03/16/2015 at 7:57 pm #1201
I enjoy reading other peoples trip reports or in most cases watching their recent runs on Youtube. So when I run a new river I like to share that experience with people as well. The first thing I have to say is, how come MWA boaters don’t travel to Alabama to paddle more often? I am sure the veterans in the group have been there, but our trip was so amazing, I am asking how come people don’t go every year, it was that good. We had an epic 3 days WW trip to Alabama and this lengthy trip report is my attempt to emphatically encourage you to make a trip down there this spring season. It really is that good. Granted we had perfect water levels for our trip and that is not always possible, but read this, it is a closer to drive to Alabama whitewater than it is to go to the Ocoee. That’s right. It could be very well be the closest WW to Missouri and yet no one goes there. Here is another eye opener for you. Town creek is now my all time favorite class III run, hands down. It was amazing as I will soon describe. I will definitely go back next year, and better yet there are still better more challenging river for us to paddle next year. All the more reason to return. I would have posted pictures with this report but the old syntax no longer works on the new website 🙁
So why Alabama in the first place? I had read a lot about The Little River Canyon just south of Fort Payne AL and want to go paddle that river alone even if my first run was just the class III Chairlift Section. That’s how it started. Once we decided on that I tried to build a 3 day trip around the LRC. Turns out it was pretty easy cause Bama whitewater is abundant in the spring. I added Town creek as a 6 mile class III run and then added Short creek just because I wanted to run the 18 foot Short Creek falls. Done. The trip was set for March 12-14. Then I was just hoping for good water levels and mother nature did not disappoint.
This was officially the 4th annual “Will-Lee-B” trip that consist of my friends Lee Harmon from KC and Brandon Grimel from Pacific. Brandon invited his Uncle Mike from Arkansas and He added his Uncle Dave from Arkansas as well. They are Richland Creek veterans and were a great addition to the group.
For Short creek we stayed in Albertville AL. The putin was only 2 miles from our hotel and the shuttle was very easy. We checked the gauge on hwy 75 and it was between 1 ft and 14”. 9” is considered low and 2 ft consider medium flows. 1 foot was perfect for our first run. As we would soon find out 1 foot or greater was a lot of water over the falls. We wanted to paddle Lower short only but there is no valid parking for that putin so we put on Upper Short. It was a 2-3 mile run with a couple of class III’s and a bit of flat water. It was a good warm-up for the Lower. Since all three rivers were new to us we established run order and signals for safely running each rapid. I virtually ran first on all rapids for the trip taking very conservative lines and sometimes eddy hopping downs before signaling back to the group all clear and where to run. When we reached Hustleville road signaling the beginning of Lower Short run we were all excited because 18 ft Short creek Falls was just 200 yds downstream.
We all got out to scout and raised eyebrows were abound. It’s a big drop. The bulk of the water runs river left. As we looked at the landing there was a huge foam pile and nasty boil line. We were all concerned initially about the boil line.
Uncle Mike and I were going to run first while the other three set up safety and photo ops. We chose to run off the flake in the center of the falls that had a cleaner landing (so we thought). We eyed up a tree to dial in our line from above and headed for our boats. My line was perfect. The tree I was driving for took me right off the flake. Just so you know my previous experience running Baby Falls on the Tellico was mediocre. My boof stoke was lame and I penciled in several times nearly ripping my helmet off my head during entry. So for this run I wanted a better boof stroke. When I reached the lip I reached over with my paddle and dug deep and boofed hard. It was like I paddled horizontally into thin air and then dropped vertically like Wile-E-Coyote. I was all smiles going down until I hit the concrete water below. I am sure a lot of up and coming boaters make this mistake. You don’t want to land flat from a big water fall run. Upon impact my gopro and helmet nearly hit my spray skirt and the stinger I got up my spine was really a shock. It could very well be my best boof ever and at the worst possible time. I was visibly shaken.
As I paddled over to Lee he was expecting glee and euphoria but could tell something was wrong by the dazed look on my face. It took me several minutes to regain my composure. This was the first of two simple mistakes that would prove very costly on this trip. The first one being that my spine hurt for 3 days and is still sore.
