In May 2010, the Cumberland River flooded the worst is has in 500-1000 years. The damage done to the greater Nashville area alone was simply beyond words. As events would have it, I wasn’t in Nashville when the flood began. Was I somewhere safe and dry? Far from it. I was canoeing a section of the Cumberland (BSF) north of Nashville with a good friend. When the outfitter dropped us off the day before, he simply said “Yeah, I hear you might get some rain tomorrow.”
We noticed the water level was higher than usual as we paddled to our half way point (I’d canoed this section of the river at least twice before), but we didn’t really give it another thought & settled down for the night, slept in and fixed breakfast. About the time I was literally swallowing my last bite of eggs, the sky unloaded. We scrambled to collect our gear – but the problem with canoe-camping is it’s so hard to resist the urge to pack heavy gear, since you’re not carrying it on your back. We finally hiked the gear down to the bank and started packing the canoe. I noticed heavy currents of silt flowing from upstream. The water level had risen a few inches over night, but it wasn’t terribly alarming at the moment. The rain failed to let up, and we had come prepared, so we just accepted that the last 9 miles was going to be a soaker. We had no idea.
This section of the river normally had long gentle slopes – with some shoals here and there, with the occasional Class II or III rapid. This time, though, the water flow was beyond anything I’d seen. Here we were in a fully loaded canoe – easily 250-300 lbs of gear, plus two adults, and we were fighting through rolling waves peaking at 3-5 feet. Each time the nose of the boat plunged down from a peak, we braced ourselves for the inevitable swamping. We got lucky though – constantly bailing between paddling and steering. However, the water level was rising faster. The temperature was dropping, and a cold biting wind had kicked up. Our rain gear was actually soaked through (save for plastic ponchos we eventually pulled out), and it was mainly our life jackets helping hold body heat in.
Less than a mile before the takeout point is a rapid called Devil’s Jump. On a normal day it’s really something that only experienced boaters should attempt. I’ve run it twice, and it’s a blast, but it’s tricky. But on May 1st, 2010, it could only be described as Biblical. We pulled off well upstream and scouted out the area. An entire section of the river, littered with boulders the size of cars and small houses – normally all visible – was submerged. The passage through the left side of the river (where I’ve run the rapid before) was thundering so loud we nearly had to shout to hear each other from a few feet away. There was no way a fully loaded canoe was going to survive it. With al the submerged rocks, it was a certainty that if one of us were thrown from the boat, it would be a slim chance of getting back above water.
The only way through was around – via a portage/backpacking trail that’s barley wide enough to allow passage for one person at a time. The rain was full deluge, and had been for a while by then, so as we unpacked the boat to carry the gear down the 1/4 mile trail, the trail was already under water and slicker than vaseline. Four trips and at least an hour later, we had all the gear at the other end of the trail and collapsed onto the soaked rocky bank for a minute. The water level had risen what appeared to be 1-2 feet since we’d stopped to scout the rapid. I just couldn’t believe it. At this moment I was very concerned for our safety – and was considering tying to boat off somewhere and getting up on the mountain and pitching camp. We were cold, wet, exhausted and I wasn’t sure how wise it was to get back in a river that was obviously flooding. The take out point was maybe half a mile away, so we decided to go for it – it’s a good thing we did.
We had no idea how extensive the flooding was. We were so behind schedule that my wife had called the outfitter and they came down looking for us (and missed us). We were later told that if we had pitched camp to get away from the flood, we would have been stranded there for 3-4 days unless we’d decided to hike out instead (and hiking would have still involved crossing the river). When we finally reached cell service on the drive back, we began to learn of conditions back home. People abandoning cars on I-24, some not making it out in time. The huge school building being carried from Bell Rd down to I-24. Franklin flooding thanks to the Harpeth. Entire subdivisions being destroyed in Bellevue. The Cumberland flooding downtown Nashville.
It still seems so surreal. It drives home, for me, the importance of keeping your head in dangerous situations. Sometimes a calculated risk is better than retreat – but when it comes to the power of moving water, any calculated risk is riskier than you’d think. Little did I know, my experience over those 48 hours as the BSF rose from 1100 cubit feet per second to over 20k were a foreshadowing of the year ahead! That’s a story for the next post….