The Frothing Rivers of the American Southeast
The Honda Civic was loaded, to say the least. On top sat a Yakima Rocketbox containing paddles, PFDs, and cold weather paddling gear. Two creek boats, a Pyranha Micro 240 and an Eskimo Salto, also sat proudly on the roof rack, displaying their scratched hulls to passersby. The hatch and back seats were filled with assorted, required paddling accoutrements: tent, sleeping bags, food (can’t forget the Nutella!), camcorder, and Monte Smith’s Southeastern Whitewater paddling guide. The plan? Brian Day and Mark Mastalski, driving 15 hours to join five other paddlers for a long weekend paddling some of North Carolina’s and Tennessee’s finest creeks. With the rivers in Wisconsin and Michigan still frozen solid, this was a great opportunity to get our boats wet.
The weather? It was February—not much else needs to be said. A snowstorm was predicted for the entire Midwest, so we assumed that the drive would be slow going. This came to be true as we encountered snow from Gary, IN all the way to Indianapolis. Snow and ice covered I-65 and few plows were to be seen. This being our third trip to the Southeast in the past year, and the third time we’ve encountered a snowstorm in Indiana, the weather was par for the course.
With the stereo blaring, Brian and I sang along to favorites such as Son Volt, Uncle Tupelo, Rush, Josh Joplin and Tool. We were cranked and looking forward to three days of great paddling and great friends. Sixteen hours later, we pulled into Mortimer campground to meet our friends and paddle beautiful Wilson’s Creek. The group for “Ecstasy III” was now complete: Mike and Elise Giddings from Chapel Hill, NC; Steve Corsi and Helge Klockow from Madison; Rob Heineman from Salt Lake City.
Wilson’s is a relatively short creek run. Even though a road hugs the river for the entire two miles, allowing for views by non-paddlers, it is extremely scenic and was designated a “Wild and Scenic River” by the National Park Service in 2000. Although the Smoky Mountains were getting pelted with rain, Wilson’s was relatively low, -3 on the boater’s gauge; but it would make for a good warm-up. Wilson’s includes a number of fun boulder gardens, where huge rocks block your path and keep you on your toes. Elbow pads are often desired as many of the chutes are extremely narrow. A few of the more memorable drops include Ten Foot Falls (Bigg Drop), Boatbuster, Thunderhole, Triple Drop, and Razorback. With a lot of water, Wilson’s could easily generate some class V excitement, but on our day nothing was over class IV+. If you’re looking for a great introduction to creeking in the Southeast, Wilson’s Creek could be just the ticket.
The next day brought us ice; ice on our tent, boats, paddles, everything. It was chilly but the idea of running Big Creek inspired us. Big Creek is located on the North Carolina/Tennessee border and flows into the Pigeon River, also known as the Dirty Bird. Brian and I scouted it in March 2002 and couldn’t wait to give it a run. But the question remained… was it running? Helge plugged his cell phone into his laptop and the good news greeted us: yes, Big Creek had enough water. The drive was on!
Mike, Elise, and Rob led the caravan, and two hours of driving up and over the Smoky Mountains brought us to the takeout so we could check the paddler’s gauge… 2.5, a good level for an introductory run. Big Creek contains two distinct sections, the Upper and Lower. The Upper is an “expert-only” run including several class V drops and steep gradient. The Lower is still continuous with an average gradient of 139 feet/mile, four times that of the popular Roaring Rapids section of the Peshtigo in norttheastern Wisconsin, but in the Lower, one doesn’t encounter the dangerous hazards of the Upper section. That said, it should not be taken lightly; the water is pushy and boat scouting is mandatory. We shouldered our boats and hiked upstream from the Big Creek campground. After a ten-minute walk we found our put-in. The water was pumping – many eddies are only big enough for one boat and must be caught on the fly. I found myself thinking, “I’ll catch that eddy over on my right. Whoops, guess I’ll try for the next one!” Taking video of the run is difficult, as things move so fast that you just don’t have much time to get out and shoot. Downed trees, or sweepers, are always a hazard for which to keep an eye out, and Big Creek served up a few. As we sat in an eddy just following the bridge next to the power station Brian asked, “We’re taking out here, right, and not running the dam?” Dam? Uh, yeah, let’s take out here. Another good reason to make sure you always scout any river unknown to your group! The entire run took just an hour, an amazingly fast hour that kept all of our hearts pumping and adrenalin flowing. You’d be hard pressed to find a more continuous river; it literally doesn’t let up the entire two miles. Mike commented that Big Creek is very similar to creeking in Colorado – narrow riverbed, continuous gradient with cold, pushy water. Big Creek generally runs only in the spring or after big rains, so warm water paddling is generally not an option.
