Hell and High Water on the Hailstone

By Bill Herring


A few years ago, back when Shelby Johnson, Kevin Fendley, Brian
Rosborough, Chanoy (Noy), and I were all up-and-comers, just starting to
cut our teeth on some of the tougher Ozark runs, we decided to take on the
infamous Hailstone Cr. Shelby had run the creek a couple of times before,
and he told us that he could lead us down it.  Thinking it would be a good
class III run, Chanoy and I opted to take our newly purchased whitewater
toy on the run: a Topolino Duo tandem kayak.  Finally the day came when an
early morning storm swept through Northwest Arkansas, and we called up
everyone and headed for the creek.  Shelby said he was going to meet the
rest of us at the put-in, but he sounded iffy, so we took two trucks just
in case he didn't make it.

When we pulled up the the low-water bridge in Ponca, the gauge was reading around twenty inches of airspace: too low for a run on the Hailstone which starts twenty miles upstream. But the guys at BOC said that they had reports from Mossville indicating that a strong storm had been and still was dumping rain on the upper watershed. We took the gamble, set our shuttle, and headed for the put-in. About three miles up Hwy. 21 from Boxley the sky turned dark grey and we hit a wall of rain. The rain pounded us all the way to the put-in near Fallsville. When we got to the put-in we found a small creek that we couldn't cross in the truck. The creek looked small and flooded, but not scary, so we started suiting up in the rain. A short time later Shelby arrived, and got ready to run. He commented that the water was high, so we would put in on the small creek. "Is that the Hailstone," I asked him. "I don't think so. I think it's a feeder creek," came his reply. This probably should have tipped me off that we were getting into trouble, but by now a whole caravan of open boaters had arrived, and they were getting ready to put on as if nothing was wrong.

So, we put on the small stream and promptly got swept down into several trees standing in the now suspect creekbed. As we pulled out and got ready to carry around, Shelby told us that the Hailstone was probably just a short distance to the left of the stream we were on. So we hiked about thirty yards until we reached a four foot drop-off. Ahead of us lay a raging, muddy torrent about 60 feet wide. We actually got to see trees caving into the creek and being swept downstream. I know that we should have begun to question the situation at this point, but that big bunch of open boaters was putting on just upstream. If they could handle it, we could. And besides, we had always heard that there had to come a mighty flood to run the Hailstone. Surely this qualified.

So we put on. The next mile is still a blur in my mind. A blur of three to four foot irregular waves. A blur of trees passing us in the current as we struggled to backferry. A blur of trees on the banks whizzing by at more than eight miles per hour. We eddied out somewhere near the end of that first mile, after less than ten minutes of furrious paddling. At this point it really began to dawn on me just how FLOODED this creek was. I asked our fearless leader, Shelby, if this was a higher level than he had had on his first trip down the creek. His reply: "Oh, maybe three to four feet higher. It's really moving compared to my other trips." This was not the answer I wanted to hear. But I really HATE to walk off of a run, and although the water was faster than anything I'd ever seen, it hadn't really been worse than class III so far. So like moths drawn to a candle, we eddied back into the current and flew on downstream.

The next mile is a little less of a blur, a fact that I attribute more to furrious backpaddling than to any improvement in my water reading skills. At one of the bigger rapids, a mean looking class III+ (yes there was class III+ stuff in the second mile that day), Noy and I got sidesurfed in our twelve foot Topo Duo. Noy still has trouble remembering how we got out of that hole, since the water from the pourover was crashing down on her head durring the entire ordeal, but I know exactly how we escaped. Blind luck. Meanwhile Kevin, who was bringing up the rear, thought we were "just showing off" and was very impressed that we could do stunts like that in the Topo.

As we hurtled on downstream with the other debris, I could hear Noy hollering from the bow of the boat. Something about Shelby eddying out. So we attempted to stop by crossing an eddyline which was sporting a current differential of, oh, around thirty miles per hour. We flipped - violently. The next thing I knew, I was being ripped out of the stern cockpit by a combination of current and underwater boulders. The next thing Chanoy knew, she was upside-down in the bow of a tandem kayak, alone. Somehow I managed to surface and grab the trunk of a tree that was in the eddy. Then I managed to grab the boat and swing it to the bank. I was sure glad to see Chanoy hanging onto the other grabloop. In our brief underwater excursion we had been carried more than 200 feet downstream. The other guys had tried to chase us, but they had been swept around the next bend and were out of our line of sight. By this time we had been on the river less than twenty minutes.

