Here I stand inspecting the hole in the bottom of my new creek boat. Well, actually itís technically not a hole since thereís maybe one sixteenth of an inch of plastic left. Itís a bright, sunny day in the small Northwest Arkansas town of Chester. Except for the muted roar of Clear Cr. echoing off the front porch of the general store and a few oversized puddles in the road thereís no trace left of the over five inches of rain had fallen there less than eight hours ago. Joining me in my inspection of the damaged craft is a local kid just shy of driving age, a grizzled old man who lives "up the road a piece", and one really lazy old dog that looks to be about two years overdue for a flea bath. Oh yeah, and my old buddy Steve is there too.
After surveying the near-wreckage, the old guy shakes his head and says, "yep, that crik is a bad one. Canít remember last time it got up that near the bridge. Damn near came over the tracks this morniní it was raininí so hard! You never seen rain so hard. That crik ainít no place for canoes up above the bridge ya know." He laughs a bit as he says this, and I just nod my head and agree with him. I look over at Dog and see that heís thinking the same thing I am. Itís not worth spoiling the fun the old guy is having by telling him that his "dangerous" creek is really a relatively straightforward class II-III run. These folks have no idea what we did that morning, and they probably wouldnít believe us if we told them. And besides, it was that "easy" little creek that nearly made swiss cheese out of my boat an hour earlier. Finally the old guy and the kid both walk on up the road, leaving Steve and I to ponder the bottom of my boat by ourselves.
I believe that the most dedicated creek boaters in the world live in the Midwest. I know some folks might take offense at that statement, but before you do, just consider for a moment how dedicated Midwest boaters have to be. We live in a relatively dry part of the country where the highest elevations are in the 2500 foot range and where good creek boating can only be found in the brief few hours following rare heavy rains that occur only a few days a year. That tends to weed out most would-be steep creekers. Some canít take the frustration and move off to places synonymous with good creek boating like West Virginia, Colorado, or North Carolina. Some just give it up completely and take up a hobby that they can hope to pursue for more than a few hours a year. Those rare individuals who stick with it in the face of almost insurmountable obstacles are surely the most dedicated creek boaters Iíve ever seen. At least thatís what I like to tell myself. Itís sort of like deciding to be a member of the Jamaican bobsled team. People may laugh at bit at you and shake their heads, but deep down you know they respect you. Right?
Heck just being any type of whitewater boater in the Midwest takes dedication. Around here the total time that the class II runs stay up in a year is generally measured in days or weeks rather than the months are the rule in other parts of the country. The really steep creeks around here run only when all of the heavenly bodies that influence the flow of water come into exactly the proper alignment. And more than half the time, that happens at night! When it does happen during the daylight hours, you better be able to drop whatever you are doing at a momentís notice, load the boat and gear, and head for the hills. Those who hesitate are lost - or rather their water is lost down the steep hillsides, into the pastoral valleys where the rapids are more of the "floating" variety. It really helps to not have a real job.
Some paddlers, like myself and Steve, actually like living in the Arkansas Ozarks. Itís really one of the best areas for boating outside of the really good areas for boating. There are several reasons for this. For one, itís centrally located between the boating meccas of the East and West. Runs in both the Colorado Rockies and the Applalachains can all be reached in a dayís drive. Also, almost all of the creeks and rivers are free flowing, and you donít need a permit to run them. All you need is enough water. Most watersheds are free of industrial pollution, a fact no doubt attributable to the lack of any industries near them. And itís not crowded. On typical day on an average Ozark stream, you can usually count the number of boaters on the water using only your fingers. Go to the Ocoee or Arkansas rivers on any given weekend and youíll need a computer to keep up with the headcount. I strongly suspect that more boaters run the Nantahala R. in a single weekend than run all of the whitewater streams in Arkansas in an average year. And did I mention that we donít have any commercial rafting?
