Dog Days on the Ocoee

I have always had a soft spot for dogs. Even as a kid I always attempted to rescue whatever “camp dog” was at the campgrounds where we stayed. I even own two rescue dogs. But I get ahead of myself. . .

I wasn’t really sure who I’d paddle with for Ocoee Drawdown, also known as “Week of Ocoee” (WoO). I didn’t know anyone else going up for the week except for Fast Fred. At the last minute a couple of people couldn’t make the trip. When I left work on Friday, I knew only that I was paddling with Wayne Jones on Saturday and everything else was up in the air. Steve Strohmeyer and Conrad Bortz were going to try to meet up with me at some point on Saturday.

I ran into Spencer Muse at a gas station on the way up Friday night (by trying to figure out who had the canoe on top of their car), but he was Nantahala-bound, so there was a paddling partner missed! I pulled into Thunder Rock at about 12:30 am, found Wayne’s campsite, and set up camp. The next morning we began WoO!

After a relatively uneventful descent, Wayne decided he needed a break. He shuttled me back up to the top, where we ran into Dana Lapple, and Brian McPherson, who camped the night before near Wilson Creek, hoping the creek would rise. To their detriment (and my benefit!), it had not, and they’d decided to wander over to the Ocoee. Steve and Conrad pulled up while they were unloading, and we had a crew!

That run had its moments of excitement. Conrad was amazing. I think he flipped everywhere you could flip, and some places I didn’t think you could, but he kept making the rolls–I’m not even going to try to list them all. As but one example, Conrad flipped going over the first drop in Broken Nose, rolled back up, flipped back over on the bottom drop, banged and then pinned against a rock, and then rolled back up. It was incredible. I think by the end he was just showing off.

Sunday morning Conrad decided that perhaps he’d overexerted himself the day before, and chose to park and play at Slice ‘N Dice. He helped set shuttle, and drove back up for more focused day of roll practice. Brian, Dana, Steve, and I had an uneventful trip, with the exception that we could hear a lone dog barking as we came out of Dixie Drive below Western Flyer, somewhere on the river left slope. Strange. Was that barking there yesterday?

Steve and I made a second run that day, and again heard barking in the same place. That’s a steep cliff, just downstream of the landslide that took out the flume last year. How in the world would a dog even get up there? That (Sunday) evening everyone else headed back to their respective homes and I returned to Thunder Rock, wondering what the next day might bring.

Monday morning I rolled out of the tent and, lo and behold, Larry Ausley and Amy Rae Fox were walking by on their way to check with David Lunestra. Excellent! Another wonderful run down the river (well, except that Larry cracked his boat somewhere along the way, leaving him bailing for all he was worth).

One way to know a run down the Ocoee will be interesting is when it’s starting to rain, you’re standing at the top of the ramp at Entrance by yourself (I mean really, all by yourself – Drawdown is a great quiet time on the Ocoee), and three people wander up dragging Duckies and ask, “So can you tell us the lines?” I made a slow start and got to talking with them. Given that any company is better than none, I asked if they minded if I joined up with them? They were three high-spirited raft guides from the Nantahala that had decided to give the Ocoee a try on their day off. It was a mildly carnage-filled afternoon, but they took it all in stride!

On both runs I heard the dog up on the cliff (somewhere) barking. So, waving goodbye to my newfound raft guide friends, I pulled out below Dixie to see if I could figure out what was going on. By then the rain was moderately heavy, and within 50 yards of mildly upward climbing, I hit vertical rock face, slick from the rain. I couldn’t find a ready way up that wouldn’t in all likelihood result in my imminent demise. No one knowing where I was, and having watched 127 Hours, I gave up. At the takeout I again ran into the raft guides. They had finished up with a great run!

The rain on Monday had everyone speculating Tuesday morning on the probability of a Tellico run. John McDonald had driven up the night before and was camping nearby. With the jury still out, and much back and forth messaging, John and Amy optimistically headed to the Tellico, while David and his group decided to remain on the Ocoee. I had other plans.