Uncle Mike was second and he started to drag before launch and to his luck he missed his boof stroke. He landed safely but was disappointed in the run. We both got out and discussed our runs as a group. Traditionally the Left line is run and after my hard landing we all agreed the soft foam pile was much preferred over the concrete glass in the center of the river. The next three ran the left line and the landing was soft but the aerated water proved very difficult to role up in. All three flip and we had one swimmer. We all walked back up for a second run and mine down the Left side was a perfect for me. The landing so soft and entry angle perfect that it seemed like I barely got my spray skirt wet. Others second runs were equally good. Before heading down stream there is one more golden gem about these falls. Turns out the rock shelf juts out above the water 15 or 20 feet. On river right there is an opening in the falls the size of ordinary door. If you paddle through this opening you enter one of the coolest hidden rooms I have ever seen. There is a curtain of falling water 50 yards long leaving a room that is 15 ft high and 20 feet deep under the falls. It was loud as thunder. On river left a wall of water over a foot thick was falling from above us. You could just image the beat down that would ensue if someone tried to paddle through this falling curtain of liquid lead. Everyone had a chance to experience this phenomena before we headed downstream . The falls and the room were one of the highlights of our whole trip for sure.
As we headed downstream the pace picked up significantly. The gradient was 140 ft per mile for the first 1.5 miles after the falls. It is now the steepest creek I have paddled and it didn’t disappoint. The rapids came fast and furious. I led down each rapid and signaled back. It went like clockwork. At the first hard class 4 we had a swim. While the group was recovering I recognized the horizon line downstream. It was 10’ Grotto Falls. 50 % of the water goes left and 30% goes right. The remaining 20% goes over the center ledge creating a clean boof to the calm pool below. I paddled down and got out of my boat to scout. It was easy and clean. As the group came down I encouraged them to stay in their boats and just boof off the ledge only 3 feet from where I was standing. They all did and smiled back at me with huge grins from below.
We headed down stream and things got more challenging. The level was perfect. Any lower and there would have been lots of scraping. Any higher and it would have been pushy. Down one class III drop as I went down, I noticed two 10” logs sticking 10 to 12’ feet out in the flow on river left. I paddled hard to avoid them and then tried to signal back up stream to go center of the river or right but the flow wanted to push you left. There were some that narrowly missed and then Lee flipped in the hole at the top. This was serious. As he was quickly coming down stream the shallow stream made it hard to roll up. He was washed right into the strainer and was pinned upside down. The flow was strong and held him and his boat there. It was several long seconds as we were scrambling to get to shore for rescue when he came out. He looked like a St. Bernard that had just come in through the cat door and was visible shaken. It was a close call. It took us 35 minutes, all 5 of us, a Z-drag, and 3” limb used as a prybar to get his boat loose.
Eventually we headed done stream and came to a rapid called divided highway. There was no clear line on this one. I was really uncertain and debating a scout. I started eddy hopping down the right hand side. There others could tell I was perplexed and they got out to scout. They watched form above as I picked my way down. I waited in a 2 boat eddy in a moving pool below. This was only 10 minutes after getting back in our boats previously. One by one they came through. When Brandon came through he looked at me but was unprepared to catch the other half of my eddy. He paddled past me and tried to catch the rock downstream. There was nothing to grab and as the water pressed against his boat he flipped and pandemonium ensued. I peeled out to chase him and his boat. 50 yards downstream he got to shore and Uncle Mike and I chased his boat. It stopped perched on a rock the size of a 55 gallon drum in the center of the river pinned cockpit down and a healthy flow of water over the top. This was the confluence of Short creek and Scarham Creek. Uncle Mike and I got out to Ponder how the free the boat. As we stood on the rocks we looked up river at the last dropped on Scarham creek and both smiled. It looked like a tough class 5 rapid. We were both having a blast on this run. We both took turns with a roped tied to our safety jackets trying to swim in to the eddy below the boat and pull it loose. The flow was fast and it is surprisingly hard to swim in aerated water as well. Lee stop upstream to attempt to free the boat from above. Lee goes into full Dolphin mode when he has a chance to retrieve other peoples gear from the river. With a safety rope tied to his jacket he swam out into the flow and tried to grab the boat form above. It’s funny how hard boats are to grab when the cockpit is facing down. I laughed as he failed and floated downstream. We freed the boat after 10 minutes and headed down stream. We hadn’t seen another boat all day, not even on the roads although it was Thursday. We couldn’t believe we were the only one paddling this gem.
