Camp Widjiwagon at Standing Stone Park:
In the summer of 1972 Richard (Dick) Wooten led us on an ambitious adventure. His mission took ten YMCA campers from the recently defunct Camp Widjiwagon on the adventure of their lives. Earlier that year, the camp had abruptly closed due to an administrative error by the state parks department. It resulted in the termination of the camp’s 18 year lease at Standing Stone State Park, and the permanent closure of the facility (there are other camps by that name in Nashville and Minnesota).
Senior campers had been selected to be camp counselors: L.I.T.’s (leadership in training). L.I.T. was the transition from camper to counselor at Camp Widjiwagon. Due to the administrative SNAFU, we were “out of a camp” after years of attendance.
My parents, Bobby and Carol Henderson, stepped in to try save the program. The lease could not be rescued, but they hoped that the future counselor candidates could be trained, and then go on to another YMCA facility. This would be the chance to get training in leadership. Leadership at a camp that no longer existed. Our new camp would be located along the southern Appalachian byways, back roads, streams, lakes and mountain tops. Our summer home would be a red GMC cargo van with a canoe trailer.
The ad-hoc course consisted of rock climbing, backpacking, and white-water canoeing. The Nantahala, a class III river in western North Carolina, would be the final hurdle in the program. Making the voyage even more difficult, we used bulky two-man aluminum lake canoes, as apposed to white water canoes, which had a higher profile and smooth hulls for faster turning. These metal boats were hard to maneuver and prone to flooding after a few large waves. Widjiwagon’s former canoe instructor, Dick Wooten was recruited to lead the expedition.
We rock-repelled Sunset Rock, hiked 70 miles of the Appalachian Trail and climbed Mt. LeConte (cross-country and back in one day from Greenbrier). We spent most of the summer learning canoe skills on the Conasauga, Hiwassee and Nantahala rivers. Managing ten teenagers in five boats was no small responsibility. Dick Wooten did this with a combination of no-nonsense attention to safety, while injecting humor along the way to keep it amusing. We tested him every step of the way. Unbeknown to us, this combat decorated Korean War veteran had seen worse and managed far more difficult situations. How we made it through that summer with no significant injuries, is an astonishing achievement.
The modern day Camp Widjiwagon marveled at the story of this journey, and said that this would be an impossible liability for any YMCA camp today. It was not by luck, but because Wooten was seemingly present at every turn in the road to head off disaster.
The climax of the summer was the 1972 Southeastern U.S. White Water Championship on the Nantahala River. I run it today, and still get butterflies. It’s an hour plus of full adrenaline, a river so cold it literally takes your breath away if you fall in. A water rescue is always a big part of the training and preparation for the run. It’s a team effort, leaving no room for hesitation or error.
The white water standing waves come on you at every turn in the river. The lake boats were so low in the river, it required us to bale water with every single stroke. We used plastic jugs with the bottom cut out, to scoop the water from the boat. With each paddle down-stroke, you pulled upward fetching a jug of water from the canoe, heaving it off overboard. Many times, this ended up going all over the paddler in the back, or the canoe next to you – with reprisals for the error.
We used wooden paddles which were subject to breaking in the violent current. A spare one was on board as a back-up. They were loosely tied in with kite string for easy retrieval.
I forget how many volunteered for the competition, but Wally and I were in. The crystal clear water, constant waves and swift currents are as vivid to me, as if it were yesterday. Wally Hynds had the stern and I had the bow.
I was pretty sure we were in fourth place by the finish line, 8 miles downstream. We were closing in on the boat in front of us, but suddenly they pulled away just before the big rapid at the end of the course. As they went into the drop, we lost sight of them due to the 3-4 foot fall of the river. As Mr. Wooten had rehearsed with us, Wally and I set our pre-planned course at river-left, to make a 45° cut down the falls. I pulled a hard port side draw stroke to come left, and then a hard starboard right turn draw into the falls.
There were a lot of people in our peripheral vision and the screams of the crowd flowed threw the roar of the river. But the screams were not for us. Hitting the drop, into the river pool below, we heaved forward not letting our strokes dissipate, or losing balance in the narrow craft. As my eyes rose up, and my third stroke pulled me through the gauntlet, I saw the aftermath of our competitors surge forward. Having rolled their canoe in the falls, one of the boys had grappled onto a large rock in the middle of the river, about 50 feet downstream from the falls. He was pulling himself up out of the river onto the large boulder. This was probably the front paddler.
– Mr. Wooten had trained us never to do this –
As we veered past him, I witnessed the submerged canoe surface right behind his position. Like a boa constrictor, it quietly wrapped itself around his lower extremities pinning him to the boulder. A cold chill coarsed threw me as we slid by. Running at over 700 cubic feet per second, a canoe filled with water can crush bones like a dry stick.
My recollection was that he was pinned, below the waist on the rock, after climbing as far to safety as he could up. By the time we walked back up to the accident, they were still working to get the boat off him. I don’t remember anything after that, except being handed this medal that evening. 3rd place, but it was a hollow victory. I never knew the fate of the crew, after that.
Thanks Dick Wooten, for leading us out in one piece. It made boys into men. You instilled in us, an love for the outdoors, and more importantly, the value of leadership, team work, preparation and planing. Safety is no accident.
If this blog finds it’s way to anyone in the group, please feel free to share your stories here.
The featured photo at the top is running Wesser falls in the late 1990’s with my son Eric.
- Bob Henderson | 2016
Widjiwagon at Standing Stone Facebook Group Page