First Descent of Johnson's Falls (on East Fork of the Little Buffalo)
Written by Shelby Johnson (4/24/96)
Unlike Ryan I must embellish..............
I have had a head cold for about five days now, and took some major heavy
duty cold drugs. I slept hard Sunday night. James Murie woke me up early
Monday morning with a phone call. It took me a while to come around. We
visited breifly and then I called Ryan Johnson. It didn't take long to
convince Ryan that Geology could be skipped for one day.
I called Steve Robertson and learned that they would head for Fall Creek.
Bill Herring had secured a key to a gate which would cut off the latter
flatter part of Fall Creek. We thought about going to Fall Creek but
learned that the strike force wouldn't be assembled until later in the
day. Following Tom Lewis' "Group Dynamics and Shuttle Theory" we decided to
keep our group at 3 and head east. It was almost 9:30am before we left my
house cause we were glued to the tube watching the post tornado Fort Smith
aftermath. It's a shame we had so much fun while those in Fort Smith
suffered so badly.
War Eagle was huge! Kings was huge! Beech was at 2.90, not so big, and it
didn't look like it was rising. The Buffalo was at 4.6 on the Boxley bridge
not so huge? We wondered what was going on? We jumped off at Murray and made
our way down to the takeout. The EFLB was big but I didn't think it was any
higher than when I had done it previously. We loaded the Trooper and headed
to the putin. Ryan visited with the Farmer whilst we donned gear. Ryan
reported the Farmer was amicable as usual. What a great deal for all
When we finally got down to the putin I realized what major juice we were in
for. Both Barberry Creek and the main prong of EFLB were blowin'. The first
section was hard going. Visibility sucked because of the trees, and all the
eddies were in the trees on the bank. We exercised extreme caution making
our way through this section. There was one downed tree that Ryan was able
to get out just before slamming into. He pulled both James and I out as we
came down. None of us liked making our way through the trees but it had to be
I was leading along and thought we had plenty of spacing between. I was coming
up on a place where the creek was bending left, just as I realized where I was
at I saw the horizon line, Half Moon! I broke for the right bank as hard as I
could hoping to be able to warn James and Ryan. Just as I turned I was able
to see James running left of center right through the meat! His momentum
carried him through, and Ryan took the same line. James eddied out below on
the left and was attacked by killer trees. Ryan eddied out right. I bobbed
in the wrong eddy above the meatiest part of the hole at Half Moon. I thought
if I could get enough mometum and do a strong ferry I could work to river
left, but to no avail. I washed sideways into the biggest hole I've been in.
Most holes feel like they are under the boat, this was all around me. I gave
Ryan the "I'm screwed look," and started reachin', surfin', diggin', soul
searchin' and in general tryin' to find some water headed downstream. Ryan
commented after the run that he thought the group was self-destructing at
that point with James out of boat fighting trees, and me in a sure fired
pickle. Lady luck smiled, James smote the trees and took some pictures, and
I got out of the hole and washed the crap out of my drysuit.
From this point on we weren't battling the trees quite so much, but we
were on constant guard for the dynamic holes that would form. Waves were
6 and 7 feet high in many places with one particular wave reminding me of
the Lower Box. After eddying out below that I took a picture. There were
chunks of wood, leaves, twigs, and other debris real brown and murky sailing
through. We commented later on that it was like paddling oatmeal.
Coming down below the section below Half Moon went fast, really fast, and
we knew the Falls weren't far ahead. My neck is still sore from
crooning trying to see ahead to make sure we didn't run up on the Falls
before it was too late. I was leading I saw the boulder, but it looked wrong,
because the there was no shelf on river left where we usually portage. After a
second look I motioned back that we should eddy out and have a look see.
I remember back over the years the wild-eyed look from story tellers relating
the Johnson's Falls incident. I remember all the descriptions from others who
had seen it, and how this one rapid had made unforgettable impressions on
every eye that saw it. Now here we were at this rapid at what I call flood
stage. The roar was deafening. We all spent most of our breath yelling
out a spree of exclaimations, cuss words, and awe inspired hollering.
We eyeballed it for quite a long time and there was no doubt in my mind that
I would portage. James was already looking for a way to portage and Ryan was
scouting. Ryan, told me months later after running EFLB the first time, he had
this recurring thought of trying to run this drop. I thought at first that
Ryan was kidding, but he was serious. I backed away for awhile and took some
pictures, hoping the "Time spent scouting is proportional to time spent in..."
well you know. I thought Ryan would give up the idea, but he was not
portaging. James made mention of his camera and the Wall of Fame at Downstream
and that sealed it.
