A day after a series of tornadoes carved a deadly path through Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee, an intrepid band of creekers—kayakers with a taste for rain-fueled, rock-lined, steep runs—are somewhere on the Cumberland Plateau, seeking to do what few before them have done.
The objective is a 55-foot waterfall. As in, riding it down. This is no whitewater raft adventure at Dollywood.
“This sport,” said Nick Murphy, 25, a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga environmental geology major, “is inherently dangerous.”
Uh, yeah. And on this day, there’s an added obstacle. A park ranger has run across the creekers and threatened to arrest them. A discussion ensues, but before it becomes too heated, the ranger agrees to let the creekers go about their merry way, as long as they don’t reveal this particular spot, so some amateur—or worse, a drunk wearing an inner tube around his waist, doesn’t get himself killed.
“Don’t come back again,” the ranger said.
Fat chance of that happening, And it’s safe to say that if these thrill seekers know about this particular run, their buddies do, too. Creeking is a small community. No wonder.
“In our defense, there were no signs out there that said you can’t run,” said 18-year-old Clay Whitaker of Chattanooga, who loves kayaking so much he attends the New River Academy in West Virginia, a college preparatory boarding school for kayakers. “I know the guy’s just trying to do his job, and I’m sure a bunch of people get drunk and jump off waterfalls.
“For a second there, I think he thought we were those guys. But we’re not those guys.”
That’s for sure. Murphy and Whitaker are intelligent, well-spoken new-age athletes who have goals in life beyond running 55-foot waterfalls. This is a young man’s sport, and there comes a time when every creeker has to hang it up. But now is not that time.
The ranger’s warning won’t resonate, not for a few years anyway. Murphy and Whitaker have given themselves over to kayaking.
Murphy quit his job last week so he could embark on a three-month kayaking expedition in the West. He’s filming the journey and hopes to turn it into a documentary.
“This sport is improv,” Murphy said. “It’s rain dependent. Can you drop everything you’re doing on the 23rd of the month, knowing that [because it rained heavily], this is going to happen? So this is girlfriends, this is jobs, this is responsibilities, this is parents. All of life just has to be put on hold, because if you really want to make it, that’s the deal.”
Whitaker, young though he is, nods his head knowingly. Asked why he would attend a school that focuses almost solely on kayaking, his answer comes without hesitation.
“Kayaking is just that much fun,” he said. “We build our lives around it. You can’t have a girlfriend unless she’s a kayaker. Otherwise, they take your time up and you can’t kayak. When I told my dad I wanted to attend a kayak high school, he said ‘you’re going to get burned out.’ No. Can’t do it. It’s something totally new every time.”
To put into perspective what these guys do, consider that river rapids are graded. A class I run is easiest. Class VI is severe. “Almost un-runnable whitewater,” says an entry on creeking in Wikipedia. “Considered almost certain death, such as Niagara Falls.”
The runs Murphy, Whitaker and their small group of cohorts make aren’t quite that severe, but at Class V, they are all anyone can handle. The world-renowned Ocoee River near Benton, Tenn., is a class IV run that Murphy says doesn’t offer the same adrenaline rush it once did. “So you have to find new ways of enjoying it,” he said. “Like checking out the scenery, or trying not to touch a rock.”
The Chattanooga area creekers are constantly looking for different challenges to get their kicks.
That’s why Murphy moved to Chattanooga. The surrounding area is a creeker’s paradise.
“We’re pushing the limit here in Chattanooga,” Murphy said. “There’s all this stuff that’s established, classic. But there’s so much more. That’s the beauty of it. There’s a lot to explore. Chattanooga is probably one of the best places to kayak in the country. When you tell anyone, anywhere around the country or the world, that you’re a Southeast kayaker, you get respect.”
Clearly it takes a certain type of individual to barrel over the lip of a 50-foot waterfall. Murphy knew at an early age he was bound for extreme pursuits.
“In first grade, they put me on Ritalin and said you’re ADHD,” Murphy said. “My mom was like, ‘he just watched a Ninja Turtles cartoon and went and flipped off the front porch.’ It’s like I see something and I go do it.”
Murphy fell into kayaking by accident six years ago, when a bartender at the restaurant where he was working offered to sell him a kayak, paddle and lifejacket.
“I was like, ‘game on,’ ” Murphy said. “My buddy and I, for a month, threw the kayak in the swimming pool at my apartment complex and tried to roll it over and drown ourselves. But then we looked it up on the web and realized we weren’t close to doing it right.”
But Murphy learned how to do it right. When he started kayaking, he was attending school at Middle Tennessee State University. But he eventually made a decision that Chattanooga was where he needed to be.
“I came here because every time it rained, I was here anyway,” Murphy said. “So I figured it would be a good idea to move here.”
Murphy quickly fell in with a handful of like-minded people.
“There’s a certain type of people who are called to these sports,” Murphy said. “We’re all in it for the adrenaline rush and the spirituality of it.”
In Chattanooga, the few brave souls who test the class V rapids and steep descents are also drawn to the sport because of the sheer variety of runs.
“We got three first descents in the month of March,” Murphy said. (To claim a first descent, a creeker had to be the first known person to make a steep run.) “I did two personally and was a part of another one. I did a 60-footer up on Lookout Mountain that’s actually going to be in the next issue of Canoe and Kayak magazine.”
Like Murphy, Whitaker has been drawn to pushing the limit. His high school no longer offers the adventure he seeks.
“I got to a certain level at the school where they wouldn’t let me run stuff I knew I could make,” Murphy said. “My head master has gotten more and more conservative.”
With good reason. He nearly drowned after submerging during a run in Chile, but Whitaker jumped in and, barely knowing how to do CPR, managed to save his life.
“He came up face down,” Whitaker said. “He looked dead as a doornail. But we pulled him out and I did CPR for two minutes and he finally took a deep breath. The funny thing was, I didn’t really know CPR. I knew the basics, but I never took a class.”
Chattanooga creekers sometimes have to go off the beaten path to indulge their passion.
“It’s this Ninja attitude that you kind of have to have,” Murphy said. “There are certain places where they have to know, if there’s water on that waterfall, that it’s going to attract kayakers. We’ll roll up in a car without racks and no kayak stickers, or a truck with a camper on it and kayaks in back. Stealth mode. Get in, get out, get it done.”
Sometimes that works. Other times, the long arm of the law steps in. But even that won’t stop the creekers from making their appointed rounds.
“Honestly, even if I had gotten arrested, I’d still say, it’s just part of it,” Whitaker said of that Cumberland Plateau run. “It was so much fun to me, and I got such a thrill out of running that waterfall, that I couldn’t care less.”