When we got to the lake we quickly realized why we were the only ones. The lake paddle was the price of admission for this run. It was over two miles, much like lake Tugaloo for Section 4 of the Chattooga. Short creek is maybe a 4 mile run with a 2 mile lake paddle. The paddle sucked but for a mid-western paddler it was definitely worth it.
Friday was going to be Town Creek. The level was between 700 and 800 cfs on AW and again was a perfect level for our virgin run. We put in at High Falls State park which supposedly doesn’t open until 10 am every morning. We showed up at the gate at 9:50 a.m. and it was open. We drove to the parking lot and there wasn’t a soul in sight. In fact we never saw anyone at the putin, on the river, or the take-out all day. It was kind of eerie. The putin for Town creek could be one of the best ever.
You have to lower your boats down a 30 foot cliff and then shimmy down it yourself.
Here is Lee above lowering his boats down to Uncle Mike. The launch was below High Falls. It’s a 35-40 foot waterfall that is probably 100 yds long. The water lever filled the entire expanse. It was quite a start to paddle up to it and feel the mist in your face. It was really something to see.
We headed down river knowing that Town creek was easier than Short creek but still not knowing what to expect. It turns out to be a classic in more ways than one. I will proudly tell you this is now my all time favorite class III run. There are over 18+ class III rapids stacked like domino’s throughout this entire run with an armful of class II’s thrown in between. It was all smiles with no pucker. We loved every inch of this run. I would probably take any MWA paddler I know down this run at 700 cfs and they would be begging to run it again on the next day it was that good, well except for the take-out. More on that to come. So the run was awesome. It wasn’t easy it was solid class 3. It was challenging and fun. Very little or no scraping at this lever. Not a hole in sight that you couldn’t boof or bust through. Late in the run you come to the only class 5 on the run called Blockage. It is definitely a portage. We got out and took a look and just went back and grabbed out boats and started walking. Impressive rapid with some piton rocks in the big drop that makes it ugly. Further downstream things started to flatten out and then we got to Lake Guntersville again. This time the lake paddle was over a mile. It was a piece of cake compared to Short Creek paddle out. The problem was you can’t see your car from the lake, or the lake from your car. I had to really research this takeout and supposedly there are some access issue with private land. We paddled until we saw the old dilapidated shack on the right bank. I was looking for signs of other boaters taking out in the past and didn’t see any. Although we were supposed to paddle past the shack we took out at the shack to get our bearings for the hike out. There was no visible trail and I was a little concerned. Our car was 600 ft in elevation above us and probably a mile away in the SE general direction. Without a guide it was a challenge. Uncle Mike and I started heading further down the lake bank hoping to find a trail and didn’t see any. After 150 yards we turn and started to walk inland. About 100 yds in we ran into a clearly used 4 wheeler trail. We followed it back to the shack. It was only 50 yds up from the lake but perfectly hidden from below. We drug our boats up to the trail and started our slog out. Some of us had brought a cam strap along and hooked it around our front boat handle and looped it around our waist like a draft horse and just started walking. It wasn’t too bad. Lee put his boat on his shoulder and carried all the way out. About 300 yds up the trail it made a hard left and went straight up a hill in the other direction. I opted to bushwack straight ahead up the ravine which didn’t work out so well. 100 yds later and severely overheated we reached the 4 wheeler trail again. Turns out we should have just stayed on the trail. After the short climb it made a hard right and continued up the ravine. It was long hike out and probably again why we didn’t wee anyone on this river for a Friday. The hike out for Town creek is the price of admission, but again for mid-western boaters who routinely drive 10 to 14 hours east or west for whitewater, the 7 our drive and 1 hour hike seem like the best deal around. I can’t wait to go back for this one again.
After town we got in our vehicles and drove an hour east to Fort Payne AL for the main focus of our trip, the Little River Canyon. This National Preserve is run by the National Park Service and is without a doubt the most impressive canyon I have seen east of the Mississippi. It was remarkable. Friday evening we drove to the Little River falls on hwy 35. We parked and hiked down to look at the 35 ft falls. It was a cool sight.
