Harnessing Energy: The Man Who Wrote the Book on Whitewater Paddling

Kirk on Pine Creek in Big South Fork
Kirk on Pine Creek in Big South Fork Tony Robinson
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Kirk Eddlemon is a Knoxville native, an ACA Level IV kayaking instructor with Ace Kayaking School, and author of Whitewater of the Southern Appalachians, the definitive guide to whitewater paddling in the Southeast. We sat down with Kirk to discuss his passion for the waterways that innervate our Appalachian landscape.

Clear Creek Canyon in the Obed Watershed
Clear Creek Canyon in the Obed Watershed Kirk Eddlemon

What brought you to Kayaking?

A big part of who you are is your environment and your upbringing, and around here there’s a lot of opportunity for outdoor activities, especially kayaking. Tennessee has one of the highest ratios of water to land in the country. Rivers everywhere. My dad was a huge outdoorsman—a long-distance runner, an avid hiker—so he kind of infused that ethic into me and drug me out into the mountains, even when I didn’t want to go.

We did a paddling school down on the Hiwassee River, and I liked it, but I didn’t really get into it until I was in college. The University of Tennessee has a great outdoor program, and it probably has one of the best kayaking programs in the country. I got the bug, and so from there it was just a matter of buying the boat and the gear. From then on, I was a kayaker.

Kirk Eddlemon paddling fifty foot Courthouse Falls
Kirk Eddlemon paddling fifty foot Courthouse Falls Mary Ann Grell

Who have your biggest influences been?

I’m kind of an armchair mountaineer, so I enjoy reading about Ed Viesturs, Maurice Herzog, and Reinhold Messner—just all the classic mountaineering heroes—and how they balance drive and appetite with prudence, caution, pragmatism, and work within realistic frameworks. They kind of represent, for me, the essence of man going out into an environment that’s indifferent at best—and sometimes even intently hostile—and I’ve always enjoyed the focus that brings.

When it comes to kayakers, I admire the people who really represent that exploratory spirit. There’s this kayaker named Ben Stookesberry who’s a litte more below the radar. He’s not running massive waterfalls with Red Bull or anything, but he’s the kind of guy who’s in some third-world country with his kayak, on some bus where there’s never been a kayak before, and he’s running some totally unexplored river.

There’s another guy named Doug Ammons. He’s sort of a spiritual guru of whitewater writers. He’s a really great writer who kind of approaches whitewater writing from less of an adrenalized achievement base and more from an existential, self-improvement focus.

Jeff West, who passed away a few years ago, was a paddler from Ocoee, Tenn., and probably taught more people than anyone—ever—how to paddle. I believe building that fundamental technique with the help of an instructor is key to progressing in the sport, so I really valued what he offered. He worked 12-hour days, lived on a shoestring budget, kept life simple, and just fed off that energy that he was creating in people.

Kirk's wife Laura floating down the Chattooga River
Kirk's wife Laura floating down the Chattooga River Kirk Eddlemon

How is paddling unique as a way of moving through the natural world?

There are a lot of similarities among kayaking, trail running, hiking, and mountain biking, but of course the fundamental difference is the medium. With all the other sports, you’re on mostly static, stable terrain that has an element of predictability to it. Whitewater is a far more dynamic medium. It’s moving, oscillating, cycling, surging. It’s a living, breathing thing.

Paddling very often is affording you the only practical method of seeing a given place. Most of the streams on the Cumberland Plateau don’t have roads or trails next to them. Being able to use waterways as trails opens up a entire spectrum of experiences you’re not going to be able to have with shoes on.

Kirk Eddlemon

  How is kayaking unique, athletically?

I think most other extreme sports require more energy to be exerted. Strength is more of a virtue in other sports. But in whitewater, to run a series of rapids in what I would term the most high-performance, true-to-technique fashion, you’re going to use as little energy as possible. Strength simply muddies the ability to hone in on good technique. With paddling, you’re trying to learn the best way to let the river do the work for you.

That’s the beautiful thing about paddling: you’re harnessing energy externally. It’s really a humbling experiences. Some sports do have more of an anthropic focus of “It’s me, I’m creating this!” but with rivers, when you’re performing at peak, you’re casting the widest net on the available energy from your external environment and channeling it into living with [the water] for a minute. And that feeling’s amazing. It feels more like a gift than an achievement.

Kirk Eddlemon Running Abrams Falls in the Smokies
Kirk Eddlemon Running Abrams Falls in the Smokies Laura Eddlemon

What do you love about kayaking in the Southern Appalachians?

If you want to go kayaking before or after work, there’s no better place to live. The water is relatively warm, there’s a huge infrastructure of paddling clubs, and there’s year-round water. If you live in Knoxville, Chattanooga, or Asheville, there’s a river no more than 40 minutes away, and you can hit any river in the Southeast within a three-hour drive. California might have some of the best whitewater on the planet, but it takes locals up to nine hours to get to some of those places.

Kirk hiking over Bishop Pass for a 7 day adventure in California's Sierra Nevada
Kirk hiking over Bishop Pass for a 7 day adventure in California's Sierra Nevada Ben Blake

What led you to write the book?

I've always loved guidebooks. To me, opening up a guidebook is like looking down on a whole new world. When I first got into paddling, I didn’t know anything about where you could go or what kind of potential experiences there were. Guidebooks helped me see the possibilities. I’ve got tons of guidebooks. Over the years, I’ve had a really categorical approach to paddling. My large-scale goal was to paddle as many streams as I could in the Southeast, because I felt like that gave me an understanding of the area's physiography and connectivity. I wanted to understand how this system of creeks and rivers worked and functioned as a whole. That’s the work for a guidebook, it turns out. I was working on a guidebook and I didn’t even know it.

Brandon Hughett paddling White Oak Creek near Rugby, TN
Brandon Hughett paddling White Oak Creek near Rugby, TN Kirk Eddlemon

What’s the greatest threat to the areas that you write about in your book?

Apathy. Just apathy. You could say “hydro-development,” or you could say “coal mining,” but that all can be tempered by caring about things. If you can get people out to have worthwhile experiences in the natural world, you’re getting them to care more about what’s happening in the environment around us, and that’s going to be reflected in policy, legislation, and the political process.

Other countries have proved that financial fortuitousness is not mutually exclusive with taking good care of what we have. It seems that there’s almost a spiteful ignorance of the environment in this country, and I think just getting people out there is the best cure for that. We’re changed through our experiences. That’s kind of fundamentally what my book is about, and why I’m doing the work I’m doing. I want to give people experiences that change them. Words are cheap. What you see and feel and taste and touch and smell, that what’s going to resonate with the decisions you make.

Kirk on Little Stony Falls in Virginia
Kirk on Little Stony Falls in Virginia Nik Haase

Tell me a little more about the other work you’re doing.

I’m developing a company called Southern Appalachian Expeditions in partnership with Ace Kayaking. It’s my goal to do outdoor guiding and interpretive sessions with folks in this area who are interested in getting a feel for our surrounding environment. We’re going to be doing guided river trips and guided hiking trips, where the focus is on experiential learning. We’ll teach about geology, biology, and native ecosystems, and we’ll do it in a fun way where people are excited and having a good time. So here pretty soon, in addition to just being able to go rafting on the Ocoee, adventurous folks in the Knoxville area—and even people that aren’t that adventurous but want to try something new—can come out to the Obed or to Big South Fork and have a river trip in a wilderness setting with an interpretive focus.

Both volumes of Kirk's book, Whitewater of the Southern Appalachians, are now available for purchase.

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