By M. Bertolozzi
As a young woman just out of college, an avid reader of exotic adventures and peoples, I had the idea of learning to do an Eskimo roll. After inquiring around, I was directed to Jon Yonker. Jon was part of a group of paddlers who met at the U. of C. pool on Wednesday night. Jon invited me to join them. This was my introduction to a sport I’d never heard of and had no inkling what it entailed. But I would learn to do a roll. So after work in the Loop, I took the Red Line to the Garfield stop and then a bus to the pool with swimsuit in hand. This was my introduction to whitewater paddling.
At the time, there were about 15 of us: all, except for a few girlfriends or wives and myself, were graduate students and post-docs in the scientific fields. Even the women were nerdy types. Anyway, every Wednesday we met at the pool and practiced rolling. Most of us got to the point where we could roll on either side with or without paddle. Some even could roll with no spray skirt. Mostly we started out with the Pawlata (sp?) roll before graduating to the screw roll. At the end of the session we would all traipse to our favorite pizza joint and order enough pizza for each of us to have our own (so It seemed). We were ravenous after hours in the pool!
Come spring, we headed for the Wolf. The beginners ran section 2 & 3 shepherded by the experienced paddlers. What an eye opener. In my borrowed boat, not outfitted for a woman with hips, I could not get out whenever I dumped. Well, needless to say, nobody thought they’d ever see me on the river again. But, I’m tenacious, if not skilled, and kept at it.
In the beginning, there was no Chicago Whitewater Association – just a group of students who somehow got together. We’d call each other up, finding out who wanted to paddle the next weekend and decide where. I had a car, so I was always invited. We’d leave work on Friday afternoon, drive all night to the southeast (W.V, Tenn., N.C., Ga…), arrive at dawn at the chosen river put-in, catch a catnap, sometimes having arranged to meet up with the Tennessee paddlers from Oakridge, usually caravaning with Wisconsin paddlers, hustle down the river – Obed, French Broad, Chattooga, Gauley – have dinner, drive to the next river, paddle like mad the next day, drive back to Chicago arriving in time to shower and get to work on time. An exhilarating time!
Once when we got to the put-in road, Fred Young turned the driving of his car over to one of the Madison Hoofers and drove my car. I was too careful a driver on the mountain roads and he was in a hurry. It turned out that the substitute driver was as cautious as I. After all we were all from the Midwest. Fred was not happy.
I’ve run the Upper and Lower Gauley a number of times at various water levels. One trip, the Hoofers joined us. They consisted of beginning boaters and experienced ones. They included the president of the Hoofers, a campus club at U of W, Madison. When we got to the Gauley, it was decided that the beginners would run the Lower Gauley. The president had to stay with the beginners, much to his disgust. The plan was that Fred Young would talk the reservoir keeper into releasing more water. The beginners would be an hour ahead of the release. Doug Miller, a teenager, who paddled C1 and I, agreed to lead them down river. As some of you know, the put-in to the Lower Gauley is Peter’s Creek about a mile long portage. Well, you guessed it, the president did not want to hike down to the put-in. Despite the fact that Doug and I told him it was unrunnable, he insisted. And, even though we told him we could not continue, he was going ahead without us. Being prudent, we joined them. It was a disaster. The creek had so little water we had to portage or walk just about every foot of the way. Those who tried to run the drop ended up pinned with all the resultant delay that caused. By the time we got to the river, the release had caught up with us. Instead of being an hour ahead of it we were caught up in it. The trip downriver was filled with dumping beginners. The river would have been difficult at the original level. Doug took the lead because he was in a C1 and had a higher view than I did. I ran sweep or should I say ‘clean-up’. After about an hour, one of the young ladies had enough. She refused to go further. She got out of her boat in the middle of nowhere, hiked up to the railroad bed and began walking out. That was the last we saw of her until about midnight. By the time we got to the take-out it was about 10pm. The Upper Gauley group was waiting for us. They had been trying to figure out what had happened, how they were going to put up a rescue effort, etc. They were furious when they heard why we were so far behind time. It was the first time I ever heard a whip-o-will. I have never forgotten that sound. About midnight our missing paddler showed up. Some miners had found her walking the tracks and brought her into town. Thank god for kindly strangers. I don’t know what happened when the Hoofers got back. Probably Fred does.
