Fish's Fern Gulley First Descent Diary

By Bill "Fish" Herring

Wake Up Call

5:00 AM - Alarm clock wakes me up. Yep, it's still raining. Not hard though. Check the web reports (on my new high-speed DSL line!). Accuweather shows about four inches on Little Mill. A bit less in Newton. Some big gauge movement, but mostly not spikes. Just steady rises. Still, four inches is four inches. We will go to Fern Gulley to see what we see.

5:08 AM - Otter is camped out in the spare bed. He wakes up too easily - probably never slept. I tell him its Fern Gulley, and he's up and ready to go in no time. I let him burn off some spare energy loading the boats. My throat is getting pretty sore, and I'm not feeling too spry just yet. I think I'm coming down with something. Remember to take lozenges for throat. Damn - hope I don't get sick today.

5:35 AM - Otter has loaded the boats and is bouncing off the walls. Noy is up and has some lemon poppy seed muffins in the oven. She is the best. I kiss Noy goodbye, and she says "be careful." She's an old creek boater too - she knows what it is we'll be doing today. I tell her I will. Otter and I hit the road in his truck with pipin' hot muffins. Pretty good start.

Cat Out of the Bag

6:12 AM - We're stopped for gas in Alma. I have to spot Otter the gas money again. The boy must have a gambling problem or something. Or maybe I'm just a bigger sucker than I realize. Well, since my Trooper is out of commission, I don't really have any choices. At least I'm not the one standing out there pumping gas in the blowing rain. But I suppose we're both gonna get soaked soon enough.

6:28 AM - We're at Little Mill Cr., which is higher than I've ever seen it. I call the spokesman for the "Crack Of Noon" gang, Rob. Rob says they're getting ready, and I tell him Little Mill is big and we're going to check on a creek. Rob says sounds good.

6:48 AM - Fern Gulley has a very convenient put in for a steep creek - if you have a 4WD. Otter doesn't, so we have to walk down to the creek. When we get there we can see the creek has barely enough water to boat. Water looks oddly clear. Maybe the rain just wasn't ever heavy enough. Otter still wants to do it. I concede that it's probably a good thing that we have a low level, since I remember the creek being pretty hairy from the dry hike. We decide to do it.

7:02 AM - I call Rob to tell him to meet us at Little Mill Cr. I tell him we're going to do Fern Gulley. He's never heard of it, but they'll run anything. Well, the cat's out of the bag - we'll run it now no matter what.

Team Gulley

7:31 AM - At the Little Mill takeout, a couple of local guys show up with trucks. One has a trailer. They're eyeballing the low water slab, of which only about four feet of concrete is showing. Otter and I figure we're in for some entertainment, but they chicken out when one guy tries to walk across and the water comes over his boots about 20 feet into the stream. They stop to chat, and ask us if we're going kayaking. Yep. They assume we're going to put in at the bridge and paddle to the Mulberry. I tell them we're going upstream. And, of course, they look at us like we're nuts.

7:36 AM - The Fort Smith gang arrives. Rob and Mike have run several creeks. I know Danny can paddle because he ran Hart with us last year. I know Nick, but not too well. Rob remembers Otter as the "bridge boy" from Sugar Cr. and expresses some concern. I vouch for him - in the year since his unfortunate swim under the bridge, he's become a very good paddler. Steve from Russellville shows up a few minutes later. Steve's fresh off some high water runs in the Southeast, the only one of us who is already warmed up for the run. We all change clothes, debate the shuttle, move some boats, and head up the road.

7:52 AM - While driving to the put-in, Rob warns Otter not to be too friendly if Mike offers him any help on the creek, since Mike is gay and might misinterpret it. Mike is not gay, but Otter spends the rest of the day trying to figure out if Rob was joking or not. (To be fair, Danny and I didn't exactly go out of our way to straighten out this misunderstanding either.)

The Warm Up?

8:07 AM - When Rob first walked over to the gorge, we heard him whooping from the woods. When Mike and I go over, we're whooping too. The creek has mucho more water than when Otter and I saw it at daybreak. At the put-in I realized I had forgotten my camera, and Mike said that it was always an epic trip when you forget your camera. He's right, it's going to be a wild day.

