Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Summer That Never Was

After returning from California, I had a few weeks of family and work obligations through the 4th of July weekend and then a few weeks before I was supposed to head to the Alsek for 2.5 weeks of wilderness.  I returned from a great July 4th weekend of backpacking in the Catskills with my girlfriend to find that everyone back in the Southeast had been enjoying the best mid-summer flows in years.  Fortunately and quite surprisingly, frequent afternoon thundershowers maintained water levels enough that I was able to sneak out for some after work sessions on Tremont, the Little, and a quick trip over the mountains to the Raven Fork.

Mike Reber was able to get off early enough on Friday that we started our weekend off with another after work Raven Fork lap.  That place is so lush and beautiful in the summer.  Things went smooth and we were off the river just before dark and heading to Bryson to crash with my friend Raymond.  The morning came and we went to check Toxaway, a little too low.  On to Horsepasture, way too high.  Not sure what to do we weighed options for a minute before heading to Overflow.  It was 1 ft. when we got there which is lower than ideal but we were ready for some boating. 

There were a bunch of vehicles at the bottom but no boaters, so we just headed to the top.  We had a few interesting lines due to the low flows, but in general the day was working out great and it was a treat to be there when it was warm and the flowers were blooming.  We quickly arrived at Three Forks and I asked Mike if he wanted to check out Big Creek.  He knew nothing about it but is generally down for whatever so we went on a little getting lost in the woods and checking out waterfalls mission.  When we got back to Three Forks we weighed our options: it was getting late in the afternoon and we had no shuttle, but it was only 1/2 mile and we had already scouted it out.  The decision was made to just go for it, leaving shuttle to work itself out (at worst a 10 mile jog).
Mike letting Gravity take over.
Mike catching the first of quite a few bounces down Singley's Falls
My favorite part about Overflow is the mini gorges.  Mike finishes up the last one: Twilight.
We made pretty quick work of the hike, arriving sweaty and hot at the bottom of Thunderdome.  A huge tree prevented dropping in to the final tier, so we cooled off and geared up.  A funky pinch, a junky woody mess, a mini gorge, an off vert 20 fter and a great double drop brought us to the last slide into Three Forks.  To this point, the run had lived up to all the scouting expectations.  The last slide had looked like a nasty junk fest from our earlier river right scout.  From our mid-stream scout, things were looking better.  Center left driving right to avoid the shelf on the bottom left.  I committed, coming through the entrance exactly as imagined.  Unfortunately, I wavered slightly from my plan with a touch of hesitation, allowing myself to slip too far left with no right momentum.  It seemed to not be a big deal until the final reconnect turned my angle and momentum straight left into the shelf and a world of hurt.  See the last shot of Mike's video below - it was a lot worse than it looks.
Too bad the log was in the way.  It's still a powerful place.
Mike droppin' the biggest one on Big Creek
Mike cruising into a juicy little mini gorge
Mike grinding a huge boof.  This might be the best move in the whole Chattooga drainage?
The wood wasn't as nasty as it appears in this photo

Southeast in the Summertime 6-14-2013 from Michael Reber on Vimeo.

I was upright and my right ankle was numb from the pain.  I eddied out and hopped out of my boat.  The pain level was still high but I had no choice but to get my bulkhead back into alignment and keep going.  Mike came down a few minutes later, having narrowly avoided a similar line.  With no time to spare, I floated through Igor and caught the eddy above Marginal.  I hobbled down while Mike portaged my boat before going and portaging his own boat.  We rallied through to Pinball and Mike portaged my boat again.  At this point the swelling in my ankle was getting bad enough that my paddle had to be repurposed to a crutch.  Mike ran through Pinball and we were off stroking for the take out.  I had to stop a few times to let the pain subside, but we made it.  Fortunately upon arriving at the take out, we ran into Charles, who was a shuttler for Scott, who was completing the last lap of an Overflow vertical mile that day who not only agreed to help us with shuttle but also had some ice for my ballooning ankle.  Big thanks to those two for taking pity on me and helping in all ways possible.  I sat on the side of the road with the ankle iced and elevated as the rain misted down, just waiting for Mike's return.  Self-diagnosis at this point was a badly sprained ankle and I was hoping I could walk it off in time to make the Alsek trip in a week.

Self portrait at the take out.  The boat healed itself a lot faster than I did.
I offered to run shuttle the next day if Mike wanted to stay in NC but he was tired and feeling bad for me, so we pressed home to Knoxville.  We made it back by midnight and I stayed at Mike's cause driving with a busted right ankle didn't seem smart.  We chilled and watched some movies the next day while icing and elevating my ankle.  The thing just continued to balloon.

I went to work on Monday and decided part way through the day that I should get an x-ray since the swelling was still increasing.  I went to the clinic at work and got my ankle x-rayed.  They didn't see anything definitive but they were nervous about ligaments and tendons and declared me unfit for work and sent me to an orthopedic right then and there.  The orthopedic was able to fit me in that afternoon and was about to say my x-rays looked okay when something subtle caught his eye and he declared that I had broken my Calcaneus (heel bone).  I was quickly put in a hard splint and signed up for a CT scan and follow up later in the week.  I was still holding on to hope for going to Alaska, thinking that maybe the x-ray was so subtle that the bone wasn't broken.

