The Secret History of the Green

Some of the first paddlers to attempt the Narrows were an intrepid mix of men and women.

By Tyler Williams

When John Kennedy and Tom Visnius launched on North Carolina’s Narrows of the Green in the autumn of 1988, they knew very little about what lay downstream. There had been rumors circulating about the Narrows for years, but few of them shed any more light on the run than local hyperbole. “If you throw a log in at the top it’ll come out in toothpicks,” was a favorite. Poison ivy, numerous portages, lots of strainers; these images filled every sketchy report of the Green Narrows, and it was rare to ever talk to anyone who had actually been there. Descriptions were almost always second- or third-hand.

This all changed after Visnius and Kennedy. News of their descent spread through the paddling community like a rising river, and the world of creekboating began to expand. Within a few short seasons, the Green became THE place, a benchmark for any aspiring Class V creeker. The Visnius-Kennedy run was seminal, and its importance is difficult to overstate. But the Green had been probed before.

Just weeks prior, the Narrows of the Green saw another group of paddlers from Nantahala Outdoor Center, the paddling nexus started by John Kennedy’s father, Payson. This first group of NOCers didn’t run every rapid, and they didn’t name a single feature, but they did come away stoked, dispelling the tales of an earlier era. Theirs was the first modern Green run, and it was done by a posse of almost all women.

Some of the first photos from the Green were taken by Eric Neis.

Eric Neis was the sole male of the group, and despite the discouraging reports of the river, his interest in the run had been building for some time. “It was on our radar,” he says. “Tom Blue, another one of our NOC buddies, hiked down into the Narrows to see for himself what was what. He thought it was good to go, with plenty of walks and one rapid he described thusly: ‘I wouldn’t run it for ten thousand dollars.'” That rapid would come to be known as Gorilla, the signature drop of the Green, but in 1988 it was just another falls among a section of river that was too steep to paddle, nearly.

Mary DeRiemer (then Mary Hipsher) emerged as the primary instigator of the trip even though her ambitions were less than deliberate. “I was just hoping to find a half-mile of Class III that we could teach on,” she maintains. The waters near NOC were getting crowded, and Mary sought a quiet setting more conducive to personalized instruction. She and fellow NOC instructor Cathy Potts drove to the Green searching for a new classroom. They found what they were looking for on the upper Green, and then realized that their Class III scoping run was a perfect warm-up for what lay below. They left their kayaks in the woods beside Big Hungry Creek, just where the Green starts to gather and plunge into its mysterious cleft, and hiked out to make a phone call.

Cat Potts with remnants of a paddling history. Photos by Derek DiLuzio.

“My girlfriend KB (Kathy Bolin) and I get this phone call from Mary,” Neis recalls. “She decided it was go-time for the Narrows, so we met them the next day, and that was that. Just a great, great day, me and three kick-ass ladies.” Specifics are lost through the lens of time on missions like this, when our senses are barraged with a flood of images. Cat Potts remembers only that “both of my elbows were bleeding at the end of the day.” Mary recalls, “the water was really starting to drop at the end.” Neis says there were “no real misadventures, other than me doing the now-traditional meltdown in the hole crotch at Hammer Factor.” He summarizes the day as “more boating than walking, more smiling than swearing, and definitely the sense that this was serious quality and a major find.”

Neis and the ladies returned to NOC glowing, offering details of the feared canyon to anyone who was interested, and plenty were interested. John Kennedy listened keenly, and immediately schemed his descent with Visnius that would commence two weeks later. That run opened the Green floodgates for good, but it came on the shoulders of four friends who paddled past a mist shrouded horizon to re-explore a treasure buried in doubt. As Cat Potts accurately assesses, “that run is what uncorked the Green.”

The boats used by DeRiemer and company were made of plastic, mostly 9’10” Noah Jeti kayaks, a tad long by today’s standards but still suited, somewhat, to the Green’s tight riverbed. The boats used a decade earlier were not.

In 1978, “Rapid” Rob Lesser arrived from out West with one of the first plastic boats, a 13-foot-2-inch Hollowform River Chaser. This was a departure from the craft of choice among Southeastern paddlers at the time. Their boat was a fiberglass C-1 Hahn, and this is what both “Fearless” Fred Young, and Mark “Mr. Hair” Hall (“Hair Boating” was the term for upper-end paddling at the time) paddled when they accompanied Lesser on the Green. As their nicknames might indicate, these were the rock-stars of the day. Young and Hall had recently probed the depths of Linville Gorge, and Lesser was fresh off the first runs of Idaho’s North Fork of the Payette. Now he was out East, and he was looking to run the hardest stuff on that side of the continent. He found it.

Lesser, on colder waters than North Carolina — running Disneyland Rapid on Idaho’s North Fork Payette, 1985.

