Just as the pilgrims launched the Mayflower out of Plymouth in search of new adventures, hundreds of paddlers disembarked from Ross’s Landing on the bleak morning of October 28, seeking to settle their mettle over a 31-mile stretch of the Tennessee River.
The riverfront park’s namesake, John Ross, was a white man who served for thirty years as chief of the Cherokee Nation. In the 1830s, he sadly had to lead his people forced to relocate to western land. Part of this “Indian Territory” included the present state of Oklahoma, where I spent a decade of my life. In 2014, I packed my possessions and reverse-Trail of Tears’d to Georgia, where I arrived wielding a double-bladed paddle and cursory knowledge of sprint kayaking. Immediately, I was adopted into a band of people who have been encouraging and exciting ever since. Though I’m enjoying Thanksgiving back in my home state of New Mexico, where the sun is always shiny and the dirt is always dusty, I would be remiss if I didn’t express my gratitude for the camaraderie I’ve found in the paddling community, and nothing epitomizes the strength and support of tribal solidarity quite like the Chattajack race.
I trudged out to Ross’s Landing in the frigid rain, with a dismal disposition that was quickly lifted when I discovered that Myrlene Marsa had left a giant cat mask by my boat to surprise me. We may be cunning competitors on the water, but on land, most of the female paddlers are dear friends.
Kata Dismukes had given me an extra hat to wear, and Dana Richardson gave me the pogies I’ve worn in sub-60-degree weather. I had no clue what paddling gear to wear in rainy, 40-degree weather. Between registering for the Chattajack on May 1 and the race itself on October 28, I paddled 746 miles in warm weather. After all that training, I was not backing down on account of imperfect conditions. I had some warm clothes, and multiple people offered me more layers, but I didn’t want to try anything new on the day of a race. I also feared that if I wound up in the water, I would be glad not to have to deal with heavy clothing. My friends laughed when I expressed my fear of falling--I had raced my boat successfully several times this year, and everyone thought I was going to be just fine.
I was feeling alright, except that I arrived to start the Chattajack with a recent hip injury. But I felt like everyone arrived at least a little broken! I took some Naproxen before the race and hoped adrenaline would carry me through. The pain seared down my leg and up my spine as soon as I sat in the bucket. I knew I could ignore the pain, but I didn’t know how it would affect my stability.
The start wasn’t rough. I was on the very far side of river, the Coolidge side, and I was facing the wrong way when the gun went off, but that minute wasn’t going to make a big difference in my time. I was just lining up like Morgan House was aiming his tandem, and he taught me most of what I know about proper paddling.
The course takes racers around Moccasin Bend near mile 3, and that day the waves were coming from one direction, the wind from another, and water was reverberating from the riverbank back toward the channel. These were big waves, though I’ve handled worse. I approached that curve anxiously, and I wasn’t surprised when my uneasiness led to a quick capsize.
I had been falling out more recently, and I had practiced remounting successfully. However, conditions that moment were not like anything I had attempted to simulate. Waves were pushing my boat upstream, and the current was pulling my body the other direction. The 4 liters of water I had mounted with bungees on the deck kept tipping the boat over, so that I was struggling even to keep my boat upright. The longer my boat was upside down, the more water it accumulated inside the hull.
A few people I knew passed me, seeing me obviously floundering out there in my very unique blue boat. I was embarrassed, frustrated, and despondent. I don’t think I would’ve stopped for someone in that situation, either. It’s a race. Survival of the fittest. I was obviously not fit for this. I saw my hopes of finishing dissipate into the distance. All the miles of training, all the hours in the gym, all the driving up here to practice the course, all the sacrifices my family made to enable my sport--all was gone in a splash. I had spent all those rainy days miserably running on a treadmill, when I should’ve been practicing in the inclement weather. My heart sunk to the bottom of the river as I tried to position my boat and my body to attempt a remount.
While I was blundering about, muttering un-Puritanical expletives, some Squanto on a Stellar steed rode up next to me in a tiger-striped surfski and offered to help. He said he wasn’t having a good time, either, and when I whined, “I just want to turn around and go back!”, he said he would go with me. While he held my boat, I managed to remount on my second attempt. Seconds later, he fell into the river, and I held his boat while he climbed back on. We floated together for a couple minutes, and David introduced himself as a wave interpreter, river guide, and everyday hero. We floated side by side while this modern-day Squanto taught me how to catch eels and convert fish into fertilizer. We agreed to attempt navigating around Moccasin Bend once more, and, once we caught a brief break in the wind, we jumped back in the game.
I was so flummoxed by flailing that I couldn’t even remember where to put my hands on the shaft. I couldn’t think about any of my technique at all. My race number had fallen off my PFD. My GPS display stopped working, but it was still sending my coordinates to Blake, my husband, who had just sat down to breakfast with the rest of our sherpa crew.
When David and I started making progress again, there were no racers behind us. I had been stopped for 13 minutes. I knew my race time was going to be terrible, and I knew that I wouldn’t be proud of how I performed in this race. I figured a DNF was about the same as being the last boat to finish. Tears in my eyes, my camelbak hose trailing off my boat, snot pouring over my lips, hat disheveled on my head, I convinced myself that I was more proud of myself for remounting and restarting than I could be proud of myself for finishing strong. I fervently wanted to forfeit this foolishness, but I kept thinking about my coworker, Heather Billings, who had traveled from Atlanta to be the on-water medic for the racecourse. Her boat came within shouting distance a couple times, and I was comforted by her voice. She sent video to Blake when she saw me, telling him that I was looking strong, though I was feeling powerless.