8:32 AM - Sitting in the eddy below the first drop, I am reflecting on the fact that anyone who has trouble here should just go back to the truck. I'm watching Rob and Mike come over the six foot boulder pile and into the big hole below. The hole grabbed at me more than I would have preferred. When everyone is down with not too much trouble, I make sure everyone understands that the class IV drop we just ran is just a warm up. The whole creek is chock full of drops just like it - or bigger. Not much response, but the group looks ready to move on. Guess we might as well find out what's next.

8:38 AM - I'm stopped in an eddy I can barely hold, and Otter and Rob are barreling down on me. It's the first eddy I've snagged - I keep looking for one that will hold more than half a boat! I'm not sure they exist. I have settled for a cluster of micro-eddies where everyone can maybe park. Boaters are stopping any way they can - I guess no one wants to get in front of me. Mike is saying something about someone running sweep besides Nick. I suggest Rob - he's done quite a bit of creeking before. I don't remember any really dangerous drops from my hike, but I can't see the next eddy

8:46 AM - Now I'm warmed up. I've boat scouted (well actually just ran headlong) down to a sharp curve where all I could see was a horizon and some white stuff below. I'm in a barely feasible eddy grabbing onto the rocks on the bank. And here's Otter - no room for him, so I better be getting out now. I yell upstream, but I bet no one can hear me. Hope nobody gets past me. I've done a lot of creeks, but this is something different. We're almost out of control.

8:48 AM - The drop I couldn't see down is blocked by a big roostertail. Lots of ways to pin. I can't see a really safe way to run it, and I don't want to get hurt this early in the trip. Looks like the warm up is over - we will hike around it. Someone offers to buy Danny's full-face helmet from him. Hope I don't get upside down out here!

Sweating the Small Stuff

9:06 AM - When I hiked this creek the first half mile looked interesting. The next half mile I remember as looking fairly insane. We're getting close to the insane part and I am suspicious of every tiny speck of white. I'm even bank scouting stuff that passes for class II on a creek like this one. Good eddies are still virtually non-existent. At one point I hike a long way ahead down to what looks like a bad rapid. It's just a large pourover mixed into the constant barrage of rapids. There's finally an eddy behind it, so I hang my throw rope on a tree above the pourover to mark the eddy and the left line around the pour. I haven't looked around the bend, but I'd bet it's not pretty.

9:25 AM - It's not pretty. This is the first biggie I remember from my hike. Water on the right side of the drop goes nowhere. It just disappears under a massive undercut slab. There is a line on the left though - start far left and then hook sharply to the right and dive off the eight-foot drop at a hard angle to avoid the car sized rock with water spraying off of it at the bottom. Class V? Mike and I have no doubts. The rest of the creek is essentially a long class IV rapid, so this is a V. A little bit like Hart Attack on Hart Cr. but worse. We will all walk - way too much penalty for anyone to try this one.

9:46 AM - Where to put in is a problem. The creek is one non-stop drop, so finding where one rapid ends and another begins is not practical. We scout the next drop past the nasty class V. It doesn't look too bad - a bit steeper than most. There is a tree to duck after coming down the main drop, and then another good-sized ledge with a tree jammed in it underwater. All you have to do is make it to the trees upright and in your boat, and the eight-foot drop above looks pretty clean. Rob and I will try it out.

Like Shooting Fish in a Barrel

9:57 AM - How did I get upside down? I'm tucked tight, but getting pounded by rocks and such. I'm getting my money's worth from my elbow pads and helmet. The paddle won't set up, since I've only got one hand on it. This isn't good.

9:57 AM - Somehow, I got up, but I got knocked right back down with about half a breath. Now I'm pinned upside down and my paddle is stuck under me! Feels like I've been here for 10 minutes. If I can just get my elbow under me… Done. Now my lips are in air and I suck down about half air and half water. Down again. The guys are too far away to help by now - they probably think I'm going to drown…

9:58 AM - I'm upright and still gasping for breath, beached on this tiny island. Somehow I'm still in my boat. Gottta get out… I give a thumbs-up to the guys, but I'm not sure how OK I really am. Rob looks like he's carrying. I damn sure wouldn't run it if I had seen me do it!

10:08 AM - Otter ran it - a bit out of control and almost backwards, but no upside down time. He's 20 and he's only been boating two years and now he's making me look bad. Getting older sucks.

