By Oliver Heim
My friend Steve Prescott had just come back from a back-packing trip in Europe and was visiting Robin and me in South Carolina before heading to Texas. We paddled section IV of the Chattooga several times, but were both wanting to run some creeks in North Carolina or Tennessee. Friday night we called our friend Larry Meisner in Atlanta to see if he had anything planned for the weekend. He told us he and some friends were heading up to the Tellico. Even though it was running low we told him we would probably go. Saturday morning at 5:30 Larry called again and said that the gauge reading said that the Tellico had dropped to 280 cfs. But, he also heard that it had rained a good bit in the area over night. After hastily throwing all of our gear into my truck and tying up the boats we were on our way to Tennessee.
Per Larry's suggestion, we drove to the Natanhala and then crossed into Tennessee via the Cherohala Skyway. Due to the thick fog and lightly falling freezing rain any time we might have saved was lost and we arrived at the Tellico about 45 minutes later than expected. Driving up the gorge, we quickly realized that the river was running significantly higher than the 280 cfs reading that Larry had given us a few hours earlier. Having run the "Ledges" at both 500 and 700 cfs I knew that it was running a good bit above this (At least I've never seen all the rocks in Diaper Wiper completely covered). Baby Falls looked ugly, but doable. Larry and Ardie Olson had already put on and were at the base of the first drop. Luckily they waited while Steve and I headed for the "Ledges" put-in. Steve decided that since he only brought his topo and hadn't paddled anything significant in several months he was going to meet us at the put-in for the lower section.
As I started to change, I was kicking myself for bringing my dry-top rather than my dry-suit. It wasn't all that cold when we left my house in Seneca, SC but now a steady snow was falling and the high for the day was only to be 32 degrees. Not extremely cold, but surely cold enough to warrant a dry-suit. I dressed in a hurry, grabbed my Gradient, and headed for the river. I paddled quickly to catch up with Larry and Ardie, who were still waiting for me at the base of the first drop. We boogied down the other drops towards Baby Falls. Although I wasn't at all nervous (probably a bad sign in hindsight) I knew that I wasn't paddling 100%. I didn't feel like it really mattered though because I had run this a couple of times before and both of those times I was in a play-boat. So I blew it off completely and just went with it. (In hindsight I also realized that my paddling has become very complacent with all the low water we've had lately. I mostly paddle Section IV of the Chattooga and as of late even Five Falls hasn't been pushy. I guess I started taking things for granted. BIG MISTAKE.)
At any rate, the three of us pulled into the eddy above Baby Falls and Larry asked me if I wanted to get out and look at it. I said, "No. Just show me the line." We could see Ardie's wife, Sherry, on the rocks below the drop with the video camera. I remember thinking, "This is going to be cool because for some reason they never have the video camera when I'm along!" Should have known better...Anyway, Larry peels out of the eddy and makes his way down the twenty or so yards to the edges and drops out of sight. I look at Sherry for any sign that he's not ok, but she doesn't give one so I decide to go. From the time I peeled out of the eddy I knew that I was off line. The current was much stronger than I had anticipated, and I was quickly being pushed towards the middle. I tried to correct so that I could get to and boof off the ledge that sits left of center. This proved futile and I shot off the drop just to the right of the ledge directly into the crease that's formed there. I think I flipped immediately (I'll confirm this when I get a copy of the video.) and upon rolling up I was facing river left. At this point I was surfing the boil-line about 4-5 feet from the base of the falls and for a split second I thought I could paddle away from it, but I kept flipping because the water was so aerated. After furiously trying again, and again to paddle out I knew that a swim was unavoidable and I knew that it was going to be really bad. It was!