Dinner consisted of Mexican cuisine and a long discussion about where to paddle the next day. The rain was still arriving in the mountains, so many rivers and creeks were running. Options included the Tellico, Citico, Doe and Piney River. Consensus was finally reached… on to the Piney! But first it was time for bed, so we chose an inexpensive motel in the small town of Rockwood, TN. (Hint: be wary of refrigerators in these hotels…yeek.)
The next morning we woke early and drove to the take-out to check the gauge. The river was currently running just under ‘4’ on the paddlers gauge, and the wet shore showed the river had been several feet higher (and thus unrunnable for our group) not too much earlier. The level was high, but we were good to go. And so we donned our wet paddling gear again and put-in on Moccasin Creek. The first five miles on Moccasin were slow going, taking over three hours. It included busting over trees and portaging a few times. Once we reached the confluence with the Piney, we were more than ready to see some gradient and do some creekin’. The day was cold, in the 30s, and each wave to the face promised more of what was ahead for the next eleven miles. The confluence of Moccasin and Piney is the start of four miles of 100+ feet/mile gradient, beginning with Gateway Falls. The Piney is a classic southeastern river, featuring good gradient, large holes, numerous boulder gardens, and more than its share of good-sized drops. True to many southeastern rivers, it also harbors dangerous undercut rocks, ready to trap an unsuspecting boater. One drop, Hungry Jack, has a scary sieve/cavern on the river right rock overlooking the final plunge. Just adding to the excitement, a class V hole develops at high levels, deserving of a long look before running. Everyone decided to walk Hungry Jack, except for Brian. He had that look in his eyes, and I knew he was going to run it. After a discussion about the best line, Brian put-on and headed toward the gaping drop. At the current level, it was best to hug the river left edge, keep a slight right angle (a rock shelf is on the far left side) and paddle hard away from the hole. Brian was slightly right of ideal and took a deep plunge, disappearing into the froth for a solid three count. When he re-emerged upright and unscathed, we all breathed a sigh of relief.
The last several miles of the Piney include some of the best class III+ boogie water you’ll find anywhere – standing waves and surf spots, all located in one of the most beautiful gorges you’ll ever see. We spent seven hours on the water that day and didn’t see another boater. The Piney is a paddler’s dream and a hiker’s nightmare. This is rough Tennessee land, and hiking in (or out) is a difficult option at best.
The drive back to Madison went well until a faulty alternator in Brian’s car stopped us in Rockford, IL. No matter—we were determined to get home to Madison, dry our wet clothes, and begin planning our next visit to the Southeast.
Many of the small creeks in the Southeast are runnable only following heavy rains in the mountains. Correspondingly, the water is very cold and a drysuit is highly advised. Hot lemonade makes a refreshing drink to have on-hand during any cold-weather trip, and safety equipment should include breakdown paddles, throw ropes, and z-drag systems to recover pinned boats. Paddling in the Southeast will introduce you to amazingly beautiful rivers and terrific people, always ready to share stories and lend a hand. These rivers and creeks are close enough that a long weekend is feasible, given you don’t mind driving straight through and recovering lost sleep during the following week. Information about all these rivers can be found online at americanwhitewater.org.
Be safe, take care of the rivers, and see you on the water.