This trio was none too eager to portage, and it’s likely that they ran the first several drops in the Narrows, with the probable exception of the rapid now called Frankenstein. There was much stopping and scouting, conjuring routes for their long boats through congested boulder mazes and spilling cataracts. At today’s colorfully denoted Go Left and Die, their creativity found its limits. Hall flipped and rolled, but his very important eyeglasses were ripped off in the violent submersion, leaving him nearly blind. Lesser was next. He pinned. “He just disappeared,” remembers Young, the only one to grease the line. Lesser concurs, “It was one of the scariest moments of my career.” Rapid Rob luckily swam to safety, but his new indestructible kayak remained wedged, bridge-pinned and mostly underwater.

Recovery efforts proved futile, so the two C-1ers continued downstream, a mostly blind Mark Hall following Young “like a blob in the dark” as daylight waned. Lesser, meanwhile, stayed with his boat in hopes that the dam-controlled river would drop by evening. It didn’t. The boat remained stuck while Lesser passed the night on mossy rocks beside a smoldering fire. The next day the team managed to reconvene and extricate the Hollowform before turning their backs on the Green forever. It’s little wonder that a decade passed before anyone dared to enter those depths again.

Cutting-edge whitewater was exactly what Fearless, Rapid, and Hair were after. Other early descents held far less expectation. In 1976, a group of five — Steve Holmes, Scott Pendergrast, Michael Rainey, Andrew Stults, and Peter Zurflieheigh — entered the Narrows almost on a whim. As kayaker Andrew Stults relates, “I was blissfully unaware. I wasn’t even nervous about the run.” Stults was riding the enthusiasm of open-boater Michael Rainey, whose mother-in-law lived near the Narrows. Rainey had hiked the canyon, and was eager to return with a boat.

The chief recollection which everyone seems to share from the run is poison ivy. The river-left side of Gorilla was a forest of P.I. until the Green’s explosion in the 1990s, and most other rapids were bordered by it too. “We were intimate with it,” says Stults. “I’ve never been so thankful for the stuff, just for something to grab onto.” That comment offers some clue as to the mission of their day: practical portaging.

Most early Green missions followed more or less the same routine as this one: Launch at the powerhouse below Lake Summit and enjoy a morning of Class III before scouting and portaging, with some variation, through the first several drops of the Narrows. Chief was likely the last point of deliberation before getting out above Gorilla and reconnoitering a way through the meat of the gorge. Power Slide, Rapid Transit, Nutcracker, Groove Tube, Sunshine; all these were negotiated with a series of scary ferries and boat lowering. Below Sunshine it was back to paddling, with a possible portage or two, and then racing for the takeout before the water dropped, or daylight expired. “We had enough light,” says Stults, “but it was certainly the end of the day by takeout.”

Cutting edge whitewater. Illustration by Martin Simpson.

Nobody from that whimsical descent ever returned to the Green. It was a capsule in time bound by boating, before the youthful players scattered to their varied lives. Some stayed active in whitewater life, most finally drifted to a career job. Michael Rainey, the motivator of the trip, took a different turn. Embittered over a land dispute near the Green, Rainey snapped on Easter Sunday, 1988. He went on a shooting spree aimed at his ex-wife’s family, including his mother-in-law whose property was near the run. When the dust settled, three lay wounded and three more were dead. Just months after the tragedy, the Green saw its first modern descents by the NOC crews. A new dawn had arrived in every sense.

One curious element from all the early Green descents was the lack of communication between groups. Part of that was due to the period, before the Internet during a time of limited media exposure in paddling. But people still talked, clubs met, information was exchanged. Yet the Green remained clandestine, somehow determined to hide behind the folds of Appalachian green that surround the river. Everyone from Rainey’s 1976 group treated the river essentially as a first descent. In fact, one of their party, Peter Zurflieheigh, had been in there just that year.

Zurflieheigh was familiar with the lower Green, having worked with juvenile offenders on canoe courses there. On a day off in January 1976, he launched solo at the Lake Summit powerhouse intending to meet his shuttle driver at the highway bridge several miles below. His ride didn’t show, and rather than facing a hitchhike with a 13-foot-long C-1, Zurflieheigh scrambled back to water’s edge and crawled into his cozy boat. The familiar lower river was a tantalizing 6 miles away. “I’d heard it was pretty gnarly in the Narrows,” Zurflieheigh admits, “but boating home seemed like the best option.”

The portaging started early and went late. Avoiding the profligate poison ivy, Zurflieheigh portaged on the right through the entire Gorilla sequence, hacking away icicles as he went. Just as dusk began to settle on the wintry canyon, Zurflieheigh rounded a bend to recognize his well-known lower Green. One might think the portage fest would discourage him, but Peter returned months later with Rainey and company. “It was so spectacular,” he says, “that I had to go back.”

