Sand Mountain Creeks, Alabama, Spring 96
By Shelby Johnson
Spring break was coming on like a runaway Mack truck, and most of Arkansas
was still under a burn ban and without any measurable levels of precipitation.
Jeesh! The curse was living on!
Steve Robertson and Micah "Nick" Adams had not paddled in quite a long time,
and had reached a moderate stage of depression. Steve called me at least once
a day during the week before spring break, each time saying that if we didn't
have any rain forecasted in the early goings of the spring break week that he
and Nick were eastward bound for some running water in the Appalachians. Steve
really had to twist my arm to talk me into going along for the trip if it
I begged, and pouted around the house for three days straight until the grace
was blessed on the proposed trip. The telling tale came on Monday of that
week when a weak frontal system passed through Arkansas and brought the
Mulberry up to a whopping 2.31! Enough was enough, or rather too little, too
Cyberspace Lends a Hand
About three years ago I was reading the Internet News Group rec.boats.paddle,
and saw someone asking a question about Arkansas. I responded to that guy and
a couple of days later got some email from a chap in Huntsville, Alabama. We
became Internet pen pals, and shared war stories about paddling trips. Last
year in October I had the chance to meet and paddle with my new friend, John
Parker. John had shared quite a bit of river knowledge with me about the
Alabama creeks which run off Sand Mountain into Guntersville Lake. My interest
was peaked, because it really sounded similar to the steeper creeks in Newton
County. Similar to Arkansas these runs are rain dependent so it wasn't like
you could just plan a trip and have water when you got there. Through the
Internet I gathered guidebook information about the runs, including putin
takeout, levels, and such. John also supplied me with phone numbers for
gauges, and locations to operate base camps from. I also used the Net to
track radar for Huntsville, Alabama, which became a key ingredient.
The weak frontal system that passed over Arkansas gathered Gulf of Mexico
moisture for fuel as it worked its way eastward, and by the time it reached
Alabama several tornadoes were spawned, and about four inches of rain was
spread throughout eastern Alabama over a two day period. Much of the
Cumberland Plateau, and the Smokies got nailed too. Everything north of the
Tennessee line was supposed to get darned cold the following day, which
narrowed the choice. John was notified that we were on our way to Alabama.
Departure time from Fayetteville was 3:00pm Tuesday afternoon. We struggled
across the Arkansas Desert, and plunged into the concrete jungle of Memphis,
I-55 south to Jackson, then 240 East to swing around the southern edge of
Memphis. We hit U.S. 72 which cuts right across the northern edge of
Mississippi on it's way toward Decatur, Alabama. We went right by Muscle
Shoals of Lynard Skynyrd fame, and later on developed the sense that it
must be a state law for every FM radio station to play "Sweet Home Alabama"
at least once every broadcast day. We strung into Huntsville at 1:00am and
headed for John's house to crash in the floor.
South Sauty Creek
Our first day on Sand Mountain we headed for South Sauty Creek because it
wouldn't have held it's level another day. At the takeout the level read
4.7 feet, medium/high according to John and the snow was just getting started.
>From the putin we could see that South Sauty had plenty in store for three
paddlers who hadn't done anything in two months. At the putin we ferried
from the river left bank across to other side to scout the putin! Pre-run
jitters were quickly over after we all ran the eight foot waterfall. We had
about one mile of warm-up Class III rapids, until we got to Aaron's Ecstasy
Class IV, the last words from John were don't end up on the right side, which
is exactly what Nick did! He pulled the rabbit outta his hat and the Probe 12
came through unscathed.
Next on order was a big III called Egg Scrambler. One river right eddy to
catch, then a peel out from there put you right on the tongue which blasted
through a slot and over a drop. From there we began to ease our way into
South Sauty's Gorge. Jonah's Whale and Cliff Left were both Class IV's with
serious undercuts, we also did a really tight Class IV called The Slot, that
made us pucker. Upper and Lower Mine Field were two rapids which were just
boulder choked sieves, with about four different routes through each, we
picked our way through these as the snow starting sticking to the ground.
Steve was having trouble wrestling his XL13 through the mess and Nick's
rabbit finally failed to come out of the hat, and Nick ended up perched on a
boulder midway through the Minefields. He tried to do a seal launch and ended
up in a swim. Steve pulled over a little farther on and turned his boat over
to dump. Beavers had scoured both banks through the gorge and left spears
sticking up everywhere. These spears punctured Steve's front airbag, and as
he turned the boat back over, it ripped a six inch gash in the fabric.