10:27 AM - Everyone portages the next big tree, and we fly down another 100 yards or so. We manage to eddy out at the top of something that looks like it might need a scout. Rob, Otter, and I are up and over the pile of rocks on the left bank… Holy cow, this is the big one.

Holes, Rocks, and a Little Black Magic

10:40 AM - We've scouted down the next 200 yards or so. It's all basically class V. If you could stop more often, it would be more feasible, but there are no really reliable eddies. There are several holes that can stop you, but they don't look like good places to visit. It just gets steeper as it goes, finishing with the only drop I named on my hike of the creek: Big Juju. Big Juju is a 20-foot tall rapid that drops very quickly in three stages. The first drop is complicated. Too far left and you stick your bow into an undercut slot. Too far right and you drop into a nasty place where rocks and a big tree are likely to pin you. Big Juju is not user friendly. What's scary about it though is that the 200 yards of water above it doesn't stop at all. There is a last chance eddy above the drop on the right (the side you don't ever want to run), but to get to it you have to get down a solid class V stretch of water intact. And Juju has a small tree just on the surface of the water blocking its entrance today. The tree can be removed, but it's the other trees down in the drop that I remember from my hike that I am worried about.

10:47 AM - I ask Nick what he thinks of all this and he says he doesn't know. He says he's only just run Richland a couple of times. Jeez! No wonder Mike was concerned! But he's boating really well so far - incredible really for taking this kind of step up from Richland.

10:58 AM - Everyone decides just to walk the whole mess, except for Otter, Steve, and me. Otter thinks we can cut the tree out of Juju and he's probably right, but I'm not even sure it matters. The water is dropping fast, and Juju will get even uglier without water to pad the shallow landing of the first eight-foot drop. Plus, I know from my hike that there is another, bigger tree under the surface in the middle of the drop - a wrong move could put a boat and paddler under it. There are two options - we either portage the upstream stuff fast and concentrate on trying to run Juju after we cut the tree, or we try to run the stuff above and see how Juju looks with less padding. We debate this for a while, which lets the water drop even more - that's OK with me, since the holes upstream of Juju are looking a bit more manageable.

Technical Support

11:15 AM - We decide to run the drops above Juju first. Otter doesn't run the first part, which ends in small eddies above a downed tree. Steve and I bounce down it with no major problems. It's the easiest part of the drop really, but the pressure is high because of the tree and what follows it. Rob and Otter man the ropes on each side of the creek above the tree, which makes me a bit more confident. Nice to have good bank coverage.

11:25 AM - We can't see the slot on the right side of the big rock in the next drop past the tree, but the left does not look too friendly. Mike is over there with a rope, and he signals that there is a rock in the takeoff zone of the slot that makes a vertical landing likely. Otter thinks the left side is not as bad as it looks. I agree, but I ask Otter if he wants to be the guinnea pig for the left side. After a bit of hesitation, he heads up to try it. Steve and I watch as he tries to pivot around the rock and stay out of the mess on the far left, but he spins backward and bounces down the left anyway. He runs the next drop/hole half-backward and then manages to eddy. Yep, easier than it looks. When I go up and put in, I'm a bit nervous. I've done worse drops, but the penalty for a screw up is possibly being drug down about 100 yards of water and over Big Juju - a very unpleasant scenario. I look ahead and see three guys on bank support with ropes, and that gives me some confidence. I take the left line head-on and make it clean to the eddies below. Steve runs it clean too. Otter did a good job of finding the line for us.

11:45 AM - Otter wants to run down to the top of Big JuJu. I think this is unwise. The drops are simply too continuous above it, and none of them looks easy. We can probably do it, but the risk is high. Plus the water in Juju has dropped about two feet or more at the top - the trees are still there, and now there's no padding at the base of the first drop. It's probably approaching maximum ugliness. Otter looks at Juju a while longer and agrees that it looks too bad. Besides, it's not like Juju is the last big drop on the creek. We will all carry it.

