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.
Slickrock Creek cascades out from the heart of Joyce Kilmer to form the border between North Carolina and Tennessee. It’s rarely been runnable due to the droughts of recent years, and few boaters make the effort to hike in. Slickrock has long been the domain of backpackers and fly fishermen.
From Big Fat Gap we hiked a mile and a half down to the put-in. There were six of us from the area with a visitor from England. Along with me from NOC were George Snelling, Tom DuCuir, Paul Mason, Nick Williams, and Nancy Doherty. Graham Wardle was the lone Englishman. I was a wee bit nervous, because running steep, technical creeks was a whole new ballgame to me. I’d tasted enough to know I wanted to paddle more of the same. Besides, it was Graham’s first descent in America and his birthday to boot. He wasn’t the only one in for a surprise!
Luckily, the hike was downhill most of the way. There was not a graceful porter among us. We grunted and sweated along the humid, muddy trail, dragging our boats without shame. Kayaks caromed off the trail and whipped around trees and the bow of my Dancer once stabbed me in the calf. We had a variety of plastic boats and shared visions of Sherpas nimbly carrying kayaks crucifixion-style uphill mocked us.
Thunder rumbled across the Unicoi Mountains as black clouds surged over us. It was loud and deep enough for me to hear even though I am hard-of-hearing and don’t wear my hearing aids on river trips. Nick realized he’d forgotten his helmet and raced back to the van. We snickered, because we knew how much he loved to hike.
It began to rain again, a hard rain, and we decided to split into two groups. Tom, Paul, Graham, and I put on first, and then I realized I was even dumber than Nick – I’d forgotten my camera! Left it at home like a fool. There would be no pictures from this adventure.
Immediately we were eddy hopping and caroming over rocks and ducking logs. The run itself was 6.5 miles long followed by a mile and a half of flat Lake Cheoah. Although the gradient averaged 105 feet per mile, during the first two miles we were dropping at almost 200 feet per mile. It was a steep creeker’s delight, miles and miles of continuous Class 3 rapids with several Class 4s. Add one Class 5!
Rain poured and streaks of lightning snapped through the trees. We hammered down steep, jumbled chutes and dropped into blind, corkscrewing S-bends. Focused and determined, we bombed down the little river, banging off rocks and dodging branches as we zipped into eddy after eddy after eddy. Every turn was a mystery and every horizon line a curiosity. We scouted by boat, and we scouted from shore.
As the storm intensified, we crept and darted among huge boulders and squeezed beneath fallen trees lodged across the creek. As we passed more tributaries the creek got bigger and meaner. Graham grinned ear to ear while I petted the butterflies in my belly. Tom and Paul in their Noah boats were ballet-like as they flew over drops duffecking into tiny eddies between rocks and logs. I bumbled along half-blind with fogged-up glasses. Yeah, they were all experts, but as far as I was concerned I was hairboatin’. Even though I drank a lot of water, I never had to piss once. I sweated it all out in my drysuit.
Tom and Paul ran everything. Once Paul got lodged beneath an undercut, but he was able to reach up over the lip of the rock and muscle his way out. Never flipped. There were many waterfalls and nozzle rapids, and Graham, a whitewater safety instructor, portaged a few of them to set up safety for the rest of us.
My boat even ran a rapid without me, a Class 4+ called the Nozzle. A series of broken ledges dropped steeply over boulders where the currents swirled against undercuts to flush through an offset gap barely wide enough for a kayaker to paddle straight through and out into a wide pool. I was peering rather intensely at the rapids, intending to run it, when my kayak slipped from the slick rocks and shot out into the current. It raced upright all the way through the Nozzle to plop into an eddy at my feet. Aha, a message from the River Gods! I didn’t have to run that rapid.
Wildcat Falls was the most dramatic rapids on Slickrock Creek. A series of four waterfalls close together that dropped 45 feet. The last two falls forms a double drop totaling 25 feet with a turbulent pool halfway down only one boat length to the next edge. To make it more challenging, the last two drops were offset. It was a deceptive run, for if one paddled the correct route it was easy. If one screwed up, however, the consequences of error were severe. Tom thought the technical moves required made paddling Wildcat Falls more challenging than El Horrendo on the Russell Fork.
One paddled the first of four drops right to left, boofing off a weird, V-shaped curler on the way down about 10 feet into a nice pool. Then one ran the second drop, a particularly gnarly 12 footer with rocks scattered across the bottom, by paddling left to right, boofing off a large boulder halfway down into a short but inviting pool. So far OK.
Then came the third drop, the crux of Wildcat Falls. Screw up here and it’s a long, wet goodbye. Even if you flipped and rolled up, you would be blown out of line onto barely submerged rockpiles far below. One had to bump over a short drop, surf a diagonal wave onto a launching pad that jutted out from the center of the falls, then plant a hard, left stern draw to throw your boat toward the right.