The water level was up over 700 cfs and it was crystal clear unlike the previous two runs. Alabama whitewater page rates their river by the number of chickens. 3 being bad water quality and 1 being good. Short creek was a 2-3 chicken river, lots of trash and debris on the banks and the water was murky. Town creek was better but still a 2 chicken river. Little River doesn’t even register on the chicken scale it was that clean, dark green, and clear. We were physced for our run on Saturday.
We camped at Desoto state part at a Primitive cabin. That story alone would require another 5 pages to tell. But Desoto is a good place to stay whatever you decide to do. Relative humidity was 97% when we left for the river at 10 a.m. Saturday. An entire cloud had enveloped Lookout Mtn. Visibility was poor. We drove to the takeout at the Little River Mouth park off hwy 273 so we knew what to look for at the takeout. The shuttle was easy on the hwy. For the return to the putin, we took the park service canyon rim road. It is a slow two lane drive that would have been very scenic if not for the fog and clouds. Leaving the takeout we turned right and headed up the mtn. Low and behold did we know it would be straight up. I consider myself a daring person, but driving up this road, I was fearing for my safety and those in the vehicle. Even though the road was paved, none of us thought we were going to make it because it was so steep. People had unbuckled their seat belts and had the hands on the door handle prepared to jump out if the engine stalled or a u-joint failed. It was that bad. When we reached the top I almost felt obligated to feed the suburban some carrots, because the horses had earned it. The drive was slow and because of the clouds disappointing. We soon came to Johnnies creek. This is Alabama’s favorite creek run. If you want to paddle a vertical mile in a day this is the creek to do it on. Our group wasn’t up for such a challenge this day and drove on to the putin. As we got closer to the putin we came to Hawks’ Glide overlook as the clouds started to clear. This was our first clear view of the canyon and river below. We were just beginning to grasp the magnitude of the amazing day of whitewater and beauty that lie ahead.
How can I best describe it? The canyon is 12 miles long and at time 600 feet deep. It is a combination of Chattooga Section III beauty crossed with Arkansas’s Buffalo river Cliffs, packed into Clear Creek, TN canyon. All in all it is an amazing place to see even if I wasn’t paddling.
There are 3 distinct sections of LRC. The first starts below the falls and is class V section called the Suicide section. We are not quite up to that level and certainly wouldn’t run this section without a guide. The last section down to the mouth is called the Chairlift section and is all class 3 with one solid class 4 thrown in. Originally years ago this was all that was paddled. When people got braver that started only 2 miles upriver from the chairlift section. This was called the Upper two even though it is in the middle of the run. Adventurers never ran the upper and hence gave it the appropriate name the Suicide Section.
For our trip I chose to put in on the Upper Two Section. There are 3 class 4 rapids, one class 5 and a truck load of class III’s. I am very conservation as a guide and was going to scout every hard rapid and walk accordingly. The hike in at the Upper two is only a tenth of mile and straight down. It was treacherous carrying a boat but we all made it. At river level we were getting stoked for the paddle ahead. As we headed down river there was a long warm-up with easy rapids. Unexpectedly we came to an ominous rapid. As the group waited above I paddled into the last eddy for a look. Although I had done a ton of research, this didn’t look familiar. We all decide to get out and scout. It turns out it was Roadblock. A class 4 drop with a nasty hole that is classic keeper. If you miss your boof you’re destined for a long ride. Early in our trip we were feeling cautious and decided to walk. Immediately down stream was the flagship rapid for the Upper Two called Humpty Dumpty. The level as 700 cfs or above and the rapid was pumping. As we got out to scout, we knew the lines from watching Youtube, but the level was high and it was very meaty. There is an Alabama classic 5 ft boof in the middle and then you must scramble hard to catch a must make eddy on river right. The last drop is into a hole and you just struggle to stay upright. Catching the eddy is what had me spooked at this level so we decided to walk. Uncle Mike, the young lion in the group, was clearly disappointed as he wanted to run this rapid, but quickly agreed to walk without conflict. The portage was brutal. It took some years of wear and skin off my boat for sure. By time we got to the bottom a group of local boaters was coming through. We got to watch their line. Of course they made it look easy but I still didn’t question the walk. They were not friendly at all. All but one refused to look up at us which was disappointing from a fellow paddler. We put in below humpty and continued downstream to the joy of the canyon and spectacular whitewater. It was something to see rapid after rapid. The next class 4 rapid was DeepThroat. We were well into the middle of it before I realized it. It wasn’t that hard but had a long steep gradient that really added to the fun factor. After that the Upper Two was over and we started down the Chairlift section. It was fun and exciting only being a tad easier. It was turning out to be an awesome day.