Just as Chanoy and I got our boat dumped, we saw Brian across the river on the right bank. Through a bunch of hollering and strange hand signals he finally communicated a message to us. There was a BIG rapid around the next bend, and Noy and I needed to ferry straight to the right bank and get out to scout. We accomplished this feat, and pulled our boat thorugh the trees lining the river banks and up about a foot above the level of the eddy. Then we scouted the BIG rapid. The rapid is usually known as Double Drop, a series of two three and a half foot drops at right angles to each other. On this particular day it's name was "Single Drop", as in one big huge tounge of water dropping about ten vertical feet. A big, bus sized rock splits the current at this rapid, and most of the water flows to the left. Shelby said he had never seen much water to the right of the rock. On this day there was a torrent of water to the right of the rock. The left side looked like pictures that I had seen of the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon.

After scouting for around ten minutes, Shelby decided to run the drop. It actually wasn't as bad as it first looked, maybe only class IV or so. By the time Shelby walked back up to the boats, he found them floating in the eddy! The creek had risen over a foot in just fifteen minutes! We pulled the boats another foot up from the water level, and Shelby put in to run the drop. He made a clean run, and Kevin and Brian soon followed with good runs. About this time a backpack came down the fall and eddied out. It was minus it's previous owner. We tossed it way up the bank, and nervously joked that at least a body wasn't still attached to it. At this point I went to check on our Topo and found it floating again! The creek was rising a few feet an hour, and it had been high when we put on. When I got back to the rapid, there was water sloshing over the top of the rock in the middle of the drop. The top of the rock usually towers several feet over the rapid, but the flood was about to come right over it!

In a sudden fit of sanity, a rare commodity that day, Noy said, and I quote, "I'm not going another inch down this damn river!" I concurred with her opinion and we put the question to the rest of the group. Brian thought we could maybe make it. Kevin wasn't sure. Shelby said that he had major reservations since the monster drop we had just come through was just a warmup for the more severe rapids downstream. This statement helped us all make up our minds; we were going to walk off of the creek.

We set off upstream on the right bank, dragging our boats with some webbing loops. The going was very slow and treacherous, with a lot of mud and slick rocks making for unsure footing. Several times we came to places where our path was cut off by small tributaries that had swollen into raging rivers in their own rights. Several of these plunged off of the thirty foot bluffs that surround the Hailstone in many places. We crossed several of these streams, nervously glancing at the horizon lines just fifty yards from our position. Some were too big to ford, so we were forced to ferry across the now hundered foot wide torrent to hike along the other bank. The last ferry we made was about 100 yards upstream of a mess of huge waves that were surging through what used to be forrest. The river had claimed much of the surrounding landscape and turned it into a surreal chaos of debris strewn whitewater.

Much of the river that we saw on the way back upstream had changed completely from the time we had run it. Now huge, deadly rapids had formed everywhere. One spot that we stopped and stared at consisted of a huge boulder with at least two feet of current rushing over it. The resulting pourover caused an enormous hydraulic to form a couple of yards downstream of the rock. A huge pocket of air was trapped under the rushing water before it could fall to the level of the current below. This was the fastest, most powerful water I have ever seen. After several seconds of comptemplating the pourover, Shelby turned to me and simply held up six fingers. I could only nod in agreement.

It took us over two hours to drag our boats down what had taken us twenty minutes to run. Somewhere along the way we came across another couple of neoprene clad hikers. One of them was minus his boat. He said that he and his buddy had made it about a mile down the creek, before he had flipped over and gotten torn out of his cockpit. He made it to the left bank after a long, ugly swim, but he experienced permanent boat/boater seperation. He never saw his brand new kayak again! (We latter heard that some other paddlers found the boat a few weeks later. It was embeded in a wall of trees and debris about four miles down the creek.) His buddy had pulled his boat way up the bank, and the two were hiking out on the left side of the creek. Unlike us, they couldn't ferry across, and so they were stranded across the river from their car.

