Destination Kayak


Part 3- Waccamaw River Through Paddle Series: Monday 12/19/2023

164 Miles and Counting- Here We Go!

         It was a strange feeling as Laurie quickly slipped out of view. It wasn’t that I was moving down stream at superspeed, the dense forest impeded seeing for any distance. It was a matter of a few strokes and a right turn and she was hidden behind the dense trees and the sound of the water muffled any last words that might of been said. The last thing clearly received and given was “I love you”. I wedged between a few trees in the swift current and came upon the faint recognition of the river. The water level certainly would keep me on my toes through the first ten miles. The submerged river banks made any recognizable path hard to distinguish. Water and current was in every direction I looked. The current had one flow…downstream. There was no discernable river flow. With previous experience along this stretch of river I knew it was very twisty and turning along the way. Using only the slight gap between the trees to outline the path as my guide, I felt it was much like hiking the AT (Appalachian Trail) trail along the steep mountain sides. Left, right, switchback, u-turn, then right again. The only thing missing was up and down. It would wind and turn like a boa constrictor suffocating its prey.  I love having tight narrow streams to navigate and paddle- the scenery, the engagement of following all the twist and turns, completely surrounded by dense forest with umbrella like canopies over-hanging the dark blackwater. It has always been appealing for me. However; in this case the constant 90 degree lefts, rights, and 180 degree u-turns became annoyances.

           I was in a seventeen foot kayak with approximately 200 pounds of gear, food, and water. The length and style of this kayak was not my first choice for this upper section of river; however, I was looking at the larger picture further downstream knowing that the chosen kayak would be the best fit for the majority of this expedition. With the length and all the weight this boat had one natural direction…straight. Getting the kayak to navigate the tight turns was exhausting. I tried forward sweeps, reverse sweeps, edging and everything in between. I don’t know why but it seems that for a while my mind went completely blank on the bow rudder. After the first mile, my pride stepped aside to convenience and  I deployed my rudder to assist with turning. Thank goodness I had a rudder. What a difference it made. I rarely ever use a rudder when kayaking so a quick reorientation of the pedals and it was like riding a bike. Push the right pedal to turn right, the left pedal to turn left. Although it significantly improved my boat control it was still not enough for the current and constant sharp corners. Finally my brain started working again…”Use the bow rudder, idiot!” I made a few test navigation maneuvers partnering the stern rudder with my foot pedals and using my paddle as a bow rudder. Success! It was magnificent, I was using my paddle to draw the bow where I wanted it to point while using my foot pedals to pry the stern to correctly follow the turn. I just discovered “four wheel steering” on my kayak. Using this method had its downfalls when it came to momentum, but I am convinced it was an inevitable side effect of turning a 350 pound 17 foot kayak. It was efficient and took little energy so I was happy. Also gave me an opportunity to practice what I preach. Anyone who has kayaked with me knows my saying (for beginner level kayaking). When it comes to tight turns: “A slow boat is a turning boat”. Now, I had to eat my words and follow my own advice. The first mile was certainly a trial and error complete with, humility, problem solving, and satisfaction. After all, I’m doing it! I’m finally doing it! I am paddling all the way to the ocean from Lake Waccamaw. 

          Now that the first mile (that first bite of steak) is out of the way I’m confident and eager with all engines full ahead. I’m ready to tackle the next 10 miles. I knew this would be my hardest stretch. I knew this stretch would be unpredictable of what obstacles I might face. Never-the-less, I will press forward. There is no turning back now. Even though retreating back upstream and getting picked up was still an option on the table it wasn’t for me. Not a chance in hell. If I called it on the first obstacle no matter how difficult it would be, it would be like the first person getting voted off the island in Survivor. No one wants that title and shame or humility associated with it. No way would I quit or let Lady Waccamaw vote me out of her vein; although at this point, it was more of a capillary than a vein. It didn’t matter, she was not voting me out and I didn’t pack any white flags for surrender. 

          Once I figured out the ropes of maneuvering this long heavy kayak, it was smooth paddling… was it though? Insert mile two. There was no warm up obstacles, no easy go around blocks. We (Lady Waccamaw and I) went right into it. The first obstacle stretched river right to river left and there was no going around it. There was no going over it, or through it. I had one option, pick the highest of the low and go under it. Perhaps this was from the storm the day before, I thought. I could smell fresh soil and even the blood of the newly snapped tree as I approached. “How the hell is this going to work?” I said to myself. The only possible way is river right. I had about fifteen inches of clearance from the water to the debris above. The opening was thickly veiled by other twigs, branches, dead leaves, and spider webs. I would have to push through the veil only to limbo under the low hanging tree. There was not enough clearance for me to lean forward or backward. The only clearance under was for the kayak, not the passenger. I was scheming and organizing a plan of attack to get through. What tools do I have in my skills bag, what am I comfortable with doing, what can I use to accomplish the task? I felt a bit like Doctor Strange in Avengers. I had a million “mind movies” playing out in my head. All ended in me capsizing… on MILE TWO! Hesitantly, I picked the mind movie that made the most logical sense and seemed to be the least likely of all the likely capsizes- the lesser of all the evils. 

