A Wild Kayak Adventure Down Slickrock Creek

Wanna hammer down a creek few have ever paddled? Flush through crooked, boulder-strewn chutes and delicately pick your route down Class 5 Wildcat Falls as you drop off the edge of the world into forever? Then throw away your guidebooks and come south prepared to hike in with your boat. You won’t forget this big, open secret as you rassle with the River Gods to turn it loose. This little bugger roars.

April 4,1989. We were deep in the lush, virgin forests of the Joyce Kilmer – Slickrock Wilderness putting onto a stream we knew very little about. None of us had hiked it, and we only knew a handful of other NOC boaters who had paddled it. Rain had been falling steadily, and we were looking for something different. Steepcreekin’ in Appalachia is Southeastern tradition, and part of the fun is seeking out and paddling remote and seldom run descents. As thunderstorms rolled over the mountains and feeling as if we were in a jungle, we knew we were in for dangerous adventures in a mysterious whitewater gorge.

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Overflow! Reflections on Kayaking Class 5 Overflow Creek

Jeff going "singless" running Singley's Falls.

Jeff going “singless” running Singley’s Falls.

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.

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It’s Time to Rethink Swimming

With more and more people becoming involved in whitewater, it’s time to rethink swimming. Many steepcreekers have been swimming differently for years, and their experiences can improve the swimming techniques for both those who take a once-a-year commercial raft trip and the average weekend paddler of Class II, III, and IV rivers.

During recent years there has been an increase in drownings and injuries among even experienced boaters as well as casual rafters, which could have been avoided, had they swum differently. Of course we all go out there thinking and hoping we’re not going to fall out of our rafts or come out of our boats. But let’s face it: sooner or later we will all swim, and swim again. Swimming is an integral part of whitewater, and just like combat rolls and eddy turns, it should be done properly and safely. It should even be practiced.

Swimming aggressively instead of floating passively is the key. A number of paddlers have been killed or injured in a variety of river conditions from long, continuous rapids to fairly small rapids. There are numerous cases of flush-through drownings where boaters were swept for extended periods while maintaining the old float-with-toes up position.

Earlier this year in a different type of incident a tandem open boater drowned in Nantahala Falls, a Class III rapid in North Carolina. He and his partner had quickly gotten into the traditional swimming position: toes up, head upstream, floating on one’s back with the arms out to slow one down. His partner shot along the tongue of the falls to safety, but he dropped over a ledge in the steeper section and pinned. His feet and lower legs became entrapped in a crevice, and he drowned. In the same incident, a would-be rescuer also trapped his foot in the same spot and nearly drowned as well. It is likely the victim would be alive today if he had swum aggressively.

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The Other Nantahala

Big Kahuna - Nantahala Cascades - est flow 950 cfsLooking at the Great Kahuna, crux of the Nantahala Cascades, from a photo dated November 14, 2009 when the Upper Nantahala Gorge was running about 950 cfs.
NOTE: This foto has since been removed and the server is often unaccessible.

 

The Nantahala River is one the most famous whitewater runs in North America. Most people, however, know it merely as a scenic but beginner-level run. Only recently has word been getting out about “the Other Nantahala,” the river of the Class V-VI Cascades, frequent floodstage big water, of shooting the Horns of the Ram into the maw of Big Wesser Falls. Carving a deep gorge across an earthquake fault through some of the steepest mountains in the Southeast – mountains so rough they have earned the dread of many Appalachian Trail thruhikers – it is home to the paddleheads of the Nantahala Outdoor Center.

Located deep in the boonies of Southwestern North Carolina, down there where Tennessee, Georgia, and South Carolina all butt up against the Tarheel State, the “Nanty” runs year round. Most of the recent International Peace Rally-Nantahala ’90, featuring competitors from around the world including the Soviet Union – were held in the Nantahala’s narrow, heavily-forested gorge. Right before the rally, the Nantahala raged up to a near-record 9.5 ft.

After several years of unrelenting drought, the Southeast has been in the whitewater limelight since heavy rains and frequent flooding returned in January 1989. While disastrous in the eyes of many, the high water has been a boon to paddlers. It has been a special boon to water-starved boaters of the Nantahala area.

Rising high in the Nantahala Mountains, the small river and its headwaters drop into an artificial impoundment, Nantahala Lake. Here Nantahala Power and Light Company (NLP) pumps water through 5.6 miles of pipe and releases at the generating plant about 13 miles downstream.

Most boaters put in below the powerhouse for an exciting dash through continuous Class II-III rapids as the river drops a mellow 33 feet per mile. The icy waters clash with the warm air to create thick ribbons of fog through which one spies bobbing multicolored helmets. In fact, the word Nantahala is Cherokee for “Valley of the Noonday Sun.” The river crashes on until the run culminates in Class III Nantahala Falls, 400 feet above the takeout.

This is the normal run, great for beginners to learn and for intermediates to hone their moves without fear. In the summer the river is often crowded with rafters.

But for others there is the Other Nantahala, the Nantahala of frequent high water. For a time in 1989, NPL was releasing from the lake itself. Water continues to pour down the spillway even now. In both 1989 and 1990 there were numerous extended releases on White Oak Creek, a major tributary of the Nantahala. The character of the river changed as boaters came from all over to experience the Upper Nanty, the Cascades, and Big Wesser. Or even the regular run during high water.

For many miles below the dam, the Nantahala runs through dense willow thickets, gradually widening and descending. The rapids begin to build up to Class II, sometimes III, becoming more continuous and technical. The river plunges over three jumbled waterfalls known as the Upper Cascades and finally merges with White Oak Creek to form the famous Upper Nantahala run. The stretch above the confluence is only rarely run due to the congestion of brush and the fact that the Class IV-V+ Upper Cascades are runnable only when the rest of the Upper Nantahala below is just too high, thus prematurely ending the trip.

White Oak Creek deserves mention. It is one of the hardest hair runs in the Southeast. White Oak flows through continuous Class II rapids through a gentle valley into a small NPL lake. Below the dam the bottom drops out as it plunges for several miles through a tiny gorge with continuous Class II-V rapids. Halfway down is Triple Drop (or Becky’s Catapult), a nasty Class VI three-tier waterfall choked with jagged rocks, vertical pins, and shallow pools. It has been run only once to my knowledge. Becky Weiss, one of NOC’s best hair boaters, catapulted end over end, miraculously without injury.

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