THE UWHARRIE POLAR BEAR CLUB
Since we've taken up canoeing, Christy has always refused to paddle in the winter. Why? Because it's too cold. I've always argued that it wouldn't matter if we dressed warmly. But what if we fell in? She had a point there. So, I suggested we adopt the obvious strategy of staying in the boat and out of the water.
On Friday afternoon, the forecast for Saturday was partly sunny with highs in the 50's, with a 30% chance of rain late in the afternoon. In anticipation of a pleasant day, I suggested canoeing. Christy has been nursing a chronic hip injury, so hiking was out anyway. Amazingly, she agreed. Our friends, Myron, Dorcas, Wayne, and Linda, were planning an easy day trip on the Uwharrie River. It's a river I've always wanted to try, so we decided to join them.
It was raining when I woke up. After some vulgar criticism of the local forecasters and the national weather service, we decided to go anyway. After all, we were already awake. Christy and I drove to Denton, in Davidson County, North Carolina (County motto: With a sheriff like ours, who needs criminals?). The 100 minute drive to Rick's in Denton marked our longest ever journey for breakfast, narrowly topping the hour and a half we spent driving from Grand Teton National Park to the Cowboy Café in Dubois, Wyoming last July. Breakfast was quite good, and may have actually been worth the wait.
We headed south from Denton under heavy gray skies. The temperature was maybe 40 degrees, which was a far cry from the mid-50's we had expected. At least the rain had subsided. We could only hope that it would hold off until after we got off the river.
We drove to the put-in at the low water bridge upstream from highway 109. Myron, Wayne, and Christy ran the shuttle, taking 2 cars to the take out at the end of Cotton Place Road, which is just upstream from the lake. It didn't take long for them to return, and we were on the river by 11.
The water was high and the current was strong, which promised a good day for paddling. We headed downstream through a tunnel of gray hardwoods on steep banks. The scenery was quite pleasing, as the forest was virtually uninterrupted, and high banks and rocky bluffs at least created the illusion of wilderness. Only a couple of houses were spotted along the 11 miles of river. This made for a much more pleasant environment than a river like the New, which is lined with second homes.
The sections we were running feature long stretches of flat water punctuated by the occasional rapid. The rapids were classified as class I+, with one class II at the takeout. I was a little nervous, especially about the class II, but at least we'd be near the car if we had a mishap there. We arrived at the first significant rapid, where fallen trees forced us to make a sharp turn to the right against the current. The current wanted to sweep us into the deadfall, but we approached the turn at the proper angle and had no trouble powering past the obstruction.
Not far downstream we approached another significant drop. We paddled next to Wayne, who pointed out that he thought the next rapid was the trickiest one on the river. He said he passed through here recently and there had been a canoe wrapped around a boulder in the middle of the river. We reveled in these encouraging words as we approached our next challenge.
The rapid featured a small ledge interrupted by a string of boulders. Myron and Dorcas went first and slid right past a boulder in the center of the river and over the ledge. My initial judgement was to go left of the central boulder, but instead I decided to follow their lead. That was my first mistake. We started out fine, but the current was strong and was angling across the river to the left. At the last moment, I realized that we'd never make it past the boulder. I tried to draw to swing the boat around to the right, but it was too little, too late. The current pinned the middle of the boat against the boulder, while the front dropped over the ledge. This forced the bow down into the river, and we immediately began filling with water. All of this happened in a split second, but I remember it in slow-motion now. Once we began taking on water, the current rolled the boat, dumping us both out.
How cold was it? Not as cold as swimming the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, or Snowmass Lake at 11,000' in Colorado, but close. Christy and I were both nearly submerged, but we both got on our feet quickly and managed to hold onto the canoe and our paddles. The canoe was full of water, so there was nothing to do but to walk it over to shore. We were still in the middle of the rapid, so this was difficult and hazardous. We slowly made our way through the rocks to the left bank. We were both numb by the time we climbed up on the bank. With both the air and water temperature in the 40's, we were in a dangerous predicament. Fortunately we had brought a large dry bag full of warm clothes. I unstrapped the bag and we headed into the woods to change.
We had both brought nearly complete changes of clothing. It was a good thing, or we would've been battling hypothermia. We pulled on long underwear and fleece and immediately began to warm up. My only failure was in not bringing an extra pair of shoes. My dry, warm wool socks became only marginally effective after jamming my feet back into my wet shoes.
As you might expect, our confidence was shaken. We were in the middle of nowhere, and there were still a dozen or more rapids between us and the car. We were now wearing all of our warm clothes, so another screw up would truly be a disaster. We had no more margin for error, but no other real options, either. We put back in and continued downstream as a light drizzle began to fall.
We negotiated a couple more rapids, including one ledge at an old dam that was a bit exciting. We stopped at the old mill site for lunch. Part of the foundation and chimney are still standing. The spot is quite scenic, as a tall bluff towers over the river on the opposite shore. My feet were frozen, so Myron built a fire. This had many benefits, not the least of which was the simple warmth provided by gathering firewood. It didn't take long to have a blaze going. I thawed my feet and partially dried my shoes by the fire while we ate.
I was feeling much better as we resumed the trip. We paddled downstream, running a few minor rapids along the way. At one point, we spotted wild turkeys along the bank. Later, we spotted a pair of otters in the distance. They disappeared, only to resurface right next to our canoe! Christy was so startled, she nearly fell out of the canoe again.
The rain picked up, but I was actually beginning to feel pretty good despite the miserable conditions. We passed under the highway 109 bridge, and I knew we only had a few miles to go. Just downstream from the bridge was passed an unusual sight. We saw stone pilings from an old bridge. High above the river, a small wooden cabin was perched on two of them. It didn't look like a home so much as an elaborate tree house.
As the trip progressed, the rain picked up, and the warmth I'd gained from the lunch time fire began to escape. We still had a couple of miles to go when I began to fantasize about getting in the car and turning the heat up. That and getting home and sitting by the fire with a mug of hot chocolate. Of course, we still had to get there, and that class II rapid was in the way. We had botched a class I+ rapid, so how would we fare with a class II?
The tricky thing about rating rapids is that they can completely change a different water levels. This final class 2 is tricky at low water, when a rock at the bottom of the channel is above the level of the water. Today though, the water was up, and the rock was submerged. We ran the rapid without any problem, which was quite a relief. We reached the takeout a minute later. The takeout itself proved to be at least class II, as we had to climb out a steep, muddy bank. Somehow we managed to get out without anyone falling in the river, though Myron and Wayne nearly dropped a canoe.
One of life's underrated pleasures is crawling into a warm car when you're wet and nearly frozen. I jammed my bare feet up into the heater, and we headed for home. That night, I had plenty of opportunity to reflect on the day. I sat by the fire with my hot chocolate (as well as various other beverages). I sat there not only because it felt good, but also because I couldn't move. I felt as though I had been in a car wreck. I was sore all over, and was sporting a nasty bruise on my right hip. Apparently I had landed on a rock or my paddle when we dumped. I took 4 advil with a glass of red wine, which proved quite effective.
Christy and I are marginal paddlers, but the only way we'll get better is with more practice. On the upside, we're getting better at wrecking. Last summer, when we flipped on the Clarion, I bounced around on the bottom of the river for awhile. By the time I surfaced, Christy was wrestling the canoe towards shore far downstream. At least this time I held onto the canoe and my paddle. Our other great success was in preparation. A complete set of dry, warm clothes in the dry bag turned a potential disaster into merely an unpleasant experience. Now, we'll just have work on practicing those skills. Unfortunately, practice will have to wait until spring - there's no way I'll get Christy back in the canoe this winter.
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