I pulled out a couple hundred yards downstream of Dixie Drive. Instead of approaching the dog from the bottom, I had decided to come in from above. I hiked (or climbed) straight up to the flume. Working my way upstream along the flume line (moderately challenging, do not try at home), I came to a point where the ground dropped away to sheer rock face. But from that point I was REALLY close. The dog, somewhere below, could certainly see me, аnd barking his head off, but I couldn’t see him, nor could I see any way to get to him from above either. How in the world?!? So I headed back down.

When I finally pulled out that day, I mentioned the dog to a ranger at the takeout. While he found my story interesting, he clearly had no interest in doing anything. I jokingly suggested that one way I could effect a rescue would be to get myself stuck up there, so the dog would get rescued when they rescued me. He agreed that would probably work, but added that they had no high ropes rescue team immediately available. All he’d be able to do was stand on the highway and use hand signals to show how many hours until the rescue team showed up. Undeterred, I called the local paper to see if I could turn it into a human interest story. No dice there either.

At dinner that evening I caught up with Fast Fred and Josh (a rafting guide Fred has brought over to the dark side). Josh said that the dog had been up there since Saturday, at least four days. That was the first time I realized I didn’t know exactly how long he’d been up there, and that it could have been much longer.

By that evening I’d decided I was going to do something, even if I wasn’t sure what. In discussion with Amy and John, I decided I’d make another rescue attempt early the next morning. Amy and John would take a late start, and we’d meet up around noon. Amy cautioned not to get myself eaten, like a recent story of a man in India who had left his dogs in the house unfed for a long period of time. Greeatttt.

Thunder Rock was quiet that night, with Amy and I the only two in the campground. Amy pointed out later the next day that she could have murdered me in my sleep and no one would have known. Really, Amy is a cheery soul.

The sun had yet to break over the ridge when I started out the next morning. I packed everything I thought I could need, and parked in a pullover spot between Dixie Drive and Accelerator. I waded across with my boat and paddling gear (planning ahead in case the water came up before I was back), and then across again with my backpack and gear. Climbing up just below the dog was worth another shot now that it wasn’t raining. While unsuccessfully trying multiple paths up, the dog started barking again. Redoubling my resolve, I finally managed to get high enough to see the dog! A hound dog, with his head stuck over a small ledge, barking for all he was worth. But from where I was, I couldn’t find a way up that didn’t require scrabbling across at least 10-15 feet of cliff where any error would have … unfortunate consequences.

I backed off and worked my way back up to the flume line on the downstream side. This time I had a better idea where the dog was and worked my way back over below the flume. With some moderate scrabbling, I poked my head over a cliff edge to see the dog only about 20’ below me, barking madly. He at least looked friendly! I was probably not going to be eaten. Thanks Amy.

Now 20’ isn’t really that far in the grand scheme of things, but when you’re perched on the side of a mountain, it sure feels a lot farther. But now I’m close, and not giving up. I lowered my pack over the side of the cliff, tied myself in, and climbed down a convenient tree. While not the initial exuberance to see me that one might hope after scaling down the side of a cliff, some food overcomes the dog’s reluctance, and I’ve got a new friend.

What next? I learned from my “First Descent” clinic taught by Lisa Birkovich and John Zadrozny to never go anywhere you didn’t know how to either: get back to where you were, get back to shore, or know where you were going next. I was fairly sure I could get back up the tree, but not with the dog using the gear I had with me. That left, well, down.

I assessed the resources on hand. If you ever need to know, you can get three bars with Verizon at the flume line. I rearranged gear so I could get to various things while hanging off the side of a mountain. I built a harness for the dog and tied the dog to me. I dropped a line and connected a prusik line (very handy, that CCC Swiftwater Rescue Course) from me to the rope, and lowered myself over the side. My new buddy at this point decided that I was not someone he wanted to know, as going over the cliff was clearly insane (something I was wondering myself actually). However, he didn’t have many choices of other places to go, and as we were tied together, he was along for the ride willing or not. Once the two of us slid over the side, he decided that the best course of action was to stay very still (I suspect considering what his last moments would be like), wedged between me and the cliff. Perfect!

