We expected extreme whitewater. We knew we were all skilled paddlers, climbers, and hikers and could handle ourselves in the wilderness. We were trained in river rescue. We just had no idea our party of four kayakers would get stuck in a confrontation with the Grim Reaper deep in a remote Appalachian gorge as the Sun slid down behind the tallest trees.
In the pages of North Carolina Canoeing, Bob Sehlinger and Don Otey write of the notoriously wild Chattooga River, “If Section IV bores you, try Overflow Creek.” They declared it was for “boaters with…a little insanity.”
Such crazy madness was the predicament the four of us found ourselves in one sunny, warm afternoon: were we really all that bored with Section IV? Heck, after all, the Chattooga was at a romping 2.8 feet on the gauge. In the end we figured we were indeed bored with Section IV and probably not quite all there in the head, either. Though we were much more of a humble and calm team. We were just more on the spiritually cool side of gonzo.
Truth be told, we mainly wanted relief from rowdy crowds congregating along Section III that day for the recent International Peace Rally hosted by the Nantahala Outdoor Center. As much as we enjoyed partying with the Soviets and Costa Ricans, when it came down to the water, we were seekers of solitude. So off into the wilderness of North Georgia’s Chattahoochee National Forest we went.
Though one zigzags back and forth along the Georgia-South Carolina border to get there, Overflow Creek lies entirely in Rabun County, Georgia. It flows through the mountains into the West Fork of the Chattooga River, which in turn runs into Section I, a mythical hair run which is illegal to boat, or was back then. Lower Overflow is supposed to be a beautiful, mellow run for beginner paddlers, but the Upper section drops 158 feet per mile for four miles through narrow, boulder-choked gorges with steep, lovely walls. Rhododendrons thicket the banks like iron octopi.
It took almost an hour and a half to drive there from the NOC Chattooga Outpost and set up shuttle. We rumbled up Three Forks (FSR-86B), a rough dirt road, and finally, we saw it. Overflow gushed from a large culvert beneath a bend in the road to plunge over an ugly waterfall. The creek dropped about 15 feet onto an enormous boulder jutting from dense jungle on the left.
“Is that it?” the three of us who had never seen Overflow Creek before asked. “Wow! Do people run that? Gosh, I’ve heard all kinds of horror stories about Overflow, but, man, does the whole goddamn creek look like that?”
“Naw,” growled Jeff. “Most folks put in below that drop, but the rest of it’s pretty steep, too.” He was the only one who had run Overflow before and only once at that.
I was surprised how calm I was unloading my boat and dressing for the trip. I remember how terrified I’d been on my first steep creek descents last spring and wondered how long I could keep fear at bay this time. It won’t be long, I chuckled. Hell, I like a good adrenalin buzz anyway. And this time, unlike my earlier adventure down Slickrock Creek, I carried my camera. It was my intention to take lots of pictures. I imagined myself bobbing peacefully in an eddy shooting glorious waterfall dramas. Little did I know that by the end of the trip I was ready to throw that damn camera away.
We snaked down a steep but short trail and slid off into a large eddy. It was Wednesday, March 21, 1990. The sun felt warm, but the water was icy. I looked about for water moccasins, half expecting those poisonous snakes to drop out of the jungle and wrap around my neck. It was too early in the year, however, for venomous reptiles.
The water level appeared low, but there was still plenty to paddle. Minimum water levels for running Overflow in kayaks are 2.5 feet on the Chattooga River gauge, with 3.0 a maximum for open boaters. It was 2.8 today. Being my first time down Overflow, I did not know whether to sigh with relief that the water was not pushy or groan with misery at all the bare rocks to broach on. It was 2:45 PM. Kinda late.
Jeff Nelson and I were the only ones from NOC. Jeff had run the creek once before and was the most experienced steepcreekers in the party. Peter Heller, formerly of NOC and now a writer for Outside Magazine based in Boulder, Colorado, and Landis Arnold, a Prijon Kayak representative, also from Boulder, constituted the rest of our group. We all paddled kayaks: Jeff loved his Jeti, Landis loved his T-Canyon even more, and Peter switched seats just so he could paddle his Invader. I felt just fine in my AQ.