Steeper and Faster

12:35 PM - After some messy, big drops and trees below Juju, we are now approaching the last big rapid on the creek. We get out to get around some trees and scout on down ahead to the giant slide. Eyeballs are popping out. Faces are a mixture of excitement and apprehension. I've never really seen a drop quite like this one, and no one else here has either. It's a long, steep slide, but it's also punctuated by a couple of 3 to 4-foot vertical drops before the almost vertical plunge at the end! After some talk about it, Steve and I go up to run it. Steve graciously lets me be the guinea pig. I get into my boat perched precariously on a rock on the bank. I double check the seal on my skirt. I slide off into the current, and continue to accelerate for the next 50 yards. About 1/3 of the way down the boat skips over a three-foot ledge. The bow never drops a bit. Still sliding faster and faster and I launch over a four-foot ledge. Feels like a roller coaster topping a hill at high speed. After that the bottom starts to drop out. Steeper and faster, then punch through the big curler, and plunge fifteen feet down and into the hole below. I come up sputtering and crash through some tree limbs. There are actually eddies in the grotto below the cascade. It's like being in a fishbowl of rock.

12:52 PM - I end up filming in the grotto and it takes a long time for folks to come down the drop. I think it must be nerves, but there's trouble up there forty-something feet above where I'm at. Mike has gotten vertically pinned in the hole/drop right above the huge slide. Rob and the gang help him out of his boat and get him to shore. Then Otter, who has climbed back up for a second run down the slide, pins up and his foam wall is blown out of his boat in the process! Mike alertly catches it as it heads downstream. I can't imagine what I'd have thought if I had seen a foam wall come down that slide without a paddler or boat! This is getting crazy. Otter later tells me that he'd been a little nervous when Mike handed him his foam wall and smiled at him. Oh yeah, I forgot - Mike's supposed to be gay.

1:15 PM - Finally, everyone makes it down the big fall. The next quarter mile is constant, steep class III water, which feels like a swimming pool after what we've been through. We've taken out time getting down, and the water has dropped out enough to make the creek feel bony for the first time. Amazing.

Coming Down Off the Roller Coaster

1:25 PM - So this is what a pool looks like! We've finally made it to Little Mill Cr. We get out to rest, and I think I see someone kissing the ground on the pebble beach beside the small pool. Everyone is grinning ear-to-ear. And we're all worn out. But we've still got almost three miles of flooded class III-IV water left on Little Mill. What a day!

1:40 PM - Danny is still surfing in Gollum's Hole, and he looks like he's starting to get tired. Steve is out of his boat and heading down to help him try to escape. Dan is working hard and finally edges the boat up out of the hole. About a one-minute unplanned hole ride. When we're all in the eddy below, I remind the group to "stay seated until the ride comes to a complete stop." Gets a few laughs. Danny's OK, and we head on down.

2:35 PM - We're making good time on the bank-full stream. Even the huge crosscurrents and pillows in the signature class IV rapid on Little Mill, The Gash, don't seem like any big deal. We bounce through it, surf around below it, jump over Love Shack Falls, and paddle out to the trucks.

The Deflation and Elation

3:04 PM - It's still raining. Little Mill has now flooded the whole road. I feel like I've been whipped with a heavy chain. I'm half sick with a cold. I have a blown drysuit gasket. I can't remember when I've had so much fun! We're high-fiveing and can't wipe these stupid grins off. What a day!

3:56 PM - Otter just checked his phone messages. His boss at Lady Foot Locker in the Mall said he could come and pick up his final paycheck, since he didn't show up for work. Was it worth losing his job for? He says it was.

6:30 PM - Back home and I'm getting sicker and sicker. It's still raining. Everything is flooded and still rising. Steep creeks will be run again tomorrow, but I'll not be there. The cold finally has gotten the best of me. I'll bet my boss doesn't believe me when I tell him I'm staying home sick tomorrow. He knows all too well that I'm not sick when it rains like this. Guess I'll just have to go in and show him. What a day!


Editor's Note: Fern Gulley (a.k.a. the East Fork of Little Mill Cr.) drops about 360 feet in 1.2 miles before it runs into Little Mill Cr. which drops another 330 feet in 2.75 miles. The gorge is filled with rocks so big that they show up on the USGS quad maps and are popular with climbers who have bolted routes on many of them. The creek is about 50 minutes from Fayetteville and 25 minutes from Fort Smith and has a road to both the put-in and take-out. It runs through the Ozark National Forest for its entire length, and it is as wonderful, and rugged, to hike down as it is to run in a boat.