This past summer, I didn’t run the Upper Green, the Chattooga, or any of my favorite whitewater rivers, because my kayak skirt no longer fits around my pregnant belly. That’s what I say to my boating friends when they invite me on trips. But the truth is I haven’t been on rivers since before my body showed its tenant. I’ve been scared.
Pregnant, I’ve lost my balance. For weeks, I couldn’t rise from bed without the contents of my stomach rising also. In the early days, I felt stoned on my own body, a fuzziness around the edges of everything that happened. I lived from sleep to nap to sleep. My body’s resources have been focused on growing earlobes, or on maintaining an ecosystem in which fetal eyes can move from their fishlike starting points to their final location. Learning to read a whole new set of instincts and sensations, I feel strange in my own skin. I don’t trust the physical instincts I once had. Paddling in actual swift water has felt undoable.
I’ve long been afraid to roll a kayak up from the river water in which it has flipped, but I still spent several years learning how. The first time I tried to roll, I floated in a north Georgia sporting-goods store’s wave pool, with a hired instructor spotting me. I didn’t even own a boat.
Before that lesson, I’d paddled one river, the Tuckasegee in North Carolina. The wide canyon, flanked by a rail line, eased between tall mountains, its water sifted into gentle but defined channels where beginners practice their skills. I loved the bounce of continuous waves under my hips, I loved how the kayak became an extension of my body, the mermaid tail of my childhood dreams, but I’d been scared when, as I attempted to cross a gentle current, the flow grabbed my boat’s edge and pulled me under. Rolling back seemed both important and unthinkable, so I paid the instructor fifty dollars to see if I could do it. He can teach anyone, I’d heard. This felt like a challenge in reverse. If I couldn’t roll—and I fully expected that I couldn’t—I’d find friends for a rafting trip. I’d never mess with skirted boats again.
The store’s pool had a wave that could be switched on, but after talking to me for less than a minute, the instructor could tell I wasn’t near ready to practice in current. Before we tried a roll, he asked me to flip, then count to ten before I swam from my boat. Hang out under the water, wait, feel the boat settle. There’s a mechanical reason for this; a boat still rocking from its flip resists being righted. But he also wanted me to feel how long I could actually wait before breathing. He promised that this was longer than I thought it would be. He cautioned that paddling requires awareness and calm, especially when upside down in turbulent water. He told me this is why potheads make such good boaters.
I did not know until then that I could be afraid of water. I grew up in a Massachusetts beach town. I dove into waves and body-surfed them to shore. I steered outboard motors through creeks and marshes, across bays. I tossed anchors and jumped onto docks to tie lines. I swam for hours. Maybe the difference was that in a kayak I would be upside down. And when I first tried to paddle in whitewater, I was no longer a child. I had learned, in other ways, how to fear.
I have a strong hip snap, the foundation of any roll. Novice male boaters, I’ve heard, are more likely to muscle their way up, trying to wrench the boat with their upper body and paddle. You need the paddle stroke, too, but the whole thing starts when you drive your hip toward the surface. In the store’s pool, I learned that I could drive my hip with enough strength, I could plant my paddle on the surface, I could combine these movements to snap my boat and body up. My problem was a common problem. On the way up, I lifted my head too soon, hungry for the air I felt panicky without. But this broke the curl of my shoulder toward the boat and stalled our momentum. I’d hang on the edge of being righted, then plunge back under. The instructor called this carping—the body twisted like a flailing fish, gasping, then slapping back into the water.
A submerged human instinctively wants to raise their head above water. But the year I moved to Georgia, I doubted my gut feelings. I’d lost my home and my sense of security in an unexpected divorce, after finding out another woman was having my husband’s child. I struggled to trust men, obviously, but I’d also forgotten how to trust my own choices. Of course you want to breathe, said the instructor. Just know that, for another couple seconds, you don’t really have to. I listened. I kept my head pinned to my shoulder until the boat was fully righted. I didn’t break the roll’s rhythm. The quickness and ease of my surfacing shocked me, and I laughed.
When I was planning my move, I wanted to do something bold. Something to lay out a new story of how I would live, in a small town in the state’s northwest corner, nestled among foothills an easy drive from this country’s oldest mountains. The truth was that I’d taken the first job I was offered, a job that would shelter me from the mess my life had become.