The next “hitch” was about half way down when I hit a knot in my rope. Fortunately I was carrying a second prusik line (again the SWR course: always carry two), and I roped myself over the knot. A bit of excitement as I tried to change everything over with the pack on and the dog in hand with full strain on the rope mind you, but at least I was always roped in. I also then tied myself to the end of the rope, in case I lost track of where I was on the rope. That completed, I continued to work my way down.

The remaining problem was that my rope wasn’t quite long enough. I was at full extension and still couldn’t get my feet under me. I’d known that starting down of course, but it was still one of those “hmm” moments. I started to wonder if I would get to talk with the park ranger after all! There was a ledge only about three feet below me and after that things started to level out (for moderately loose definitions of ’level’). I dug out my Leatherman, which I’d carefully placed in my back pocket, and cut the line.

There are times when you wonder, “Should I do this?” often followed by “Why the heck did I do that!” Thankfully, a quick slide and grab at a passing tree and we were down. My buddy and I clambered the rest of the way to riverside. I undid the harness I’d made, loosely retied the dog (in case he broke free, I didn’t need him hung up somewhere else!), and we hiked back to my boat. By now it was about 10 am, and I started to wonder when the water would show up. I quickly waded across to the other side with the dog, tied him to a tree, and scrambled back across for my boat. After carefully towing the boat back across (no desire to get wet after all of that!) I dragged the boat up to the car and climbed back down for my companion. He and I scrabbled up to roadside. It was then I learned something new.

A big 18-wheeler rig roared past and the dog spazzed out. Despite having done some crazy thing that stranded him on a ledge on the side of a mountain, the dog was still terrified of traffic (not a bad thing all things considered). He almost pulled me down off the side of the road, but I managed to get things back under control. I finally got around to looking at his collar and discovered a name and phone number. I immediately phoned the owner, but the only answer was, “This voice mail box is not configured”. Figures. I decided to load up the dog and try to turn him over to one of the rangers.

While loading my boat, Fast Fred came driving by, and “beeped” in a show of support for my having finally rescued the dog. The dog, terrified of traffic, spazzed out again. I learned then that my decision to only loosely tie the dog was not the best idea. He broke free and took off back towards the river bed! Ack! I took off after him as he dashed back across the river but in my haste, slipped and fell in! He disappeared, back from whence we came. There I stood in the river bed — soaking wet – – the only witness to my success merrily driving away.

I’m calling that a win regardless. I got back to Thunder Rock about 11 and John and Amy were nowhere in sight, but turned up about the time I got myself cleaned up. They’d both gotten stuck in a parking-lot- class traffic jam near the Whitewater Center.

The rest of the week was uneventful by comparison. Paddling that day with Amy and John, Amy tried running Double Trouble backwards, starting a theme. Amy began running most everything backwards, just to make it more exciting. Thursday she added Hells Hole to her list. Amy on running Hells Hole backwards: “It’s like being slapped in the back of the head with a soft, wet pillow.”

Amy and John headed home late Thursday, so Friday I decided to hike up and reclaim the gear I’d left on the side of the mountain. I already had a mild case of poison ivy from the previous attempts, so it’s not like that was a major concern any more. However, once I was up there, looking down over the side of the cliff, I decided that perhaps I didn’t care as much as I did when there was a dog involved. I gave up, and climbed back down. I managed to reach the owner of the dog that evening and he told me the dog had wandered its way home. His response to my story? Dismissive. Oh well, I didn’t do it for the owner anyway.

I ran into Ian Watson at Thunder Rock Friday night and on Saturday we finally disproved the theory that any time an Ian paddled with me he had to swim. By late Saturday I decided to take some time to catch up with family and I headed out.


The poison ivy is mostly gone now. The scratches and rope burn have healed. The come-alongs have (mostly) been pulled off my clothes. The gear is washed and put away. But if I call that rapid, “Hound Dog”, well perhaps now you’ll know why.


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