I learned to canoe as a boy scout, and I have always loved it. I paddled mainly on pastoral streams such as the Red or the Buffalo, but I longed to get out on some "sho-nuff" whitewater. So, in 1972 when I turned 20, myself and five like-minded friends decided to find and paddle a river one of us had heard of - the Obed - on the mysterious Cumberland Plateau. The Obed, as most of you know, is Tennessee's only National Wild and Scenic River, flowing through the Catoosa Wildlife Management area near Crossville. This region, even today, is remote and largely inaccessible. The Obed River flows through an impressive canyon. Five hundred foot cliffs tower over you as you paddle down the river. The rapids in the river have been formed by breakdown from the bluffs overhead, and are very difficult. It is NOT a place for beginning whitewater paddlers. However, we were 19 and 20 year old boys, full of vim and vigor and just itching to get into trouble. I remember we discussed the possibility of having difficulties on this trip, but dismissed such thoughts. "It's just moving water", we said. "You just stick your paddle in the river and steer!" How hard can it be??
I have since referred to this trip as "The Expedition." The Expedition consisted of myself and a buddy in my lightweight fiberglass canoe (dubbed the "Fiberglass Wonder"), two other boys in what I am certain was the cheapest aluminum canoe ever made (you could grab the gunnels and "ripple" the sides of the canoe). These two we dubbed "The Budweiser Express". And there were yet two other friends in one of those cheap vinyl rafts you can buy at K-Mart. We made endless fun of these last tow, referring to them as "Two-Men-in-a-Tub, Rub-a-Dub-Dub." It remained to be seen who would have the last laugh.
We loaded up and drove to the Crossville area one fine Saturday morning. Although we had gotten an early start, we cost ourselves valuable time by getting lost in the Catoosa Wildlife Management Area. We had an old TVA map of the area, but it was vague, and we spent precious time trying to find our intended put-in, a place called "The Devil's Breakfast Table". Our take-out was a bridge named "Nemo's Bridge". These strange names served only to heighten our interest.
Finally we found the Devil's Breakfast Table, which turned out to be a large flat rock balanced on a column. It is a beautiful place, which I have been to many times since. By the time we ran our shuttle down to the take-out at Nemo Bridge, it was well past noon. Now you have to realize that here were six inexperienced novices about to start down an unknown river, and it was getting late. Any sensible person would have stopped right there. But we were 19 and 20 year old boys, remember, and the idea of not going when we were so close was never a consideration.
There was a group putting in with us. They unloaded some small, pointed boats, which I had never seen before, except maybe on TV. They were kayaks. Now in 1972 you could not buy a kayak in any store in the State of Tennessee. I know, because I tried after this trip. As it turned out, these paddlers were a group from Oak Ridge. They had somehow procured a kayak from someplace in Europe, I think and had constructed a fiberglass mold from it to make copies. As we were loading our boats, we noticed they were putting on HELMETS, for gosh sakes. The make us a little bit uneasy, but remember we were 20 year old boys, so we quickly dismissed any concerns.
We loaded into our respective vessels and started down the river. We had barely gotten out of sight of our car when we struck a rock head-on and damaged the bow of my canoe. This was to be indicative of our day to come. This section of the Obed is about 12 miles long and contains rapids up to Class IV in difficulty. We literally struggled our way down the river, hitting rocks, tipping over in places and swimming through rapids, bouncing off rocks in the process and generally having a hard time. It wasn't long before we were cold, wet, bruised and bleeding. This whitewater stuff didn't seem to be as much fun as we thought it might be. It was at this point that we began to argue over whose idea the trip had been.
Fortunately, two of our new found friends in the kayaks had decided to join us, recognizing that we were 20 year old boys, and therefore the dumbest creatures on earth. They seemed to know what they were doing and they paddled down the river with us, acting as guides. They probably saved our lives by warning us about several very dangerous rapids. I believed at the time that they were concerned with our welfare, but in the ensuing years I have come to suspect that they stayed with us strictly for the entertainment value. While we struggled and provided amusement for our companions, we were constantly amazed at their abilities in the kayaks. I made up my mind then and there that I wanted to buy a kayak and learn to paddle it. Due to our late start, it began to get dark. You cannot easily walk out of the Obed, as the sides of the gorge are very steep. and there are no roads. The only options are to stop paddling and wait until it gets light again, or to go on in the dark. Guess what we did??
We finally came to the last major rapid, called the "Widowmaker". We got out above it to scout in the fast dimming light. As with many such rapids, there was more than one route, and we began to argue as to the best course to take. Each of us decided to try his own route. I took a route down the left. As it happened, the river flowed through a small cleft in some rocks. Now my canoe was about 24 inches wide and this cleft was about 18 inches wide. The canoe plunged through this opening╔you do the math. My beautiful fiberglass canoe's hull was ripped from bow to stern on both sides just below the waterline. I now owned my own fiberglass version of the Titanic.
The aluminum Budweiser Express fared no better. They went down the middle of the rapid and promptly broadsided a large rock. Their canoe bent around this rock in the shape of a horseshoe. When we dragged The Budweiser Express out of the water just downstream of Widowmaker, the bow and the stern were almost touching. Meanwhile, Two-Men-in-a-Tub-Rub-a-Dub-Dub were doing just fine. They bobbed through the rapid uneventfully. We weren't laughing too much at them now.
The six of us placed the Budweiser Express across a log and by jumping in unison, we managed to straighten it into something that vaguely resembled a canoe. It was still banana shaped, and was difficult to paddle in a straight line, but we felt we could use it to get out of the gorge. My canoe leaked so badly we had to stop paddling every little bit to bail water with an old bucket we had found. Such was the condition of the Expedition as we limped down the Obed in the gathering gloom.
Luckily, the rapids remaining after it got completely dark were not as difficult, but we still had a couple of miles to go in the dark. The difficulty was compounded by the continuing leak in the Fiberglass Wonder and the maddening tendency of the Budweiser Express to travel in circles. Two-Men-in-a-Tub-Rub-a-Dub-Dub were of course having no problems. Finally we reached Nemo Bridge. I still remember the image of one of our group kissing the ground. It had been a harrowing day, full of misadventures. We were all cold, tired, wet, bruised, and bleeding. Six novices had run a river that we had no business running, and had made every imaginable mistake. It was mainly luck that had allowed us to get through without a more serious outcome. To this day, when I come across novices struggling down a river, I have a very understanding response to it.
There, but for the Grace of God, go I.
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