First Falls

Soon, maybe I’ll discuss something other than paddling on the blog.  Not that other subjects aren’t worthy or interesting, but right now there’s too much good news from the waterfront to keep to myself…

Miller Kadarabek had another great weekend of competition at the US Open; I hope I’m not embarrassing him with all the press!  Miller placed 3rd in U18 C1 and 7th in U18 K1 against a field of youth racers from across the country.  While many slalom events on the Nantahala are held on a course well below Nantahala Falls, the US Open course was staged on the falls–and was therefore significantly more difficult.  Miller stuck to his guns, and let neither rain, cold, nor hard moves keep him from shouldering his boat and putting times up on the board.


Nantahala Falls is one of the Southeast’s most iconic rapids, and is braved by thousands of aspiring paddlers every year.  While calling it exceptionally hazardous or difficult might be a stretch, I vividly remember my first run down the falls.  After beaching our canoe well upstream of the rapid, my partner and I trudged down the path on river right shaking in our wool socks and sandals.  Eyes glued to the river, we barely heard our trip leader throw around phrases like “truckstop eddy, top hole, tongue, and bottom hole” over the roar of the water.  Should we actually run it?  The walk back to our boat was silent.  With stomachs full of pop-rocks and coca-cola, we giggled as the river tugged us downstream from the safety of the beach.  We crashed through the entrance wave train and caught the big eddy on the left.  The only way out was downstream, over the horizon line and through the mist.  Then we were moving again, without the giggles.  On the tongue, the top hole churned to our right.  We accelerated with a war cry into an explosion of white.

Franklin popped up next to the boat, paddle and painter in hand.  I joined him, and we lugged our swamped boat to shore.  Blue lips framed wide grins.  Flipping was the natural consequence of a bad line, it was a risk of running the rapid.  But we weren’t disappointed.  We dumped our boat and got back in.

Why wouldn’t we smile in defeat?  What did we really risk when we left the beach and committed to the rapid?  Cold water immersion?  Encounters with rock-adiles? Fatally wounded pride?  Would it have been better to avoid all that swimming nonsense and just walk the rapid?

JP Bevilaqua at Camp Merrie-Woode wrote a short piece “Advocating for Adventure” yesterday on the CMW blog, which you can read here.  I’d rather you read his post than try to summarize it myself, but JP points out that summer camp and outdoor adventure offer opportunities for youth to make decisions weighing risk and reward in a supportive, nurturing environment.  From making choices and accepting resultant consequences, campers learn and grow.  But are the lessons learned at camp that meaningful if they stay packed up in a trunk all fall, winter, and spring?

So back to Miller.  He is taking an interest he knows he can safely, familiarly pursue at camp into a wider world.  With no objective guarantee of success, he gets in his boat and does his best.  He could have slow times.  He could flip and swim in front of a crowd.  He could win a bronze medal at a US Junior Team Trial event.  How is he to know unless he’s brave enough to peel out in the first place?

I know Miller isn’t the only camper who carries High Rocks beyond the property.  He is one of thousands of boys who do and have.  Here, boys  are sent into the unknown.  They ride horses, run rapids, build fires, and clean toilets.  They meet new friends.  They win and lose games.  And when they leave Camp they might not ride, climb, or paddle.  But they just might lose with dignity, accept different folks without reservation and judgement, and treat life as an adventure to be embraced and enjoyed.

1 Comment

  1. March 26, 2014 by Barret

    I love the title of this article “First Falls” as it brings back fond but distant memories of the day my canoeing partner, Jamie Lanier and I first ran Nanthala Falls. As mentioned in Will Leverette’s book on paddling, during my years at High Rocks, there were six of us who had become quite experienced paddling the area’s rivers, and thus were often taken on river trips not experienced by other campers.They were; Will Leverette, Jack McCaullie, Woody McKay, Gee Gittleman, Jamie Lanier, and myself. While the Nantahala was a regularly run river, some years earlier it had been decided that the falls would not be run by campers any longer. This all changed one summer in the early to mid 1970’s when it was decided that the six of us would be allowed to run the falls if we wanted to. I remember the six of us (three pairs) along with Bill Doswell, David Mason and several other counselors beached our boats upriver from the falls and decided to walk down along the road so that we could be schooled on how it should be done! As the youngest of the six, for the first time I was a little nervous about this particular rapid, but figured I would watch one of the other two groups run it before we had to. When asked “who wants to go first” I remember there were no takers. It was decided that we would draw straws for the honor, and as luck would have it, my paddling partner and I lost and were thus sent back up the river to make our run. In hindsight, I’m happy that it happened this way, but I will never forget my trepidation as I walked off the road and looked back at our group waiting by the falls for what I feared my be a disasterous swan song to my paddling career at camp. The last thing I remember was Bill Doswell throwing a rock in the water just above the falls, indicating where we needed to enter, and before we knew it, it was all over and not near as intimidating as I had feared! Camp High Rocks was one of the great advantages I enjoyed growing up, and I count my blessings every day for having parents who could afford to send me there!