Overflow is a classic Appalachian hair run. So many stories have been told about running it by so few people that I wanted to find out for myself. I’ve been pushing my limits and thought myself up to the challenge. I knew when I sat at river’s edge at the put-in that Overflow would probably be the hardest thing I’ve ever paddled, even harder than the Cascades of the Upper Nantahala, or so I’ve heard. I knew people were occasionally killed or injured attempting such descents. John Dolbeare, a friend of ours at NOC, died last year in a boulder sieve on the Lower Meadow River in West Virginia. His passing was emotionally wrenching for many of us at NOC and humbled us.
Feeling nervous, I had to question my motives. Even though steepcreekin’ is fun, it definitely is not playing. I enjoy the physical and mental challenge of boating on the edge for sustained periods of time, feeling myself become one with the river, one with nature. I also wasn’t a natural athlete, but someone who worked and trained hard to stay fit and healthy enough to paddle such whitewater.
There is some strange, indefinable spiritual joy in reverting back to sheer animal instinct, as if shedding layers of civilized thought brings one closer to Deity. Perhaps the degeneration back into animal is superior to the phony and dangerous fragility of man separating himself from nature. I mumbled my prayers to the River Gods and turned downstream toward the first horizon.
Before we knew it, we were bombing down steep, technical Class 3 rapids. Nature upped the ante as we caromed down nasty, twisting Class 4 falls ferrying from one eddy to the next. The sun was out, the sky a gorgeous, deep blue ribbon above giant slabs of stone. We blasted down the creek, laughing and joking among ourselves yet with a strong reverence for what we were paddling.
The river went around a bend and then dropped into a dark, quarter-mile long Class 5 chasm. I pivoted around rocks and hammered down one rolling drop after another between immense rock walls rising up into the overhanging gloom. Maybe this was Twilight because it was so dark and gloomy, but we weren’t familiar with the names of all the rapids like Hemlock Falls and Pee Wee or First Falls.
Feeling like I’d been bouncing upon a roller coaster, I duffecked into an eddy with the others and whooped. I felt good. In control. Though while in the midst of the run I was thinking, “Damn, I can’t take no pictures in this kinda shit!”
The river scraped through a Class 3 and then vanished to the left. Uh-oh. We eddied out. Seven-Car Pile-Up we think, though we weren’t sure. We clambered atop boulders to where we could scout.
“Things start to get hard now,” Jeff warned.
Overflow dropped about 20 feet off broken ledges into a boiling horseshoe-shaped hydraulic edged by an undercut bank. Our first runnable Class 6, we joked. There was an obvious high water route sliding off the far right, but it was too low and rocky today. We walked. Found out later this rapids is named Blind Falls and that we had already kayaked Seven-Car Pile-Up.
We bombed down the river a little bit more and came to another Class 5-6 drop, a jagged double drop through three bad holes onto a barely submerged rockpile. Even the sneak route looked wicked. We looked long and hard. Maybe this was Gravity, or was it Swiss Cheese? We weren’t certain. Besides, everchanging water levels and the power of floods, droughts, and landslides made naming rapids somewhat irrelevant. One can’t tame the wilderness with names. We were where we were in the whitewater of the moment, and later discovered the drop was indeed called Gravity, notorious for the dangerous pothole at bottom.
We were eager to run it, however, but it just did not look possible. My ego wanted to run the whole river so I could feel fully justified saying I ran Overflow Creek, but the rest of me had more sense. As we scouted, a beautiful rainbow formed in the midst tossed up by the falls. A sign for good luck? We threw a small log in. It dropped gracefully over the falls, then pinned vertically at the bottom. The log jerked and typewritered around in a circle while still erect, then broke into pieces. We walked again.
Finally after more Class 3-4 rapids, we came to the lip of another waterfall. We didn’t mind getting out of our boats to scout, but we were getting tired of walking. We stood atop boulders and stared downstream. The river plunged about 30 feet down a big, V-shaped funnel pocked with exploding humps of water into a deep, clean pool. Class 5. We ran it. I didn’t even flip.
