How did you get started kayaking?
I started whitewater kayaking when I was 15. Growing up in Chattanooga I had a great selection of rivers and creeks to learn on. Chattanooga was also home to some of the '90s most talented and courageous steep-creeking pioneers, so I also had a great number of masters to learn from. I moved to Knoxville in 2001 and first ran the Raven Fork a few years later with Ben Hayes—who, along with Chris Young, is credited with discovering the run in 1998. I have been back numerous times since then and always come away amazed at the quality of the whitewater and the scenery. It is one of the most beautiful places I have seen in the Park.
What is the Raven Fork?
The Raven Fork is located in Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Cherokee, N.C. It is a bit of a geologic anomaly with a large and fairly flat watershed that empties through a steep, narrow gorge with huge granite slides and waterfalls. My most recent trip into the gorge ended slightly prematurely when I encountered the mighty forces of a 50-foot slide called "Mike Tyson's Punchout." We got a bit of a late start, and by the time we made it to the river, I was quite motivated to move downstream as fast as possible in the interest of daylight.
What happened when you reached that part of the river?
I took a very quick glance from the top, thinking I remembered the line pretty well, and jumped in my kayak and shoved off. Just before the last 15-foot vertical falls I was turned sideways by a large pillow off the right wall. I fell off the last drop sideways, clipping a rock half-way down and slamming my torso into the rim of my cockpit, breaking my rib. I landed backwards in the pool at the bottom and felt like I had the breath knocked out of me. I took a few paddle strokes into an eddy and knew that I would not be able to complete the run in my boat. Running out of daylight, I had to leave my kayak and hike out the steep canyon walls to an old railroad grade some 700 vertical feet above. Getting out of the boat proved quite difficult as it takes a lot of core muscles, and these had been severely damaged. The hike out was quite unpleasant as well. I focused on my breathing and kept putting one foot in front of the other. I hiked all the way back to the truck and drove it down to the bottom to pick up the rest of the crew. The whole way home I was shivering with pain and every bump in the road felt like Mike Tyson's left hook into my ribs.
Was that enough to convince you to give up on kayaking?
It has been over a month and I am feeling a lot better. I have already been back in my kayak three times this week, and I can't wait until I feel good enough to go back to the Raven Fork for a little redemption.