The Etowah Canoe trip finally happened. We met at M’s apartment at 8am on Saturday to load a metric ton of gear in the Sloth. Among the crew were a couple of experienced canoeists, Amanda and Anne Marie, as well as Adrienne, M, and I. We dropped a car off at the take out and drove over to the bridge on GA 9 to put in.
A sample of the gear we needed for an overnighter.
We found a good place to put the canoes in the river not far from the bridge.
The day started off dry enough. The rain that had been forecast didn’t arrive and instead we had a cloudy but pleasant start on the river.
Not far downriver we came up Chuck Shoals, the first decent rapid of the day. Anne Marie and I approached with caution but went ahead over the rapids and quickly sunk when the canoe went sideways under a fall, filled with water, and then flipped the other way partially bailing itself out. We recovered and pulled over to the side of the river where we then watched various debris float by from a group of kayakers who were having similar troubles. We spent awhile bailing out the rest of the water with a helmet we had brought for the upcoming mining tunnel.
Meanwhile, our sister ship sat at the top of the rapids, her crew cautiously contemplating a go having seen our boat so swiftly defeated. In the end they decided to portage around Chuck (You Out Of Your Canoe) Shoals and meet us downstream.
We next arrived at Etowah Falls. We knew in advance we shouldn’t attempt these rapids in the canoes. As soon as we heard the rush of falling water we moved to river right and proceeded to portage. This involved dragging each canoe several hundred feet to a creek, pulling the canoe across the creek, then up the other side at which point we then stripped some gear from the canoe and walked it maybe a 1/4 mile to a put-in downstream of the falls. It was a longer portage than I anticipated. After we had the canoes and gear below the falls we stopped for some lunch.
Here the crew relax in front of the falls and have a snack.
While we were there some kayakers appeared and one of them attempted the falls but crashed about midway down and had to chase his paddle and cooler downriver.
We continued paddling and enjoying the scenery (a mix of hardwoods, ferns, and the occasional giant house or rustic cabin) until we came upon the mining tunnel that originally inspired this trip. Advice I had read online said that if you place your head at water level and can see light at the end of the tunnel, it is safe to canoe into the quarter mile of darkness and arrive on the other side of a bend in the river. There was some debate over whether light could be seen at the end of the tunnel. When Anne Marie, M, and Amanda approached the tunnel to investigate they were surprised by the current. Their boat was spun around and heading into the tunnel backwards which, for some reason, they didn’t appreciate. Desperate attempts to claw at the rock wall or anything that could give purchase resulted in their canoe capsizing at the thirsty mouth of the tunnel. They lived.
After capsizing and still without confirmation of light at the end of the tunnel the crew’s consensus was to not traverse the tunnel but take the river around.
Towards the end of the day we were passing through some beautiful forest with no trace of civilization. Each bank of the river was a steep hill that flattened out on top and beyond that were the foothills common to north Georgia. We decided to pull up on the left bank and find a campsite.
Our primitive encampment along the shores of the Etowah.
Did I say primitive? We had steak for dinner compliments of Adrienne and M!
Towards the end of the meal the rain that had been forecast for the day began to make its appearance as a light drizzle. This continued into the night, at times raining fairly hard, and on into the next morning. By 10 am no one was yet up and about. Eventually we had to come out of the tents, have breakfast, and breakdown camp. The river had risen substantially in the night. The beach we had stopped at was no longer there and the trees that stretched out over the water now had their trunks submerged. Lowering the canoes was an operation that took a good 30 to 40 minutes as they had to come down a steep embankment, tied off, and then gear handed down one dry bag at a time. By now most of our gear was wet.
The river was high and fast. We knew it would push our canoeing abilities to the limit so the decision to wear life jackets was unanimous. Up til now we had them in the boat but weren’t wearing them. I expected the water to be fast and for there to be branches and other obstacles in the way. As we loaded the canoes in the water we saw a couple of very large logs float by. I didn’t expect for there to be too many rapids though. We encountered numerous places where the water churned like waves on the ocean. The canoe would dip down over an obstacle and before it would rise a wave maybe a foot or so tall curling back towards the boat. These were fun little rapids to run. We zig-zagged down the fast flowing river avoiding obstacles as best we could and eventually pulled ashore for lunch. By this time several of the crew were quite cold as all of their clothing was soaked, it was raining, and it was probably in the low 60s. You have to take care even in seemingly “warm” weather not to get hypothermia from prolonged exposure. Lunch was a combination of eating, bailing, and running in place to generate heat.
We decided to swap crews so that the third member of the other boat could paddle for awhile and warm up. M and I took the larger cargo canoe, Leviathan, and Adrienne, Amanda, and Anne Marie took the smaller 3-seater. This meant that our two most experienced canoeists shared a single boat. For M and I this would be our undoing for we were far less skilled at the helm and the river was not forgiving.
We set off downriver at a quick pace overshooting turns, narrowly avoiding obstacles, and generally just being lucky as we tried to reign in control of the canoe. We were doing ok until we avoided one obstacle on river right and were immediately presented with a leafless tree laying almost all the way across the river from river left. We tried to cut right as quickly as possible but in attempting the power through the turn we ended up ramming the tree at an angle which then pushed the rear of the canoe up against the tree, marking our doom. The water push the canoe up on the tree sideways. The canoe flipped kicking us and a lot of our gear out. M ended up on the canoe heading rapidly downstream and I briefly clung to the tree before being sucked off it by the rushing water. I started swimming for the canoe as M clung to it and tried to maneuver it towards the shore. I almost got to it but could swim parallel to the current and was swept downstream grabbing on to plants and sticks and everything that breaks away at the last possible second just like in the movies. I finally grabbed onto some plants that would hold me and got up on shore.
Meanwhile the expert ship sailed around the death tree and calmly reached shore a short ways downriver from our yard sale.
I found M still in the water holding on to the upside down canoe with one hand/leg/legs and the other holding on to a paddle that he had wedged in the vee of a tree as he floated past. Our gear was all tied in but it was floating around the canoe. Some of it was submerged.
We had quite a time getting the canoe flipped over, bailed, and drug up on shore. We had to remove most of the gear and re-tie it. About 30 minutes later we were back on the water for the final leg of our voyage. This time we let the current set the speed instead of constantly paddling and we discussed and practiced control of the canoe. This benefited us immeasurably as we had no other incident until not far from the end when it was only by the grace of Pythagoras that a glancing blow off a long dead tree did not spill us out once again.
Both crews were very happy to finally see the take out. By this time we had several very cold people aboard and we were all tired from paddling in the rain for several hours. I would mark this trip a success but for the rain which may have been an undue hardship for the crew. But there is no adventure without highs and lows, risks and rewards, sinking and swimming etc. etc. etc. It was perhaps not the best of meteorological circumstances and perhaps was folly to be on the swelled river in the rain but I had a great time.