Discharge and Gage Height near Francisco, NC
February 21, 2005. Jeff and I decided that we would cover fifteen miles of the Dan River, putting in at Kibler Valley, Virginia and taking out at Jessup's Mill, NC. Overnight rains had increased the river flow, but not muddied the water.... perfect conditions. The forecast called for rain, but not a drop fell all day. We had paddled thirteen miles of the Dan in a lower section before and thought fifteen wouldn't be a problem. Nine and a half hours after putting in under a heavy fog I climbed out of the river, in the dark, soaking wet, and as tired as I have been in a very, very long time. So what happened, I'll tell you...
The river was far more developed since the last time I paddled south of Kibler. Cabins and farmland peppered much of the riverside. Not that I blame them, if I owned property on the river I would want a cabin on it too. One of the many surprises this trip was the number of portages. The amount of time each one took was deceptive and added a lot to the total time of the trip. I had to make my first one around the rock gardens and ledges just north of the VA773/NC104 bridge. Jeff managed to stay in the river but was forced into working pretty hard pushing over the rock bed. The next portage was another unexpected one just south of the same bridge. This time it was for a bridge on the appropriately named Low Water Bridge Road. We took two different strategies on this portage. Jeff took out upstream and drug his kayak through the briars and brush. I attempted to take out right at the bridge and ended up standing in the river. At the time I thought that would be the most eventful part of the trip. We soon left civilization behind for one of the more picturesque parts of the river. The laurel and fir coverage, dark green river bed, and surrounding mountains made for fantastic paddling. It was too fun during this stretch to stop and take photos though, so I don't have any to post. We passed a small field where I camped as a kid. It is now overgrown and full of trees. Guess it's been awhile.
We planned to stop for lunch somewhere south of the 103 bridge since it marked the halfway point. This turned out to be a mistake because we were now out of the mountains and had to paddle another hour and a half to get past the koy and cattle farms before finding a decent place to take a break. We also had to portage another low water bridge during this section.
After lunch we were full, rested, and ready to go. This was the relaxing part of the trip. The water started to get deeper and the scenery began to improve. We were making great time and took another break at a horse farm around the eleven mile mark just below the Dan River Road bridge.
So at this point things were going great, we only had four miles to paddle and were right on schedule. Those last four miles however paddled like ten. Even though the scenery and the river were changing and the sun was breaking through the clouds, we were getting tired. At around twelve miles the water flow and roar from the river increased and I shortly found myself perched on a ledge river right as I watched Jeff drop off a cool fall river left. I took the opportunity to snap a few photos, then put the camera up and worked my boat free. I crossed the river to follow Jeff's line and saw him scrambling up the rocks and into the tree line with his Blackwater. I thought he had swamped and not knowing why, I cautiously went through the fall (a very fun one) and pulled up to see what happened to him. Jeff had been waiting for me to come around the bend when he thought he heard my whistle. He had made a fast (very fast) dry exit and was in the process of working his way back upstream when I came around the bend. This all turned out to be fortuitous because we were at Joyce's Mill and sitting directly above Coiled Cobra, the biggest rapid on the Dan River, a true Class III. We took the time to walk below the falls, scouting it out and picking out a line. I planned to break it up by not attempting the hard right-hand turn into the main fall on river left. But as I approached I quickly realized that my plan wasn't working out and had no choice but to take the whole thing in one bite. Things worked out nicely though and everything went smooth as silk. Huge rush, lots of fun. The Dagger Element continues to perform well in all conditions. Click here to check out the clip. Jeff didn't feel it was the best time to try the Blackwater out in a Class III and made the difficult portage along river left to below the falls.
We were getting very tired at this point and with the excitement behind us, we began paddling what we thought was a short stretch to the take-out. But each bend brought another horizon that didn't include the Jessup's Mill dam and we both began thinking that I had miscalculated my measurements. We were again in a remote section of the river and one that neither of us had paddled before. With no landmarks or bridges to go by, we were having a hard time judging how far we had paddled. So with our shoulders getting sore and our arms tired, we paddled on. It isn't summertime and daylight doesn't last forever, we needed to get going.