First I’d looked into getting a pilot’s license. The town where I would be living had a private airfield and, according to one website, bannered by a photo of a small plane banking against a purple sky, at least one flight school. They allowed you to fly the plane before you paid for the first hour—because once the plane climbs thousands of feet, not everybody, I read on the website, is actually capable of flying.
I’d never heard of whitewater kayaking, and I didn’t know I was moving to James Dickey country, to a town where the infamous writer had spent a miserable year in prep school. I’d seen Deliverance in college, too northern or young or self-absorbed to perceive why so many Georgians might hate that movie, but I’d never read his poems. My first months in Georgia, I had a crush on a man who owned more than one kayak. His paddling stories made the nearby rivers sound as thrilling as I’d imagined piloting a plane to be. He drove me through mountain counties and pointed to street signs bearing names from the Dickey’s poems, which he quoted.
The rivers I know are not likely to kill you—the deaths that do happen usually result from heart failure—but the rapids are powerful enough to break bones.
Even after I stopped seeing the kayaker, the last line of “Cherrylog Road” haunted me: “wild to be wreckage forever.” And I was still curious about the rivers. Maybe, I realized, as I toweled dry by the wave pool, I didn’t need to fly planes to prove my life wasn’t wreckage. I’d just turned thirty, and all of my friends were starting families. I’d wanted the same, hoping for my ex-husband’s blue eyes on our dark-haired baby, wondering if we’d have a son or a daughter. That he was becoming a father without me made my unpregnant body seem particularly empty. But maybe I needed to stop trying to earn back the life I thought I’d been heading for, the one where I married happily and published books and made babies. Maybe I’d be better off if I tried for that James Dickey feeling, wild for never getting it right. The flight instruction was going to be expensive. Now that I’d taken a roll class, I could practice with local paddling clubs or friends. Craigslist in North Georgia was lousy with barely used boats. The rivers, for the most part, were free.
The Class II Falls of the Cartecay, some ten minutes from Cherrylog Road, costs nothing to paddle. The local outfitter asks five dollars for a shuttle service up from river’s end, but his buses are crowded with tubers and school groups, and he often lets kayak regulars ride for free. On Western North Carolina’s Nantahala, private boaters pay one dollar for a day pass; five gets you the whole season. Georgia boaters love the Ocoee, a playful, splashy Class III river that hosted the 1996 Olympic kayak trials and, depending on how good you are at avoiding speed traps in small towns, is less than two hours from Atlanta. Private boaters pay nothing to run it, nor do they pay a dime for its gentler, dirtier cousin, the Pigeon.
Most of these rivers run through protected National Forests. Steep gorges rise on either side. Strange lichens and flowers dot the boulders, such as the endangered Ruth’s golden aster, which grows on the Ocoee’s rocks. I started to judge boater dudes by how careful they were of that flower’s spiky leaves and yellow blooms—I’d paddle with them again if they took care not to trample them. Snakes, sometimes venomous ones, sun on rocks and lurk in eddies and pools. The rivers I know are not likely to kill you—the deaths that do happen usually result from heart failure—but the rapids are powerful enough to break bones. No matter how many bright blue and yellow rafts dot the channels, the current can still grab and transport you to a wild place, if only a felt one, beyond human control. Crowded as they can be with tourists, they still feel like the mythic idea I had when I first started paddling them, about feeling free, about the beauty of a life other than the domestic one I’d lost and was struggling to find again.
Men often write and talk about the river as a woman. She’s gentle with you at first, I’ve heard them say, pounding beers in take-out parking lots, cinching straps across their boats, but if you don’t pay close enough attention she’ll toss you out. Sometimes she gets the better of them, sometimes they figure her out. She’s wild and seductive and they can’t stay away. Sometimes I want to know where I can find men who are this devoted to the complications of human women.
In spite of my fear and because of my fear, I spent as many weekends as I could on these rivers. I still couldn’t roll in what boaters call combat or battle, in reaction to a wave or eddy line that flips you, rather than when practicing in a pool. But I could usually paddle Class III rapids with my torso and boat above the water. I’d also gotten good at what boaters call self-rescue. When I did have to swim, I stayed calm enough to keep my boat and my paddle in hand, to float clear of whatever hydraulic or curling wave had flipped me, to corral all my gear to the nearest eddy. Wild to be wreckage forever.