Halfway down the Chairlift section we were looking for the next and last class 4 rapid called Bottleneck. It was nowhere in sight. As the river narrowed I caught an eddy on river left. Between a large boulder upstream and a large boulder just downstream. I was closest one only 5 ft from the boulder downstream which block my view downriver. I could clearly see a car sized rock in the center of the river with 2/3 of the flow going right and a 1/3 of the flow going left. There was maybe 20 ft channel right of the rock and 15 ft channel left of the center rock to the rock I was next to on the left bank. The flow wasn’t even fast, it was just steady. Not even a class 2 rapid. As I prepared to peel out I guess I had already made up my mind that I was going left of the center rock. After a shallow peel out I turned around the rock on the left bank. Within a few feet I was committed. Turns out the rock in the middle extends over to the rock on the left bank and the channel narrowed to maybe 3 feet wide and worst of all it had a rock in the middle. It was a sieve. I yelled out the obligatory F-bomb and the paddlers in the eddy stood at attention. I back paddled frantically to try and get to river center. I was making ground when the current pushed me against the rock in the center. I leaned hard against. The problem was the majority of the rock face was facing left. If I couldn’t hold my position I would be pushed left. As I start to slide I knew this was serious. I reached far back over my shoulder to grab some water going right and at that point I flipped cockpit upstream paddle overhead and my torso pinned against my back deck. I wasn’t the least bit concerned about being pinned as I was still concerned about my final destination going left into the sieve. I let go of my paddle and tried to bend forward and reach my grab loop. The force of the water on my torso had me pinned against my back deck. Things were getting more serious. Two of the paddler headed for shore and scrambled up on the river left rock with throw ropes. Uncle Mike debating how to get to me in his boat by staying in the water. I was straight like a board in my boat with my butt far out of my seat. I could feel my spray skirt tugging at my hips as it was still snapped around my boat. Eventually it imploded. I kept inching rearward over my back deck. As I did the boat turned cockpit down and then cockpit against the rock and I came out of my boat on the right side of the rock deep in the water. This alone would have been a good lesson if only there was a pool downstream. To add insult to injury the class 4 Bottleneck rapid we had been looking for was hidden only 30 yds downstream. As deep as I was I stayed under for maybe 20 yds before I came up for a single breath before 10 yds later was swept over a 3 ft drop and down a violent slide into a nasty hole at the bottom of the rapid. I had no idea where I was and was only hoping I wouldn’t get recirculated. I went deep and flushed out maybe 30 yds further downstream moving fast away from the rapid. Keep in mind my boat is still pinned against the center rock and as far as my friends know I am still in my boat. They never saw me exit. There are large house size boulder on both river banks I keep floating down river until I get past the last one and swim to shore. Behind the large boulder I know my friends are going to be looking for me so I try and scramble back up stream to see them. By this time Uncle Mike had knocked my boat free and it floated downstream and came to rest on a rock just above the last drop of Bottleneck. Although the boat looked light floating down river they still weren’t sure If I was still in my boat or not. I scrambled up on one of the house sized rocks to find them. I was so far down river they didn’t see me. I could see Uncle Mike approaching my boat and Lee and Uncle Dave scrambling down the shore with their ropes in hand. I had to scream to get their attention. Uncle Mike looked downstream to find me and tapped his head. I tapped back and saw him smile. I think they were relieved I was ok. My immediate next reaction was monetary. Where was my 1 year old Werner paddle? I scanned the pool below. It was nowhere. I yelled up stream to find my paddle. All I got was shrugs in return. As the gravity of the situation started to settle in I was asking myself how I let this happen. I know whitewater has its risks but this one clearly could have been avoided. I should have paddled up in the eddy before peeling out so I could clearly see downstream and have time to make a decision to go right or left of the center rock. It was really stupid to peel out and blindly turn down river without knowing. Seconds later I hear them yell down to me that they found my paddle only 10 ft away pinned in another sieve. It should be retrievable as long as it is not broken. To add insult to injury again, the 4 local boaters who passed us at humpty Dumpty came paddling through after they stopped for lunch. They made the rapid look easy. There I was standing high on a rock dripping wet with no boat and no paddle. I got another sneer from them as I got the vibe that I should be here. Far from the case. We had had a great day, but I just made a stupid mistake.