At this point of the story I should add that I was completing my sixth trip on the Dan without getting wet and had paddled its biggest rapids without crashing. To be honest, I was starting to get a little too confident. That was my state of mind thirteen miles into the trip when I nosed up on a large rock in a strong current. My boat casually rotated ninety degrees right and slipped off, no big deal, happens all the time. Only this time two more large rocks were lined up parallel to my boat just below the first one. My boat leaned flush against them and with the current now hitting the full length of my boat I was stuck and working hard to keep the boat on top of the water. I have no idea how long I managed to stay in that position, but it was long enough for Jeff to paddle back into the current allowing me to toss him my camera's dry bag. The water finally pushed the skirt in and I had to make a quick wet exit onto the rocks. (I still hadn't given up hope of avoiding a swim.)
So I'm now standing on top of a rock in water four to five feet deep in the middle of February with my boat extremely wedged and bending from the force of the river. Jeff was very level-headed, exiting his boat river left and working his way to a spot close to me. I planned on throwing my gear well over Jeff's head to make sure that none of it fell in the river, but after thirteen miles of paddling and several minutes of trying to get my boat free everything I threw went about six feet and fell in the river. After Jeff fished everything out of the water we wised up and tied the last bag to a rope. You can tell from the picture, it wasn't that far to shore. What you can't tell from the picture is that the water was deep, moving fast, and cold. The photo makes it look like I could just skip over to the bank. It didn't look like that from the rock. I tied off one end of the rope to the boat and Jeff tied the other end to a tree. From here it took a lot of grunt work to free the kayak and I'm not at all sure how I managed to stay on top of the rocks while doing it. But eventually the boat broke free and started floating along under water. I then made the split second decision to jump in and ride with it. Maybe not the best decision because as soon as the water reached chest level it was cold enough to start taking my breath. So I jumped out and made my way to the bank, completely and totally exhausted. I'm not sure how I could have gotten to shore dry, but I still think that if I stood on that rock long enough I would have thought of something. It might have taken me a few days, but surely I could have thought of something.
After all that we still had the job of trying to get the boat out of the water and the water out of the boat. It was too deep for us to stand in the water and the bank was steep and, by this point, slippery. But with some muscle and ingenuity we managed. We knew the take-out had to be around the corner and since all my dry clothes were just as wet as the ones I was wearing, we saddled right back up and started paddling (note to self... add lightweight neoprene undergarments to list of gear!). Darkness was soon going to be an issue and we didn't want anyone worrying. Guess what, the dam wasn't around the next bend. Or the next, or the next. We ended up paddling about two more miles, me wet and both of us completely spent. Shoulders burning, arms aching, moon rising, we finally reached the dam. Just one last portage and a couple hundred yards of paddling in the dark left. It really was dark. We were putting the boats on the truck at seven o'clock. Jeff called me the next night at six thirty and said "look out your window." I couldn't believe it, it didn't seem THAT dark on the river.
I should also point out that during those last few miles of paddling in the quite dusk (we were too tired to talk) we saw five deer in the river, one beaver, and countless blue herons. We made multiple rookie mistakes during both the planning and execution of this trip, learned several valuable lessons, but most importantly, we had one hell of a good time paddling through the closest thing you can find around here to wilderness on a beautiful river on a Monday in February when we could have been at work. The next morning when I sat down in my office I was almost too sore to turn my head. And you know what.... it felt awesome.
You can click here to watch a 40 second clip of me dropping through Coiled Cobra and Jeff paddling the Dan.
River Depth at Francisco gauge = 1.75 feet Discharge = 205 cubic feet per second
So what were some of the lessons...
1. put dry clothes in a dry bag in the dry hatch (dry hatch may not always be dry!)
2. leave rope in an accessible part of the boat.
3. even though you hate leaving the river wanting more, plan winter trips short enough to allow for unexpected delays.
4. work on hand signals ahead of time. Jeff and I had a couple of miscommunications when dealing with rapids.
5. take a flashlight even if you don't plan on being out overnight.
6. don't spend a lot of time out of sight from your paddling partners. I've got a bad habit of both getting ahead and lagging behind.