Sometimes you just need a break from reality. Usually this break consists of just a momentary flicker of a daydream before the real world shakes you back. On rare occasions the fantasy goes on further, with vivid details coming together until the line between fantasy and reality blurs.
I woke at 5 am after a night of heavy rain. There were plenty of early morning options, but with no takers for true dawn patrol and the potential for high water skunking, I loaded up the boat and headed to work, planning on an early afternoon departure for the certainty of partners and water. After a morning of productivity (it's amazing what an empty office can do), I glanced at some gauges during a brief break.
One thing stuck out, the Oconoluftee River at Birdtown was over 3000 cfs, it was early October, and the forecast was calling for clear skies and warm weather for the next 2 days. A rare combination which indicated the Raven Fork had lots of water in it, the road up the straight fork would be open, and an overnight kayak trip could be attempted in relative comfort. I had been waiting for this combination for years, but there was only one catch, I was supposed to work the rest of the day and the next day. Maybe the opportunity, a two day decent of the Raven Fork starting from 3 forks, would just have to wait.
Fortunately, I have a weak will to resist opportunities like this and I started looking around for partners despite my scheduling problem. No takers from the usual suspects. But the seed had been planted and I was having a hard time coming up with excuses for not just going by myself, convincing myself that a few key portages would reduce the risk to an acceptable level. A few minutes later I had a day pass for the afternoon and the next morning and I was en route.
However, I still had plenty to take care of. 10 minutes at home and I had overnight gear and a bike for shuttle. 10 minutes at the store and I had food for myself and beer for a gift to Mr. Watty. 10 minutes at Sugarlands visitor center and I had a camping permit for the Enloe Creek campground. Then all that was left to do was endure some traffic on the beautiful drive up to Newfound Gap and back down to Cherokee.
Arriving at the gauge in Big Cove I found a healthy and somewhat brown 20” awaiting me. More would be better, but 20” seemed like enough, so off I went to Mr. Watty's house to drop my bike. After explaining to Manuel what I had planned, I dropped my bike in his carport. He seemed somewhat concerned with my solo plans but wished me well as I headed back down to the confluence and up the Straight Fork to Round Bottom.
It was a little after 1 as I pulled into the trailhead and quickly packed my gear into my boat. The plan was to be superlight with no one else to share group gear, so the stove and plenty of other conveniences got left behind. After a final check for essentials, I started heading up the hill. It's not the steepest trail in the world, but I was trying to make good time so I would have plenty of time to figure out the bushwhack down to the Right Fork. 3 miles, 2500 vertical feet, and plenty of times thinking that I would top out just around the corner, I finally made it to the top of Hyatt Ridge. The views up to the crest of the smokies were spectacular and the foliage at high elevation was peak.
After a quick jaunt along the ridge over to campsite 44, I found the small creek out of the back of the campsite that leads down to the Right Fork. I assumed this bushwhack would be the worst part of the journey in, and while steep, it wasn't too bad thanks to the fishermen's trail which was actually in pretty good shape. Soon enough, I broke through the rhodo and arrived at my put in on the right fork. The banks were overgrown with rhodo everywhere, so I found a nice perch on a rock in the middle of the tiny creek. I geared up quickly, and nearly fell in as my leg cramped while pulling my skirt up. It was by far the most difficult hike in I'd done in the Southeast, and I was pretty wrecked from moving so quickly, but it was time to move and find out if it was worth the effort.
Within 10 seconds of pushing off, it became obvious that the right fork did not have enough water to actually paddle down. Still, I banged on, with too much water to easily walk down the creek and no desire to put the boat back on my shoulder. Despite the dragging, the Right Fork was a beautiful tour through a rhodo tunnel with old growths and fall colors blocking out most of the sky. Finally, after a few portages and plenty of abuse to my already cracked boat, I popped out of the micro creek and into the bottomless pool at three forks, the birthplace of the Raven Fork.