But perhaps the thing that appeals the most to the few really die-hard steep creek fans that live here is not the local whitewater runs. Instead it is the large number of "un-runs" in the area. Due to an incredibly small window of opportunity, equally small stream widths, and difficult or non-existent access, many Ozark creeks have never been boated. Granted, tiny streams flow in every part of the country that havenít been paddled, but most of those are overshadowed by more accessible, well established runs of the same caliber that flow close by. In the Ozarks, if you want to boat really serious water nearly all of it lies in tiny watersheds that plunge steeply for only a mile or two before leveling out. And many of those creeks, the majority of them in fact, have never been paddled by modern human beings. Only in the past few years has the combination of accurate precipitation data available on the Internet and extremely short, tough boat designs made trying to tackle these small creeks on anything like a regular basis seem feasible.
Make no mistake; there are some great creeks in the Ozark hills. A mixture of softer limestones and shales with harder sandstone layers provides the perfect medium for boulder-choked rapids and ledges. My buddy Steve (who goes by the nickname "Dog" when heís boating) is an expert in the geology and geography of the Ozark highlands. He can tell you all about how some of the roughest creeks were formed when unstable gorge walls collapsed completely into the creeks or why almost all of the falls are severely backcut. I just know about the obvious stuff, like how boulders the size of houses and gradients in excess of 300 feet per mile combine to make continuous stretches of class IV and V whitewater - when there is water that is.
Actually, the Fall 98/Spring 99 season was an unusually good one for boaters in the Arkansas Ozarks. Relatively steady rains and unseasonably warm temperatures extended the boating season longer than usual and kept the local play runs pumped up a good deal of the time. Iíd had the opportunity to run several great creeks like Richland Cr., the granddaddy of Ozark creek runs, the venerable Hailstone (the uppermost stretch of the Buffalo National River), and a feisty new run named Osage Cr. Those alone would have made for a great season in the Ozarks, but on top of that the great cosmic alignment had happened once, and I had been lucky enough to be there for it. A group of boaters from Little Rock had invited Steve, I mean Dog, and I to run a creek in a part of the state where most boaters wouldnít think to look for a creek. In fact, no other steep creeks had been run within about 100 miles of Possum Walk Cr. (Yeah, I know we have some goofy creek names around here, but you can pronounce them without a Native American dictionary.) We received the typical reaction from the locals: "Youíre all crazy! Nobody could survive that creek!" and "Where should we bury the bodies?" Undaunted, we put-on and enjoyed a mile long gorge chock full of class IV and V drops that rivaled some of the best eastern creeks in intensity.
Dog and I had also had a couple of trips where most of the planets were aligned, but not quite all of them, producing creek descents that were a blend of paddling and dragging our boats over big boulders. I like to think of these kinds of trips as opportunities to test the boundaries that divide hiking from boating. Most folks would probably refer to them as really bad overestimations of water levels. But, actually, we rarely pass up the chance to explore a creek, even if we think the level will necessitate some walking. Some of these suckers are so steep and blind that "paddling" them at a very slowed down pace before seeing them at full speed is not a bad idea at all. The two that Steve and I had been able to test drive that season had certainly fallen into that category. Both dropped at over 450 feet per mile in their steepest miles. One of them dropped over 200 feet in a quarter mile, and featured a massive drop that would have gotten anyoneís attention. The other one had three sheer waterfalls 10, 17 and 22 feet in height with long, uninterrupted stretches of sliding bedrock in between. Granted both of them needed more water, but what else did we really have to do?
The season was great while it lasted, but as July approaches, the rains always stop, and any creek exploration that is undertaken in the next four months must be done on foot. So when I woke up on June 30 to the sound of thunder, I thought I must have been dreaming it. After a few more thunderclaps, I decided that a quick check of my back yard rain gauge might be called for. It was difficult to see the gauge for all of the rain coming down, but it seemed to indicate just a touch over three inches of rain. I had dumped it the day before, right? My sleep addled brain couldnít remember, so I consulted that great electronic oracle better known to paddlers everywhere as the Weather Channel. Luckily they happened to be playing the familiar tunes of the "local forecast" when I turned on the TV.
Sure enough, some big blobs of dark greens, yellows, and reds were moving over the Northwest Arkansas area, and more were on the way. Flood warnings were out for most of Oklahoma, a good sign since most of our severe weather originates in that area. A very rare late season storm was training bands of heavy rains over Crawford County, about a half-hour south of my house in Fayetteville.