You land in a turbulent pool more hole than pool with the main current shoving you toward the right. If you ended up there you would flip off the edge and smash on broken rocks way down at the bottom. This was the offset, one-boat-length “pool” separating those last two wicked drops. So upon landing in this pool-hole one must immediately pivot back toward the left and scoot-paddle hard over the lip. You plunge over and down the last, highest, and narrowest drop from right to left. A large pool awaits below, comforting because the rest of Slickrock is continuous.
Tom and Paul had precise runs. They were so jubilant both portaged back up the steep banks to run the 25-foot double drop again. Graham ran the first two drops but portaged the crux falls. Me? I ran all four drops just fine, surprising myself amid the drumming of my heart and earning congratulations from more experienced kayakers. In the moment of the paddle, I felt at one with the river, at one with everything, in the zone of the flow with focused concentration. I’m just wasn’t very graceful.
As I zoomed down the last falls to land in the pool, I backendered into the hydraulics at the base of the bottom drop. My boat and I got sucked down out of sight. Deep. Real deep. No one could see me. My kayak rocketed up; I popped out into the air and landed upside down, and then rolled up with a grin. A proud, big grin.
We continued on downstream. I wondered how Nancy, Nick, and George were faring. It was getting late, and the water was starting to rise higher. There were more endless boulder gardens and undercut chutes and trees to duck or ride over. The dense spring vegetation closed in over us from beautiful stone walls and mossy banks. We startled one lone camper, a gray-bearded dude standing in the rain who didn’t quite know what to make of a bunch of paddleheads ramming downstream from out of the wilderness on such a wicked little creek.
The four of us sprung over the massive Lower Falls without any trouble and kept going. I even took a swim. Yep, missed a must-catch eddy and slipped backwards into a steep, corkscrewing drop terminating in another nozzle. I got hammered on rocks every time I tried to roll. As I felt myself dropping upside down onto more boulders while being shoved downriver, I realized my boat might spin sideways across the nozzle even if I did roll. If that were to occur, my kayak would likely fold and trap me within with gravity and the currents working to pull me underwater.
I decided to risk a swim instead of folding myself into a plastic sandwich. I bailed out gripping my paddle. Just in time as we flushed through the nozzle. Luckily, my swim was short, and I was soon back in my boat. With mixed feelings of gonzo excitement and exhausted relief we finally emerged out of the forest onto the lake. It had taken us roughly an hour per mile to arrive there.
The other three paddled in an hour behind us. Apparently they had gotten caught in rising water levels with the creek quickly jumping into the trees. Slickrock took on violent, Ocoee River-like traits within its narrow banks. They portaged some of the falls and rapids. Nick, an expert boater who happens not to care for waterfalls, made a good point that no big deal should be made of carrying around a rapid. That suited Nancy just fine, because she found herself scrambling among the rhododendrons with her kayak more than once.
In a strange sort of way I felt better when I learned that George, a more skilled boater than me, had swam, too. He’d gotten trapped in a keeper hydraulic and battered on rocks. Wet-exited and recirculated around and around. At one point his legs stuck straight up out of the water into the air before he flushed out as Nick fell on the rocks trying to toss him a throw rope. It was dark by the time they reached the lake.
The twilight paddle across Lake Cheoah amid storms and our own exhaustion was a quiet one. A few boasts and laughs punctuated the silence as mountains rose all around us into clouds and shadows. Finally, we slid up to the take-out. The anticlimactic part of the journey is as with many others, changing in and out of clothes, dealing with soaking wet paddling gear, loading up boats and tying them down, munching snacks, peeing in the bushes, and driving the long shuttles back through the mountains and then on home to the Nantahala Outdoor Center at Wesser, North Carolina.
That’s Slickrock Creek, folks, a mindbending introduction to hairboating the steep creeks of the American Southeast. Remote, beautiful wilderness protected by the government. Otherwise its forests would be clearcut and its banks dotted with a mix of fancy cabins and ramshackle trailers. Slickrock Creek is hard to find and is seldom paddled, a great birthday gift for the Englishman and a delight for the rest of us. Catch it if you can, paddle it if you dare.
William Dudley Bass
Spring/Summer of 1989
Wesser, Bryson City, North Carolina
Revised and Republished
Wednesday 19 December 2012
NOTES: This was originally published as “North Carolina’s Slickrock Creek: Slickrock is worth the hike,” under “Dudley Bass,” my name used at the time, in American Whitewater: Journal of the American Whitewater Affiliation, July/August 1989, Volume XXXIV, No. 4. My essay has been edited, revised, and republished with a different title here at www.williamdudleybass.com. The original version can still be found in the online archives of the AWA at: http://www.americanwhitewater.org/content/Journal/show-page/issue/4/page/29/year/1989/. As a note of curious trivia, this issue retailed for $2.95 at the time.
Copyright © 1989, 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.