By Chuck McHenry (Riverlog – June/July 1997)
It was a March Thursday and Chris Amelung was home on spring break. It’d been raining hard all day- yet the gauge on the Saint wasn’t budging. At noon I checked Stout’s on my lunch hour= nadage. All the water was running in the ditches- but it didn’t seem to be getting to the creek. I was off at 3:30 and checked Stout’s again. It just stared back in a depraved lowlessness. So I went home to do other things, the rain was merely illusion. There was obviously a tear in the dimensional vortex. In one reality it was pouring rain, the ditches were full and running, but all the water was flowing into a different reality’s river, leaving us high and dry. Caught halfway between dry and wet realities I knew it was going to be a strange afternoon. The only thing to do was concentrate on breaking into wet universe. I grabbed a beer to help my meditations.
Chris called at 4:00. He’d checked upper stout’s = nolopolo. He was stuck in dry universe as well. I was chanting, trying to connect with wet Kundalini. 4:45 Chris called: Killarney shut-inn was barely runnable. We were starting to break on through- dry universe was slowly dissolving. We met at the Penuel take-out.
Just for kicks, as we had plenty of time, we decided to check out upper Stout’s. Lo and Behold- as we drove higher up the gorge we drove out of dry universe. Upper Stouts was roaring. By now it was 5:30. We had at most 80 minutes of light left, and with deep clouds overhead- maybe less. The run to Penuel is about 9 miles. 1 mile of CI-IV, 1 mile of CI-III, six miles of CI-II and then the Killarney Shut-inns.
“How long do you think it’ll take to do this?” Chris asked. “In my wildwater boat I could do it in 60 minutes,” I replied.
Of course, this is where twisted logic intermeshed with the beautiful, unignoreable, siren song of Upper Stouts Creek gorge. Chris had never done it, and could not resist its sweet song.
“So, it’ll probably take us about 70 minutes, then…” Chris said. When conditions are right, and universes are switching, on to another, it is often hard to tell that you shifted, it happens so subtlety that you may not even realize it. So it was with us. We were now in Bizarro Universe, where space and time were completely unpredictable.
“If I keep a pace, and you keep on my wave thru the CI-II, we can do it in 75 minutes, tops.” I wasn’t lying. In Bizarro universe this was an absolutely true statement. In Bizarro Universe a Sleek isn’t a slug boat piece of Tupperware either. It doesn’t produce a stern-dominating wash that robs you of all your forward momentum. We both truly thought this was a possible quest. And so we put on.
For anyone who’s never done upper Stouts, it’s a beautiful piece of CI-IV. It winds and twists down a very impressive gorge at 100+ FPM. We had a technioquixotic blast popping down that creek, and hit the CI-II section with plenty of time left (in Bizarro Universe). We were looking good and cooking. We got to Archer’s bridge which has always had a wire mesh fence guarding the Cl-II+ 10′ slide making it death-trap unrunnable. In Bizarro-land it was wide open, and I got to run it for the first time! Plenty of light left.
Somewhere around Shepard Mtn Creek we shifted into yet another alternate universe- a stark, rocky, unyielding, pitiless universe of molasses time and dark space. My sleek immediately doubled its drag coefficient. It was getting colder and we could see our breaths. I was tired at 5 miles. It was getting darker. Chris took the lead and I dragged in his wake. Our plan now was to get to Ironton, pull out at Grant’s Inn and call Chastidy (Chris fiancée) to pick us up. The scenery shifted to desolation. We passed houses and trailers where people were just throwing their trash out the back door and down the banks. Even the trees looked sick or dead… A toxic-smelling fog assailed our olfactories. In the deepening twilight, we saw the soft glow of Ironton ahead, and we were glad to leave this alternate reality behind.
We made Ironton by last light. The river was still rising below us. We decided to go on to Campbell’s bridge, where we could take out just above Killarney Shut-inns and walk the rest of the way to the van. After all, it was only two more miles and we still had at least 5 minutes of light left. As we left the comforting glow of Ironton behind us I wondered if there was a dime of sense between the two of us.
By the time we got to the last houses of the outskirts of Ironton, it was totally dark. Now we were shifting into yet another universe, where-in the trees were animated. Branches and bushes came out of the blackness to clutch at us, grab our paddles, poke our faces and tangle in our hair. Roots came noiselessly out of the water and without warning nudged our boats, pushing us this way and that. We could hear rocks shifting in the riverbed trying to block our way. We were now navigating by sound. We’d stop, listen to the river and then go towards what sounded like riffles. Chris was in the lead because 1. Being younger I figured he had better night vision and 2. He didn’t know any better.