This looked like the real deal, so I called up my old buddy Dog, who was already up and watching the rain. "Have you got your boat loaded?" I hollered over the sound of small hail hitting my windows. To my amazement he told me that he wasnít sure he could go. "You canít go? This may be the biggest rain since Noah built his boat, and you canít go? Have you gone completely nuts?" Thatís when he explained that he might have to stay and help his wife sandbag their home since the tiny ditch behind his house was now dozens of feet wide and threatening to come up over his porch. I told him that that it sounded like a sure sign from the river gods to me, but he insisted that he had to wait to see whether the water would rise or recede.
After my conversation with Dog, I called a bunch more folks to try to drum up a crew to hit the creeks. Most of the usual suspects were out of town - boating in Colorado or elsewhere and missing the biggest rain event we had seen in over a year. No one expected such a summertime soaking in the Ozarks, so they had headed out to where the water was sure to be. After several calls turned up nothing, I called Dog back to find out if the flood had overtaken him yet. Apparently it hadnít. The small ditch-creek had swelled to river-like proportions within minutes, and it had dropped just as fast, leaving Dogís yard muddy, but his house intact. We hung up, and I jumped in my trusty old Trooper and high-tailed it over to his place to meet him.
Between the two of us we had called pretty much all of the other paddlers in the area who owned creek boats and had come up empty. It looked like it was just going to be Dog and me, a fact that neither one of us liked much. Two is not the best group size for paddling remote creeks. Nothing to do about it though, so we hit the freeway and headed south.
When paddlers in Arkansas think of rugged, fast paced creeks, they generally think of one area. The Buffalo River watershed contains dozens of creeks that cut through some of the most rugged relief that can be found anywhere in the country. Creeks with names like Beech, EFLB (East Fork of the Little Buffalo R.), Bobtail, and Shop have set the standard for steep and technical whitewater in the Ozarks in the last decade. Thatís why it may have looked strange to see Dog and I driving away from the Buffalo River heading south toward the relatively flat land of the Arkansas River valley. The area just south of Fayetteville is better known for itís great play runs, but these bigger streams are fed by several small creeks, some of which drop from the near 2000 foot elevations at the top of the watersheds to the sub-1000 foot elevations of the big river valley in just a few miles. Because much of the land in the area is a patchwork of National Forest and private inholdings, access to these creeks is often tricky, so the Arkansas River Valley has remained a relatively untapped resource for technical kayaking. Dog and I had tried to do much to change that in the past few years, running several great creeks that rivaled some of the best runs in the Buffalo watershed.
Those creeks were still getting rain when we arrived in the small town of Chester, just 15 minutes south of Fayetteville. One of the areaís great play runs, Clear Creek, runs right through the middle of town. It is by no means a big creek, only carrying water for about 48 hours or less after a big rain. That day, though, it was a full-scale river. We could see that it had been much higher just an hour or so earlier, but it was still unbelievably high, with huge, muddy waves crisscrossing it everywhere. Dogís voice came over the CB, "Looks like we hit the jackpot!" And indeed we had. We often use Clear Cr. as an indicator for other creeks in the area, and it was indicating that all of them would be running full tilt!
We headed up from Chester into the hills dodging debris that had been swept across the road when small culverts had failed to handle the torrents of water coming down the sides of the steep valley. We were paralleling a tributary to Clear Cr., and it was nearly covering the road in places. We passed one spot where a very surprised horse had been stranded on a small hill that usually formed the left bank of the pastoral stream. That day the stream didnít have the patience to go around the knoll, so it tried to swallow it up, running swiftly around both sides. The horse stood there staring at the big waves that pushed through what had been forest, waiting patiently for an escape route to present itself.
We finally made it to the top of the ridge, and drove to check out the only steep creek in the area that we could easily drive to. We had paddled/hiked Ben Doodle Cr. at a really low level earlier in the year, and had gotten a small taste of what, with more water, could be the most outrageous creek in the area. The Doodle, as we had come to call it, dropped over 600 feet in 1.5 miles, with a half-mile stretch in the middle dropping half of that total. In our exploratory run, we had run two large, steep slides, one of which dropped over 45 feet. But the small amount of water we had was not enough to fill in many of the boulder choked stretches of the tiny creek, so we had to walk around several potential class IV and V drops on our way down the creek. If we could catch it with two or three times as much water, Ben Doodle would be the creek to run that day.
