tubes grabbed it for me. I had a boat full of water, and it took me several minutes to maneuver it onto a nearby rock ledge and empty the water. It was during this process that I realized I had also lost my glasses and my favorite ball cap. If only I had put on my sunglasses at the start of the trip! The rest of my gear was safe and sound because it was all securely fastened inside the boat. My cell phone is waterproof, and was safely zipped away inside my life jacket.

After I had finally emptied my boat of water, we continued a short way downstream to the beach where we were planning to stop for lunch. Ray also grabbed a geocache during this stop. I texted Deban with the bad news that I had lost my hat and glasses.

As we continued down river after lunch, Ray kept assuring me that we would come across my hat eventually. The glasses I had chalked up as gone forever, and I doubted I would see the hat again either.

Ray had found the next several caches on our last trip, so we paddled steadily without stops and enjoying the beautiful day. The weather had warmed up considerably, but with many shady spots along the river we weren’t too hot.

As we went through one rapid, a fisherman in a boat called out to us, “Did anyone lose a hat?” “YES!” I yelled back. “Black with nCo on it?” “That’s it,” was his reply. “A couple in inner tubes found it.” He pointed downstream and far ahead of us I could see the same couple that had retrieved my paddle.

“You were right!” I called to Ray. He was so certain that I would find my hat, but I didn’t have as much faith.

I paddled at full speed to catch up to them. When I was still a long distance away, I saw the guy waving his arms above his head. Once we were in earshot he shouted, “I found your hat!”

“You haven’t seen a fish swimming around wearing a pair of glasses have you?” I asked. Sadly, they had not.

I was thrilled and eagerly retrieved it from him. I took a selfie to send to Deban. She was not as thrilled as I was, and wished we had found my glasses instead.

Just above what we call Goat Rapid, Ray and I stopped so that he could dump water from his boat. Rob paddled on so that he could once again get video of us as we came through the rapid.

As Ray was draining the water, I spotted something underwater that looked intriguing. Since the water was less than a foot deep here, I decided to try and fish it out with my paddle. After several attempts, I was able to flip it up. As it floated back to the river bed it opened, revealing that it was CD or DVD in a case. I thought, “I’ll bet it is some kid’s favorite movie and they are so sad they lost it.” I was imagining Frozen for some reason. Maybe because it was so hot and that would be a good movie to watch on a hot day.

I kept working to retrieve it, and finally Ray waded over and tried to pick it up. He stumbled just as he reached for it and succeeded only in kicking it further downstream and muddying the water so we couldn’t see it. He gave up and went back to his boat, but I spotted it again. This time I was able to fish it out and eagerly opened the case.

NOT. WHAT. I. EXPECTED! It was definitely not Frozen or any other family friendly movie. Based on the title and the picture on the disk it was very raunchy. Enough said about that. I tucked it inside my life jacket for safe-keeping so that I could hand it off to Rob after we got through the rapids.

Ray and I both made it safely through Goat Rapid. Not far behind us came the couple on inner tubes and I turned to video their journey. She shrieked as they bounced through.

Goat Rapid

I paddled over to Rob and told him I had found something for him, handing him the DVD case. He said, “What is it? A dirty movie?” He was joking because the case was muddy. Ray and I laughed and waited for his reaction which was priceless. He tried to hand it back to me, and I refused to take it. He said, “Here, give it to the guy on the inner tube.”

We decided that was a fine idea. The guy had obviously had several beers along the way and was just drunk enough to appreciate the joke. He must have been drunker than we thought, because he was thrilled when he saw it. He safely tucked it away so that he could take it home. His girl did not seem quite so thrilled.

The rest of the journey was uneventful. I went first through the last rapid of the day so that I could take pictures and video of the guys, but Ray was too close behind me. I did manage to snap a couple of pics of Rob just as he finished the rapid.

We finished the trip at the Wagner Road boat ramp. I moved my truck closer to the ramp and grabbed some dry clothes to change into. I made my way into the woods to do that, and as I was changing noticed something shiny on the ground. It was a black and silver ring that at first glance looked like a wedding band. On closer examination I realized that the design on it was the Superman logo. I had found Clark Kent’s wedding band!

We loaded my boat and Rob’s in my truck, and I took him back to the launch site at Lover’s Lane. I made it to my hair appointment NEARLY on time. Despite my unexpected swim and the loss of my glasses, it was a great day to be on the river. Oh, and if you are keeping score, it was last July 4 that I lost my previous pair of glasses – in the lake at Rob and Kara’s house. I guess I’m going to have to stop hanging around with Rob the week of the 4th!

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