American Adventures

Finding Yourself In Turbulent Waters

colorado small falls

I was first introduced to kayaking in the late nineties. Kayaking was really hitting the extreme sports market and, like climbing, skiing, and mountain biking, it was something that challenged those who loved the outdoors to seek a new way to experience it.

I was a teenager and I had a car. My friend Toby had kayaks, but he had no car. Like a youthful symbiotic relationship, we loaded kayaks onto my vehicle and headed out to attend one of the winter rolling sessions that are common all across the U.S. if you live anywhere from five to seven hours away from any potential moving water.


The air was chilly outside as we pulled into the community center that evening, with a warm pool inside waiting for us. Upon our arrival, I was unaware of the unique experience into which I had just walked.

We loaded our equipment onto the pool deck, got changed, wiggled into our boats, and found ourselves floating in the pool with a half dozen other beginners looking to learn whitewater kayaking. This marked the end of any of fond memories for me that evening, which quickly began feeling more like some sort of P.O.W. water torture than it did kayaking.

I left the pool that evening waterlogged, tired, and most of all defeated, for many activities come naturally to me. Rolling a kayak, on the other hand, did not. I left the facility that evening with an overall attitude of disappointment in and discouragement with myself and this difficult activity.


Fast forward to a few months later, to the time when Toby convinced me to take to the water again, but this time on a beautiful spring day. We loaded up my car with our kayaks, traveled the two hours to our destination, and geared up to enter the water.

Once on the river, after a few miles had passed by and I’d successfully navigated a small, Class II rapids, I thought to myself, “I have misjudged whitewater kayaking.” No longer was it the torture of the pool and terror of constantly flipping over. Now we were embarked on an beautiful, relaxing adventure into nature.

That stream of consciousness persisted in my thoughts until about midday, when a small, almost miniscule Class II+ reared it’s ugly head and over I went, flipping under my kayak.


As I tried to rely on my strength and my experience from that night at the pool, I began to panic. I was having no luck resurfacing. I could not even manage to grasp a small breath of air. I was in a predicament: upside down, in a river, with no way to reach for the oxygen I so desperately needed.

Deepset panic set in and I freaked out. After thrashing around to no avail, I finally remembered to simply pull off my skirt, releasing me from my deathtrap. I found myself standing in waist-­deep water, holding my kayak and paddle, surrounded by nearly a dozen kayakers looking at me as if I were a swamp creature emerging from a bayou.

Embarrassed at my failure, I angrily pushed the boat to shore, drained it out and stubbornly climbed back in. Kayaking and the river had won again, robbing me of the beautiful experience of paddling down a rustic river. My young, teenage mind quickly dismissed it as a permanent failure and I thought that was where the story would end.

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After a summer filled with almost every activity but whitewater kayaking, autumn arrived, and I headed off to college in central Kentucky. The area where I lived is not exactly a place for whitewater kayaking, so I instead worked more on climbing, caving, and exploring any way I could; activities with which I was comfortable, and I enjoyed.

After graduating from college, I left Kentucky and headed back to eastern Tennessee, to a place close to my old stomping grounds. It wasn’t long before I had an opportunity to be challenged by kayaking again after not touching the sport for years.


At the time, I was working as a professor at a small university. A few of my students found out I loved the outdoors. Also interested in nature, these young people asked me about kayaking, about the best places to kayak, and how to roll their vessels in whitewater.

In spite of my bad experiences, I told them if they wanted to kayak I would gladly try it again with them. Excited, they agreed to learn the basics. A small flurry of Ebay and garage sale purchases ensued and soon we were all outfitted with old equipment, eager to test it out.


We decided to venture to a section of the French Broad River to test our newly acquired equipment. This excursion went about as well as you could expect: swimming, swallowing water, and gear floating away.

This is the typical experience of a new kayaker venturing onto a new river, and we were no exception to this law of nature. We decided that day we needed to learn how to roll or we would never be successful, so we drove to the lake, slid back into the boats, and began that process.

Tommy standing Kayak 3 Tommy Kayak 17 Tommy Kayak 16


Over the course of the semester we visited the pool, the river, and the lake so many times it’s hard to remember when I actually rolled up for the first time. But eventually I did, and it was an amazing, fulfilling experience.

Now confident I could master this activity, I hastily sped off to the river, where I slowly began working towards the goal of running a Class III rapid. I remember watching videos of kayakers at the time, seeing them run waterfalls and giant, Class V rapids and thinking, “I have no interest in ever kayaking stuff that big or hard, maybe those rapids are not for me.”


The friends with whom I had set out on this journey did not stay interested in kayaking enough to stick with it. They tried it a few more times, but decided that it wasn’t for them. I, on the other hand, happened to discover in this activity I had once hated, a vital piece of myself­­ a missing link to exploration, personal challenge, and the testing of skill I had never experienced in any other activity. I absolutely fell in love with it.

Coincidentally, my old friend Toby, after many years of disconnect, just so happened to randomly show up one day at the river where I was at, and he and I took a few minutes to chat and reconnect our friendship. We soon made plans to paddle together in the future.