As it turned out, it wasnít. We could see signs that there had been orders of magnitude more water running down it not long before we got there, but now the flow had receded to a level somewhat lower than what we saw on our first visit. "Those damn trees must be sucking the water up too fast," Dog told me dejectedly. "If this was November or March weíd be putting in, but with all this leafy-grassy junk around we get robbed!" "Yeah," I replied, "looks like we can try for Newton or we can just go run Lee, but weíll have to find something bigger than this."
We weighed our options. Newton County was home to the Buffalo River and itís myriad tributaries. If we got there and the rain had missed that area, we might be driving an extra two hours to paddle class II water. Lee Cr. was a bigger river just 10 minutes away, and it was sure to be near floodstage - a wild ride with lots of big water style play.
Just then I remembered something. "We should go check out Whistlepost," I told Dog. "Itís got to have more water in it than the Doodle, and itís not too hard to get down in there." Dog was a bit nervous about the prospect of the two of us trying to tackle Whistlepost Cr., a creek that no one had ever run before. At least on Ben Doodle, we knew what the rapids looked like and exactly where the bad stuff was. All we knew about Whistlepost came from my hike of it the previous year. It was almost as steep as Ben Doodle, and it had much bigger rocks and dozens of severe undercuts. At least two rapids had appeared unnrunnable with no water in them, and several more were questionable. The water might cover up these nasty looking spots, but would we be able to stop in time on the continuous 350 fpm gradient if it didnít? To tell the truth, I was a bit shaky about it too.
Despite all of this, it really didnít take long to decide to go. We were both coming off of a great season of paddling, and we both knew that if we passed up this chance it might be a long time before we had another one this good. We just might have to be a bit more conservative that usual to compensate for our lack of manpower. Besides, if Ben Doodle was any indication, Whistlepost would be low, and we would just have another exploratory trip that wouldnít be too dangerous before we dumped out into Clear Cr. for some big play. How could we pass up a deal like that?
When we got to Whistlepost, it did indeed have more water than Ben Doodle, but it didnít look like a huge amount by any means. Then I remembered that we were looking at only half of the flow. Two tributaries, each the size of Ben Doodle, merge right below the put-in to form a much larger creek. At the same time, the gorge closes in and compresses the flow into a channel that isnít any wider than the two small feeders above. What we saw on one of the small tribs was certainly boatable, so the gorge must have plenty of water. At least that was our reasoning.
As we got ready to run shuttle, Dog pointed out how high the water marks were up the bank. The creek had obviously carried literally ten times as much water just a couple of hours earlier. I interpreted this as a clear sign from the river gods that we were not supposed to run the shuttle. It would take over 45 minutes to drive the shuttle one way. In another hour, there might not be much creek left to run, what with all of those trees soaking up the water.
Dog did not have my faith, however, and he severely doubted that the river gods would provide us with a way of getting back to our trucks when we got to Chester. Besides, we only had a couple of bucks between us, so bribing a local resident into the hour long drive up the ridge was not a strong possibility.
Luckily, my cell phone was getting some reception, so I called my wife, Chanoy. Chanoy is a whitewater paddler too, and though she had found other hobbies to occupy her time in the past couple of years, she had been an accomplished creek boater at one time, paddling lots of creeks and making some notable first descents. So she understood the urgency of our situation better than any non-boater could, and she agreed to meet us in Chester if we would call her when we got there.
When I told him we were good to go, Dog looked rather doubtful that I had been able to secure a shuttle from my wife so easily. I think he even questioned whether I had really made the call or not. His doubts may have originated from the fact that he most often talked to Chanoy right after sheíd been woken up at 5:00 AM by a phone call from Steve asking her to tell me that the creeks are up. She tends to be a bit less than jovial when this happens, and it tends to happen a lot.