           Lady Waccamaw was testing me. Maybe she was deciding whether I was worthy or maybe she was just wanting to be difficult. My plan set into motion as I dug my paddle in for a strong forward stroke. Just under the water at the veil was more branches and blockage in what is commonly referred to as strainers. I couldn’t cautiously approach my right of passage, I had to go in with a bit of force to get the kayak to hit and glide just over the top of the underwater debris. Success! The first stage worked; although at this point I have a face full of dead leaves, spider webs, and my lungs are inhaling what I would call tree dust. If you know- you know. With my head buried to avoid losing an eye, I blindly reached up to grab anything and everything to grab and pull to assist the lazier back half of my kayak over the part of the tree underwater. I had to break off small branches and twigs to clear a small hole to get to the main obstacle. Have you ever snapped a branch with cold hands? It sends a shockwave through you like sticking your finger in a light socket. You feel the vibration well into your palm. It hurts! Regardless, I had to push through. I snapped, grabbed and pulled till I was face to face with the large oak trunk laid across the water. The gap I had to squeeze under looked much smaller now than before. How am I going to get myself under this log? No matter what contortion strategy I had, it wasn’t going to work so long as any of me was on top of the kayak. I looked around for any other way or anything useful with no such luck. “I’m getting through wet or dry at this point. I knew I could change and quickly warm up- push come to shove, it was happening. Eight hour watches on the fantail of a US warship in 20 degree weather prepared me for this. I knew what cold was, I’ve been cold before. It only hurts for a little. So I gathered my strategy which was more like just throwing darts hoping they would stick. I grabbed ahold of a small branch hanging lightly below the main log. This small branch was actually the main thing causing the biggest hang up, but also was the saving grace that got me through. I grabbed it tightly with my left hand lifted my left knee as to very aggressively edge my kayak. The right side of my kayak sunk under the water as I rolled it completely sideways. I was wearing my kayak skirt, which prevented water from flooding into my kayak.  Still holding on to the branch and half my right side in or just above the water I pulled my body and kayak under the log. At this point I was more vulnerable then a slice of cheese in a room full of dogs. I thought for sure I was going all the way in. The death grip on the branch with my left hand is the only thing keeping me from completely turning upside down. As soon as my body cleared the log, I reached with my right hand feeling for anything I could grab to help right myself back up. I grabbed the log then I grabbed the branch, which made it worse, then I slid my hand up the overhead log as high as I could vertically and felt a small  knob. The tips of my three longest fingers latched to the top side of the knob and my thumb wrapped over all three fingers for a stronger more solid grip. No doubt, my rock climbing days played a roll in that. As soon as I felt attached I reluctantly loosened the grip on my left hand, the more secure grip. I was not going to upright myself so long as I held on with my left hand. As soon as I left go I drove my right knee, currently underwater, toward the surface as to drive and pull the kayak back under my upper body. This is one of the crucial steps in the successful roll of a kayak. The kayak up-righted and my upper body followed in a wavelike motion! It worked and the only part of me that was wet was from my right bicep to the forearm. “I can’t believe that worked!”- I thought to myself. “All I have is a wet elbow, I can live with that.” Of course at this point I’m thinking no one is going to believe this crap. Picture time! I took pictures as that stubborn lazy stern of my kayak drifted under the debris and cleared the log. After my photo evidence, I set back on my mission to finish the river, rather than just the obstacle that was before me. No way would I have anything else as challenging than that…so I arrogantly assumed.

Part 4: Lake Waccamaw Dam to Babson's Landing: 38.6 miles... Continued

The first and one of the worst obstacles encountered on my first day is over. We are well on our way of reaching my goal for day 1… Approximately 25-30 miles.

The tale continues in part 4: Release date: 1/1/2024


9 thoughts on “Part 3- Waccamaw River Through Paddle Series: Monday 12/19/2023”

  1. This definitely needs to be put into a short story of some sort! Great description of this nasty first obstacle…..My heart is beating real fast as you eloquently describe what you were going through. I beg to differ with your opinion of not being a good writer Justin 🙂

  2. Yep, black water paddling, got to have some tree bark in your teeth. If your eyebrows aren’t bleeding you’re not having fun. If you’re gonna be dumb you gotta be tough. I plan to run this section in April but you’re scaring me! M Lloyd Lumber River Canoe Club

  3. I’m so torn ….part of me wants to wait and binge read the whole story but the other part can’t wait for the next chapter to be released. I have a feeling this is a story I’ll read over and over again. I’m definitely hooked. Happy to be living vicariously through you because I’m pretty sure there’s NO WAY I’m ever going on that stretch of the river 😉🥰

      1. I know without a doubt that you could get me through the challenges if only I’d relax and let you. 😊.

  4. So exciting! You had me on the edge of my seat reading this part! Great job telling your story!

  5. Justin you really need to publish this. The way you word everything I almost feel like I was there!! As you know me, you have to know how frightened I am reading this.

    Now on to part four.

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