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High Water Raven Forking

“Cave Man” at less than half the flow. photo- Eric Bartl

The Oconaluftee gauge is at 340cfs and +100cfs an hour when I checked it before my last class of the day. Excited, I messaged a few people who I knew would be interested in going. Some people for their first time. “It won’t be over 15 inches,” I thought. Throughout my class period, dreams of the Raven Fork swirled in my brain. Not a clue what the professor was talking about. When the clock struck 1030, I zoomed out of the class, going full speed to my car in the soaking downpour. Throwing my things into the back, I drove carefully to downtown Cherokee where I met up with Levi Rhodes. Levi and I have paddled together some, and it was his first time out to the raven fork. As we drove upstream, I noticed what seemed like a massive amount of water in the Oconaluftee. “maybe it’s 20” I thought as we motored closer to our destination. Upon checking the gauge, it was nowhere to be found. Hidden under the brown nar-nar that had overtaken it. We continued upstream to the takeout to wait for Paul Griffin, a local conissuare of the Raven Fork. Amazed at the volume of water coming downstream the three of us and the generous keeper of the Raven Fork stood in the driveway, frosty beverages in hand pondering what to do next. I started splitting firewood to calm my nervous energy while the river roared, flexing its muscles behind me. After about 2 hours of waiting, Paul and I decided to send. Levi made a wise choice and decided to come back another time at a “human level” for his first run.
Paul and I carefully put on our paddling gear and loaded up in his truck to tackle the 4×4 road. After a quiet ride, we exited the vehicle and continued deeper into the Great Smokey Mountains. The forest floor was damp; our shoes were squishing into the mud and over fallen trees as we dragged and carried our 9rs closer to our destination. Fog hung over the valley and the trees swayed in the wind. Brightly colored leaves fell gingerly to rest on the forest floor. The sound of torrid whitewater that we could not yet see was intimidating. I told Paul “This is going to be legendary.” I remember his response being something along the lines of “ I wish we had a camera” to which I profusely agreed. We started our descent to the base of the valley. Steep, rocky terrain beckons the respect of every paddler who descends to the river. Especially that day because if one of us had dropped a boat, the river would have certainly swept it downstream and made a winter sled out of it. We arrived at the left bank to realize the pebbles we are accustomed to gearing up on were at best a foot below the water’s surface.
After gearing up, we ferried across to scout Anaconda which is one of the fewer run rapids on the river. At this level, it looked as though it were a fire hose on full blast that didn’t stop below the drop but continued directly into Headless Horseman. I spotted two eddies below Anaconda to catch so I could scout Headless. Paul decided to watch me run it and portaged on the right. I meditated briefly before dropping in. Visualizing my line, I yelped to Paul and off I went. Moc 1 down the unforgiving class 5. I whited out after the first boof and was at the bottom in a micro eddy in a split second. I hopped out to scout headless which was a large green tongue with a massive hole guarding the pool below. I waived Paul through with a thumbs up and a brown claw. He zoomed past me and down the rapid, enveloped in whitewater. Then, as soon as he disappeared he reappeared bow first, completely vertical, plopping into the eddy. I quickly jumped back in my boat and ran the rapid with a similar result.

Check out this video of the Raven Fork from a similar lap at slightly lower water. It was still raging!

