Trouble on the Toe

I don’t see it until I am at the lip of the drop, the large trunk wedged diagonally in the slot. Its really nasty on the upstream side, a frothy mess, barely bigger than my boat, with the current pouring over the lip and slamming the rock on the right before surging beneath the trunk. A drowning machine with no way out. Downstream, the water boils up from below and races off, frantically hurling itself off of the rocks on the river left bank.
I clear the lip with an adrenalin-fueled boof stroke, hoping to land on the sloped trunk and ride it down, similar to what a snowboarder does on a rail. Its the only think I can think of trying, and to my surprise, it kind of works. My boat jumps off the ledge and onto the trunk, starting its downward slide. Its still touch and go at this point, I’m in a world of trouble if I slide backwards into the pit of doom on the upstream side, so I lean aggressively forward and claw desperately at the log with my paddle, urging my boat forward to the downstream boils.
My downward slide on the trunk is checked by the stub of a broken branch, a foot or two above where the log disappears beneath the froth. I’m not going to make it all the way to the water. This is it, I’m either going to fall back into the pit, or forward into the current exiting the slot. Reacting purely on instinct, I twist my hips forward and bend my body upstream, desperately thrusting the boat over the log. The boat hesitates, twists sideways and falls the rest of the way to the downstream side of the log. I, on the other hand, am not so lucky.
I got up early that morning to paddle Ken Lockwood with Sean. He had never paddled it before. It was running a little over 8′, a good level, so it was worth the early rise. I had intended all along to go to work after the morning paddle but the weather and water got the better of me so I decided to call in sick. I was thinking of heading out to the water gap but wasn’t sure who I would find up there so I opted instead to stay closer to home and headed for the Lock.
The Lockatong, while still at a runnable level, had already started to crash yet I was surprised to find the takeout lot empty. It is a little more than I care to run alone, so I waited for a while, calling the office, answering e-mails and hoping that someone would show. Nobody did so I headed over to the Toe, there is always somebody there.
The water at the Toe is huge, higher than I’ve ever seen it, and there is nobody here. I can’t believe that I have taken a day off and can’t find anybody to paddle with. I consider going in to work but decide to wait a while. I really want to paddle and work just doesn’t have the same allure. I put my seat back and settle down to wait.
Nils wakes my up by tapping on the drivers side window. I don’t know Nils but he introduces himself and asks if I am waiting for anyone. I tell him no, that I am just hanging out hoping someone shows up. He came with the same plan in mind so , after a shuttle, we are all set to go.
The river is HUGE, 4′ high waves everywhere, even in the normally flatter sections. We fly down the river, Nils in the lead. He has paddled it at this level before and tells me that the lines are basically the same, just way bigger. An enormous 8′ wave waits for us at No Fish, Swim and I dig in hard and punch through it. Everything is a surging mass of waves and whitewater. Having paddled the river many times, I know where we are but the familiar features have almost all disappeared. The 3′ ledges that mark the river have been replaced by enormous holes and waves.
We get to the top of racecourse, there is no boof rock, in fact there are no visible rocks at all, just an enormous hole stretching nearly all the way across the river, with a single narrow entry hard against the brush on river left. Racecourse is a mess of diagonal waves and offset holes. I have to paddle hard just to keep my boat headed downriver as it is assailed on all sides by the tormented whitewater.
A huge diagonal wave lies lurking halfway down the rapid, erratically surging up to an incredible heights only to break and fall back down upon itself. My plan is to square up on this monster and punch through, hopefully before it has had a chance to build. It doesn’t go according to plan as by bow is pushed to the left and I slide in kind of sideways. To further complicate things, The wave has built again and now towers at least 4′ over my head. I dip my shoulder into it as it crashes down upon me, obliterating my boat. I am sure that I am going to flip, but I pop out like a cork, shake the water out of my eyes and keep going.
Down through racecourse, we continue fighting hard to stay online as we are constantly battered from all sides by the surging waves. A big wave rises to the left of Nils and he flips as it crashes down on him. He misses his first roll but I’m not all that worried as he had told me that he was a very experienced water gap paddler. Then he misses his second and I start to pay a little more attention. I try to get over to him but the river has other ideas and to my great surprise he is swimming by the time I arrive.
There is not much that I can do to help him as he flushes through the remaining holes and waves at the bottom of the rapid. He has held onto his boat and paddle but I have all I can do to keep my boat under control and can offer little more than encouragement. I paddle hard ahead of him into a small micro-eddy on river left, just above the incredible hole that has formed where Hat Rock used to be and grab my throw rope.
