I went back to the Ocoee this past weekend for my next round of lessons. A few days before we began packing my gear I received a message from poor Brandon that I’d been reassigned from my new instructor, and would be continuing to work with Brandon instead. As excited as I was to work with a new instructor, I was still more relieved than anything to be able to continue with the instructor I was familiar with and had come to trust. You would think that I would have been grateful enough to be a model student, right?
Saturday went well enough, but everything changed Sunday. Brandon began the day with an easy warm-up of stretches and review of basic paddle strokes (which I still can’t do) and then laid out his plan for the day. He announced that he’d thought it over the previous evening, and he’d decided it was time to step it up. I was going to do one of two rapids that we’d been putting off –both of which he felt I was ready to do, but he was only going to make me do one. All I could do was stare in horror as he continued: “Broken Nose or Tablesaw.” Ice, ice coursing through my veins and a slight buzzing noise in my ears. And Brandon went on to announce the winner for my personal fear contest: Tablesaw (cue the flying monkeys soundtrack).
Guys, from this point on I was the absolute worst student in the world. Seriously. If Ian
had behaved this badly I would have yanked him up and taken him home after having a “come to Jesus” discussion. If I’d behaved this way in a riding lesson, any of my many instructors would have removed my stirrup irons and made me finish the rest of the day in a two-point at working trot. Ordinarily I would be mortified to see anyone behave this badly, but man, I wallowed in it. I talked back. I argued. I stalled. I whined incessantly. I negotiated. I came up with excuse after excuse. I ran over rocks. I missed eddies. And all the while Brandon, my beloved instructor who had reassured me for three days of lessons that everything we would do was challenge by choice, took a firm stand and ignored my very logical and eloquently delivered rationale for walking Tablesaw.
I’ve never run Tablesaw in a hard boat. Ever. Broken Nose either, for that matter, but at least Broken Nose was off the table for this day. Back in the days before Ian, when Brinn would help me tiptoe down the skirt lines on the Ocoee, we always ran far, far left at Broken Nose, and I hiked around Tablesaw while everyone else ran it and waited for me below. When I signed up for lessons, I just assumed that I would continue this routine. It had been working pretty well up to this point. It’s hard to swim or hit your head on the ejector rock when you’re busy shouldering a boat across the giant table rock… Brandon has asked me several times what was my goal for lessons. And always my answer is to not be such an idiot on the water. I don’t want to be a liability for anyone else, and want to be able to control my boat better. I didn’t realize I needed to add that I wanted this control so I could hit all the portage eddies…
Saturday was a really good day on the water. I felt like we were taking off my training wheels and I was finally starting to move beyond beginner tactics. Brandon continued building on our earlier lessons to enhance rules I’d learned earlier in my paddling career, and in some cases, completely toss out those rules. I’ve consistently heard that you have to be moving faster than the water to be in control… While we didn’t address this particular adage, Brandon did teach me how to use my bow angle to speed up or slow down a ferry. A slow ferry requires more paddle strokes, but gives me a tremendous mental boost to know that I can take time to look around and consider what’s coming up next. I’ve always heard to leave the eddy high. And sometimes Brandon had us leaving high, and sometimes he had us leaving in the middle, and at Hell Hole we just slid right out the back of the Eddy. So I learned to leave the eddy high sometimes when our next move required it. But what helped more than anything was to learn that when we leave high, we don’t start high in the eddy. Brandon had me backup and start much lower in the eddy to begin paddling so as to build momentum for that ferry once I broke the eddy line. And most important of all, he was teaching me to see which situation called for which moves so I could start assessing scenarios and know what to do and how rather than just following someone else like a duckling. We paddled from the Staging Eddy to Goforth with no major mishaps and one minor mishap as I paddled clear over the top of the boulder I was supposed to slide off of sideways… Only I could botch the move I saw a 10 year old kid pull off just two weeks earlier. But overall Saturday ended as the best day ever. Brandon was the best instructor ever, and one of my most favorite people ever.
Now as I’m sitting in the creek near the takeout on Sunday morning Brandon is looking less and less like one of my favorite people. I suggested we could drive over to the Hiwassee and he laughed it off. I offered to take us shopping at Rock Creek, my treat! He declined. I even volunteered to paddle back upstream from the lake to the commercial takeout again. No dice. We were headed up the river road and Brandon seemed to determined to do his job. He carried our boats down the steep bank to Jump Rock and we warmed up with some attempts at a one paddle stroke ferry, which I failed at, but I did get more confident in charging for the green water to initiate my
ferry. Then we turned and followed the river downstream…bringing us ever closer to Tablesaw. All went well until we made it to Flipper where Brandon decided we weren’t going to go far, far, far right as we had previously. My negotiations and protestations began again, and he calmly waited out my temper tantrum, then waited some more on my nerves, and finally we sliced diagonally across Flipper successfully with none of the issues I’d built up in my mind. We floated on down to Goforth where we were greeted by Brinn and Rick as we got out for a break to stretch. Since complaining wasn’t working, I went to sit quietly by myself in the sun. Brinn kept asking if I was okay. He didn’t seem to support my opinion that Brandon is the meanest person in the world, but instead helped me get back in my boat when Brandon decided it was time to go.
