Friday, April 20, 2007

Thoughts of a Cheoah Boater

Tips for becoming more comfortable on the Cheoah

“Am I ready for the Cheoah”? This has become a popular question this time of year, variations of it appearing on internet boating boards, paddling club newsletters, or in casual conversation wherever boaters may gather. The answer to this question is often, “Well, what other rivers have you paddled”? There is certainly value in this line of thought, and there are indeed many rivers that can be used as a sort of litmus test for Cheoah readiness, the Chattooga and Upper Ocoee to name just a few. That being said, I prefer to focus on what skills one possesses to determine whether they’re ready for a particular river, and not necessarily what other rivers they’ve done. For instance, I’ve seen people style the Green Narrows (Triple Crown included), that have never been creeking. I’ve also seen people run class 5 comfortably without ever having run a class 4 rapid. These are obviously not typical progressions, and I’m certainly not arguing that there isn’t value in paddling and gaining experience on a variety of rivers before “stepping up” to the next level. I’m simply pointing out that the criteria for deciding on readiness for a new river is not solely limited to what rivers you’ve paddled in the past. That being said, there are a few specific skill sets I think are necessary for success on a river such as the Cheoah: a solid roll, ability to catch small eddies in bigger water, the ability to drive across big eddy lines while paddling solely on the inside of the turn, and good read and run scouting skills, to name just a few. So let’s say you’ve been practicing your skills and feel you’re ready for the Cheoah. The following are hopefully some less obvious pointers to help you paddle this river comfortably.

Most people are aware that a more vertical paddle stroke pulled close to the boat gives the boater more power (think typical forward stroke used for acceleration). But are they also aware that vertical strokes may not always be the most stable strokes? Next time you’re floating in flat water take your paddle while holding on to it with both hands and place it in a vertical position next to your hip, touching the boat (the hip being where most paddlers finish a forward stroke). It will feel a little unstable, especially if you edge a bit towards the paddle. Now let the paddle glide out so that you have a horizontal shaft and the paddle is perpendicular to your boat. It will feel much more stable.

Ok, fine, but how does that apply to the Cheoah? The Cheoah has many rapids consisting of big wave trains. We’ve all heard that motto, “If all else fails just paddle hard”. While my feelings on that should be saved for another blog all together, I have seen many boaters simply “paddling hard” through rapids on the Cheoah. The result of this hard paddling is a predominance of vertical forward strokes, which often leads to flips in the rolling waves and swirling currents. Next time you’re in a wave train somewhere, see if you’re using mostly vertical strokes. If you are, try mixing in some more stable, horizontal strokes.

Not only is the selection of your strokes important, but also when and where you’re placing those strokes. Everyone is aware of the advantage of a well-timed forward stroke as you hit a hole. But what about the rest of the time? While an entire book could be written about this one subject alone, for brevity’s sake I’ll only concentrate on stroke placement in wave trains, such as one finds on the Cheoah.

Last summer I found myself paddling down the Nantahala with local Olympian Chris Ennis. We are almost identical in strength and build and were both paddling identical boats. I was paddling behind him and matching his stroke length, cadence, and verticality, and taking his same lines - yet he was still pulling away from me. He was doing one small thing that I wasn’t doing though. For every wave we encountered, whether three feet or three inches, he was taking one stroke on the backside of the wave. Most paddlers, myself included, have always been taught to take a stroke as you’re traveling up the face of a wave. The problem with this is that one, once you reach the top of the wave your speed has declined (as you’re basically traveling “uphill”), and two, that next stroke usually doesn’t land until you’ve traveled completely down the backside of the wave. The water traveling “downhill” on the backside of a wave is faster water. If you take a stroke in this water you’ll find that you have to take fewer strokes to maintain your speed. The fewer strokes you can take, the more energy you conserve. This is particularly important on the Cheoah where the hardest section of whitewater is in the last mile of this seven mile run. It definitely takes a conscientious effort to paddle this way, and will probably feel awkward the first few times you do it. The benefit though is a more efficient paddling style.

While we’re on the topic of speed, I’ve found I paddle better the slower I go. Our instinct is to paddle fast in unfamiliar whitewater, our adrenaline fueling a belief that the more strokes we get in, the better we’ll be. The Cheoah is one of the worst rivers to paddle fast through rapids though for a variety of reasons. First, you don’t want to wear yourself out before the last mile. Second, stroke timing is more important than stroke quantity. If you’re paddling constantly through a rapid, your cadence/timing may be off when it comes time to hit the one well-timed stroke before you hit a hole or boof. Force yourself to slow down through the rapids, scanning downstream for the one or two moves that will require a well-placed stroke. Take slow, deep strokes the rest of the time. It’s not the White Nile – you don’t need to be paddling constantly through every rapid.

Once you slow everything down you make it easier to catch eddies. When you’re going fast you build up a lot of speed which makes it difficult to turn. (Don’t believe me? – paddle as fast as you can on some flat-water and count how many sweep strokes it takes to make a turn compared to the one it takes when you’re going slow) Remember, you only need to be traveling a fraction faster than the current to be in control of your boat. Because it’s easier to turn when you’re going slower, it’s also easier to identify more eddies, and thus catch more eddies. Which leads to my next suggestion involving boat scouting.

The rapids on the Cheoah seldom have one true line. Many rapids have a variety of lines. Don’t assume the fifteen boaters who just went ahead of you are going the “best” way. Catch an eddy(s) and choose your line yourself. Somebody in front of you may boof a rock to avoid a large wave train. You may not feel comfortable executing boofs, but feel comfortable in wave trains. Identify your best skills, those that are in your wheelhouse, and stick to them. Don’t try moves that make you feel nervous or uncomfortable. If you’re sitting in an eddy looking at such a move, remember that there’s probably another line, even if nobody else is taking it.

In summary, be conscientious about what strokes you’re using and where you’re placing them. Force yourself to go slow. Pick the lines you feel comfortable with and have the courage to go for it, even if others aren’t. Of course, sometimes the line is to walk. If you don’t see a line, or a move you like, then don’t leave the eddy. The Cheoah is no place for guessing. Lastly, eat a fried bologna biscuit for breakfast – it’s guaranteed to improve your paddling skill, add ten pounds to your bench press, and prevent cavities. See you out there,