I was practically sprinting downstream in my packraft through dense fog, persistent rain, and increasing rumbles of thunder. Not only was this predicament unexpected, I wasn't even sure I'd make it. But, to clarify, by make it I didn't mean make it out alive. Or even make it to takeout before dark. By make it, I meant I wasn't sure if I'd make it in time for a dinner date with my wife. On second thought, maybe the "alive" part was accurate after all.
Of course, there was a second complication. I wasn't certain that my wife would even be there, waiting for me on shore at takeout. An hour before, at 4:30 p.m., I'd left her at the boat launch for the standard Nantahala run. Hoping she'd find a hitch-hike ride back down to the Nantahala Outdoor Center, where the restaurant closed at 7 p.m. It was the ultimate weekend expedition predicament.
We tried to do a little much in a single day. The hike was 14 miles, starting from NOC. Eight miles on the Appalachian Trail, with 4,000 feet of elevation gain, up to Cheoah Bald. Plus, a similar descent on the Bartram Trail for six miles to the river. Followed by what I hoped would be a leisurely float in my new packraft back down to the center. I would retrieve the truck and then wife, who would be relaxing at put-in and not begging for a ride before the restaurant closed. Now, we might pay dearly with an inconvenient 20-minute drive ALL the way to Bryson City for dinner. I stared up into a rainy sky and shook my fists at the humanity of it all.
"Over my dead and deflated packraft!" I vowed to drop my head and dig-in with each stroke until I reached wife or truck -- oh wait! A play wave. It was the penultimate weekend expedition predicament. I zipped into an eddy and looked left and right. Would one little surf hurt that much? I ignored a four-count thunder crack and vowed to make up for just one surf by dropping my head even lower and digging-in even more with every stroke.
The day before we'd arrived at NOC with a few simple objectives. First, I wanted to take my Kokopelli Nirvana packraft on a hiking-paddling combo with an easy Class II river for its maiden whitewater voyage. Second, my wife wanted to join for the challenging hiking portion but avoid the cold water of the river section. Third, we wanted to stay at NOC, which we'd never done. Over the years, I'd stopped by plenty of times for a quick day run, quick purchase at the shop, or quick meal on the way to other rivers, like the nearby Cheoah. But neither of us had ever spent any meaningful time at the center. The location seemed like a perfect choice for a little weekend expedition to packraft the Nantahala River and Appalachian Trail.
I spent the first afternoon running laps on Nantahala Falls, getting a feel for my boat, which punched through the drop like a cross between a ducky and a river-running hard-shell. Next, I took it to Surfing Rapid and proved that one certainly can surf a raft. Then I did a quick run in my Pyranha Machno--which included talking some self-guiding rafters off of a driftwood wrap.
Each time I said, "Move forward," the young men would bend their torsos forward, like I was the instructor of a dancing class. "No, move your whole bodies forward," I rephrased, and they bent their whole bodies even further forward. "I mean physically move into the front of the boat!" I pointed at the two guys in the rear compartment. And then, for some reason, the rear-seated guys swapped positions with the front-seated guys. "No, you guys stay put," I said, and pointed to the originally front-seated guys. But now, all four were in the exact same predicament but sitting in opposite spots.
I paddled up next to them. "You all need to be in the front of the boat," I said. And, finally, they did it! They floated off the log and out into the river. But then all four of them stayed in the front of the raft. Which was now front-loaded and spinning out of control down the Nantahala.
"And now you need to move back!" I shouted. And all four of them started to move to the rear of the raft. "I mean!"--I practically screamed, my old raft guide persona returning--"you need to return to your original positions spaced at roughly corners of the raft and all must face the same direction! And--oh f*** it! I'm sorry! I have to meet my wife for dinner and I'm trying to avoid cultivating a pattern of boating-related unreliability!" So, I left them spinning down the (extremely safe) river, like a satellite falling from orbit.
And I made it just in time for dinner, which I guess is kind of my thing.
The next morning, my wife and I started up the Appalachian Trail around 7 a.m. We soon passed, and then were passed by, a variety of through-hikers who had spent the night at NOC. We even began considering if we should do a through-hike ourselves?
"We need trail names," I suggested. So, we considered our most distinctive characteristics. I was carrying a packraft and my wife had our lunch, leftover pizza from the night before.
"I'm Loop Raftwalker," I said, extending my sweaty hand to an imaginary hiker. "And this is my wife, Mozzarella."
"Mozzarella?" said my wife, proudly blowing a snot rocket.
"Well, your payload is pizza, so what about Mozzarella Rocket?"
"Ooh, rocket, I like."
Hence forth we felt like Appalachian Trail hikers. Granted, instead of 10 days of granola--that's what long-distance hikers eat, right?--I was carrying an ultra-light paddling setup, with boat, skirt, paddle, helmet, and PFD coming in around 16 pounds. But despite our atypical equipment, we had almost one day of typical AT experiences.
We met a through-hiking "family," the K-pack, with names beginning with K for "mom," "dad," and actual dog. Plus, a cat--being carried in baby sling--with a name that started with a hard-sounding Ch, but I guess it was close enough so why mess with a good thing? In addition to the other dozen hikers we encountered, we met a north-to-south hiker. Around 70 years old, the man was finishing up the final few hundred miles of last year's through-hike.
As the hours mounted--five hours up to Cheoah Bald, and three hours down--we had more than one instance of why are we doing this? My wife's legs went from "good!" to "fine!" to "FINE" to "tired" to "dead" to "who made this trail, anyways? This is way too steep of a trail."
We had a close encounter with a rattlesnake, who kept slithering down the trail toward us, before finally taking my hint--i.e. a twig bombardment--to head downhill. We stumbled across a ridiculously beautiful waterfall on the Bartram Trail that dropped into a mossy mini-slot that made me wonder about the remote creeking potential of my new packraft. And we encountered two male backpackers hiking entirely naked. When they saw us coming, they hurriedly covered themselves with bandanas. I mistakenly tried to ease their literal embarrassment with the question, "How much further?" And the front hiker swung around to the rear hiker and gave my wife a view of what I believe us river runners call a sketchy horizon line.
And so--after eight hours hiking two ridiculously scenic and steep trails, with one great viewpoint from Cheoah Bald--I was snug in my packraft with stiff legs and racing toward dinner. I kept my word and stayed for just the shortest of a half-dozen surfs. And made it to takeout at 6:15, where my wife was waiting after having her own friendliest of weekend adventures--a hitch with a pair of dirtbag college kayakers who spent 30 minutes trying to find a gas station with $5 sandwiches.
Our weekend expedition was complete, so we sat down for dinner at the riverside restaurant.
"What do you want to do next weekend?" I asked my wife in a joking tone. A half-hour from the end of our hike, she had commented this was the hardest day-hike she'd ever done. So, I half-expected her to say something like, "What's the opposite of expedition?" But instead, she said:
"We can do something like this again."
"Kind of hard to stop now."
So, we pulled up some maps on our phones and started looking for the next expedition.
photos by Ina Seethaler & Mike Bezemek
Read more by Mike Bezemek, who writes and photographs the series Regular Paddler, Remarkable Waters and, now, Weekend Expeditions for C&K. He is author of Paddling the John Wesley Powell Route and Paddling the Ozarks for Falcon Guides and Twit Lit Classics® for Skyhorse Publishing, a book series which reimagines classic works of adventure literature as tweets for a 21st century audience. Learn more at mikebezemek.com.