After a brief stop to admire the forks joining under the back drop of huge old hemlocks, it was time to start the real paddling. Although the cobbles for the first mile or so were a touch shallow, there was plenty of water and I was finally making good progress. The scenic tour continued as great vistas blanketed in a sea of yellow fall foliage appeared around every corner and huge old growth trees draped over the creek in their fight for light.
As the cobbles continued, I eddied after rounding a sharp right bend, confronted by a huge log jam on the left and increased gradient downstream. I peeled out, noticing a log stuffed in the only slot to the right of log jam just feet before I got there. A quick adjustment of angle and drive over the rock forming the right side of the slot saved what could have been an extremely nasty situation. A little flustered from the surprise, I hopped out to scout the slides and calm my nerves. Fortunately what I saw looked perfect for getting back in the groove, 3 slides with small moving pools separating great moves finishing with a nice boof over a juicy little pocket hole.
Thoroughly calmed, I slid back in, linking the slides and planing over the final hole, hoping the rest of the way down to Enloe Creek would keep the same quality. I wasn't disappointed. The bedrock had broken through and was here to stay for a while. After getting into a rhythm of entertaining but not threatening slides and drops, the walls tightened up for the first time requiring a tight eddy to inspect what lay around the corner. After some scrambling to get a reasonable view, I was excited by the prospect of what I saw. 3 drops to freedom: an awkward slide against the left wall followed by a small drop with a powerful hole in front of a sieved out drop with a nice boof on the left. The tight walls magnified the boily pools separating the drops. Manageable but certainly not a place for mistakes. There was nothing left to do but commit. I slid in, blasting through the slide and charging straight over the next hole. I eddied quickly above the sieve drop to enjoy the upper Raven Fork's inner sanctum, admiring the power of pristine water pulsing chaotically under me and against the walls before peeling out and driving left off the final boof. I could have stayed there longer, but I was running short on daylight and had an unknown distance to cover.
For the next mile, the bed rock slides and drops continued. Again nothing on the scale of the rapids below Enloe creek, but great stuff with a few large enough to warrant a scout. I was torn between hoping the Enloe Creek bridge would appear around the next corner and hoping that the rapids would just go on like this forever. Gradually, the bedrock transitioned to boulders while the gradient held constant. Shortly thereafter I caught glimpse of a log just over the horizon I was entering, requiring a quick scramble for an eddy on the right. I was immediately on edge again, as the log had blended in perfectly from above and could have been a real problem if blundered into.
After the portage, I got out to scout a bigger boulder garden and caught a glimpse of the Enloe Creek Bridge. I quickly ran the rapid before portaging the sieved out mess just above the bridge directly into camp. I erected my sleeping set up before I gave a half-hearted attempt at starting a fire, but it just wasn't in the cards in the rain forest that is the Smokies immediately after 3 inches of rain. I crossed the bridge and ate my dinner overlooking the downstream rapids as the light faded. Sausage, cheese, and a few slices of bread is rarely so satisfying. The day had been a total success. And with darkness arriving and no fire, I drifted off immediately.
Despite a dry and warm night, I'd already woke several times before I open my eyes to see dawn creeping in. I head back across the bridge to eat again, this time enjoying dried mangoes and trail mix for breakfast. One thing is obvious from my perch, the water has dropped significantly. Regardless, I'll be heading downstream soon. I efficiently break camp and don my kayak gear. A little colder and wetter than the previous afternoon, I slide back into the Raven Fork.
The river here is somewhat familiar as I've done this trip a few years back. The first drop below the bridge has changed for the better and the cave is filled in. A few quick boofs later and I'm through the first set below the bridge. The river down to Lord of the Rings is magical in the dawn despite the flow. More good slides, a big boof, and a portage around fluffy deliver me to the pool above Lord of the Rings and fully familiar territory.
Despite the familiarity, everything is different. I've never been here alone.
