AND THEN THE RAINS CAME
It had been an unusually cold and dry winter in East Tennessee with a fair amount of snow that lingered for long periods of time in the Smokies, but all of that was about to change. Late February brought in a series of storm fronts that would bring much needed rainfall to the rivers and creeks of the area on a regular basis. This is my account of the month that followed.
It was February 23 and I was sitting in the airport in Denver on my return from a ski trip in Utah, checking the weather forecast on my laptop and seeing predictions of greater than one inch of rain falling later in the week. I started sending out some feelers for someone to paddle with on Friday afternoon. I had Greenbrier (Middle Prong of the Little Pigeon) in my sights since it had been a while since I had been in my boat and it is run that I am comfortable and confident on. When the phone rang on Friday morning (Feb. 25), Tommy had a different plan. Lower Big Creek was running, 2.5’; a perfect first time level according to Tommy.
I was a little apprehensive. It looked like Big Creek would be pretty unforgiving of any upside down experiences and it had been a couple of weeks since I had been out. Still, it was a run that I had wanted to try and I knew I had the skills to run it successfully if I was on my game that day. I met Tommy and Kendall at the takeout and we shuttled up. We put in at the bridge at the picnic area. Big Creek starts off with a bang and pretty much never lets up, the first 50 yards are a series of 2 to 4 foot ledges that occur every few feet downstream out of sight. It is one of the most continuous runs I have been on, with only about 3 pools in it longer than 15 feet in length. It is non-stop action for the full 2 miles of its length, with constant small boofs and driving around rocks and holes. It is a great class III+/IV- creek. I won’t say I styled it that day, I had some ugly lines; but everyone finished the day with dry hair. I consider that a successful personal first descent, my first of the year. Tommy had originally planned to make two laps, but after one I was spent. Besides, I had to keep myself fresh for paddling the rest of the weekend..
I got on the phone that evening and the next morning, all my usual paddling partners were busy. I had seen a post on Boatertalk on Friday that Big Laurel was running at close to 1 foot, so I was pretty sure it should hold. I also knew there was a group from Chattanooga (TVCC) that were planning on making some laps on it. So on Saturday (Feb. 26), I loaded up the Subaru and headed toward Hot Springs hoping to get a PFD on Big Laurel. When I got to the put-in I was surprised to see around 30 paddlers in various stages of gearing up and setting shuttle, I started asking around and found a group to run down with from Columbia, SC. To read the details of those group dynamics, check out the Monday Morning Boof from 2/28 (http://etwcweb.com/discuss/index.php?mode=thread&id=4308 ). I had a great PFD that Saturday. Well, I consider it a PFD. I had paddled it a year or so earlier down to the first big rapid (Stairstep) where I swam, losing my paddle and forcing me to hike out; so I was happy to get a successful run of the entire river.
Big Laurel is a great run, like several other creeks in this area it runs more than you might think, but it has no reliable gauge other than a visual gauge painted on a bridge piling at the put-in. It starts off slow and easy, then you hit two III+ rapids separated by long pools. The last third of the run is almost constant II+ to III+ whitewater rapids with a very similar feel to the Ocoee at 6-8 inches. I highly recommend a first timer on this run try it out at 6 inches, and be sure to scout (and stay out of) Suddy Hole.
With the river levels dropping out, Sunday was a surfing, attainment, and flatwater workout day on the Little River section around Walland. This is just a few minutes from my house so it’s easy to get in a quick workout there. With two personal first descents for the weekend I was happy to get what I could, besides there was rain on the way and I didn’t want to cash in all my chits just yet.
Monday brought rain back to the area. I loaded up my gear and took it to work with me on Tuesday (March 1) and started scheming on how to get out of work early and get a run on something. My contacts were either all already out on something or stuck at work like me. I had almost given up on paddling that day, it was about 3 in the afternoon and I couldn’t find anyone to go with. Then the phone rang.
Jim: “You paddling anywhere this afternoon? I was thinking about Greenbrier.”
Me: “Want to meet at the takeout at 5?”
A quick check of the bridge gauge showed it was running at 2.5 feet, a great medium-high level. At 2.5’, Greenbrier starts with continuous whitewater, big waves, and big grins. I think 2.5-2.9’ is my favorite level on this run. We paddled fast since we were pushing darkness, no time to play around. My Facebook status from that evening pretty much says it all; “Greenbrier @ 2.5’ = after work goodness. Who knows what afternoon goodness lies waiting for tomorrow afternoon?”
I had already scheduled to leave work at noon on Wednesday (March 2). The plan was to go run Big Laurel again with Tommy and Kendall. Kendall had never run it before. We were joined by Jim and a friend. I figured it would be at about the same level that it was when I ran it the previous weekend. As we pulled in to the put-in I checked the gauge, it shows 1 foot. It doesn’t really look any higher than it did on Saturday though, and when we put on it didn’t really feel any different either. Until we got to the first big rapid. Stairstep definitely had a lot more water in it, but actually that made it a little easier; the line was more straightforward at that level. The slide at Suddy Hole was a little more padded out, so on to the Narrows.