Because I was wearing pre-bent gloves, I had a hard time finding the grab loop on my skirt. I don't know if I ever did, but I came out of the boat pretty quickly. Once out of the boat everything became extremely violent. I started to reach around to see if I could find anything at all. I managed to find my boat still upside down above me. I reached into the cockpit and found my back-band. As I pulled myself into the cockpit I thought that at least I would be afforded some air. Before I even got half a gulp, I was sucked back under. This time I went deep because I could feel nothing around me at all. It was extremely loud and started thinking that this was probably it. As if things could get any worse, my right shoulder dislocated- again! No time to think, just get the damn thing back in the socket because without it I'm even more screwed. Given that this has now happened about 14 times, I have become an expert at reducing my shoulder within about two or three seconds (I once popped it out at Middle Crack on Section IV when my paddle didn't clear the rock in time, and had it back in before I exited Middle Crack.). After putting my shoulder back in everything started to get really quiet. I'm not a religious person by any means, but at that moment I thought to myself that since I haven't taken a breath in what seems like forever now, I must have crossed over...To my surprise, and I'm sure to my friends standing on shore, my head broke free of the surface.
Although I was dazed from oxygen deprivation, I knew that I had to swim left before going over the middle of Diaper Wiper. The roar still in my head was deafening and I don't know if I ever heard Larry yell rope or if that was my imagination. At any rate, I saw an orange blob fly through the air at me and made every attempt to grab it. Because I still had my gloves on, I couldn't tell whether or not I had the rope or not. All of a sudden I felt like a hooked fish as I was shooting towards river left. There was a bit too much slack in the rope and I ended up next to a slightly undercut rock on a sloping ledge about 30 feet above Diaper Wiper. I was on my stomach and couldn't move any part of my body. But I was determined to hold on to this rope as long as I possibly could. The realization I had not yet made was that water was hitting me in the face and that although I could see relatively well, I couldn't breathe. I heard Steve yell, "Hold On!," from somewhere above me but it was becoming difficult to do so. At this point I was beyond exhaustion and couldn't hold on any longer. I had reached the point where my mind was telling my body to go ahead and give up; it's over with. I let go and started to sail down towards Diaper Wiper. As I came around the ledge that had been holding me, Steve pelted me with another rope, which I somehow managed to grab. Steve later told me that he slipped and was about the let go because he didn't want to fall into the water as well but then found a rock to through his arms around as he was laying on his stomach. I happened to see a tiny eddy, about 12 inches wide that was about two feet river left from where I was now dangling at the end of Steve's rope. I thought to myself that rolling onto my back into this little eddy was about the only chance I had before dealing with the undercut about 20 feet from where I now was. It took all the energy that I had left, but I managed to roll into the eddy.
I lay there for about 5 minutes, unable to move. My entire body ached and my chest felt like a 50 pound anvil was resting on it. I finally got up, still gasping for air and still unable to say anything intelligible. I slowly started to make my way up the rocks to where Steve was and profusely thanked him to getting that last rope to me and probably saving my life. I then made my way over to where Larry was and thanked him. At some point Ardie had gotten out of his boat after Sherry kept motioning him to NOT come down the drop. I don't think he realized what had happened until several minutes later. I started to inquire about my boat but then happened to see it sitting on the rocks out of the water on the same side of the river I was on. Apparently it ended up in the cave eddy on river right, reentered the falls, and surfed across to the river left eddy where Larry simply grabbed it and put it on the rocks. My paddle and throw-bag were gone though but I really didn't care at that point. I just wanted to get back to the truck and get warm. I guess I haven't mentioned yet that I wasn't wearing my dry-suit because I didn't think it would be as cold as it was. The Fleece pants I was wearing were completely water logged and I had a hard time keeping them up (I'm surprised they weren't around my ankles while I was swimming!). Knowing that I this was the closest that I had come to dying, I didn't really feel like talking to anyone at that moment. So I picked up my boat and climbed up the rocks to the road. This was quite difficult given at how tired I had become but I managed to get back to my truck. At this point I planned to simply sit in the truck and get warm until we got to the lower put-in. However, once all the adrenaline wore off I was overcome by a coldness that I have rarely felt. I opted to stay off the rest of the Tellico so that I could sit in the truck and get warm. Never really happened though and I did later agree to run Citico Creek.
In hindsight, I'm sure there are a number of things that I could have done differently that would have affected the outcome in a more positive way. But what's done is done and I am simply grateful that Larry Meisner and Steve Prescott were there to save my butt. Without them I most likely would not be writing this story!
-Oliver Heim, November 8th 2000.