The Big One - The 30 Year Flood and the First Descent of Adkins Cr.

By Bill "Fish" Herring

The sea was angry that day my friends... Nah, wait, that's another story...

Adkins Cr. feeds into the Buffalo R. 3 miles below the Dixon Ford put-in for the Hailstone. It drops 320 feet in 2 miles and has a put-in watershed of about 2 square miles. It is surrounded almost its entire length by one of the most rugged gorges in the Ozarks. The gorge is over 500 feet deep in places and sheer rock walls 30 to 60 feet high form an inner gorge the prevents escaping from the creek without climbing shoes. The creek is filled with big rocks, chunks broken off of the cliff walls. Once you're in it, any way you get out of the gorge is going to be interesting.

I knew about the rocks because I had scrambled over them dry more than five years ago. I didn't know much about scouting steep creeks then, having just been down one real creek at that point - a trip down Adkins' cousin Smith Cr. I knew enough to read the riverbed as being class III-IV in difficulty. I knew that at no point did it look as rough as the 1/4 mile gorge on Smith Cr. But I didn't know enough to realize that two solid miles of non-stop tricky rapids can be more taxing than 1/4 mile of big hairy drops. And I didn't know enough to spot the dozens of undercut traps. I underestimated the creek.

At 9:00 AM, Saturday, June 17, Dog Roberston (aka Steve), Dave "I didn't drive here just to paddle the Frog" Reid, and I left Faytteville to try to boat that gorge. A large group was supposed to meet at the Boxley bridge, so we headed there. We drove through a rainstorm of epic proportions. Major highway bridges were inches from being underwater. At one point we took a wrong turn in the pouring rain, and when we turned around we almost had to drive through the cresting War Eagle Cr. to get out. We finally slogged into Boxley Valley at 11:30. The scene there was surreal. The Hailstone was licking at the bottom of the bridge. Only an hour earlier it had been several feet over the bridge and it had left large tree-chunks scattered all over the road. Beech Cr. was flush with its bridge too and the bloated Buffalo R. had backed up all the way under the Beech Cr. bridge. Not a single boater or shuttle vehicle was there. We were alone facing this monster, as if it had swallowed up those who might have arrived ahead of us and we were next on the menu. It sounds crazy now, but those were my thoughts as I stood looking at the debris strewn torrent crashing through trees and against the bottom of the 15 foot high bridge. Those were all of our thoughts.

We parked and shuttled under a roiling lead sky. The swirling dark clouds just above the mountain tops reminded me of a bad "Adams Family" episode. We joked around nervously on the way to Dixon Ridge. I told Dave and Dog that Adkins only dropped 150 feet per mile average, a gradient less than half that of many of the creeks we had run in previous years, so it couldn't be that tough. Dave said that 150 feet per mile sounded like plenty to him. Finally we pulled up to the Dahl Memorial. There is an old road that leads to the creek put-in, but it's hard to find and follow because it is very grown over. So we drove a little way down a 4WD road looking for the turn off. Finally we gave up. A tree smashed a dent into the back of Dave's truck turning around. The epic seemed to have already started.

We were forced to whack down 200 near-vertical feet to reach the creek. When we got to it, Dog and Dave thought I had gone nuts. The creek looked tiny and flowed though a tangled maze of trees that had been bent down into the creek by the flood just a couple of hours before. If it stayed like this, we'd be in for a few hours of hell fighting through trees. It looked like crap. But I'd hiked the gorge years before, and I told them that I remembered better things were ahead.

We dodged trees and roots for 150 yards until two large tributaries merged in. There the creek opened up completely and the trees receded as the flow more than doubled. Around the corner were three four-foot, creek-wide ledges separated by only a dozen yards or so. This was our warm up. Each drop had a rolling hydraulic and they were all completely blind from the top. Together the ledges make a fantastic rapid that we later named "Gimme Three Steps". The promised land! Everyone was grinning ear to ear.

