A Step Up - Running my first Class IV Creek.
Lower Big Sandy Creek in Rockville, WV
Cheat Fest weekend 2008
By Andrew Ludke
Its time for the Cheat Festival again and I am fondly remembering last spring when with much rain and high water levels many paddlers took the opportunity to run the Lower Big Sandy. Due to the generosity of Wayne Gman who agreed to guide me down the creek, the Lower Big Sandy became my first Class four run. I had been paddling whitewater for just under 1 year at the time. I purchased my first whitewater boat in June of the previous year and I was immediately hooked. I love the mental and physical challenges. I love communing with the erosive force of the water as it whittles an ever changing pathway to the sea. I love the excitement of challenging myself, of overcoming fear and nervousness and I love the adrenaline rush or moving outside my comfort level. I paddled every opportunity I could throughout the summer and fall of 2007 and early spring 2008. In my limited experience it seemed that progressing from Class I/II to class III did not take an enormous amount of time. It seems to me that the basic skills can be learned by a dedicated and enthusiastic paddler in fairly rapid succession with frequent practice. However I believe the step from Class III to Class IV, to be different in many ways. For one thing, the consequences of a mistake are significantly magnified and because of this many other considerations also become more critical. Questions such as: with whom to paddle, on which rivers or features, and under what conditions all of a sudden take on a much more important role. The step up to class IV also seemed to introduce a whole new mental game that I had not previously given a whole lot of thought to and from the mental game perspective this weekend was huge for me
So while paddling the Lower Big Sandy in Rockville, West Virginia (AW - Lower Big Sandy Creek), I had an opportunity to work through many of these issues and it turned out to be an awesomely fun and very educational experience. Dealing with nervousness and fear, learning when to portage and when to go for it were things I personally felt a need to grapple with. I really haven't had to make these types of decisions yet and I thought it was important for me to figure it out and set a course for my personality as a paddler. To be honest, in many ways it's easy for me to say I am going to go for it because I dig the nervousness and adrenaline rush that comes from pushing myself. Because of this, it can often be more difficult to say "no not this time". I also find that this can be magnified within a group. When I see others making the moves, and many of them making it look easy, I am quickly tempted to give it a try. When tagging along with paddlers that are more experienced and skilled than I this can be a constant and dangerous temptation.
All in all, I think I did well; no swims and I only needed to roll twice. I managed two good combat rolls even though I basically ran everything with the exception of Big Splat and one feature right near the end of the run. Big Splat was not really even a consideration. It’s a waterfall that drops the vast majority of its water right onto a huge rock (SPLAT!). It is ranked as a class 5.1 by AW. While running my first class IV creek I knew I had no business being anywhere’s near this while in my boat. I did, however, run Wonder Falls (18’) and I stuck the landing. It was such an awesome experience I hiked back up and did it again. The second time was not so good and I needed to do a combat roll in the boil. I stuck the roll and moved on with a decent respect for the nature of this challenge. The sound of the waterfall was dramatic from above water and thunderous while upside down in the churning aerated water below the falls. I don’t think I ever forget this “paddling first”.
After successfully running Little Splat, Zoom Floom, and Wonder Falls I decided to walk one rapid late in the day. I know that I confused my paddling partner when I decided to walk it because I had already successfully navigated a number of harder rapids and there was no obvious reason why this rapid should cause me to pause. First Island as these two successive drops are called was near the end of the run and I was already tired both mentally and physically. I was also remembering my swim on the Stoney Creek the week before where I essentially was having so much fun on a big surf wave that I kept surfing until I was exhausted. When I flipped and needed to roll I was already totally winded. Being spent and out of breath I rushed my roll and missed it a few times so I needed to pull the skirt and swim. So at this one rapid near the end of the Big Sandy run I essentially decided it would be best to take a break and leave something for the next time. I think another factor in this decision was a desire to prove to myself that I have the courage to walk something that everyone else ran successfully. Perhaps I needed to show that I could make such a decision in a group so as to prove to myself that I am not so fazed by peer pressure that I’d take on risks that just don't feel right.
Wayne Gman, my paddling partner, was an awesome guide in terms of helping with the mental game, with analyzing the runs, and even in interviewing me throughout the process to determine my risk tolerance and comfort level. He was encouraging but not pushy. He describes features and lines very well and deconstructs the river in a paced and logical way. I felt really fortunate that he was willing to guide me through these challenges.