I stopped at Suck Creek (around mile 12), where Blake was up on an embankment. He encouraged me to paddle over the boat ramp, so he could help me situate, but I couldn’t--if I met him at the ramp, I would have had him carry my boat out, and I would have been done for the day. David caught up with me at Suck Creek, and I was glad to see that he seemed to be faring like a Chattachamp.
There seemed to be quite a commotion at Suck Creek, and I couldn’t tell how many people were leaving the water or recharging. Turns out there was some of both. Chattajack had 492 racers depart from Ross’s Landing, 67 of whom did not finish the course. That’s still a much higher success rate than the Mayflower passengers experienced their first winter, when less than half of the colonists survived.
Like indigenous farmers immune to the elements, the chicken cheerleaders became many spirit animals to many of us who saw them on the course. These two guys were out all day, wearing chicken suits and Major League Soccer scarves, chanting “Atlanta! United!” with enthusiasm strong enough to resonate through the despair. The chicken peeps were also offering boiled eggs to the weary paddlers, and later I found out that David was one of the only racers who accepted their snack!
Near Pot Point, I encountered Heather Frogge cheering for racers while wearing a mermaid onesie and gliding through the mist like SUP-nymphs do. She offered me water, cornbread, Neoprene layers, and inspiring words of encouragement. I passed Blake and his bright pink umbrella shortly thereafter, and I smiled when I heard him cat-calling at me from a distance.
The last half of the race went by in a hazy daze. I looked around at all the paddlers and thought, “How are they not miserable?! Why are they so crazy? Don’t they know we could die of scurvy?” The only happy paddlers I passed were a couple proners, who were chatting to one another about the belt buckle they were going to wear on their hats at the after party. I tried to holler at a couple people “Looking good!” but my tongue and teeth and lips were so numb that my speech was completely garbled. I managed to say something logical to one paddler, and she said, “You too! Nice. . .device!” I assume she was referring to my kayak. None of us were making much sense at that point.
Before the race, I had hoped I would feel like Pocahontas, swinging around each bend of the river with my hair flowing behind me and a pet raccoon perched on my bow. In reality, I looked like a half-drowned river rat, unsure how sit upright or use a paddle effectively. My body never felt tired, but my mind was exhausted. The scenery that had looked absolutely gorge-balls a couple weeks before was bleak, and the cold was unrelenting. I couldn’t feel my fingers or my toes, and I eventually even became almost numb to the pain in my hip. I thought about Mitch Cohen, our paddle friend who passed away this year from pancreatic cancer. His battle was harder than anything I have ever faced. “Just keep paddling,” I knew he would’ve said. Stroke after stroke, I fought pity and pessimism, eventually forcing my mind into a meditative mode of counting every time my blade entered the water. I counted up to hundreds and hundreds of little Indians before starting at one again. I didn’t care about my finish time any more: I just wanted this Chattacrap to be over!
Finally, Hale’s Bar loomed into vision, a sweet-but-scorned sight. The haunted history of Hale’s Bar is fraught with tales of ghosts and gore. In 1775, having had to forfeit his tribal land for Hale’s Bar dam to be constructed, War Chief Dragging Canoe cursed the area, promising a “dark and bloody” scourge upon the land. The building that marks the final bend of the Chattajack has a vortex of its own, thriving on the souls of weather-weary paddlers. We sludged like creeping apparitions around the building. To combat the gloom, a fleet of fiery maidens on SUPs were cheering and herding paddlers toward the final stretch, seemingly delusional of our misery. I scowled at them and shook an imaginary fist at the settlers who pillaged the property of Dragging Canoe.
I limped across the finish line and crash-landed into Blake’s arms. David “Squanto” Dupree found me and interpreted that I was subsisting satisfactorily. Blake helped me heave my boat out of the water and hustled me into the floating cabin Joe Vinson graciously rented and stocked with a cornucopia of delights. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men sprung into action trying to put me back together. Rick Baker carried my boat and strapped it to my car. Dana Richardson served me the most delectable hot cocoa I’ve had in my life. Karen Vinson stuffed me into a warm shower.
I was still stunned and discombobulated walking back to the car, but I know Kata hugged me close, and Alain Ross, the other paddler from the village of Cumin, commended my effort.
At the pow-wow in the evening, paddlers and posse swapped war stories under the watchful eyes of a arachnid overlord. We all had a miserable experience on some level today; I didn’t think my struggle made me special. I was flattered when so many people, friends and strangers alike, approached me to ask what happened out there! They praised my bravery and fortitude. My frosty heart began to thaw as I was comforted by their compliments.
Though I still felt fairly forlorn when leaving Chattanooga, I remembered why I can’t abandon this insane sport: If you are just in it for the race, you will be disappointed. If you are just in it for the sport, you may have some temporary satisfaction. If you are in it for the people, you will be overwhelmed with affection and generosity. Renowned offshore-paddler Michele Eray phrased the sentiment better. At the ICF Canoe Ocean Racing World Championships in Hong Kong, Michele said, “As you get older, you realize it’s about the venue, the people. You want to see things, make friends . . . it becomes more about that than the racing.”
A successful Chattajack takes a whole colony: from feathered friends, egging us on, to the kind passersby who transported hitchhikers bailing out along Racoon Mountain Rd, to the benevolent ambassadors who shared their dwellings with despondent drowners. We are people who need one another, on water and on land. Thanksgiving is a time when all paddling pilgrims: the Epics, the Fenns, the Thinks, and the Nelos can commune peacefully, swapping energy gels, hydration powder, and fry bread recipes. This year, I’m leaving my season behind and setting aside aspirations for future races, so that I can focus on enjoying the companionship gained from the people who make paddling worth the pain.