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An Appetite for Adventure

by Sarah Gay

October 9,2010

I saw the underbelly of a whitewater river yesterday.

This thought flashed up as I lay in bed at 2:30 a.m, still wired and aching from our afternoon canyoneering venture down a drained, rocky, and steep granite gorge. A group of nine intrepid souls, including a buccaneer of a leader, rock-hopped, bushwhacked, climbed, rappelled, slipped and sometimes swam our way down the spectacular canyon, a part of the Tuckaseegee watershed in Western North Carolina that’s been dammed for years for the Duke energy power grid. We were on one of the more extreme outings provided by CHOA, otherwise known as Charlotte Outdoor Adventures.

As a transplant to Charlotte and an arts professional, I often miss the creative energy and pulse of the big cities. I sometimes feel something of an oddity here, a feeling augmented by a culture of church-and-family-driven cohesiveness. As my friend Morayo Orija – who moved to LA last year – once remarked, “Charlotte can make you feel like an old maid if you’re still single at 29!” I long for the rush of having 30 options for first-class avant-garde theatre or blues, or whisking away on efficient mass transit to great public spaces where art and recreation are boldly paired (Chicago’s Millennium Park, New York’s Madison Square, any plaza in Barcelona).

But – I have to acknowledge the flip side of my soul, one that draws on a deep connection to nature. It takes nourishment in birdsong and running water and immersion in sky, in views unsullied by geometric planes. My other rush is paddling whitewater in a kayak. And though I know North Carolina abounds in resplendent natural features, sometimes I even have that longing for "somewhere else" in regard to the outdoors. Shouldn’t I have stayed in Colorado?

En route, I learned my trip-mates' stories. Connecticut, Cleveland, Moscow by way of New Orleans – a basketful of origins; no surprises. CHOA is a haven for transplants looking for others who share a passion for adventure.

This particular outing, located on the South side of the Pisgah wilderness, was only for the confident, those comfortable with an exploratory journey. We were well-warned of the dangers by our leader, Tito Menjivar, a 25-year veteran and certified mountaineering guide and climbing instructor who leads many of the more strenuous CHOA trips. He emphasized if there was any chance of flooding, we would not traverse the Bonas Defeat gorge.

We were warned too by "Little Don" Widener, an Appalachian character in the canyon who sported a pistol on one hip over denim overalls and a felt hat shading tourmaline-blue eyes. With dramatic piquancy he pointed out the 80-foot white pine where the clothes of two college kids killed in a flash flood were found – in the treetops. Once he’d done his duty by us, he cheerfully sent us in the right direction with a smile and a “You’ns be careful! Wish I could go with you’n!”

At the top of the canyon, we found the emergency spillway gate already open – good news. Any flooding had already occurred. With lighter hearts we headed down and the scenery unfolded: an ongoing series of small waterfalls, boulders the size of covered wagons, slopes covered with moss and tiny wildflowers growing in crevices, and massive, sculpted granite walls scoured into lyrical curves by rushing mountain water. Gnarled Rhododendron clung in a woody coronet to upper heights, affording us handholds and footing to climb when the rocks below were impassable.

We hopped across narrow openings where frothy water channeled and walked ankle-to-hip deep. I swam in one spot while others rappelled, and examined the round vertical holes made by whirlpools. We were seeing something that paddlers on a whitewater river usually can only speculate about: exactly how the rushing water shapes the riverbed beneath. Thanks to the dam, we were standing on the underbelly of a river.

Halfway through the afternoon, I realized that for the first time in a long while, I was perfectly happy exactly where I was. My appetite for adventure was being wholly, completely sated. Just two hours from Charlotte, I spent the day doing what my body was meant to do: climbing, leaping, focusing, gathering stories, and exulting in the energy of a totally natural, wild place. For the moment anyway, my yen for urban apotheosis is cured.

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