We paddled together on and off over that year and he was kind enough to help move me closer to my goal, even when I am sure I just slowed down his day of running the big stuff. I began to progress quickly and in within a year or two I was delving into the world of Class V paddling.


Just like the videos I had watched years before, I had stepped into a world of difficulty and challenge; a world in which risk and reward are sometimes difficult to decipher. I soon realized my home in the southeastern part of Tennessee was beautiful, but I would need to travel to truly test my skills. Small trips to the northeast were good for a while, but I soon set my sights westward to Colorado.

Colorado is home to some of the most scenic and beautiful whitewater I have ever touched, and it was to these waters that I took my first journey. I had been paddling for quite a few years at this point and felt I was ready for the challenges which were sure to be ahead of me.


I travelled with a few of my students and, after we had loaded our Sequoia with camping gear, boats, and equipment, it began to feel somewhat reminiscent of that first day back in high school of loading boats with Toby.

As we rolled across the country, I found myself excited to finally hit some of the goals I had set along the way, years before. One of those goals was a small section of river just outside Crested Butte called “Oh Be Joyful” (aka: “OBJ”).

Tommy Kayak 14 sunshine, green river


OBJ is a very steep, wood infested section of river boasting an impressive descent of 400-plus feet per mile. After a few warm­up runs around the area, we made the drive over to the OBJ camping area and began planning our next day’s attack on this Class V benchmark.

Our group nervously discussed options for the decent. The section of river to which we were headed was up the mountain a ways, and we knew we would be hiking along the edge to view the sections of the river where the most difficult drops were located. With this knowledge also came the understanding this would be a very committed run, and we were about 1600 miles from home.

We laid nervously in the back of the Sequoia that night, awaiting the next day’s adventure. I just know that seeing three grown men sleep in the back of a SUV had to be entertaining to our fellow campers and boaters, but we had been warned of bears, mountain lions, and the occasional bigfoot sighting, so we figured we were better safe than sorry.


The next morning, we were busy milling around camp when we noticed a set of legs sticking out from below the car in the campsite next to us. We carefully walked around the edge of the car expecting to find a victim of a bear—or maybe bigfoot. Instead, we found a good friend of mine from the east sleeping below his station wagon.

Laughing at our mistake, we woke him. My friend Justin rolled out from under his car and muttered something to the effect of “Hey, I sleep under the car when it might rain,” and then he started digging about inside the car looking for food.

We spoke with him at length about the great OBJ and he said he would run down with us, but cautioned that, because of the snowmelt, the water levels would not be right until around lunchtime. So again we nervously played the waiting game.

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Finally the time came for us to embark on our adventure. We crossed the Slate River and began our hike with the 50-pound boats on our backs.

Once we arrived at the put-­in for the section of river, the other members of the group decided it was a little too much for them. We scouted all the major spots in this short, half-mile section and it was intimidating to say the least. I don’t blame them for stepping out of this one. Smart kayakers know their limits and when to safely push them. This day though, I was ready.

I came to run this section of water and had come so far from that day on the easy Class II river where I was determined to never kayak again. I was not leaving this place without running this rapid. So off the shore I went and was quickly falling off of waterfalls.


OBJ begins with a beautiful, 15-foot waterfall and quickly accelerates to very large, Class V drops. The pace and difficulty was intoxicating. Smiling bigger and bigger with each drop, we finally reached the crown jewel of the run—a 25-foot waterfall with a fairly narrow landing.

I was in a groove and was ready to run the rapid for which I had been waiting and training for for years. I peeled out in my kayak not long after Justin disappeared over the edge or the falls, but I was neither prepared for the sight of my whole crew watching from the gorge rim nor for how small they appeared from the top of the drop.


Nothing could’ve prepared me for that sight. It was intimidating. Heart pounding, I made sure to put the bow of the boat right on the edge of the curler wave and take my stroke. I felt like I was flying. It was all and nothing in a moment and then the impact of the water below came softly crashing in. Exhilarated and exultant, I paddled away from the base of that waterfall, triumphantly achieving my goal.

OBJ big falls oceana, tallulah river


There is not much that compares to the joy and satisfaction one feels when completing a difficult task and achieving for oneself something no one else can give to you. It is something that has to be worked at and worked for, and that makes the satisfaction so much sweeter.

Since that first trip to Colorado’s whitewater, I have been out west on multiple occasions to run many different rivers, and I have even attempted to return to OBJ. (I was unable to run it due to river levels that year.)


I am now the primary kayaking instructor at that same small university where I began kayaking and, every day, I get the opportunity to send students on the same journey I started all those years ago.

I learned a very important lesson on that first trip to OBJ: adventure can be found anywhere, but only when it is found inside of yourself can it truly open up those experiences that have endless opportunities. You need only to trust yourself to see the possibilities that lie within you, and have enough courage to pursue those possibilities and reach your goal, no matter the setbacks that you may face along the journey.

My name is Tommy Clapp and I am an avid adventurist and outdoor instructor as well as a company owner. I teach outdoor education at Carson Newman Univ...
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