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BSF - Cumberland

Jan 17, 2016
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So the old man and I finally took a long awaited springtime trip down to North Tennessee to run the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River. It was a new river for both of us, though I think he may have run the "upper" gorge some twenty-five or thirty years ago. He couldn't quite remember and what he could remember was nothing like what I saw. I was prepared to cancel the trip due to what looked like minimal flow--lowish water--and seven hour's worth of drive time, but he thought rain looked imminent and I tend to trust his judgement on such things. He's nearly, but not quite, twice my age, and started paddling before I was born.

Our trip was only 42 river miles--from New River, TN, down the New River to its confluence with Clear Fork, and then 34 miles of Big South Fork to an old mining community called Blue Heron, Kentucky--but I spread our plans out over four days and three nights to give us plenty of time for his elaborate Dutch oven meals and slow starts and slower movements. "I can still do everything I need to do," he often reminds me, "I just can't do it quickly."

The put-in is an important consideration, due to the fact that he now uses oar rigs of varying sizes depending on the width and volume and congestion of the river. For his annual Western trips he oars his 18' cat. For this trip he oared his 12' Slice. I certainly don't want to have to lug his rigs too far to the water, so I tend to suggest boat ramps and bridges, and the New River launch seemed to offer the easiest access.

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Of course, as these things go, I drove down I-81 Thursday night through heavy downpours of rain and our rivers doubled in volume. This excited the both of us as the old man prefers water to rocks and I don't like being introduced to rivers at their minimal flows. Friday morning we drove over the New River on route 27 and both looked expectantly over the bridge down to the water. It was flowing brown. "Tell me that's not enough water," he said.

So we twisted up into our drysuits and turned off our phones and took off down an unknown river. Once again marveling at the simplicity and beauty of life on the river: the immediate problems and solutions, the quick realization of goals, the immensity of nature's backdrop, the constant reminder of life's watery core. Only this time I wasn't alone. A few miles into the trip, passing under a train trestle and marveling at the crossing of a train just as we arrived, he said: "Hey bud, did you bring any kind of a map?" I assured him I had read a brief description in an old guidebook and we were good to go.

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I have a few complaints about stopping too early, about eating too much and packing too heavily and moving too slowly and not jumping out and exploring the canyon as much as I would have liked. But the old man enjoyed the whitewater gorge as much or more than I did, and then enjoyed the miles of meandering flat water in his little egg beater way, like winding his oars over and under and splish-splashing along in slow motion, occasionally turning the boat around to pull hard on the oars against the wind. We scouted a few rapids and he would stay in his boat and let me scramble around on the rocks and then report back like an army scout. "Stay away from the right side. Jag left right after the second hole, just beyond that first boulder on the left. Hug tight the right side of the big rock in the center." I don't think he ever heard me. He would nod and take off into the current, doing what he has always done, which is sort of to almost remember where he is when he hits the bottom of the rapid.

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Around four o'clock in the afternoon he would begin scouring the bank for a good campsite. No matter that we didn't get on the water until ten. No matter that the sun was shining and we had twenty-four miles of mostly flat water to go. Easy-on, easy-off, would be the motto. No long carries and no steep banks. His knees are due for another round of replacements and his shoulder catches if he lifts his arm too high. He fixed dutch oven chili pie and peach cobbler, zucchini salad complete with extra virgin olive oil ("the secret," he claims, "to eating well on the river"), brewed dark coffee that seemed way too strong for me, and told stories that I've heard now many times before. He also broke into a downright laugh when I managed to hit a roll after a particularly trying series of drops (that I ran rather unsuccessfully). And proclaimed, "I caught that on film, bud!" Film. Like he was winding some Super 8 instead of snapping photos from a waterproof digital box. I couldn't help but laugh at him. And there we were, like two kids on a playground grinning big grins at each other and shaking water out of our ears.

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I spend a lot of time alone on the water. A lot of time lost in my own thoughts and enraptured by the world as I see it. I like to be enveloped and decompress. I like to get lost in the way my thoughts run in and out of the natural world around me. To recharge my batteries, as my wife says. But I will take that old man down any river he wants to run until he runs his last. Despite the short days and slow time, despite the way I have to float along to maintain his slow speed. He forces me to catch myself and wonder why I'm always in such a hurry. Even on the river. In a hurry. And I know now that I owe it to him. Sometimes I think we all owe it to each other.

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Jul 11, 2014
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Ontario Canada
Thanks Uncle, that was a great way of unwinding and remembering; remembering to slow down and enjoy.
Sep 21, 2014
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Times to cherish. Thank you for sharing Uncle. Nice writing and wonderful pics.