There was plenty of flow on river right, yes right for those who have been
there. There was no slot between the boulder and river left, just a sheer
drop, but still too busy to run. Ryan convinced us that the line was river
right, and that if Johnson's Falls were to ever be run of would have to be
at this high level. There was no hole whatsoever, the water was so compressed,
and its sheer volume that it maintained high velocity for 25 yards below the
drop with the most violent white water right at the base of the drop. This
wasn't the hard part. The line was guarded by four sycamore saplings, each
scattered at strategic points in the approach. In order to run it, would
require a precision paddle stroke move through the trees then a momemtum gain
to pass around the boulder away from it's undercut rigth side and off the
shelf of river right. Any mistake at the trees had major consequence.
James would lower off river left to photograph. I ferried across to river right
way above the Falls. I made my way down the right bank and setup an anchor
and the pre-liminaries for a z-rig. The logic was that if he smashed in and
vertically pinned I would be right there ready. It wasn't likely but I sure
didn't want to leave anyroom for mistakes, if he did we could offer no help
from the river left at all, lights out. I gave Ryan the thumbs up, and
whistled to James, camera in hand on auto-pilot. In the approach Ryan was right
on-line, but as he neared the trees a draw left him off just by a bit. He
struck sideways on one of the trees but most of the boat had passed. He leaned
into it, stroked and was by, then two more strokes, hang time, mush into the
fold, and then flush! The yell of excitement could be heard well above the
roar of the water. James looked at me I looked at James we shrugged shoulders,
and gave the thumbs up signal.
Ryan's face aglow! We were all aglow!
It took several minutes below to recompile ourselves. Much high-fiving,
exclaimations regarding sexual virility, humbling experience it was. I still
say the drop is a Class VI at normal levels, but at this level it
was Class V and clearly runnable.
James seemed relieved that we had the Falls behind us but gained a new
perspective when told that the hardest parts of the run lay ahead. We eased on
down still being cautious, watching out for strainers, dynamic holes, and
huge waves. The doldrums section of the EFLB below the Falls went by very fast,
with big, big waves, and the next thing you know were at the lower section by
the house. One drop I remember back endered me way hard and I had no idea
where I was. We hung together and made our way down. I continued to cough
and hock up chunks of green flem, occaisionally wipping my snotty nose with
the sleeve of my dry-suit.
I'm still kind of disoriented 2 days later but I think the house with the
swinging bridge marks the next hard section. We were having a hoot, running
these big drops, with big waves, elevating eddies, and sharing white water
with forest debris. There was one really good rapid with a big sweet gum tree
blocking the whole thing. I saw it plenty of time for us to get out, and it
was certainly a deadly tree, with no water going over it, and most of the
canopy under water right in the meat of the flow.
We came up on a drop that was blocked by a boulder. Most
of the current was obstructed by this boulder and forced river right. There
appeared to be a micro edddy on river right and Ryan planned to head for it
to boat scout the rest of the drop. He quickly dissapeared and neither of
us saw what happened. I moved for the same eddy, and then it dissappeared.
I lined up and went to instinctive self perpetuation mode, as I flew through
the left side of a slot with a big hole. Ryan was in the eddy, and said the
same thing happened to him. James was instructed to run a different slot that
seemed a better line. He made it through and then turned over at the base.
With only a few seconds before the next big drop he had to roll. Ryan and I
were both saying, "Come on! roll!" which he did. A bona-fide hair roll in the
meat when it counted. James re-collected his bearings and then followed us
down the rest of the drop.
A little further on we came to a series of drops that lead to a slot with a
serious looking horizon line. Part of the left side of the slot was obstructed
by the end of another downed tree. I moved down caught a last ditch eddy, and
then bank scouted. The tree wasn't blocking the line, there was a big hole,
and the move left or right to catch an eddy before 3 more big boulder choked
drops, that needed serious attention. I motioned the line to Ryan and he ran
the slot, culminating in a extended back-ender, stern squirt, pirouette, which
landed him in the right side eddy. It swirled him around and up and down, and
he could see the next drops. I figured this sucker could run anything so I just
pointed to the center slot and said move left. It was so loud I know he didn't
hear me, up on the boulder making crazy motions. Ryan probaly figured screw it
I'll just probe, which is what he did. James mean while after witnessing Ryan's
craft extended skyward was on the bank and portaging the first slot. I went
back to my boat got in and made a perfect boof avoid the hole and a sure fired
backender. I eddied out below then next big drop so I could see James. He
ran it fine, and we all collected below. That was the last of the big drops.
We jetted on down to the takeout, and took forever there lounging around
in glee. I started coming down off the adrenal high and my body started
going into shock. On the way home the Buffalo at Boxley was at 7 feet.
Beech Creek was at 3.3 feet and showed signs of being around 4.5 to 5 feet
earlier that day.
Richland would still be high on Tuesday. I actually planned to go again on
Tuesday, but that morning I woke up feeling like crap. I spent all day
yesterday in bed, stopped up, with a big grin on my face. I felt like crap
physically, but was still riding the mental high. Should've listened to my
mother's warnings, don't go out in the rain with a cold, but I did, and
now I'm paying. It was worth it seeing a first run of Johnson's Falls.