After Three Steps, we headed down through some more trees before eddy hopping a rocky section onto a shallow rock shelf. When a horizon appeared, I jammed into a one boat eddy and the other two guys squeezed in. Scouting over the next horizon revealed a massive funneling drop with a huge hole at the bottom. This one had everything in the book. It started with a sloping ledge with two big roostertails blocking the best line for the plunge below. Then it fell almost straight down into a "V" shaped slot. Water poured in from all sides of the slot and plunged 10 feet into a deep pool. The flow was folded into a nasty crease and the base was an ugly "U" shaped hydraulic. The left tongue of flow kicked the boil line right into the severely undercut grotto surrounding the drop. Water boiling up from the depths 30 feet downstream actually emerged underneath a cap of black rock. We discussed it and nobody wanted to guinea-pig it. We decided to make the carry and climb around it.

From the bottom, it still looked bad. It is definitely runnable, but it's solid class V (VI?). Until someone probes that hole and undercut washout, it's hard to tell how dangerous it really is. Definitely some ominous possibilities. After the warm up of Three Steps it is "The Last Step" and it's a doozy.

Following the big drop was another horizon - a large slide into a hole. Nobody got surfed too much and we headed down. After that the class III-IV drops never stopped. There were literally dozens of them. They were punctuated a few V's and VI's - the product of class IV drops feeding into huge undercuts. On the balance the creek is solid class IV water for its entire length. There are no class II's or easy III's. There are few class V's.

Soon we got out to scout yet another blind drop - call it "Undercut #1". This one funneled into a sloping ledge which fed a van sized undercut on the right. The water went several feet under the rock. The left side was undercut too, but easier to avoid. This was the theme for the day - hit the drop, punch the hole and dodge the undercut on your way down. Looking at it from the bank, Dave reminded me that it really couldn't be as bad as it looked, since, after all this was *only* 150 feet per mile. Dave's a real comedian.

We all angled a boof past the undercuts and eddied below. After several more complex drops we scouted one that sieved through a big pile of rocks I'll call "Breakdown". Dog ran, pinned in the middle for a split second and flushed out. Then Dave bounced though unscathed. I attempted to duplicate Dave's line, but ended up on Dog's and pinned myself for a second until water piled up behind me and squirted me though the rocks.

Then we hit a long stretch of class III+ water. We tried to jump from eddy to eddy, but it finally got too blind for comfort. We got out and scouted ahead. The rapids terminated in a class IV looking double drop of about seven feet, but the second drop took the creek underneath a badly undercut wall (how many undercuts is that, I've already lost count...) There was a runnable slot on the right with a bad hole at the bottom, but Dave pointed out that even that washed into the undercut just a few feet away. The water flowing under the wall emerged some 25 yards downstream. I held up VI fingers for this one. To get to the only good spot to portage the drop we had to run the far right side of the upper drop and get out on a shelf to carry. Dave ran the ledge and disappeared for a second. After he emerged, he signaled to us that it was harder than it looked. Next Dog disappeared over the drop and got the nose of his boat shoved up and over into a crevice. When I ran over the drop and onto the shelf, Dog was pinned with water flowing over his shoulders. I jumped out and climbed over to help, and he was hollering for some help before his situation got any worse. I was just able to grab the back loop and the side of the boat and I yanked on it until he came free and washed out into the unstable eddy beside the shelf. It was a close call, but he came out OK. I'll call this rapid "Ghost's Hole", partly because Dave (the "Gray Ghost") was the first to scout the drop.

More continuous water followed until we hit a relatively easy class III stretch. As I'm looking upstream from an eddy, Dave was jerked over by some unseen object and bailed out of his boat. "Holy crap, he's swimming!" He popped up to the surface and never even looked at his boat; he just scrambled for the bank as fast as any human being could, and I gave chase to his boat. I couldn't stop it in the fast rapids and I was flushing into God only knows what, so I sprinted ahead around a big pourover and into the next eddy to wait for it. About 30 yards upstream from me the boat pinned up on a small rock ledge where the current split around an island of rocks and got shallow. I scrambled up the crumbly wall that formed the right bank to get to it just as Dog came by me he hollered something about Dave's paddle. I couldn't see it and neither could anyone else. The creek had eaten it.