But these were not wild rivers. I may not have been paying much to paddle, but the water in these rivers isn’t free in either sense of the word. When the rivers run, somebody is paying, and on most days, the water is held from its natural course and redirected into flume lines. These wooden troughs, perched high on the cliffs, keep a portion of the flow at a higher altitude. While the rivers descend more gradually, the flumes drop the water suddenly through steel pipes, closer to the powerhouse of an electrical plant. As the Tennessee Valley Authority says of the Ocoee flume, “Nature doesn’t always put waterfalls just where you need them.” These systems are managed by power companies—Duke Energy in North Carolina, the Tennessee Valley Authority. Raft companies pay for recreational releases of water back into the river. Private boaters piggyback onto those flows.
Recently, the Tennessee Valley Authority threatened to increase the cost of recreational releases. The money lost from the power not generated, they argued, outweighed what raft companies paid them to release water from the flumes and into its natural bed. In an agreement that was set to expire in March 2019, rafting companies pay TVA one dollar from every ticket sold, and the state provides a subsidy to the power company; TVA proposed increasing the ticket kickback by 780 percent. They cited inflation and the need to keep power costs low for all of Tennessee. “It’s revenue-neutral for us,” their spokesperson told the Chattanooga Times–Free Press in 2015. “These calculations are based on what it takes us to go out there and replace the power that’s lost.”
Still, the increases threatened the family-run outfitters and small businesses that serve whitewater tourists, the main economic engine in an otherwise rural county. Advocates wanted a federal amendment to the dam’s purpose, one that would guarantee adventure access to whitewater. A federal recreation designation, as exists for the Summersville Dam on West Virginia’s Gauley River, would prevent power companies from charging rafters for their runs. People, the argument goes, have a right to splash and bounce and scream as much as power companies have a right to generate hydroelectric power.
After all the hours I’ve spent catching eddies and riding the troughs between waves to ferry across strong currents, I can hardly disagree. For five summers, these rivers roared loud enough to distract me from my losses. I stayed in the water so long that the anxious thoughts quieted, and I was no longer paddling away from disappointment but toward a new and exhilarating sense of my life.
But when we argue for a right to whitewater recreation, a right that is politically feasible because it brings economic development, the conversation starts from a position of environmental compromise. What about the right of rivers to run in their natural courses? The right of river ecosystems to develop and sustain themselves with consistent flows?
Three summers after my roll class, a friend and I paused in an eddy on the Pigeon river, whispering so as not to scare a massive elk and her spindly calf who were grazing along the steep banks. She seemed twice our height, a creature of folklore, scanning the river and our presence with dark, glassy eyes. She’d crossed that morning, before the scheduled recreational release, but now deep, rushing water curled around the river’s rocky bed. After the run, boat straps rattling from our roof, we saw her again, this time uncertain and hesitant on the thin shoulder between interstate and river. I hoped she had the sense not to cross the highway, that she and her calf could wait out the release, picking their way back to familiar and more wooded land when the river emptied of its rafts and, hours later, its water.
Sometimes the river basin refuses to comply. Last winter, a rockslide damaged the Ocoee flume line, and a wide, frothy cascade flooded the steep hillside between the flume and the river’s bed. The rafting companies were closed for the season, but kayakers lit up social media with beta about how much water had been released, where the line broke, where they could put in.
I wasn’t paddling as much that November. After the end of a recent relationship, I’d decided to try to conceive on my own. When I’d dreamed about getting pregnant, I hadn’t imagined a series of carefully scheduled doctor’s appointments. But now vigilance was required. I needed to monitor my ovulation, so it was hard to take last-minute trips when the water came up. The right timing for an insemination is a narrow window. Hesitate and you miss it—not unlike the skinny whitewater lines I’d learned to follow between holes and grabby eddy-lines. From home, I followed the rogue boaters on Facebook, vicariously thrilled by their Ocoee runs. One of the nation’s most carefully controlled and managed rivers was now, unexpectedly and to everyone’s delight, running a little bit wild.
No changes have been made to the federal purpose of Ocoee Dams Number Two and Three, but in 2017, the Tennessee legislature passed a bill using state funds to reimburse TVA for money lost on recreational releases over the next twenty years, recognizing that “the State of Tennessee is fortunate to possess other rivers, mountains, lakes, and other natural wonders that benefit our quality of life and boost the economy of the state by attracting visitors to rural counties.” Although the bill mentions the need for continued environmental management of the Ocoee watershed, the recreation and economic development fund it establishes operates independently of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.