Peter, however, nearly blew out his shoulder as he airbraced through one of those exploding humps of water. Those humps reminded me of moguls on a steep ski slope. Peter’s injury didn’t bother him then, but later the next day he claimed his shoulder was so sore it tortured him to pull on his shirt.
Landis was gonzo crazy. He couldn’t believe he ran that waterfall. Yeah! Whoopin’ and grinnin’! Jeff just sat in his Jeti all cool and mellow and smiled. Well, I just couldn’t sit still. I had to get in some whoopin’ and grinnin’, too. Our shouts echoed above the crashing roar of the falls.
We heard this particular drop was called “Singless,” as in you lose your voice going over the falls. Later on, however, we discovered it was really named Singley’s Falls in honor of the first person to run it. Alan Singley was a tall C-1 paddler notorious for running extreme whitewater solo. He ran this drop a number of times solo back in the mid-to-late 1970s. I also found out the total drop was closer to 37 feet from the entrance with the river falling at a 60-degree angle. Shucks, with all due respect to Alan Singley’s awesome achievements, I sort of liked the first explanation for the name of the rapids better.
We then entered the rapids of what we thought at the time was probably Swiss Cheese, a long series of Class 4-5s pitching us through many offset drops and tight chutes. Found out later when better guidebooks came out this was Singley’s Slot followed immediately by Twilight. At the level we kayaked they had merged into one long ribbon of wickedness. The canyon walls narrowed in on top of us as I paddled over the first drop.
Elated at running the big falls behind us, I made a mistake. Not having enough speed, I dropped off a weird slide that threw me into a pinning rock. I should have gone right, but got thrown left into a chute. My boat wedged and stopped. The bank was undercut just enough so that my boat suddenly rolled upside down. I got slammed on rocks in shallow water as I tucked my face toward the upside-down deck of my AQ. I fiercely tried to roll.
Every time I set up the paddle to roll my kayak back up my paddle got ripped out of one hand or the other. Goddamn it, I’m gonna roll! So I hung in there, still upside down under water and holding my breath. I bashed over more drops and started running out of air. What was it whitewater safety guru Charlie Walbridge recently wrote describing boaters hanging upside down so long they pinned and died? I bailed out fast! Saw horizon lines ahead. More steep drops! I stroked for shore like a madman. Didn’t even attempt to hold on to my gear and float feet first downstream. I powered up the bank and was scrambling back upstream with a swollen elbow and big bruise on my ass.
The others had saved my boat. Somewhat embarrassed, I hooked up my breakdown paddle that was stashed inside the rear of my kayak. Then I quickly scooted back inside the cockpit and joined my friends in an eddy. Directly below was the crux of the rapids. All the water funneled through a nasty slot split by a wedge-shaped rock covered by an inch or two of water. The slot-funnel was also a 5-foot falls.
“Someone once pinned in there and broke his boat,” Jeff told us matter-of-factly. “So run right over the top of the rock and jump it.”
All four of us obeyed and had clean lines. I found my paddle floating in an eddy, and then Peter realized his ankles were throbbing. Apparently he’d bruised them when he pitoned in one of the upper drops of this little gorge.
Below us lurked the Marginal Monster, to us a Class 6 nightmare. Overflow Creek blasted over two big drops, each one into a horrible hole. Then the water poured over a third drop with most of it sluicing down a lethally undercut chute that could barely be sneaked. A few more drops followed before the creek dumped into a large eddy. Most people walk it, though it has been run successfully. Jeff had tried kayaking it during his first trip down Overflow, and got stuck in the top hole. He swam. It was a horrendous swim, but he emerged unscathed. That was enough. He was walking the Monster today, and we followed.
Before we could portage the Monster, however, we first had to run the Class 4 entrance rapids into an eddy on river left. Called Igor, it consisted of eddy hopping through a complex maze with an enormous, house-sized boulder at the end of the entrance rapids. The giant rock sat smack in the middle of the current. As the river shoved incessantly into Igor, the rock was badly undercut and connected to shore by a jumble of boulder sieves on river right.
Jeff, who was in the lead, somehow found himself shoved toward the undercut rock. I saw him struggling to backpaddle before he disappeared from view. I yelled to Peter. We eddied out, twisted up out of our kayaks, and grabbed rescue gear.