We were a carefree group, not introspective about our paddling, just enjoying the challenge and the camaraderie and the beauty around us. When Pam Allen joined the group things changed when she started dating Clint Feil. He was a lawyer and all he saw all around him was liable suits lurking in the wings. From his perspective, those of us with jobs and even some minor assets were a risk. He started pestering us to consider our options, which he laid out for us. Finally, we listened and formed the CWA, with its waivers and by-laws, etc. I seem to recall that Bruce Weber was our first president.
As a beginner, we all make mistakes as we learn about the water and how to handle our boat. One such time was at Bull Shoals on the Chatooga. The run of the top part of the rapid is fairly straight on. Then there is a sharp right-angled turn into a pool area with a 5’ drop. I missed the turn and found myself backwards in the pool heading to the lip of the drop. Being a beginner, I tried to turn my boat around in the small space. Back then the boats were much longer than today. I ended up dumping and being stuck in the hole at the bottom of the drop. I don’t know how long I was trapped, but long enough to decide I wasn’t coming out. But, of course, I did make it. As a beginner, I had no idea of how a hole worked and didn’t know what to do to extricate myself. They told me afterward what I should have done.
Red River, Monastery Falls – still paddling that, now old-fashioned, long boat – I hit the side wall as I entered the rapid and got turned around. The channel was too narrow for me to go forward. Having learned my lesson so many years before, I settled in and successfully ran the falls backward.
Speaking of the Chattooga, remember the movie Deliverance? All those college kids saying ‘If Burt Reynolds can do that, I can too’.
In the 1970's when the government took the Indians off reservation status, there were a lot of unscrupulous people trying to get their hands on the land. Once the Indians realized how they were being cheated, they rose up in arms. One of their actions was to shut off access to section 4 of the Wolf River. Then Shotgun Eddy thought to translate that into a money making proposition and opened his rafting business. And the council decided to open the section to those paddlers who had paid a fee. We were not happy. It wasn’t an onerous fee – it was the idea of paying for access to a free-flowing river and one of our favorite runs. Anyway, one bright, sunny day we were paddling a quiet stretch below Sullivan’s Falls when we came upon an Indian on shore. He told us that his friend was downriver hunting and that we needed to be quiet so as not to make him angry. We were very quiet after that. Once we ran the next rapid, we breathe a sigh of relief.
Herb’s at Gilmore’s Mistake on the Wolf decided to rent waders to their rafting patrons. Another disaster. We had to rescue them constantly. They would dump and the waders would fill with water trapping them in the river.
On the way to the Obed (Tennessee) put-in one day: I was driving down the winding dirt road at about 10 mph because it was snowing lightly and the road was slippery. Suddenly, the car started to skid. I had the choice of going off the mountain or into it. I chose to go into it with the result that the pressure plate broke. We were stuck on a one lane road with no traffic (before cell phones). The area now has several retirement communities unfortunately. Steve Turner had disconnected my seatbelt warning buzzer the previous day. His comment: Perhaps I shouldn’t have done that J A couple of hours later a car finally did come by and managed to sneak past us and notified a garage to come help us. We got no paddling done that day. We rented a car, paddled the rest of the weekend, left my car in Tennessee, which I retrieved the next weekend. Another excuse to paddle. We paddled somewhere just about every weekend.
Driving out east could be challenging. In addition to sleep deprivation, there were road hazards. Like the time I was driving through Indiana late at night, snow everywhere, but the roads apparently clear, when about a mile ahead of me, I noticed that the lights ahead seems to be coming up fairly quickly. I took my foot off the accelerator to slowed down. Fortunately, it was a good thing I didn’t apply the brakes. The slow-down was due to a jack-knifed truck and black ice. At the speed I was going, the car would have spun out.
Another driving challenge also occurred in the middle of the night. The guys I was carpooling with were sleeping in the back. The car in front of me was going slowly. So I passed it. The car then zipped around me and then slowed down. Again I passed it. The third time, I recognized there was a problem and woke the guys. When the other car’s driver noted that I was not alone, he got off the expressway at the next exit. Whew!
Shortly after the CWA was formed, the club organized pool sessions in places like Oak Park. The number of whitewater boaters was increasing, especially once it became an Olympic sport and so did the demand for skills training. None of us were certified. It really wasn’t until Marge Cline came along that there was any thought of training or qualified instructors – at least not among the ‘old timers’. By that time, I was in my early 30s. I know I didn’t know that the ACA had an instructor’s program.
