The week of July 13th, 2015 was filled with heavy rains in the southeast which got many creeks and rivers up and running at very healthy flows during the week! Big Laurel stayed above 1’-0” on the gauge Monday-Wednesday with all the rain. This setup a possibility for the run to hold for a Saturday trip. On Friday gauge readings came from the Laurel River Store that the run was at +1” on the gauge in the A.M. and the level only dropped to 0” in the P.M. (The run is consider runnable down to -6” on bridge gauge at the put-in). Things were looking very promising for a good low runnable level on Saturday…
A poll was given to the Appalachian Paddling Enthusiasts earlier in the week to choose a class III run for a club river trip on Saturday, July 18, 2015. A majority of the respondents were very interested in giving Big Laurel a go for a beginner creek style run if it was at a runnable level. So after checking the level one final time on Friday afternoon the call was made to meet at the Big Laurel put-in Saturday morning to set shuttle for a run down to the French broad Section 9 take-out in Hot Springs.
On Saturday morning when the group arrived at the Big Laurel put-in they were blessed with a perfect first timer’s level of -1” on the bridge gauge. Stoke was high for all 15 APE participants in anticipation for a good run with many of the participants being first timers and getting this pristine run at a good level on hot sunny July day! The large APE’s group was also greeted by a group of 8 paddlers from Foothills Paddling Club who were also there to paddle Big Laurel that morning.
Both groups set shuttle to their take-outs and returned to put on the river at the same time; so since the APE’s group was larger and had more first timer’s the APE’s trip leader made the call to let Foothills put on first to not slow down their smaller group. Once the Foothills group had drifted out of sight the APE’s slide their boats into Big Laurel with 13 kayakers, 1 open canoer and 1 inflatable kayaker.
The large APE’s group decided to break into 3 smaller groups of 5 paddlers each to navigate the larger rapids more safely on the run; mainly so eddy service did not get overcrowded while running the drops. Each smaller group had an experienced river guide and safety boater to support the other group first timers. One of the smaller groups was made up of 4 ladies and one guy who expressed his empowerment of getting to join the ladies group at the take-out!
The Big Laurel run started out well with the three groups making it through the first rapid (Pinball) with only one brief swim. Then we all boogied down the first mile of the run through a few no named class II rapids to arrive at the top of Stairstep Rapid. The entire group scouted the rapid from the river left bank and trip leaders discussed with their small groups line options for the rapid.
Jamison Evans probed the first line to show the first timers the best line while they scouted from the river bank. Others in the group set safety at the bottom of the rapid. Then all of the first timers went back up to their boats to give the rapid a go and all completed their lines with 100% success!
The group boogied down a couple more no named class II rapids and then arrived at Suddy Hole. Trip leaders explained this two part rapid to each of their small groups and the trip leader dropped over the first ledge to eddy out nearby to direct all the first timers over the best line of the entrance ledge. There was one big over the handle bar crash at this ledge onto a rock in the drop that resulted in a swim, but the victim was OK and quickly cleaned up with a self-rescue. The entire group all ferried over to river left to setup from the large eddy to run the main slide of Suddy Hole down the left of center line. The group leader slide down the drop and setup to direct each person as they dropped the 7’ tall slide. Everyone finished this rapid with a smile!
The entire group of 15 turned down river again to make the right bend down toward Lower Prelude rapid. The group split back up into their smaller groups of 5 paddlers to navigate this longer class III boogie rapid. Everyone made it down this rapid with dry hair!
After all three groups met back together in the pool below Lower Prelude we all took in the beautiful landscape of the river banks leading up to the Narrows. The group split back into their 3 smaller groups and trip leaders lead their first timers down into the right entrance of Narrows. Each smaller group navigated the rapid with 100% success in a follow the leader style line from right to center down this busy Class III+ rapid.