Finally he took my word for it, and we suited up. Even though it was over 70 degrees, I wore a full drysuit in an effort to avoid another bout with the poison ivy vines that blanketed the forest floor. Iíd decided earlier in the year that Iíd rather be a bit too hot than to scratch myself silly for two weeks again, and had worn my full drysuit throughout the entire season. We also both wore elbow pads, which had become essential paddling gear over the past year or two. It seems that the older I get, the more desire I have to put on extra protective gear. I worry a lot less about looking cool and a lot more about minimizing potential pain than I used to. Eventually, I can see myself wearing a veritable suit of armor, looking like a river-going Don Quixote chasing waterfalls instead of windmills. It makes me think of what a friend of mine once said about the advances in safety gear in adventure sports, that maybe we were all safer back when we had gear that didnít make us feel quite so invincible. I think thereís definitely some truth to that.
Our day started off with a wide, bony five-foot ledge that appeared before the two branches merged. That was the last bony rapid of the day. Once the water came together there was plenty of it. Nearly too much in the ultra-narrow stream, which wasnít big enough to accommodate a sideways kayak in many places. We found ourselves being shoved down a chute full of whitewater, trying to hit every eddy over the size of a basketball in an attempt to slow our descent. The water was only mild class III, but it didnít have any pauses. Finally we both hit a large eddy and I hollered at Dog to watch for a small cascade coming in on the right. Just past that was a bigger rapid I remembered from my hike.
We peeled out again and hopped several tiny half-eddies until we passed a beautiful fall tumbling down the side of the gorge on our right. "Just what we need, more water!" I hollered at Dog as he grinned back at me. Ahead of us was a small, rocky horizon line, past which the creek disappeared around a bend. I looked back at Dog and told him Iíd hop out to check it. He decided to wait in his boat to see if this was a false alarm. It wasnít.
The creek dropped over a large boulder jumble that was basically 90% unrunnable. The only way to get down it, was to dodge a couple of small boulders at the top and then move quickly to the far left, jump the top of a sideways sloping rock, make a 90 degree turn on the way down, and hit a slot drop no wider than a kayak. There looked to be several ways to get pinned, but luckily most of the water went into an ugly sieve that blocked the right ride of the rapid. As long as we could avoid the sieve, a pin would only result in some bruises and blows to our egos.
The real problem was that the rapid didnít stop there. It just kept on sliding and churning around rocks as it dropped away around the corner. I thought I could see something resembling an eddy 50 yards or so downstream, but I couldnít be sure we could hit it in the pushy current. I walked up to where Dog was parked and yelled the situation to him. He decided heíd try it, with me on the bank near the top drop ready to help get him out if he pinned.
Dog made the drop without a hitch, running a great line, the only line, through the clog of boulders. He passed me whooping and hollering with a big smile showing from beneath his helmet. I was smiling too until I watched him zigzag his way down the rest of the rapid and flush right past the only eddy I could see. Then he was gone, and I was standing there with a throw rope in my hand and a surprised look on my face. I was just starting to try to make my way down the bank to get to him, when Dogís red helmet popped up from behind some big boulders on the opposite side of the gorge. I couldnít hear him well, but he signaled to me that there was a small, makeable eddy just around the curve on the right. I quickly scrambled back up to my boat and shoved off into the current.
When I got down to the corner I pinballed my way around a few rocks, making good use of my elbow pads. There I saw Steveís boat, but no eddy, and I just managed to get the boat stopped by turning upstream and grabbing a small tree. When I hopped out to join Dog, he was looking off downstream with a weird look on his face. When I turned around, all I could see was a staircase of whitewater, churning along the gorge until it disappeared around another corner. You really couldnít break it up into multiple rapids; there just werenít any reliable eddies to hit. Every small ledge just flowed right into the next one, and, because it was so narrow, there was only one good line through the whole thing.
We walked down a hundred yards or so to find a place to stop, but we still couldnít see a good one. There were some tiny semi-eddies that could possibly be snagged. They would just have to do. It did look clear enough to run all of what we could see, but it unnerved us a bit not knowing for sure when weíd get stopped again. After all, this was the part of the creek that had looked easy when I hiked it, and we knew there were unrunnable drops on this thing somewhere.