I dumped Dave's boat - a long process on the steep rocky bank. After about 15 minutes of me dumping and Dave and Dog searching for the paddle, I just happened to look downstream and saw something waving in the current, pinned against the big rock pourover. I hollered and Dog raced down to get to it. Much to Dave's relief he was reunited all of his equipment back at the bottom. He said he had braced and the paddle was ripped out of his hands when it got stuck in a crevice. The relative ease of the rapids had fooled him and nearly cost him an expensive paddle.

After some more back-to-back rapids we came to a big drop - a class IV slide into a tough looking hole - "Turn and Burn". Dave and I hopped out to scout and Dog stayed in his boat to await our assessment. It looked like you'd probably get up enough velocity to punch the hole, but Dave had some reservations. So I turned and gave Dog the all clear sign to probe it. He looked for guidance on how to run it, and I just shrugged my shoulders and motioned for him to paddle hard.

He dodged the rock fence guarding the top of the drop, accelerated down the chute, and punched through the hole. Then the backwash spun him 180 degrees and shoved him back down into the hydraulic. He pried back hard and paddled frantically to escape before eddying out below. I looked at Dave and his look said that he didn't want to be next, so I headed up to run it. I cut around the rocks at the top of the drop and hit the slide as fast as I could angling with the flow. I blasted through the hole unscathed. I hollered at Dave that it was easy if your line was good. He got turned hard as he hit the hole, but popped out OK too. Another drop down and dozens more to go.

After a few more drops the creek really picked up steam. One drop just didn't end. We hopped over ledges and into micro eddies for over 75 yards down to a blind drop. A scout revealed that the rapid dumped over a large ledge created by a shelf of jagged looking rock. At the top of the ledge, a big boulder split the current. The left side was badly undercut, but it could be avoided. The big problem was a large hole that was sitting right up against the water pillowing off of the mid-stream rock. To run the rapid successfully, you had to keep from getting surfed in the hole and into the rock. This was a tough looking move since almost all of the current flushed into the hole.

I went up to run it. The line was through some small holes, dodge an undercut rock, and just nick the edge of the rock/hole by eddying out on the right just above the ledge. I almost blew that line when one of the small holes knocked me off line, but managed to make the eddy intact. Then I spun out into the current and blew over the big ledge aiming left to reach a tiny eddy below. The rapid doesn't stop after the ledge - it just keeps on going around the corner.

Dave came down the same way with no mishaps, and then Dog walked up to run it. We couldn't see him because we were standing behind the rock, so after a while I waded out a bit to look upstream. Dave asked, "What's he doing?" "Psyching himself completely out," I yelled as I watched Steve just staring at the hole and rock from the bank. "You better get your throw rope ready, cause he's not going to be on his game," I told Dave. Finally I got Steve's attention and waved him on down. To our surprise, he hopped in his boat and made a great run, and Dave packed up his rope. This long class IV drop reminds me of the "Jarrod's Knee" rapid complex on the Tellico R. Ledges section. We'll call it "Psych You Out" for Steve's minutes of mesmerization while scouting it.

After many more drops, we approached a bad looking log jam. I eddy hopped to the far right, just above the trees thinking that the portage would be easy over there. After we had all pulled out to carry the trees, I started looking at the spot where we would have to launch from. An undercut bluff rose up on the right side just ahead of us and most of the current went into it. We couldn't climb the bluff, and putting in right in front of the wall looked like a bad option. We couldn't retreat either without doing some rock climbing to get back upstream. It looked like I had screwed us by hitting the eddy.

Finally Dog wrestled one of the trees that blocked the middle of the drop and moved it up a few inches. I helped him, and we lifted it a few more and stuck it on a knot in the big tree it was pinned on. This gave us just enough room to duck the far right side of the tree and move quickly to the left to get away from the wall. There was still not a lot of room for error. Dog bounced under the tree and made the cut to the left avoiding the wall. Dave went next and made the cut. If I screwed up, help would be a long time getting there, so I couldn't afford to let the current push me left into the tree or right into the wall. My helmet scraped against the tree and spun my boat as I was trying to turn left away from the jagged rock wall. The adrenaline kicked in and I powered the boat away from the wall and finished the bottom ledges to join Dog and Dave in the eddy.