They retrieved my boat and my paddle and all was well. I stayed below the rapid as they paddled through and tried their luck on Bottleneck. It was a tough rapid with a crux move in the middle. The first two paddlers flipped in the middle. One rolled up at the bottom and one didn’t. Uncle mike the 24 year old young buck dropped in the maw was spun around instantly but didn’t flip and paddled out.
From that point on things mellowed out. Lot of class 2 and 3 wave trains all the way to the finish. Despite the incident I still had my confidence and satisfied with the whole day. LRC is an amazing river with lots of challenges. Class 3 Chairlift. Class 4-5 Upper Two and the crazy hard Class 5 Suicide section. It has it all for whatever you are looking for. Drawing this trip report to a close it was and epic 3 day weekend. Alabama whitewater is the real deal. It is close to home and it has quality white water. There is another run South Sauty Creek that is a solid class 4 creek run that would be well worth the trip. One could arrange a Short Creek, Town, Creek, and South Sauty creek Weekend. That would be awesome, or just make a trip to LRC and run it twice would be well worth it. Next time you are heading to the Ocoee, check AW Alabama page and see if anything is running. You will not be disappointed.
Any way you look at it, make the effort to get to Alabama for some whitewater. It’s the real deal.
03/17/2015 at 9:27 am #1224DaggerDanParticipant
- Total Posts: 413
Wow good read! You have an awesome way of explaining it all. You planning on uploading any video of the trip?
03/17/2015 at 10:53 am #1225RORY KINGParticipant
- Total Posts: 18
Wow! Thanks for the read, Will. Sounds like quite an odyssey! I’m looking forward to hearing some of those rescues stories in person. And yeah, the Boof to spinal compression is a great move that you’ll only (intentionally) try once. Glad to hear you all made it back safely!
03/17/2015 at 12:15 pm #1227JohnKuthe…Participant
- Total Posts: 288
Holy very long story posts, Batman!! 😉
Great story Will, thanks for sharing it. Looks like some sticky situations there!! Ouch!! Lots of great whitewater too, I’m sure. Glad everyone is still breathing, that’s very important!!
03/17/2015 at 5:49 pm #1231
Yes I have almost 90 video clips I need to edit. It might take some time but it should be good when complete.
03/19/2015 at 8:52 am #1245Levi RhodesParticipant
- Total Posts: 125
Great photos and write up! Thanks for all the Alabama beta. Sounds like a cool place.
03/23/2015 at 11:01 pm #1284CJW4DParticipant
- Total Posts: 313
Too funny! I too just got back from a good trip with some Bama paddling mixed in!..
Was able to catch the canyon at nice flows for my first time; Glad you got to experience it as well! Can’t wait to get back when the falls are pumping; the level was sitting right around 650 cfs, and from what I understand, needs to be around 850 before it becomes a huckfest!
03/24/2015 at 7:58 pm #1297
We talked to a few locals about LRC falls. They recommended 1000 cfs as a minimum. Not sure I like the landing in the middle. I’m sure you could pull it off. Did you run the Suicide Section?? Did you get any video. Would love to see it.
- This reply was modified 8 years, 11 months ago by WillPaddle.
03/27/2015 at 3:18 pm #1348Brendan LarsonParticipant
- Total Posts: 28
Went down there years ago with Curtis and we had a blast running AL whitewater. Ran LRC too and had great runs. Would love to get back down there so give me a heads up when you all head that way next year, see if it coincides with spring break. So many great creek runs down there. Gotta hit up Johnnies creek which runs into LRC if it is up, we did 3 laps on this mileish plus run. Love the pics tied in with the report, good times, minus the near drownings and all
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