Fast forward to my follow up, and within a couple of minutes of walking through the CT scan it's clear that my Calcaneus is indeed fractured, although in an abnormal fashion.  The doctor wasn't sure whether or not I needed surgery so he referred me to a foot specialist.  What is clear is that I won't be starting to walk for at least another 6-8 weeks.  Crushed, I go home and cancel my flight to Alaska about 26 hours before I was set to leave, informing my family and friends they'll be doing the Alsek without me.

It feels like forever waiting until my visit with the foot specialist on the following Tuesday.  When I finally get there she examines my foot and looks at my CT scan with some degree of perplexion.  She identifies that I have sheared my sustentaculum tali off the inside of my Calcaneus.  She goes through a myriad of options outloud with me, ultimately deciding that I should wait and see how it heals, but qualifying that statement with the need to get some second opinions on my unusual break.  I go home and start researching my condition, and it sounds like if I want to walk without a limp and on uneven ground, I need the surgery.  I decide to give the doctor a few days to check with her sources before pressing things.

The next morning at 8am I get a call from the doctor's assistant letting me know that I need to have surgery.  About 2 minutes later I get a call from the surgery scheduler saying I'll be having a pre-op screening the next day and surgery the following day.  Given my research the night before, this is exactly what I was looking for (eventually walking properly is well worth a little pain and an extracted recovery), so I signed up.

One of these is not like the other.  And this is after 12 days of ice and elevation.  This also might win a nasty ass feet contest.
I'm first in line for Friday, requiring a 5:30 am drop off at the hospital.  I'm whisked away to my room, put in a gown, and taken to the anesthesia area.  They shave my foot and leg and insert an IV.  As they are setting up the local block on my leg, the Versed kicks in and my memory turns off.  I awaken back in the same room around 10:30 with some new hardware in my foot.  Quickly, my awareness grows and I realize that my local block has already worn off.  Fortunately, the pain isn't too bad.  I end up waiting about 1.5 hours for a discharge room to open before they take me out of the anesthesia area (pretty interesting watching people slowly come to).  In the discharge room they feed me water and crackers (requisites for leaving) and a Percocet after a little arguing that I don't need it.  The nurses definitely looked at me like I was crazy when I followed up trying to refuse the pain pill with telling my roommate we won't need to fill the prescription I was given.

I spend that afternoon and the next 3 days sitting on the couch with my foot elevated under a bag of ice constantly refilled from the cooler next to me.  I'm bored out of my mind but the pain isn't too bad (no where close to the shoulder surgery) and I don't have to eat my words about not needing the pain pills.  Overall, I'm pretty useless as every time I start hopping around on my crutches the blood pressure in my foot creeps up followed shortly by a throbbing pain.  It's a good reminder to lay back down, elevate, and throw the ice back on.
This is how I spent the majority of the first 3.5 days.
Now, 5 days out from surgery, the pain and swelling have come down quite a bit.  I've gone to work the last two days which is quite a bit less boring than sitting on the couch.  The worst is over, but I still have a long road ahead of me.  I should go from hard splint to boot and get the stitches removed in about 3 weeks, and be starting weight bearing in 6-8 weeks.  Then it should be another 4 weeks before I'm walking without a crutch, walker, or cane.  I've been told I'll be close to full speed in 4-5 months, but only time will tell.

A huge thanks to my friends who have helped me out along the way so far.  I couldn't have done it without you and you have treated me far better than I deserve.  It's been rough going through this without my parents and brother for support (they're incommunicado on the Alsek and don't even know I had surgery), but between all of you and my extended family, I've been able to deal quite well.

Obviously I've done a lot of thinking about what happened.  The rapid was not above my head, and knowing what happened, I could probably run it 100 times in a row without smashing that shelf.  The missing ingredient was focus.  It was exactly the same case as when I dislocated my shoulder 3 years ago.  And it's not that I'm someone who takes paddling class V and the associated dangers lightly.  I just need to find a way to keep that same focus for every rapid, regardless of how innocuous it looks.

The other factor is that the bulkhead system I was using probably contributed to the extent of my injuries.  I was paddling a Pyranha Karnali (I love that boat) with a modified bulkhead as I find the stock one to be far too flexible (I mangle it paddling flatwater).  My modified system consisted of a set of old dagger aluminum rails attached to a U-channel with the Pyranha foot plate on the front (similar to an LL set up).  I only had 1 inch of foam on this plate, but the key mistake is that the U-channel was too high on the plate.  Therefore, upon impact my heel bent the bottom of the plate forward, violently hyperdorsiflexing my foot (bending the top of my foot towards my shin), which the doctors claim led to my Calcaneus fracture.  I hit hard enough that I was probably going to do damage regardless, but additional foam and the support channel in the right place likely would have prevented my heel from breaking.  Good thing I have plenty of time to do some bulkhead experimentation before the next time I paddle.

Safety first,



  1. The guys that gave you a hand at the take out were Scott Magley(paddle) and Charles(driver) both local Long Creekers.

    Nice write up, great photos and Vid. Retrospective thoughts are right on. Hope you heal fully and quickly.

    1. Thanks for jogging my memory. I'm terrible with names to begin with and that was a crazy weekend. Again, big thanks to Scott and Charles for helping out when it was needed most and they were dog tired from logging some serious river and shuttle time.

      Healing is continuing. It won't be quick, but the out look is good for full recovery, which is the important part. Thanks for the well wishes.