Brandon guided us over to river right just above Tablesaw where we hopped out, parked our boats, and began hiking across the table to watch Brinn and Rick come through. Brandon pointed out visuals that I should identify early to hold my angle. He showed me how we were going to come in behind the first wave, maintain a left hand angle, and only paddle for stability and to maintain the left angle if the water dropped my bow. He insisted that this angle would push me into the gigantic friendly eddy on river left. Then we watched several boaters come straight down, and others even with a right hand angle, proving Brandon’s next point that there was a wide margin for error in this rapid. We left the water with a good plan and unfortunately the walk back didn’t take very long.
Once we reached our boats, fear completely took over my heart and mind. I don’t know if I looked as sick as I felt, but I felt pretty yucky. I kept waiting for Brandon to show one sign of weakness. Had he waivered for even a split second, I would’ve jumped all over it and used the excuse to climb out of my boat and start dragging. But he didn’t. He offered some reassuring advice, made a few jokes, and patiently waited while I shook like a leaf. Lots of stuff rolled through my head. I finally followed Brandon back into the current. I shook like a leaf and bumped every rock between our eddy and the main current. Brandon peeled out into the current with one hand on his paddle so the other hand could wave and remind me of my visual aids and show me my boat angle. I glided out behind him, and glided right down through and over the waves and into a river left eddy where Brinn was waiting for me and cheers erupted across the river.
So many emotions. Too many emotions to feel them all individually, and they completely overwhelmed me. Had I known how many friends had stopped to wait on me, I may have ended up chickening out. I had no idea that multiple good Samaritans had hopped out of their boats with ropes and cameras at the ready for me. Shane, Krystal, and Michelle, along with their friends and family, parked their raft and waited for my first go at this rapid with the camera rolling. Rick filmed from the other side of the river. His friend, Charles, who I had just met minutes earlier waited as well. Brinn stayed parked in the higher of the two eddies to be ready to go after me or give me a focal point to paddle towards. Brandon swung in and waited for me as well, and the first emotion I could actually identify was overwhelming gratitude for this amazing group of river family to cheer me on in my success. I threw my arms up and tried not to cry as I felt the fear sneak away and warmth replace it. Adrenaline coursed, and I continued to shake all over, but no longer in fear. Brandon reminded me that it would still be pretty scary next time, and probably the time after that, but it won’t be as scary.
Still jittery, and now distracted by it, we left Tablesaw and meandered down through Diamond Splitter (my most favorite Ocoee rapid) to eddy on the left before Dixie Drive for Brandon to issue the next set of instructions. I had to ask him to repeat himself about 10 times, and apologize repeatedly for listening to only half of what he said. I now have a greater appreciation for how hard Brinn has to work to listen through his ADD. Finally I digested the bulk of my directions and we headed back downstream, where I proceeded to miss eddies, fail to hit surfs, and blow ferries as well. At some point it became clear that we weren’t finished and Brandon wasn’t going to let me jump out at Torpedo or at the bridge, so there would be another first to add to my plate: Hell Hole. Hell Hole scares me because it’s big, it’s fast, it’s incredibly pushy, and I’ve never ran it in a hard boat. But I’ve swam it, so I guess I’ve already experienced the worst that could happen. I like to think that I didn’t protest running this one quite as vehemently as I did Tablesaw, as I’d pretty much resigned myself to going through it. And Brandon helped to set an angle through this one that helped me punch straight through and into the eddy on river right. And it was absolutely fantastic! Now all that was left between me and a swim-free day was my old nemesis…Powerhouse. Rather than get in the pushy current that goes straight for the junk over on river left, Brandon helped me sneak right out the backside of our eddy and paddle straight over the river right side of Powerhouse. I’m ashamed to say that it was much smaller than I had remembered it, and there was no risk of falling over backwards this time.
So I did it. Over the course of two days I managed to creep down the Ocoee from the Staging Eddy to the takeout without carrying around anything. We ran conservative lines on most everything above Goforth, but I didn’t have to bushwack and shoulder a boat. And Brandon is once again the best instructor ever and one of my favorite people again.
I can’t even possibly begin to thank everyone involved in helping me add this to my paddling portfolio. My mom kept Ian all weekend so Brinn could come out and watch me achieve new things. Brandon worked overtime to protect me from myself and help me work through some tough moments. Brinn cheered harder than any husband has ever cheered on a wife. Rick and Krystal documented my achievement so I could relive it over and over. And so many more people were responsible for getting me to this point. Hopefully an opportunity will arise where I have a chance to give back to them just a little of what they have done for me. Until then, I’ll try to pay it forward as best I can, because the river is not just a waterway filled with spills and thrills, it’s a community –one whose membership floods me with gratitude.
“Bad coaches make their students dependent. Good coaches make themselves redundant.” -Paul Strikwerda