Two months without dipping a paddle combined with South Sauty's nature was
taking it's toll. Steve kept filling up with water, and would end up in a swim
almost every time, he self rescued each time wearing down more and more. We
got to the last major drop, a hard four called Bone Crusher. The scout was
Class V because everything was covered in snow and very slick. I slipped and
fell once busting my tail pretty hard. John opted to sneak down the river
right side. Both Nick and Steve decided to portage over to the sneak, and
after they had portaged I scouted from the other bank and decided to run the
drop. With Bone Crusher behind us all we had left was a short section to the
takeout with some good Class III.
At the takeout it was almost dark. Steve had managed the last three miles of
South Sauty with only one bag in an XL13, Nick was beat, and I was in the
same shape. Steve and I gathered dry clothes and headed for the heated
restrooms, while John and Nick ran shuttle. During our wait in the restroom I
took a hot shower which was heaven. Steve sat on the bench with his eyes
glazed over and mumbled something about shorter boat designs, and kevlar
airbags. All were in bed by 10:00pm, no creature stirred.
Up the next morning we faced a late start because the outdoor stores in
Huntsville where we could get another floatation bag didn't open until 10:00.
After collecting a bag John, Steve, Nick and I hooked up with Mark D'Augustino
another open boater from Huntsville. Short Creek has three runs available and
today we would combine the last two sections with a level of one foot on the
bridge painted gauge. That was a wise decision since the putin for the last
section leaves you with a 100 yard warm up before running Short Creek Falls,
a full fledged twenty footer! The top section went by quickly and we were at
the falls. After long scouting each member of the group made his run, all went
well. I got such a kick out of it that I carried back up and did it again. My
second run wasn't so good as I ended up underneath the falls upside down.
Luckily enough the boil from the falls wasn't too nasty and it turned me
loose. Below the falls Short Creek turned into a paddler's playground, with
drops like Grotto Falls (ten foot waterfall), Tornado Sluice, and one Class IV
called Rock Crusher. Near the end of the run Short confluences with Scarham
Creek (what a name!). We got to see the final drop on Scarham which was a
Class V. The tail end of Short was a paddle out of a cove and across
Guntersville Lake. Nick said it was like buying on credit, buy now pay later,
and the flatwater was making us pay. Short Creek was well worth the effort.
On day three the creeks on Sand Mountain were beginning to drop down, and we
had saved Town Creek for last. Town is easily the biggest watershed on Sand
Mountain so it comes up slower and stays up longer. The level was right around
500cfs, and our putin was at High Falls Park, just below the magnificent
thirty-five foot High Falls. This run consisted of numerous Class III drops
that were great fun. Since it was a Friday we had picked up several other open
boaters from the Huntsville crowd. Town creek passed by quickly, and
uneventfully, with one exception! The Blockage a serious Class V, and in the
new eastern scaling would probably rate around 5.1 or 5.2. This ugly rapid was
a sight to see. Our guides mentioned that it had been run before, and also
that a pretty good decked boater had drown there too. We all portaged. The
paddle across the lake gave us plenty of time to reflect on Town Creek and the
last three days.
Exhaustion and Satisfaction
We had paddled hard for three days straight, and now every muscle ached. The
Tellico, Section IV, and several creeks on the Cumberland Plateau would still
be running on Saturday but were all at least a four hour drive from
Huntsville. We drove back into Huntsville all in agreement that home was where
we should head. The Weather Channel was forecasting rain back home for Sunday.
We stopped in Huntsville and had a tantalizing steak dinner. We left
Huntsville, Alabama at 8:00pm Friday night, and I was home and in bed Saturday
morning by 7:00am. Off to Richland on Monday, rain in Arkansas finally!
Sand Mountain is a plateau about one hour eastward of Huntsville, Alabama very
near the city of Guntersville, Alabama. Considerably farther south than the
Smokies or the Cumberland Plateau the temperatures are bearable straight
through winter. This plateau is very rural, mostly livestock agriculture,
with some chicken farming. The land on the plateau is mostly cleared so the
creeks don't compete with forests for water. The soil there is very loamy and
retains water with a gradual release. The creeks gather all their volume from
the farmfields on the plateau, and become whitewater runs as they head off the
western slopes of Sand Mountain to Guntersville Lake. The gorges for these
creeks are cut through flat bedded sandstone and the rapids are created by
constrictions and large sandstone boulders. There is camping available at Lake
Guntersville State Park, and Buck's Pocket State Park (takeout for South
Sauty). You can obtain gauge information on Town Creek by using the TVA Lake
Information Line 1-800-238-2264 then press 3. The rule of thumb is that Short
Creek is running if Town is over 500cfs, Scarham and South Sauty if Town is
over 1,500cfs, and everything if Town is over 2,000cfs.