Just like the name would lead you to believe the Narrows is a constricted gorge in the river, it has 3 or 4 definite sections to it and lasts about one half of a mile or so. Well, the difference in the Narrows between 6” and 1’ is huge. I managed to hit the first hole in it and went for a nice side surf for a while. At this level, the Narrows was big pushy water, big waves, holes, and quite possibly the most fun I have ever had in my boat. Asked about Big Laurel at that level later I told someone, “It’s a lot like if you put your hands on either end of the Upper Ocoee and just squashed it together until it was only 2 miles long.” I was still grinning the next day.
Even I have to put in a full day at work sometimes, so Thursday I had to make do with the memories of the previous days. Spring was definitely coming on, and the rivers weren’t holding as long as they were just a week before. The next day (March 4) I got in an after work run on the Little, Sinks to Elbow section, with Mark. The Little has been my go to run for the last 2 years, initially the Elbow to Y section, then moving up to the Elkmont section, and then onto the Sinks to Elbow section. It was lowish at 2.5’, but it seemed like I hadn’t paddled that run in months so I was okay with it being at a pretty easy level. Besides, it made the boofs at Silver Diner and Eddy Out that much bigger. Feeling good at the end of my run I decided to give the Elbow a go. I’ve had a love/hate relationship with the Elbow over the last several months; I started off loving it but then it started hating me. The first time I ran the Elbow was last summer and I styled it. Since then I have run it 4 other times, none of which were upright. Well tonight was different, like the song says “It feels like the first time.” A good end to the day.
Things were drying up again, but more was coming. Unfortunately, not for the weekend. Monday and Tuesday saw anywhere from 2.5 to 4 inches of rain fall over the Smokies and for me that means everything was too high to paddle. You can have too much of a good thing. I got back out for a run on the Little on Thursday (March 10) at a little over 3’, I’m still trying to make the adjustment to some bigger, pushier water and had a good run but passed on the Elbow this time around.
Friday (March 11), I took off early again with Lower Big Creek and Greenbrier on the list. I met up with Tommy and Mark at the Big Creek takeout, and also ran into Mary Ann, David, and several other Knoxville area paddlers. The level was 3.2’ on the Mt. Sterling Bridge gauge, higher than I would have liked. Putting on the plan was to run through the first drop then ferry to the far side of the river to a decent sized eddy. As I ran the first drop, I got surfed a little more than I was expecting and didn’t make an aggressive enough move into the eddy and wound up running the next drop backwards. This flipped me, a quick roll and I was up just in time to run the next drop, backwards. This drop flipped me again, resulting in two failed roll attempts, a few hard knocks to my head and shoulders, a swim, and finally a twisted ankle. After retrieving all my gear, I put back on again. In short order, I had flipped 4 more times. I rolled after each flip but in the meantime I was taking some punishing hits underwater. After the 5th flip, I was only about halfway through the run. I was done, Big Creek had beaten me. I made the “Walk of Shame” with my boat back to the put-in to wait on everyone else. After that, Mark, Casey, and I went to Greenbrier for a run at just over 3’ where I got some redemption.
Family commitments kept me off the water for a week, until I was able to make a Friday (March 18) evening Sinks to Elbow run with Mark. Once again I had to sit out Saturday, but I had plans for the following day. On Sunday (March 20), Kendall and I left my house early to meet Jason and Kemper in Reliance, TN for a run on the Hiwassee Dries. I had seen on the Monday Morning Boof of 3/7 that the Hiwassee Dries were a run that Jason wanted to do. As luck would have it, about a week later an e-mail popped up in my inbox about the Hiwassee Dries running for the next several weeks. Maintenance was being done at the powerhouse and as a result TVA would be spilling water from Appalachia Dam and through the Dries.
Just getting to the Hiwassee Dries is an adventure in itself. Other than a few people that have run it in the last few weeks it had only been run very occasionally over the last couple of decades, directions to the put-in and takeout are sketchy, the put-in involves carrying (or sliding, or tossing) your boat down a 50 degree slope of approximately 200 vertical feet. The river itself has several trees and bushes growing in the riverbed, and the amount of water being spilled from the dam that day was such that bank scouting was pretty much impossible. I had researched the run on American Whitewater and was expecting a creeky run. What I found when we got there was not a creeky run. Everything on American Whitewater references the run at approximately 1000cfs. The current release is approximately 2400cfs.
The Hiwassee Dries at 2400 cfs is absolutely nothing like it is pictured on AW. It is BIG rapids and waves, and the fastest, most boiley/swirly/squirrelly water I have ever paddled. Even the flatwater was just like being on one constant eddy line. The first rapid after the put-in (without hiking up to Hollywood Bowl) is called Wu or Second Rapid on AW. It has a house sized rock at the bottom of it. At Sunday’s flow, no part of the rock was visible from above or below. It was a big pulsing whitewater haystack, I never saw it until I crested the wave about 6 ft before it. I had started off a little further to the right than the 1st person that ran it and couldn’t make the move around it on the left so I just boofed and prayed, full knowing that things probably weren’t going to end well. I landed pretty flat but the hole just swallowed me, there was no paddling to try and escape. it was just like the reached around both every part of my boat and shoved it straight down. That’s when the fun started. After a couple of windowshade rolls in the hole I was able to reach down into the current with my paddle and grab enough water to flush out. Still the water so boiley it took 3 more tries to roll up. Only underwater experience of the weekend.
So here I am, back at work. Everything has dropped out of the runnable range. But we have thunderstorms moving in tonight, and more rain for the weekend. I wonder what this rain will bring.
See You On The River.