Nils, having apparently decided that he cannot get his boat to shore and has released it, and has managed to swim into an eddy above me. His boat continues without him and disappears into the gaping maw of the hole at Hat Rock. I tap my head to ask if Nils is OK and he taps back. I look back into the hole and see the boat thrown up, over and through the waves to continue downstream. as Nils climbs out of the water, I stow my throw rope and start after the boat
I depart the relative calm of the surging micro-eddy, paddling frantically in an attempt to ferry all the way across the swollen torrent to run the river right line. Behind me, the river pours over the ledge above Hat Rock, forming an enormous, chaotic, churning, river wide hole. I want no part of that, but it soon becomes apparent that the river is much too powerful and my feeble attempt to ferry across is doomed. I hear the roar of the hole getting closer and am seized by a moments panic. Abandoning my plan to ferry, I turn back for the safety of the shore, but having already swept past the last eddy I aim for a small slot, hard against the river left bank and what appears to be a soft spot in the hole.
The stub of branch that had stopped my boat catches underneath my pfd and I am slammed hard against the log.
The current catches my boat and pulls it perpendicular to the current as I am pinned harder, the branch crushing against my ribs. The boat pulls even harder, and threatens to tear me in half. My knees up and almost out, but I am determined to stay with the boat. God knows I don’t want to swim through this mess, so I hang on hard and fight.
I finally manage to rotate my hips and pull the boat a little more parallel to the current, easing the pressure that has been threatening to tear me in half. I am still concerned that the bow of my boat will wedge beneath the strainer if I let go but I have to get out of here. I haul myself up a little, lift myself off of the stub and drop into my boat.
I’m free but really loose in the boat. My thighs are out of the braces and I am basically sitting on my backband. There is no time to adjust anything as I am swept away from the strainer into the massive waves waiting below. I’m actually doing pretty well but it is only a matter of time as I hit the last wave and flip. I am thinking that there are probably going to be two boats headed downriver without paddlers but am not ready for that to happen just yet.
Fortunately I have been pushed into an eddy and can kind of work my thighs back into the braces before attempting a roll. I come slowly upright, not exactly textbook form but at least I’m on the breathable side of my boat. I pop the skirt to adjust the seat, get my thighs back into the braces and tighten myself in place as I scan downstream for Nils’s boat.
All this has taken quite a while and the errant boat hasn’t had the decency to wait. Way up ahead I see a flash of green and I am off in pursuit. It doesn’t seem as though I am gaining on it at all as I have to fight my way through the confused waves. I pass pyramid rock, at least where pyramid rock should be, the rock itself is under water and I still haven’t caught the boat. I keep paddling hard, determined not to lose that boat but I am tiring quickly.
I am just above the takeout when I finally catch it. For a while I am too out of breath to do anything. Its too rough to try and empty it and I cannot let go of my paddle to attach my tether. I decide to push it into the gigantic eddy at the takeout. I paddle hard, but I am exhausted and it is difficult to keep the boat headed in the right direction amid the choppy waves. I push harder as the eddy comes closer and closer. I never get there. I pass agonizingly close by, missing by only a foot or two, and find myself back the current.
I decide to try my tether again and almost have it hooked when I take a quick look downstream. A huge pillow of water coming up in front of the bridge abutment is staring me in the face. It looks like I will pass to the right but Nils’s boat doesn’t have the good sense to follow and seems to prefer to left side. Reluctantly, I forget about connecting the tether and set the boat free once more.
We are in the Delaware before I finally manage to corral the boat. I tip it on its side and empty what water I can before attaching the tether and towing it to the shore. I’m exhausted and take a little time to rest before leaving the boats and walking back to the takeout. I wait at the bridge for Nils. He has had to walk down river left from Hat Rock and it takes a while. He asks me where my boat is and I tell him I left it at the Delaware takeout with his. He wasn’t sure that he would be seeing his boat again and is pretty pleased to hear that I have it. He asks If I want to go run it again, so we do.
I had intended to write this just after it happened, but procrastinated for a good 6 months or so. As I remember, it was sometime in the beginning of April. The gauge said that the Toe peaked at a little over 9000 CFS while we were running it. As a point of reference, the release level is 900 CFS so things were just a little bigger than I was used to seeing. The water at the put in was halfway up the hill and higher than the painted gauge on the bridge. We were able to paddle up to the cars at the takeout as the water level was about even with the small river right parking lot. At that level, class V skills definitely come into play as the waves and holes had a kind of Upper Gauley push and feel. We really had a great time but technical moves in very heavy water were required to paddle it at that level. I know I kind of changed tenses part way through the narrative and while it didn’t make my editor very happy, I didn’t feel like reworking anything so you are stuck reading it as it is.

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