The state’s fix balances the cost of power with the profits of tourism. Other whitewater advocates work more deliberately to marry recreational gains with environmental ones. The nonprofit American Whitewater works for “the preservation and protection of whitewater rivers throughout the United States, and connects the interests of human-powered recreational river users with ecological and science-based data to achieve the goals within its mission.” Their members made contributions to the 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which protects designated waterways from damming and bankside development.
The first eastern river protected as Wild and Scenic was the Chattooga, in 1974. That river runs along the Georgia–South Carolina line, from death-defying Class V headwaters through gentle, family-friendly canyons. The river steepens and speeds up again, squeezing through breathtaking rock-walled gorges and over boulders. The current forms turbulent holes and water-veiled caves. The river ends in a section known as Five Falls, a series of gnarly rapids whose names—Jawbone, Shoulderbone, Sock ’Em Dog—portend their danger. Millions of Americans have seen this river rattling the bones of Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight, in the film version of Deliverance.
Dickey’s novel mourns the damming of American rivers as some mythic damming of the American masculine spirit. (This is dangerous and toxic stuff, yes, but when I finally read the novel, I found more ambiguity, more moral uncertainty, than I expected. And at least the river, in his telling, isn’t a woman to be conquered or complained about; it’s something more like a spiritual force.) After my divorce, I was pissed off about the American masculine spirit. But I also wanted to get free from my sadness in a James Dickey kind of way. I went to see his daughter Bronwen, an accomplished journalist, speak at an event honoring his complicated legacy. I read her essay about the Chattooga. She wondered whether American Whitewater’s fight to allow boating permits on the previously unpaddled headwaters spoiled the river in some way. I didn’t disagree, and the headwaters will always be miles above my skill level, but as soon as I learned about that wild river, I also wanted to run what parts of it I could.
The Chattooga is runnable in rainy seasons, when the waters rise high enough to lift boats clear of the river’s rocky bones. You have to watch the weather and gauges maintained by the U.S. Geological Service. On my first Chattooga trip, the rain fell as I drove north, soaking the Atlanta suburbs and the roadside stands that sold baskets of peaches, and dog bones carved from deer antlers. I checked the USGS gauges as I drove, not sure when my phone would lose service. The river continued to rise.
My friends and I gathered at the Thrift’s Ferry put-in, pulling our wetsuits over our limbs, grateful for how the neoprene cut the rainy chill. We didn’t know the river, didn’t know how many creeks feed its flow, didn’t know how fast the water comes up when the creeks are rising. The level was a little higher than we wanted, and we’d been warned about how pushy the current could get. We debated bailing, day-drinking instead at some cozy bar, until a group of boaters, older men who called the Chattooga home, offered to show us down.
I wonder sometimes at the easy distinctions drawn between wildness and control, if the line might be fuzzier than I suspect.
The river’s Wild and Scenic designation means that no roads or buildings mar its banks, and as we hiked our boats down the steep trail I felt the river’s remoteness. Later, I’d return on a sunnier day, more confident in my paddling and more able to appreciate the mountain laurel that dripped over slate cliffs, the swift water that sparkled and flashed between deep green pools and deep green woods. But that day, the water was muddy and churning. Brown foam crowned our boats. My friend swam almost immediately, in a section we’d thought was going to be a gentle Class II introduction. She was barely able to get back in her boat before the current flushed her into a dangerous strainer—a fallen or low tree whose waterlogged branches can trap and drown a boater.
I was handling the current fine, but I felt terrified, and decided to portage the first big rapid, a Class III / IV drop called Bull Sluice. Our guides ran the rapid and we met them in the pool below. The lines through Bull Sluice usually run left or right of a feature called, reassuringly, Decapitation Rock, but that day the water had gotten so high that our guides couldn’t even point out the boulder. They shook their heads, guessing that the water had come up almost an entire foot since we’d put on, some twenty or thirty minutes earlier.
“We don’t know the lines at these levels,” they apologized. “And we don’t know how high it’s going to get. We can’t show you down.” Not only were they refusing to guide us, they were getting off the river themselves.