Peter and I climbed up a face of mossy rock and scrambled up a steep bank clustered with rhododendrons. I fell from rotten wood and almost tumbled back into the river as Peter lunged ahead. I tried to race to catch up, but found myself crawling on hands and knees. Stumbling and cursing, I popped back down into the water to behold a frightening sight.
Still in his kayak, Jeff was sucked into Igor’s cave-like undercut boulder sieve up to the cockpit. Landis and Peter were both leaning over the rockpile from above and gripped Jeff by the shoulders of his lifejacket. Jeff had let go of his paddle and was bracing himself against the dark, narrow tunnel with his head bent beneath the rock. Landis and Peter looked exhausted and scared as Jeff wobbled there wisecracking jokes on the edge of Death. Shadows filled the gorge and the early spring water felt even icier.
The scene presented an incredible view. If Landis had not reached him in time, Jeff most certainly would have been pulled underwater into the undercut sieve and jammed in without being able to wet-exit. Even if he had managed to swim through, it would have spat him directly into the Marginal Monster. I was ashamed to admit it, but my first instinct was to take a picture.
It would have been a fantastic picture! I imagined Landis and Peter’s gripping faces, Jeff’s contorted body, their colorful paddling clothes against raw rock, all plastered on the pages of magazines and newspapers. My Nikon was fastened to my PFD. For a nanosecond I wavered, but I didn’t have any time. A man’s life was at stake, and I was scared. Boulder sieves are one of the most terrifying horrors to encounter while paddling whitewater.
I inched into the water around a steep boulder to grab Jeff’s stern grabloop bobbing out of the water. The sieve started sucking me in and the water got too deep. I glued myself to the rock and reached out as far as I could reach.
“Hurry!” Landis hissed as Jeff mumbled funny stories.
Peter appeared about to lose his balance any minute. I couldn’t reach Jeff. Wishing for a rescue hook, I gripped a carabiner with a prussic attached and extended my arm. I could barely reach Jeff. After what seemed like hours as Landis and Peter hung on to Jeff with pure grit, I managed to biner into Jeff’s bobbing boat and pull him out. I gave him a hug while the son-of-a-bitch smiled.
Dolby’s ghost came back to haunt us from the Lower Meadow. Dolby, as those of us who worked with him at NOC called John Dolbeare, drowned on West Virginia’s Lower Meadow River about seven months earlier. A precision paddler, he put on with two other expert kayakers on extremely high water. Apparently Dolby got stuck and pummeled in a violent hole in Class 5 Brink of Disaster, came out of his boat, and was swept downstream into Class 5-6 Coming Home Sweet Jesus, peppered with enormous suckholes, monstrous undercut boulders, and underwater boulder sieves. There he disappeared into the Room of Doom. His body was recovered about two days later. Remembering all that kept us sober.
The authors of North Georgia Canoeing did warn us that, “at least one highly skilled boater nearly lost his life on the creek recently.” What goes on in the mind of rescuer and victim? It all seems a flashing blur of action, instinct, and rapid-fire thinking. Everything rolls into a numbing overdrive of gut-wrenching fear, yet we were ecstatic and self-congratulatory over the successful rescue.
My friends and I were elated, but we were really just lucky. Matters like what type of boat Jeff paddled came into play. His Noah Jeti was a plump, spacious spud boat. If he had been in a creek squirt boat as Whitney Shields was in when he was killed on the Lower Meadow ten days after Dolbeare, Jeff might have joined them. A radical low-volume boat like a Screamin’ Meanie could possibly have been sucked down deep underwater, but Jeff’s Jeti, being a big-volume spud, floated up through the sieve currents, enabling a speedy rescue. A paddlehook, a large metal hook which screwclamps down onto a paddle blade so one can further extend the hook, would have aided an even quicker rescue.
After the near-miss in Igor and a difficult portage around the Marginal Monster, we paddled on through more continuous Class 3-4+ rapids. This time Jeff used Landis’s breakdown, the second time such paddles were used today. It was getting late, and we were cold and exhausted. I hadn’t had anything to eat all day save for a few cookies for lunch, and the other three were tired from staying up late the night before chugging vodka.