For the first half of the run we spent a lot of time stopping to look at the rapids and discuss the lines, but after Big Splat the river moves on with what was described as boogie water … fairly continuous class II-III rapids occasionally punctuated by short pools. This part of the river was challenging not only because I was already a bit tired but because it seldom let me drop your guard for more than a moment. This last 1/3 of the river was great for exercising boat scouting and river reading skills. There were endless opportunities to practice using the river currents to swoop around pillows, or to boof holes. We hopped micro eddies while scoping move after move. Wayne would place himself in tiny eddies within fast moving current while just feet above a sizable rock or a somewhat nasty looking hole. He would pick lines ferrying from one seemingly sketchy spot to the next within a turbulent rapid. This was great to see because with my limited experience I would not have read these micro-eddies as opportunities to pick my way around the rapid. I definitely gained some confidence in ferrying my boat in faster current, and in placing it into eddies that would have previously seemed inaccessible.
Lately I have been on somewhat of a mission to move forward and to experience different types of rivers and creeks. Through out this weekend I thought a lot about how much I have learned in such a short period. I had to remind myself that in reality I had been paddling for less than a year. Recent experiences on Wills Creek in Fairhope, PA and the Big Sandy in Rockville, WV were much different, more technical, and more continuous than anything I had done previously and these have been great experiences. So far I feel like I have been making decent calculated decisions regarding what to run, and with whom. I ask a lot of questions and seek out those who know the river and with whom I have paddled before so they know my paddling level. I interview them about the conditions, difficulty level and all. This process is interesting in itself, because I am always evaluating the person I am speaking with while asking questions about the river. I always have to ask myself, how much do I trust this person’s opinions? How experienced are they? Do we share a similar level of risk tolerance? Throughout this process I learn to weigh a person’s comments. It's not such a straight forward process but again it is part of the mental game. I am looking to understand my own level of risk tolerance at the same time I am evaluating theirs.
So when I am asking someone about a river I am also asking them to tell me what type of paddle they are. I know that what's considered and easy class IV rapid in the eyes of a Class V boater like Wayne may be interpreted completely differently by a Class III boater like myself. I know that the rating scale is a subjective and imperfect system, and that the difficultly of a particular rapid or feature is not the only consideration. One must also include considerations such as the remoteness of the river, whether rescue opportunities exist and are they reasonably safe and practical to implement, and what are consequences of a swim. It’s also important to realize that the river or creek can be vastly different at different levels and it seems to me that low water as well as high water should be considerations. When the river becomes boney it may be harder to make some moves because certain sneak lines may disappear, and at higher levels things can get faster, holes may get bigger, or they can washout entirely. This is all part of the mental game.
On more difficult water I also know that I will be spending less time boat scouting and more time getting out to look and decide how or if to run a particular feature. It is great to be on a river with lots of other boaters (like during Cheat fest weekend) because you can always watch others before deciding to try something yourself, but there is also the danger of watching really good boaters who make things look easy when in reality it may be really tricky. It seems to me that the only way to really gain a good understand is to get out there and watch and evaluate and follow and try new stuff in non-life-threatening situations so you can gain a real appreciation for the more dangerous ones.
I watched 30 boaters run Wonder Falls before I tried it. The lead up was a gentle pool so the approach line was very easy and the pool below was large, slow, and full of boaters. The bottom was turbulent but did not have a significant hydraulic ... It didn't appear as if it would hold onto you even though I knew it could certainly knock me around violently. This seemed to be as good an opportunity to try something like this as it gets so I went for it. I stuck the first run but on the second I went too vertical and ended up needing to roll at the bottom. I managed this without much trouble as I was washed clear of the pour-over. While the water was highly aerated and turbulent the roll was easy. I got lucky and I avoided a beating this time.
When it came to First Island, a class IV near the end of the run, it looked a bit scary and I was already tired so I decided to walk around it. I was the only one who walked it and I was OK with that.
I am looking forward to working on my class IV skills while methodically working my way into more difficult water. To grow and learn I feel it is important to push your comfort level to some degree. As the risks increase the pushes need to be smaller and more carefully chosen and executed.
In hindsight this was a major day for me in terms of defining what type of paddler I want to be. I want to take on challenges within reason and not take unnecessary risk. I want to be bold but safety conscious. I do not want to be a show off or mindless risk taker. I would prefer that in the future people describe me as enthusiastic, but not crazy ... This is how I would describe the type of person I'd want to paddle with. I read somewhere a statement to the effect "As your balls get bigger your head shrinks". I find paddling so attractive because it is as much mental as physical. I aim to keep a reasonable balance ... bold but not stupid.
What’s your paddling personality?