We bailed too, ate pizza, bought peaches from a grumpy man on the South Carolina side of the river, who rolled his eyes when we told him we’d been too scared to run the Bull. We’d barely boated, but the day satisfied me. I’d felt the wildness, felt that a power far greater than myself was in control, that we’d been wise to surrender to its rise.
Still, I’ve felt that surrender on dammed rivers, too. I wonder sometimes at the easy distinctions drawn between wildness and control, if the line might be fuzzier than I suspect. I might have gotten pregnant on an exam table, not on some vibrant mountain night, but the splitting of cells inside me is as mysterious and disarming, as likely to leave me dizzy. The Ocoee’s dams, when you stand above them, are as steep and breathtaking as a natural waterfall. Their beauty is industrial, formed from concrete and the ghosts of men who built the structures. I can’t imagine all the tasks of their labor, but they poured the sluices and spillways that stretch six hundred feet across the river. They risked their lives for occupation, not wilderness adventure. When construction began on Carters Dam in North Georgia in 1963—the damming that inspired Dickey’s fictional river—the crew was told that seven of them would likely die. One did.
I’ve felt the Ocoee’s pushy and continuous Class III current hold and release my boat with a capricious spirit, one I’m not sure I’ll ever fully understand. I’ve still never paddled Bull Sluice, but a few summers after that flood-level Chattooga trip, I found myself flying off a similarly high III / IV drop on the Upper Green, a dammed North Carolina river. I’ve learned what choices I can make, such as setting the angle of my boat as it enters the rapid’s swift-moving green tongue, and when to surrender, letting the current launch me from a partially submerged rock and propel me free of gravity. Nothing feels wilder than finding not water below me but air.
When I decided to get pregnant, even though I haven’t yet found a second husband, the decision felt similar. I don’t particularly want to parent alone, but after five years of paddling and dating, that’s the place the currents have brought me, and I’m reading and running them as best I can.
Because I’ve still never gotten a roll in combat, I’m conservative about when and with whom I paddle. I’ve passed up numerous Chattooga trips because the level seemed too high, because I didn’t know the other boaters well enough, didn’t want to burden them with rescuing me. I can still be slow to trust, but it has helped that, at this point, plenty of boaters have pulled my boat or my paddle or my shoes or my body free from some swirling water, and plenty of others have been graceful and kind in the company of my fear.
Early in my paddling years, before I’d heard of the Chattooga, before I’d even bought my own boat, I ran my first Class III rapid, the frothy falls that end the lower Nantahala river. I couldn’t sleep the night before my trip. I imagined flipping in the rapid’s holes, stuck and drowning in the hydraulic, even though I’d seen countless swimmers flushed free in plenty of time to catch their breath and swim for shore. You’re such a badass, landlocked friends say about my boating. I’d be scared. Those friends haven’t heard the screech and panic that still sometimes enter my voice as I wait with other paddlers in the entrance eddy to Nantahala Falls, even though I’ve run and swum it more times than I can count.
Since I started to share my pregnancy, people, usually men, often respond in a similar way. You’re so brave, they say. It’s meant as a compliment, but it doesn’t feel true. I can’t shake the sense, dictionary be damned, that bravery and fear are somehow opposites. The day I first ran Nantahala Falls, I scouted the rapid first, staring down from the thin shoulder between national forest and a truck route. The steep pine and kudzu-choked gorge walls blocked the sun. Semi trailers veered and squealed around the riverside road’s tight curves.
The wildest part wasn’t the rapid, which was splashy and fun and sprayed but did not flip me from my borrowed boat. The wild part happened earlier, while I was scouting the lines through the falls. From above, I watched the holes churn, and the fear from my sleepless night returned, as did the visions of turbulent water swirling and sucking around my body. You don’t have to do this, I told myself.
Bailing won’t be an option when it’s time to give birth, the fear that’s been dogging me lately. Maybe I’ve stopped paddling this summer because I know this other terror—how will that not break me—needs my full and kindest attention.
Above Nantahala Falls, and since then, facing other horizon lines or meaty pillows of turbulent water, I’ve learned how to be with my fear, how to separate what is real—that the water might flip and hold me—from the feeling of panic that shocks my heart, the way icy water freezes your whole self when you do flip into it. I see you, I might as well have said, as if fear were a leaf or a laurel blossom plastered to my red boat, a passenger I didn’t need to shake, whose company I could get used to—I’m going to paddle it anyway.