When we arrived at the last Class 5, a steep, twisting minefield of rocks and holes called Pinball, one we all knew we could paddle, we elected to portage from sheer exhaustion. We normally would have run it, but by this time we were too tired to feel gonzo. Then Landis spied Jeff’s kayak paddle floating in an eddy halfway down Pinball and elected to run it. A burly guy, he had a clean line all the way down and recovered the paddle. We waited for him at the bottom, and then cast off together into the waning light. The Sun was out of view and the temperature was dropping. All four of us shivered from time to time and conversation gradually died out as we concentrated on getting down the river.
There were more continuous Class 3 rapids and a few challenging Class 4 drops, or so it seems as it was all a blur at dusk. We were water zombies. Numb and tired, we struggled to maintain attention. I caught myself paddling sloppily into an eddy near an undercut and berated myself. Tired and cold, I reminded myself this was no place to screw up. Overflow Creek is in an incredibly remote gorge, hours away from any hospital. At long last the river mellowed out, and there was the bridge signaling the take-out. It was 6:30pm in March.
Gonzo fever returned for one last dance as we yahooed our way up the last steep, rhododendron-covered bank to the van. We sobered down as thoughts turned back to the near-misses of the day. Of the four of us, only Landis emerged unharmed. I stared over into the darkening gorge, wondering why I paddled such stuff, wondering why I pushed myself so close to the edge. What was the point? It was beyond beauty. The beautiful nightmares of Overflow had seduced me with its awesome power, and I vowed to return. Maybe to take more pictures.
William Dudley Bass
Spring/Summer of 1990
Wesser, North Carolina
Revised and Republished
Monday 17 December 2012
NOTES & POSTSCRIPT: The original version of this article was first published as “Overflow! Overflow Creek: Snapshots of a classic Georgia class V descent reveal the attraction and peril of hairboating,” under “Dudley Bass,” my name of the time, in American Whitewater: Journal of the American Whitewater Affiliation, September/October 1990, Volume XXXV, Number. 5. It is reposted here at www.williamdudleybass.com with minor revisions and a few additions. The original can still be found in the online archives of the AWA at http://www.americanwhitewater.org/content/Journal/show-page/issue/5/year/1990/page/52/.
The photographs I took back in 1989 with a small, waterproof Nikon. All of my pics were slide transparencies, and they were never returned by the magazine editors. Apparently my photos were lost. The photos in the article are mine and are digitally recovered photocopies of magazine pages that survived my March 2010 house fire. Those pages were charred, wet, and discolored at time of salvage. They were then digitally cleaned up on my iMac.
It was an honor to spend time on the river with those particular paddlers, Peter Heller, Landis Arnold, and Jeff Nelson. They were skilled and accomplished kayakers with a rich appreciation for life, for challenge, and depth of character. Since then it seems the whitewater classification system has downgraded the ratings from where they were in the 1980s and 1990s. Just remember human numbers do not alter the difficulty and hazards of running such rapids. Last but not least my apologies to Landis that his name was misspelled throughout much of my original AWA article.
The article created quite a stir among a small, vocal number of whitewater paddlers who chastised us for our tactic of throwing section of tree branch or small tree trunk into a confusing part of a rapids to see which direction it would float. I did use the unfortunate term “log,” which for all they knew was massive in size. Regardless, they had a point about throwing things in the river that may create hazards for future boaters.
Many other paddlers, however, told me tossing pieces of wood into chaotic currents to see “what happens” was a common technique, and that they did it, too. I was frequently reminded Nature moves far more wood into rivers than boaters ever did or would. The editors pointed out the point of the article was to describe an adventure and the soul searching that arose from such a challenging run.
The ruckus did give me pause, however, and I consider the implications of whatever I do as I’ve also learned to let go of opinions and judgments from others as well as myself. That proved to be more ongoing than my boating career and far more difficult than hairboating.
Copyright © 1990, 2012, 2016 by William Dudley Bass. All Rights Reserved until we Humans establish Wise Stewardship of and for our Earth and Solarian Commons. Thank you.