In the late sixties, early seventies, the few children paddling were already pre-teens by the time their parents became involved in the sport. So when I was pregnant with my daughter, it was a new experience for all of us. I continued paddling the first eight months. Then in August, as I got ready to run section 4 with everyone, Anna Wohead put her foot down and told me that I couldn’t paddle with them. The rest of the paddlers backed her up. What could I do? So I rented a canoe and spent the day poling around at Boulder Lake on a beautiful, sunny day.
One spring we were at the Nantahalla when it was well above flood stage, overflowing its banks, running so fast it made our heads spin. A few of the hair paddlers decided to run it. Those of us remaining on shore stationed ourselves overlooking the river in the hopes that we could help if anything happened to them. This was before rescue equipment. We got some ropes from the cars, no float on them, nothing to make them noticeable, just plain rope. Fortunately, the worst that happened was that some of them got shoved into the trees. Lesser and Worser Wesser rapids were run without incident. We all breathed a sigh of relief.
One March, about 6 paddlers did section 4 of the Wolf. They came back stating they had run Big Smokey and had decided it was a class 4. The next weekend, I was with another small group that ran section 4 and we also ran Big Smokey. When people heard I had run it, they immediately downgraded it from class 4 to class 3. They decided if I ran it, it couldn’t be that difficult. So much for my reputation.
By 1971, some of the expert paddlers decided to run the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. The permit system was just being implemented. We managed to get permits. There were 14 of us – 7 paddlers and 7 rafters. We had one support raft. We were on a tight budget – no frills on our raft, including no fancy meals. I was one of the paddlers on condition that I ride the raft the day we ran Crystal. Nobody felt comfortable with their own skills on the river. Since I was the weakest paddler, it was also probable that I would swim and who knew how many others and how they were going to handle the situation if there were a lot of swimmers. That was fine with me. It was going to be an experience of a lifetime, which it really was. We looked at all the rivers in our ‘local’ traveling range and decided that the New River Gorge was the place to go to practice paddling big waves. Little did we know. The river gorge was unlike any we had paddled before with its waves. I did my first and only career reverse ender at Double-Z. That weekend was also when a British group was bungee jumping off the just opened New River Gorge Bridge 2000’ above the river. Many years later there was an article about the man who orchestrated that event. It seems he spent his life creating such opportunities. Anyway, we headed off to Colorado. As a warm-up we ran the Arkansas River where I did my first every river roll. I had a wonderful pool roll, but had never done one on the river before. Being good at reading the river saved me most times from needing to roll. When we got to the Colorado River put-in at Paria Riffles, we were in for a shock. We all defined riffles as those little bumps in the water we have in the Midwest. Here the riffles were 6’ waves! What had we gotten ourselves into? But we put on the river. It was breathtaking. The water was unlike anything we had ever paddled before. The eddies were like shelves with as much as a 12” difference at the eddyline. Whirlpools spun our boats around in unexpected places and times. Waves 20’+ exploded when we got to the top. We discovered that boating in huge waves was an entirely different experience than boating the technical waters back east. We found it was easy to roll in these waves. They may knock you over, but they also helped you back up. Ten days was too short a time for such a magnificent river.
Running the Yough in fog – on our last day in Pennsylvania, we woke to a day of socked in fog. We planned to run the Lower Yough . And we did! We couldn’t see a thing. Every rapid had to be run based on what we remembered from sighted runs. Who knew where the line was to run Pillow Rock? Who would recognize the next rapid in time to get in position? It was a white-knuckled run.
When I was a beginner, we didn’t learn about reading the water until we were actually out on it. As a result most of the beginners dumped a lot. I had been paddling on Lake Michigan in a Klepper Aerius II so had some water reading experience. I dumped on average twice a river run. One of our paddlers, Bill Leja, dumped in every rapid that first weekend. And he rolled up every time. It was a marvel to behold. I envied him his ability to keep his cool under pressure and the fact that his pool role had morphed into a river roll.