After a few more drops, we were looking at what is probably the most dangerous rapid on the run, and certainly one of the nastiest surprises anywhere in the Ozarks. It was a simple blind ledge drop, like dozens of others, but with an ugly twist. The ledge forms a deep hydraulic and the water boils up underneath a van-sized rock. It was one of the worst undercuts I'd ever seen. 99% of the current ended up somewhere under the rock. It's conceivably possible to get around the rock by boofing the drop on the far left, skimming over the rock lip. But the penalty for failure is as bad as it gets. It's a class III ledge that would require a class V move in front of a class VI hazard to make it. To complicate things, it's walled in by vertical bluffs on each side, so the only portage is over the rocks on the right or left. We opted for a portage on the right since that's where we had eddied right above the drop. We'll call this one "Dead Man's Leap". It points out the necessity of bank scouting the many blind ledges and drops on the run. If we had just "gone for it" to make the obvious eddy on the left below, someone could have been killed. This was a lesson that I should have paid more attention to.

Not too far below Dead Man's Leap, we were making good time by boat scouting from eddy to eddy. As we hopped down one long class III rapid, it just kept dropping away as we descended it. Finally I found myself parked in an micro-eddy on river left staring at a large, complex drop full of rock. I could see eddies below it, but the route down was not apparent. The only reasonable looking route led into a blind sluice, but just before the part I couldn't look at was a small eddy. It was about half a boat-length long and not too stable looking. Plus it was up against a steep rock slab which would make getting out of the boat difficult. But if I could get there, I could probably see down the rest of the drop. Waving Dave and Dog down to the eddy I was in, I ferried out into the current.

Between me and the eddy the creek dropped about 6 vertical feet over a gentle slope which ended in a small ledge. At the ledge, two big slabs of stone choked the creek down to around 10 feet wide. I jumped the one foot ledge nearly sideways to hit the eddy below it. Then, with my shoulder up against a big smooth slab of rock and the back of my boat sticking out of the eddy into the accelerating current, I turned for a look downstream. Damn! The creek was walled in between the two big rock slabs sluicing it down to about three feet wide as it angled down about eight vertical feet. In the sluice were several dead trees forming a spiderweb of wood across the sluice. Time to get out.

But what I had so far failed to notice was that the "eddy" I was in was really the backwash of the hole formed by the ledge just above. As I turned around, the nose of my boat was inching closer to the pouring water. To pull back hard would probably send me out of the mico-eddy and down the sluice backwards. But surfing the hole seemed like a bad option too. I gingerly pried back to keep my bow out of the pour, but it wasn't enough. The front third of my creek boat was suddenly surfing the now menacing looking little ledge! I braced and sculled back hard to escape, and the hole obliged. Now I was slipping back out of the backwash and the water funneling downstream was trying to pull me down the sluice. I let go of the my paddle with my left hand and grabbed at the big smooth rock trying to find a handhold to stop me, but the rock was too smooth and slick. I dropped the paddle onto my skirt and tried to hug the big rock with both hands, but I was still steadily slipping back toward the unrunnable sluice.

My right hand finally found a small jutting slab of rock just under the surface, and I grabbed it with both hands. That finally stopped me long enough to think about my next move. My hands were cramping and I needed to get out fast onto the rock, so I blew the skirt with my right hand and kicked the boat as I jumped out of it. Luckily I made it to the rock with my paddle, and the boat decided to nose-surf the hole again. I was able to snag the back grab-loop and haul it up on the rock with me. The whole event took seconds, but it seemed much longer to me then.

I carried over the rock slab in the middle and Dave and Dog carried the left. I'll call the drop "Eddy's Revenge" for obvious reasons. Eddy's Revenge looked to be a class IV+ drop without the willow trees in the sluice, and I was lucky to have made it out of the eddy-hole without having serious problems. A quick bank scout would have saved me the trouble.

