Delusions in Appalachia
© Kyle Dickman
This article is reprinted courtesy of Wend Magazine
How my role in the near death of a friend became a haunting lesson in adventure protocol.
My friend Matt almost died kayaking. It was my fault. I was 21 and had just completed my first film, a kayaking porno where my colleagues and I trotted the globe in search of the hardest whitewater we could run. I was in the best kayaking shape of my life. Matt, an enthusiastic 16-year-old paddler at the time, convinced me he was, too. Along with my friend Bo, we drove five and a half hours south of our home in Richmond, Virginia, to North Carolina and a stretch of Watauga River Class IV/V whitewater fed by late-winter storms.
It was a cold Saturday morning in March, maybe 42 degrees. Patches of snow still lay on north-facing slopes. The Watauga flows through a canyon lined by dark oak trees; their leaves, scattered and saturated, rotted across the forest floor. The slop stuck to our booties as we huffed our boats to the riverbank and, in the midst of a rising fog, put in.
It happened early. We were a quarter of a mile into the run at a short Class III rapid with an undercut on the left side and a bear-sized rock in the middle with a sieve beneath it. I was following Matt and watched him flip against an exposed fin of rock near the rapid’s entrance. The upside-down boat, with Matt still in it, flushed into the sieve and became stuck.
I leapt from my kayak and swam to Matt, straddling the sieve with the water at my back. Thirty seconds had elapsed. I pushed the kayak. It didn’t budge. I reached 3 feet underwater, the Watauga surging over my shoulders, and felt Matt grasp my hand. The stern of his kayak was being pulled into the sieve along with the upper part of his body. Together, they were being sucked into a too-small tunnel, forcing the bow of his boat to stick straight out of the water like a buoy. Matt was pinned with his back on the deck of the kayak and his face against the river bottom. Moving the boat would hurt him; not moving it might kill him. Holding his hand, I dug my feet into the rock and pulled upstream. Again, nothing. A minute and a half. Bo, who was yelling Matt’s name, got to the rock, and together we pulled the kayak upstream. Matt’s hand was going limp. Bo and I jerked the boat back and forth. Two and a half minutes. What could we do? We jerked the boat back and forth for 30 more endless seconds. Matt. Matt! Get out, Matt! Then, for reasons unknown, the boat shifted. Matt surfaced 30 feet downstream of the sieve—face down.
Before Matt was my friend, he was my student. I met him when I was 15 and working as a kayak instructor at an adventure-sport-focused kids’ camp in downtown Richmond. For eight years, I had taught him to kayak. He trusted me. But it had been a year since I’d paddled with Matt when he called me that March and asked if I’d take him down the Watauga.
Like most steep creeks and rivers in Appalachia, the Watauga is in a near-constant state of not running. Then it rains, the rivers spike, and kayakers flock. Young Richmond boaters build epic fantasies about paddling Appalachian rivers, giving the rivers the same oversized aura inexperienced surfers might give Hawaii’s North Shore. As such, every whitewater-loving kid, myself included, spends their adolescent years trying to cajole their parents into allowing them to paddle in the mountains of Appalachia. Matt had used me—a pro kayaker, his teacher, an authority figure—to bait his parents. But I had used him as well. I had known Matt wasn’t the strongest kayaker. But I also remembered what it was like to be trapped in Richmond. He was a friend, and, in a way, triumphantly bringing him down the river would somehow scratch my itch to be the hometown hero, if at least to someone. Had we waited until I was certain Matt was good enough to paddle the Watauga, he never would have gone into that sieve. Had I been less confident in my ability to save him, I wouldn’t have had to.
I dove in after Matt and chased him to the lip of a Class IV rapid downstream. I pulled him into my arms lifeguard-style, his body limp, and dragged him to shore. He didn’t move. I lay him down on a bed of broken river rocks. His lips were blue, his face opaque. He looked dead. Then he coughed. Nothing but water came out. He coughed again and again until sputters of droplets began shooting out from his lungs. The way Matt tells the story, I saved him on that day. The way I tell it, I nearly killed him.
Whenever I go into the wilderness, the incident lingers in the back of my mind: the near miss that could have been a catastrophe. This winter, I will travel to the guerrilla-infested jungles of the Democratic Republic of Congo on a filmmaking expedition to combat elephant poaching. There will be no kayaks, but I’ll still remind myself every morning that patience, waiting until the time is right, and ego suppression are the best ways to stay safe while on adventures. But even then, there are no guarantees.
Trip is a Team NRS Member. He’s also an explorer, filmmaker and conservation activist. In 2007 he was named a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year. While in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in addition to filming he will be collecting samples for DNA analysis to help identify poaching hotspots.Our thanks to Wend Magazine for letting us bring this valuable safety lesson to NRS e-News readers. You can read the rest of the issue the story appeared in, for free, by going to the WendMag.com/digital site.
© Kyle Dickman