The only other Narrows paddler to repeat in the ‘70s was Mark Hall, who first ran it with Tom Doyle in 1975 before returning with Lesser and Young in ‘78. His motivation to go back stemmed from a few potential lines he spotted during portages on his first trip. “We walked the middle mile,” he says of that first run. His clean-up motivations were thwarted on the second attempt after losing his glasses, but he still thinks that he and Young ran “one or two more drops,” on his second lap.

Hall recalls learning of the Green from “someone at NOC.” There is little doubt that that someone was Jimmy Holcombe, and Holcombe is most likely the man who can lay claim to the Green Narrows’ first descent. Holcombe met Payson Kennedy at a race on the South Branch of the Potomac River in 1970, and Kennedy quickly offered him a job at his new Nantahala Outdoor Center. Nobody could have imagined that their meeting would lead Jimmy to the Green, commencing a history of descents that would come full circle 15 years later when the first no-portage run was completed by Payson’s son, John. But this is how the tight web of whitewater is weaved. One generation probes what another one polishes, and in 1973, Jimmy Holcombe was just the guy to do the probing.

Jimmy Holcombe, 2017. Photo by Derek DiLuzio

Holcombe was a driven young man with a smorgasbord of un-run rivers before him. By the time he came to the Southeast, he had already made the first kayak descent of the Gauley, in 1968 with John Sweet and company. In the southern Appalachians, his discoveries included Santeela and Snowbird creeks before he found the Green, something he “might have seen in Burmeister’s book,” he says, referring to Walter Burmeister’s first-generation guidebook Appalachian Waters, which listed innumerable Eastern rivers, some of which had yet to be fully explored.

Wherever he learned of it, at age 25 Holcombe grabbed his friend Jim Byers and set out with a couple of fiberglass boats and a bicycle for a shuttle rig. They put in at the power plant below Lake Summit and pushed through the gorge methodically but steadily, “swinging from poison ivy between drops,” and taping “a lot of soft spots” on their glass boats as they went. The water began to drop while they portaged Sunshine, and the duo boogied to their waiting bike just ahead of the lowering water.

Holcombe didn’t run the Green again for 23 years, and by then the river had gained a new persona that attracted all the best young paddlers, like his 15-year-old son, Andrew, who insisted that his father take him down the now esteemed creek. Father Jimmy complied, and found that the poison ivy had all but vanished over the past two decades. The new short plastic boats made the run a whole lot nicer too. Today, the grandfather of the Green still runs the Narrows about once a year, even at age 67.

Jimmy Holcombe in 2017. Photo by Derek DiLuzio.

Despite his Oz-like status with the run, Holcombe insists that he was hardly the river’s sole pioneer. “I don’t think we were first,” he says. “We had a feeling someone else had been in there.” Those others might be Martin Begun and Eddie Weatherby, who also reportedly ran the Green Narrows in the year following Deliverance, 1973. If they preceded Holcombe and Byers, that would provide a bridge to an even earlier era. Both Begun and Weatherby were instructors at Camp Merrie Wood, one of three camps near the Green that produced notable paddlers since the 1950s.

This timeline of river play is not lost on the Green’s long list of explorers. As Tom Visnius says of his first no-portage run with Kennedy in 1988, “I don’t like to claim first descents … there are always earlier tribes to consider.” Visnius is obviously aware of his place on the shoulders of giants, but that doesn’t diminish his own place in that lineage. What appeared to be an emerging new run that might develop over time suddenly got redefined when Visnius and Kennedy showed up in November, 1988. Honed, maybe even transfixed, they ran every ridiculous drop on-site, and creekboating was never the same.

Clay Wright – First open-class winner of the Green Race in 1996. Photo by Peter Holcombe.

That historic day gave birth to a mecca. Skills developed, kayak companies grew, a river culture boomed. Nearby Asheville became a hub for paddlers and all things whitewater. The race down the Green began — an absurd notion in 1996 that is now an iconic event going into its 20th year. Paddlers established love affairs with this river, running it in unthinkable style. The late Jeff West made 11 laps in a single day. John Grace, who estimates he has 800 runs on the Green, thinks there are “probably several folks who have over 1,000 descents.”

The crowd at Gorilla at the 2017 Green Race. Photo by Peter Holcombe.

That’s quite a ways from a river shrouded in mystery, cloaked in poison ivy, and littered with broken boats. In many ways, the Green encapsulates the development of modern whitewater paddling. There are always those who will push to the next level, and they are always somehow riding the wake of a curious few who came before.

— The first tandem canoe descent of the Green, plus 15 things you never knew about the Green Race.

— More on Asheville, N.C., and on the Green Race, including coverage from last month’s 22nd iteration.

— More whitewater history from Tyler Williams, including the California Triple Crown, and the legendary Canoandes crew.

Jeff West, Rob Lesser, Mary DeRiemer, Payson Kennedy and the SUMMER OF DELIVERANCE

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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