When we reached the put-in, the group of fifteen open baoters was standing on the right bank. They had all put in right after we did, but they had seven swimmers in the first 100 yards of the run. It had taken them a long time to recover all of the people and most of the gear. The river had swallowed up quite a few of their paddles though. Now they were taking pictures of the ever rising torrent, and swaping stories. They were stunned to hear that we had gotten as far as we did. A few minutes later we noticed that the guy who had lost his kayak was standing on the left bank waving his arms. Though it was hard to hear across 50 feet of rushing current, we finally understood what he wanted: a throw rope. His buddy had walked on upstream to look for a downed tree or some way of crossing the creek. Meanwhile the guy across from us wanted to try to swing across the current if we could get our rope to him. I ran back and got my rope, and after several tries we got it over to him.

The spot that he was going to cross wasn't that bad. It was a section of very fast current, but it had no obstructions and only small waves. Furthermore, we could walk into the eddy on our side about ten feet from the bank, reducing the distance that he had to travel. But if he came off the rope, he might have a long and seriously dangerous swim before he came to a stop. After he caught our rope, he indicated that he had another rope that he wanted to try to stretch across the river so his buddy could get across when he showed up. To do this the guy tied one end of his rope to a tree, held onto the other end in his hand (or so we thought), and, holding onto our rope, he jumpped into the river. He promptly swung out and downstream like a pendulum and STOPPED HALFWAY ACROSS! His head was imediately dragged under the surface as his body tried to submarine under the current. The guy was somehow tangled in the other rope! It was a miracle that he was still holding onto our rope. If he had let go, he would had swung back up against the vertical mud bank on the other side and drowned!

Shelby jumpped into the water hanging onto my throwrope to get out to the guy. I realised that I had taken off my PFD and with it my vest knife, so I hollered for a knife, and a guy standing behind me produced a pocket knife. When Shelby got to the victim, he struggled to pull the guy's head to the surface, and within a few seconds he succeeded. The victim was now screaming for Shelby not to let his head go back down. I handed Shelby the knife to cut the other rope, but when he leaned across the victim, the guy's head went under again! Shelby pulled him once more to the surface, and the guy was getting really hysterical now. I took the knife from Shelby and indicated that I would try to cut the rope. I went around behind the victim, and found that I was reasonably stable in the small eddy formed by his body. I stretched out with the knife and started to cut into the rope, but I couldn't get down to it though the current, so I reached out to pull it toward me. The victim was fortunate that I did this because his hand was gripping the rope right where I was going to cut it! I stretched out a little farther, putting my PFD-less body dangerously far into the current, and with one swift stroke the knife split the highly tensioned rope. After this, the victim and myself and Shelby were suddenly jerked back toward the right bank, and several of the onlookers ran over to help us get to shore.

It was somewhere around this time that we noticed the knot that was fastening a small dangling peice of rope to the victim's PFD. The guy had TIED THE ROPE TO HIMSELF! Dispite this obviously stupid mistake, we didn't lecture the guy about how dumb he had been. The river had taken care of that for us. The guy was as white as a sheet, and as he walked back to his truck, he didn't say anything for a very long time. I think it took him a couple of hours to come out of the state of shock that he was in. I'll bet he never ties another rope to himself!

Well that's about all there is to the story. Later we found out that the Buffalo River had crested at around six feet over the Ponca bridge later that morning. We had been boating on a huge surge of water caused by four inches of rain falling in less than three hours. We also found out two other interresting facts. The first was that a backpacker trying to cross Big Buffalo Cr. that morning had almost been swept away before she had managed to wiggle out of her pack and swim to shore. The pack had disappeared downstream. We left a message at BOC indicating that the pack had made a successful run all the way down to Double Drop before it eddied out. The second concerned the near-drowning victim. He never saw his boat again, but since it was brand new and purchased on a Gold Visa card, the credit card company replaced the boat! Talk about some serious luck! The flooded Hailstone doesn't mess around. And it doesn't take American Express...