A quick scout for wood and I enter the Raven Fork gorges proper. What is normally the best warm up rapid around is equally satisfying after the mile from camp. It doesn't get much better than blasting through the alcoved middle drop straight into the runout. I get out above Anoconda, shouldering my boat immediately. I'd already been leaning towards portaging the tricky slithering beast, and my decision is cemented by the low water exposing the shelf in the landing of the first move. I blast into the bottom of the rapid via a sliding ramp of rock before immediately scouting again. Headless horseman is clean of wood but the low water is making the boof look touchy. I decide to charge off it anyways, after all this is probably the most unique move on the river. A fading boof off the right wall followed by a quick edge switch to get the left knee up results in a paddler planing over the left side of the nasty cauldron with a tight arc back towards the right and away from the undercut right side of the slide responsible for the horseman's decapitation. Unfortunately, it doesn't go like that for me. Low water coupled with excessive greed on the boof leads to a kick flip to inverted landing in the cauldron. A quick roll and charge right deliver me to the right side of the slide and safely into the pool below. I continue downstream, fully aware that I got away with one in an unforgiving arena on a day when the stakes are even higher than normal.
The adrenalin flowing from the botched line sharpens my focus before I quickly scout and clean up at Right Right and Razorback. The gorge is perfect in the sea of fall foliage and the crisp lines have me back to enjoying the solitude as I cruise through the mellower stuff down to Hail Mary. A quick portage through the nettles and I'm on my down through Jedi Training, Mortal Combat, and Wet Willy. Despite my growing comfort with isolation, I have no delusions or time to mess with Big Boy and portage down to the top of Mike Tyson's Punch Out.
I take a moment to take a drink and a look at Mike's from the big rock that overlooks the first boof, reveling amongst the cascading water and falling leaves while examining the last nerve racking challenge of the day. I scurry back into my boat, sliding into the out flow of the Elbow Crusher. A quick stop in an eddy and a brief self-reassurance that every time I've ever run first here at Mike's I've been just alone as I am today, and I'm peeling out with that sole focus. A small slide planes me into the big top boof, off the curler hanging on it and bringing the boat back under myself, land on the pillow while starting my charge right, enter just off the right wall, staying neutral and center, white out into the pillow, wait for the current throwing left, keep the momentum heading left through the hanging hole, catch the pop that sends you skipping across the pool. The stoke carries me into the eddy above Harjes' Rapid, where a drive for the nub on the right leads to a nice pop up boof in front of the cave.
I eddy out right to scout Caveman, hoping that the wood report I heard a week earlier had changed for the better. It only takes a few steps to spot the log in the third drop, which would have been lights out to the paddler heading in blind. Fortunately the right portage allows me to pass around the log but still take advantage of one of the best moves anywhere. I pretty much sprint down the portage in anticipation of smearing out the left wall before sailing into the pool. Moments later premonition becomes reality and I'm flying past the rapids name sake cave and down into the small slides above the Mangler. The normally quick portage is made a little longer with no one to help with boat lowering and the decision to portage into the cave instead of the seal launch.
A few high quality runout rapids along and I'm cruising class II basking in the last bit of pristine solitude as the sense of accomplishing the goal starts to set in. Soon enough, I arrive at Mr. Watty's house, surprised to see another boater car. He comes out to welcome me back, glad to see that I'm still all in one piece. Manuel informs me that it's still a touch before 10 am and that the other boaters, Jay and Joe, had showed up yesterday about an hour after me with the same plan for the Raven overnighter. It was shocking to find out that while doing an overnighter I had never heard of being done before there were two guys only an hour back. I tell him goodbye for the moment and ride the bike up the Straight Fork road to retrieve my car.
A quick stop back at Mr. Watty's and I've got all my gear packed up. I thank him immensely for his hospitality and he goads me into a celebratory beverage before I hit the road for work. About two hours later I settle into my desk and attempt to bring my focus back to work, still reveling in the daydream that has consumed the last 26 hours. For all the short lived daydreams I've had in this office, it's great to finally bring one to fruition outside of it.