The only light at all was the very faint glow of Ironton lights reflecting off the low cloud cover. Starlight would have been brighter. Nevertheless I could tell by the horizon mountain outline that we should be approaching Campbell’s low water bridge. I told Chris to watch for it and not two minutes I later hear frantic paddling. Chris had paddled right up to it and almost got sucked under. (The water was at bridge level). I worked along the river right bank and didn’t see the bridge myself until I was right beside it. We pulled out, stood on the bridge and looked downstream into the Cl-III+ (Cl-V if you can’t see?) ebony blackness.
We immediately slipped back into Bizarro-land. “We can do it- every time a car comes down the road we’ll be able to get a look around us.” (Only two cars came the rest of the night and not only did their light not reach down to the bottom of the shut-in, but if you looked up at them, it completely destroyed what little night vision we had.)
“I know this like the back of my hand,” I said, wishing I could see the back of my hand. “Just stay close to me and I’ll get us through the rough stuff. I should be able to navigate by the horizon.” (Since Chris couldn’t see me, he was basically on his own, and we could only barely see 72 bridge when we went under it, the ‘horizon’ disappeared.)
You must feel the flow, grasshopper, relax your mind and let the moment flow. (Chris was too young to have even seen an episode of “Kung fu” and wondered why I was calling him a grasshopper.) “I don’t really want to walk,” Chris said, “what if someone we know drives by.”
In Bizarro U. all of this was sane logic and so we launched off the bridge into an inky swirl of possible oblivion and onto an ascending rise of one of Charlie Wallbridge’s bell curves of chance.
Floating sideways I hit the first rock which immediately told me where I was. The only river feature visible at all, strangely enough, were the whitecaps bordering the washout from the larger holes.- so for the most part we went strictly by ‘feel’. If we felt ourselves suddenly accelerating and falling we braced instinctively for the hole. If we felt our bows suddenly rise we readied for the pillow or wave slap. Bizarro universe was unfolding in all it’s chaotic glory. 1 +1 didn’t equal 2 anymore, nor did it matter, in the darkness it could be anything we could imagine. Newton’s laws were totally irrelevant. Hydrodynamics was the core curriculum, the only, single reality, other than the cool, rain-washed night air, the supernatural glow of the low clouds, and we two, caught in the sightless, black inconsistency existing between what was liquid and what was air.
As we passed under 72 bridge our confidence in our remaining four senses increased, and the adrenaline rush that researchers now say is an addiction that risk-takers are genetically predispositioned for, started coursing through our veins. The ecstacy of the moment gave us new strength and vigor. We were whooping and hollering. I counted three holes, then worked over to the river right to do the last, long slide down into the big pool below. Chris was right behind me, laughing.
We gathered in the pool and discussed the next half-mile- two little holes on river left, then another pool with a big rock in the middle, and then the shoots. Stouts has a very decent gradient to speak of thru the shoots, but with no ledges or major obstacles it becomes just a fast quarter-mile slide. Our only worry was its narrowness- we would not be able to see pinning situations.
I said “Me lead.” which in Bizarro language means Chris should lead. He said, “No, go you,” which means, of course, okay and so he took off, and was immediately swallowed into the blackness. Going down the shoots was like Mr. Toad’s wild ride. I just tried to stay in the middle and listen for Chris or trouble. Branches swept by, the wind rushed in my ears, waves splashed, and in the darkness it felt as if I was continually accelerating- and suddenly it was still. There was Chris sitting in the still water of Lake Killarney and even without eyesight I could tell he was grinning ear to ear.
“That was the 2nd stupidest thing I’ve ever done on the water!” I said. “But it sure was a lot of fun,” Chris replied.
We paddled on the lake in the stillness of quiet water and saw the lone street light illuminating Penual docks and my trusty old van. We were finally back in the real universe and all was well and secure. We were basking in the post-adrenalin glow of serotonin and endorphins.
Standing on the bank I looked back up-lake into the utter blackness where I knew the creek entered and thought of the Bizarro universe. It was still up there, folding in upon itself, unfolding, roaring, creating new pandemoniums and would slowly fade as the creek ran out of water.
We loaded up the van and drove up to 72, turned left towards Ironton and drove into the night towards home.