Before the Olympics, there was really no place to buy whitewater boats, even if we could have afforded them. So the guys would watch the world whitewater races, decide on which two boats they wanted molds of and using connections presumably made via their scientific resources, they would put in their ‘order’. We were then added to the list kept by some unknown person/group/?. When our name came up on the list, the molds would appear in Chicago. We built our boats wherever we could get some parent to agree. Fred Weber’s dad let us use the basement. That’s were many of us built our boats. Then Steve Rock, a teenager, joined us. He became one of the hair paddlers. He was also very into the technical aspects of boat building. Steve’s dad let us take over the garage when the molds arrived. Steve put together a little workshop with fiberglass, vacuum bags, resin, sawhorses. After a while everyone who wanted a new boat, be it K1, C1, C2, ended up there. Some, mostly women, went to the fabric store to get material to customize their boats. There were solid colors, flowered prints, strips, etc. I heard a few years ago, that Steve is out on the West Coast still building boats. We’d all work together to build our boats. Steve used to borrow mine – I always chose the same boat as the expert paddlers did – and occasionally it would get destroyed. So I’d get a new boat. The two boats I have from that time are a result of Steve’s getting creamed on the Upper Yough. At that time, he discovered the PRD14/Kevlar product that had just come out and convinced us of its superiority. So one boat is fiberglass and Kevlar with Carbon-14. The other is all Kevlar with Carbon-14 ribs. I probably have the first Kevlar & Carbon14 boat in the Midwest, if not the country. Both still doing the job after almost 50 years. Today, people think our fiberglass boats are fragile. That wasn’t the case. When something cracked, a little duck tape worked wonders. And these boats were run on class 6, usually with no problems.
Jack Turner – mountaineer – one spring he showed up. Jack was a mountaineer who wanted a rest. His friends were dying on the mountains and he didn’t want to be next. He turned out to be a good paddler. He also loved to take professional grade pictures. He’d set up on shore and shoot while people ran the rapids. I still have his picture of me in Horserace on the Peshtigo. It impresses my children and grandchildren to see my boat in the hole and water over my head, water drops sparkling in the air. When Jack was done being revitalized, he returned to mountaineering.
Another memento is a newspaper clipping of Fred Young and I paddling a C2 in a slalom race at Taylor Falls on the St Croix in Minnesota. A C2 is a wonderful boat with an experienced partner. I found both the C1 & C2 very easy boats to roll. But it was horrid on the knees!
Every year the Midwest would host slalom races, usually at Gilmore’s. Paddlers from all over would participate. Although there were a few female boaters, most of us were satisfied with running the rivers. Once in a while one or two would want to compete in the slalom races. Even though I didn’t play in rapids, I really liked doing the slalom runs. They challenged me to use the rapid in all its possibilities. One year two young women wanted to race. In order to make it an official race, I agreed to be the third paddler. By that time, I was good enough to at least get down the river upright. So I got to the Nationals on the Savage River that year. Unfortunately, the last gate got me every time. I’d run all the gates, get to the last one determined to make it and flip just before the finish line. All three runs were DNF. I should have listened to my companions and skipped the gate! I was stubborn and determined to make it THIS time!
On the way back from a trip, the guys started passing gas in the car. For some reason, instead of driving straight through, we stopped at a motel. We all shared one room. There were probably about 7 of us. The guys decided to have a gas passing contest. It was not pleasant despite the good-natured laughter.
Jim Stohlquist, a Wisconsin paddler, came back from Colorado with a story of how a semi had driven over his car (some sub-compact) while he was driving down the highway. My dad was a semi driver and confirmed that it was possible.
George Steed ran the Wolf Lodge. We always camped there or at Boulder Lake. He saw a sweater I had knitted and asked me to knit one for him. I wonder if he still has it. He was a benefit to the paddling community.
Marge Cline was kind enough to grant me my first instructor certificate many years ago. I had dropped out of the sport to raise kids, my husband not being the paddling sort. I had never heard of torso rotation. She was most generous and we resumed our interrupted friendship. It was a sad day when she passed.
Most recently, I went with Randy Hetfield and Dave McGovern to Charlie Wallbridge’s rescue clinic in W.V. On the way back, the semi in front of me passed the semi in front of him. I also took this opportunity to pass. As this was happening, the slow semi lost its rear tire, wheel and all. The passing semi driver noticed and got the other driver’s attention and told him of the problem. In the meantime, I’m in my car wondering what to do since the wheel is coming straight at me. If I sped up, if I slowed down; if I stopped – in any case it looked like I was a dead duck. Then the tire hit a bump, turned into the right lane, endangering the cars in the right lane, and (according to Randy) turned again and rolled into the median where it toppled over. There was not a hiccup during the entire incident.
This past February, one of the veterans at an Adaptive Adventures kayaking session at UIC was the blind man who just ran the Colorado River twice in a solo kayak. He was there to encourage his fellow veterans. He told me it took him 15 minutes to learn to roll! I can only be in awe of his feat. More particularly, I am in awe of the person who coached him down that river. S/He must be an exceptionally brilliant paddler.