We continued downstream painstakingly scouting each drop but running everything. When we arrived at Hale Mary we wheel chaired on the left into the turbulent pool below. The pour-over ledge directly below would compare nicely to a low head dam. It was chomping at me as I narrowly escaped the boils and the log circulating within the hydraulic. I hoped out and grabbed a rope knowing this hole had no way out if Paul got stuck due to the walls on both sides. He slid into Hale Mary after I gave him the best beta I could. “Hit it on the left!” I exclaimed. He copied what I said but the pool above was too turbulent, and he couldn’t get his bow up and commenced to a massive beatdown. I yelled, “You want a rope?”. From his side surf, he agreed that a rope was necessary to his escape. I proceeded to toss him a rope and pull him in. Paul swam in the process, but luckily he held on to all of his gear, so there was no chase down the river to retrieve a boat or paddle. Both of us humbled, we sat on the river bank for a while and collected ourselves.
We scouted through Jedi training and peeled back out into the flow. The normal class 3 boogie, transformed into class 5 ledge holes and 4-foot waves. There was a clean tongue down the normal center dome of Jedi. Riding that line was essential. Too far left there was a log jam, and too far right you would smash into the wall. After running Jedi clean we gazed at the horizon line of Mortal Combat, knowing it and Wet Willy were most likely one giant rapid. Our assumption was correct, and the rapid we scouted was steep and stout. We also knew Big Boy was right around the corner. As I was putting on my skirt Paul yelled “good line bro!” and he disappeared beyond the horizon line. At the bottom of Moral Combat Paul eddied out. Laughing and yehawing I flew past skipping the eddy and going straight for Wet Willy. Paul followed directly behind me, and we were above Big Boy in no time. From the boulder on river right, I could look downstream to Mike Tysons Punch Out. The spray shook the rhododendron and left a thick layer of water dripping down the moss, rocks, and leaves. Opting out of Boy Boy we both quickly portaged to the lip of Tysons. We scouted the rapid top to bottom. This rapid too had become demon possessed. The top boof that is usually 8ft high was a conservative 15 feet due to the water that was backed up in the pool above. The slide below was magnified, river bed full of raging whitewater. After some encouragement from Paul, I fired it up. I launched the top boof and began side surfing a small hole just above the 50-foot slide. I worked my way to the river right side knowing the bottom was about to drop out. Bracing for the worst but hoping for the best I dropped in and piloted my fresh 9r straight to the bottom where I skipped across the pool and gave a huge whooooop! whopp! Paul whooped back and portaged on the left. We boogied down to the most iconic rapid on the Rave Fork, Cave Man.

New wood made for a tight but doable line under a log. We fired off of it and continued downstream. One major rapid remained. Mangler. If there was a time to run this rapid its now, I thought. About a month ago Ryan Mcavoy and I had scouted it, thinking of running it for our first time, and left with our tails between our legs as does nearly every paddler who comes across the mess of boulders.

American Whitewater’s description of Mangler states-
“Mangler (Class 5.3, Mile 1.9)- It’s been run a few times, but it’s dumb looking. Big 12 foot boof that lands in a sieve that goes off another big drop that goes into an undercut with wood on the right.
The wood has since washed free, and I had never seen the rapid look so runnable than that fall evening. A green line of water leads directly to the top boof which was more like 7 feet, not 12. Some water in the pool fell through a trapdoor sieve while most of it haphazardly stumbled off of a wide 15-foot ledge. On the left of the ledge is a small hanging pool half way down. The rest of the flow goes into a crab trap slot and out into the large pool below. I left my boat at the top to scout. I looked at it from several angles and decided to give it a go. Paul gave me some words of encouragement and held a rope below. I found a flat rock at the top of the rapid near my kayak and had a brief meditation session. It was necessary for this one. After pushing all of the thoughts out of my brain, I then got into my kayak, put on my skirt and visualized the best line, knowing deep down that I could do it. Giving a brief whistle blast, I peeled out, following the line of green water to the left side of the top drop. With a hard right-handed boof stroke, I landed in the pool. I had time for three quick and powerful strokes before taking another huge right handed left pointing boof stroke with textbook follow through. I was flying wholly disconnected from the drop. I landed like a puzzle piece in the crab trap slot as soft as I could ever imagine. The spray around me cleared. Paul and I celebrated in the pool below.
We quickly kept moving through the high water boogie rapids until we reached the takeout at 5 pm. A mere hour before dark.. I told Paul that even though none of what we had just done was on video, I will remember this day for the rest of my life. He agreed he would not forget that day anytime soon either. We high fived and went our separate ways after running shuttle. Upon checking the gauge at 545pm, it read 23” which is not as high as I thought, however, we were on the water for several hours that day, so it had most likely dropped considerably from start to finish.