The group headed on down the river to Cliffside rapid. Each paddler had to go one at a time down the right shallow shoal rapid leading into the cliff wall to make the left turn and stay off the right wall to make it down into the pool below the rapid. We had one paddler crash into the wall and flip. After two failed roll attempts a swim resulted and safety boaters were quick to help the swimmer to the right shore below the cliff wall. After some encouraging words and help with the drain plug to empty the boat, the paddler was back on the river to rejoin the group.
The group headed left around the island below Cliffside rapid and rounded the right bend into what is normally an easy no named shoal rapid leading down to Flume rapid. However from the recent high water events the group came upon tree strainers in this rapid that quickly became problematic. Trip leaders scrambled river right to miss the highly visible strainers on the river left to only realize that there was another bad strainer on river right at the surface of the water blocking a good line down the right of this rapid. Trip leaders managed to get over the right strainer by boofing over the top of it, but then quickly redirected the following first timers to cut back down the center of the rapid that lead them over a very shallow manky shoal. The group was navigating this move OK until one of the paddlers got swept sideways trying to make the move and became two point pined on a side broach against two rocks between the strainers. Safety boaters were able to quickly attain up to the pinned paddler to see if they could pull the paddler off the rocks, but the flow had already began to pillow on the upstream side of the boat making it very difficult to budge. Other paddlers from the group quickly realized the incident and got out of their boats to assist from the river bank. After making sure the pinned paddler was stabilized from flipping under the water, a rope was attached to the pinned boat’s grab handle and thrown to the river left safety crew. The three paddlers in the safety crew grabbed the rope and gave a big team tug to begin moving the pinned paddler and boat off the rocks, while safety paddles in their boats continued to stabilize the broached victim in the center of the river. After a couple of tugs from the safety crew the paddler and boat was pulled up and over the rocks upright and OK. After the group pulled the pinned paddler to safety and detached the rope from the boat some of the group went to work trying to move the right strainer blocking the good right line. After a couple of minutes of wiggling, pushing and pulling the paddlers were able to push the log up against an adjacent rock to reduce the potential danger the strainer was causing in the right line.
After the swift water broach rescue and strainer cleanup the group of APE’s got back in their boats and refocused on heading down Big Laurel to finish the last two major rapids (Flume & Humble Pie – AKA: Lost Poggie) with no problems. The group celebrated in the last pool of Big Laurel before the confluence with the French Broad about a huge success for many of the first timers in making the 3.7 mile trip with 200 vertical feet of drop as their first creek run!
And then the group made the right turn at the confluence of French Broad Section 9 into Windy Flats…
This section of river lived up to its name on this day. It was windy, flat and extremely low flow. The French Broad gauge was reading in the low 700 CFS range in Asheville that morning – LOW FYI. Group leaders had never seen this section of river this low with Big Laurel running good! The group trudged along down Windy Flats for over a mile dodging rock shelves and paddling what many described as the Dead Sea with water temperatures nearing bath water feel.
The group finally made it to Kayak Ledge (AKA: Needle Falls) to boof into the low water pool below and continue the slow scrappy paddle onto Frank Bell’s rapid. The group arrived at Frank Bell’s and realized that it was really low! The entrance had no central channel to enter the rapid, so one of the safety boater got out on the shoals to help pull the others over rocks to scrap into the pool below and then run the bottom two main features with a dog leg left to right line.
The paddle to the take-out from below Frank Bell’s can’t be described any other way than brutal! Lots of flat water paddling and rock dodging occurred down to Surprise Ledge. But due to the low water the group found that Surprise Ledge had grown about a foot taller due to the low level on FB9 which made for one nice last boof.
The group reached the take-out nearing exhaustion from the long slow paddle down FB9. However a cool stream flowing into the river was found at the take-out and many of the group sit in it to cool off and refresh before heading to their cars to load up.
The day was finished off in the take-out parking lot with cold tasty root beers and Mexi-Cokes from an Orion Cooler. Then the group had a World Kayak style prize draw for all the group participants and everyone went home with a prize thanks to World Kayak’s Program Partners!