After a few more drops we came to a rapid called "Dog Paddle". This is because I found myself chasing Dog's paddle through it. Dog paddle is either one or three drops depending on the eddies you catch. It starts with an easy looking entrance that pushes off of a big slightly undercut boulder. I made the move in front of the rock, but Dog got into it. He was over and getting banged around when he pulled his skirt and bailed. Then he got banged around some more. His paddle washed up into an undercut grotto just above the eddy I had caught and he and his boat washed into some mid-stream rocks. It looked like he could scramble out and grab his paddle so I hollered at him to try for it. But Steve just shook his head and struggled to get his boat and himself out of the current and onto the river left rocks. Looking behind me I could see a class III drop that disappeared around the corner to the right. I sure didn't want to go chasing a paddle into a blind drop!

But the paddle came loose and accelerated past me on the way down the drop. I could see a good looking eddy on the left below the class III stuff, so I gave chase, angling to cross the creek from right to left. I caught up to the paddle just above the eddy and grabbed it with one hand as I looked over my shoulder at the end of the drop. All I could see was water pouring over a horizon between two rocks and some mist beyond. Damn again! I was fumbling with Steve's paddle and about to miss the eddy. This was looking like it would be my second chance to run a nasty looking drop backwards. I somehow made it into the eddy paddling with one hand. Looking back on it, I should have let the paddle go in favor of self preservation, but I made it anyway - barely.

Back upstream Dog was pointing at his paddling pants which wad been torn nearly in half by rocks in the current. It had been a struggle for him to reach the bank with water filling his drawers. Dave came down and caught the eddy I had landed in, and we got out to scout the end of Dog Paddle rapid.

The end of the rapid pours over a six foot ledge and into a deep hole. It's a very simple end to the drop, but the hole looks bad. It reminded me of Crack-in-the-Rock on Richland Cr. only with a drop the size of Richland Falls. Dog was shaken up and opted to portage it and Dave and I went up to try it. We hit the top of the ledge moving really fast and boofed out over the big recirculation completely. No problem.

Only five more drops remained after Dog paddle, but Adkins doesn't ever let up. All of the last drops are big class III+ rapids. One of them is probably a IV. The creek keeps shedding gradient all the way to the Hailstone at a rate of "only" about 200 feet per mile. The very last rapid was missing though. It had been a four-foot broken ledge formed by a big pile of rocks. I noticed that it didn't seem that big when we ran it, and I was right. The flood had moved the big boulders around and opened up the drop to be an easy class III drop. Thirty year floods will do that.

Finally we drug up onto the right bank and over to look at the Hailstone. 30-foot tall trees had been flattened or snapped like matchsticks by the surge of water and debris that had come down the upper Buffalo gorge just hours earlier. It was a sobering sight. We were worn out from a long, tough creek run, and now we had 2 hours to run 12 miles of still flooded rapids on the Hailstone. We rested for a moment and psyched up for the paddle out.

The Hailstone was not the Hailstone. All of the rapids were filled with big waves and car-sized stoppers and long, linked trains of haystacks. I knew the river very well but could only recognize a few rapids. The cave drop was underwater. Keyhole was a 60 foot wide killer hydraulic. Deliverance looked much the same. Bear Claw was big water class IV, like something off of the Gauley. The rapid below Bear Claw was even bigger than Bear Claw. Everything was moving through one long rapid at high speed. The waves were ricocheting off of the sharp bends filled with trees. And it was getting darker as we went down.

We cleared the 12 miles in about an hour and 45 minutes. We paddled through the willow jungles at the bottom in twilight. We needed headlamps to load our boats. Our take-out level was around four feet over the Ponca bridge - much higher than I had run the Hailstone. Part of the side of the Boxley bridge had been washed away. The USGS river gauge at Ponca had quit functioning at a level of 22 feet - a level not seen in over 30 years according to locals.

We were tired, hungry, bruised, and stressed. And we were as happy as I can remember being. Dave said it compared with any of his best days on creeks and on big water in Latin America. Dog agreed that it was among the best paddling days he had had. It was an amazing creek. I had seriously underestimated Adkins Cr. on my hikes years ago, and it will probably change the way I study creek runs. Adkins is a solid, powerful creek run, akin to the other Newton Co. creeks. The addition of the 12 mile floodstage runnout on the Hailstone makes for one of the most intense trips anywhere I've ever been.

Definitely one of the best days.