To add to our concerns, the sky was darkening again, and the creek definitely didnít need any more water. We could see trees a few feet up the bank that had had their bark stripped off from the torrent that had preceded our arrival that morning. Another deluge like that would send us scurrying up the gorge walls for our lives. We didnít talk about it though; there was nothing to do but keep heading downstream out of the gorge.
We dropped the boats back into the rapids and shot off around the bend. Our next few minutes were spent spinning and jumping over ledges, alternately paddling furiously forward to punch hydraulics and back paddling to ferry around rocks. At one point, we came off of a small drop, turned 90 degrees, and ducked a tree that crossed the stream at chin height while plunging off of a four-foot ledge. This was Ozark creeking at itís finest! When we found a big eddy just downstream of where we had scouted to, I looked over at Dog and said, "Wow! Can we do that again?" We both laughed and exchanged a high-five with our paddle blades. But the laughter was more of the nervous variety. The creek was really just getting started, and we both knew we couldnít celebrate anything yet.
From the eddy we could see what looked like a cave in the bend just ahead. The water upstream of it was ominously flat. We hopped out on the bank and climbed down to look at one of the most impressive rapids Iíve ever seen. I had dubbed this area "The Cathedral" on my hike because the huge rocks in the tiny creek looked like the towers of some medieval church. The rapid beneath the rocks drops more than 20 feet in four stages. As it does, it runs into and under several boulders bigger than two story buildings. The third drop in the Cathedral is the real problem. In it, Whistlepost Creek is necked down into a slot barely wider than a kayak. The resulting jet of water twists back on itself as is funneled into the undercut side of one of the huge overhanging rocks. This feeds right into the last drop, an eight-foot plunge with a boat sized pothole on the right side.
The rapid was certainly runnable, but not without hefty penalties for mistakes. The middle slot had enough power and water to easily pin and drown a kayaker. Just getting to that point intact involved running back-to-back five-foot ledges just a few feet above. After a quick discussion we made the decision to portage the upper part of the drop and run the final ledge. We just didnít have the manpower to arrange an extraction that day, and if one of us were injured, heíd have to wait alone in the gorge while the other walked out. It was a smart decision, but I still couldnít help wondering if I was backing down too easily. Maybe it was just the adrenaline talking, but the lines didnít look that bad. Certainly not worse than some other big drops that I had run.
Looking back on it, it was certainly the adrenaline talking. We did the wise thing and carried down the almost sheer gorge walls to drop our boats just below the third drop. I went flying off the ledge first, trying to stay on the far left to avoid the rocks and pothole on the right side of the drop. And Dog came tumbling after.
From below, the huge rapid painted a surreal scene: a tiny creek filled with boulders that belonged on a much larger river, with water surging through every possible nook and cranny, trying to find a way through the constricting maze of rock. And we were some of the only people to ever see it like this, certainly the first in boats. Unfortunately, we didnít have much time to stop and take in more of this incredible scene. The next drop was just as big, and the swirling dark clouds above reminded us that we needed to keep moving quickly.
After a 20-minute climb down into a bowl of limestone, we arrived at the base of another 20-foot drop. This one was much simpler than the scrambled course of the previous rapid. The water simply accelerated over a gently sloping rock shelf, arced through the air, and fell 20 feet to a tiny pool below. Well it was really more of an explosion than a pool. There wasnít really a hydraulic since the falling torrent simply ricocheted violently off of the bottom of the pool less than five feet below the surface. The whole thing swirled and surged powerfully in the small grotto formed by the gorge walls.
It was one of the most beautiful falls Iíd ever seen, framed by the dark walls of the gorge against a leaden sky. And I was going to run it. "Iíll head back up to the boats and try to signal you before I come off," I told Dog as I began the climb. The landing had to be precise, but the approach looked clean. Besides, running it couldnít be any more dangerous than trying to scramble up the nearly vertical crumbing limestone walls that surrounded it. It was one of those rare cases in which portaging seemed to be the greater of the two evils. At least thatís what I kept telling myself on the way back up to the top.
After portaging a tree that blocked a four-foot ledge just above the falls, I was looking down from the edge of the drop. As I peered down into the churning grotto below, I had the strangest feeling that something wasnít quite right. I couldnít put my finger on it, but something about the fall seemed out of place. I stood there for a long moment mesmerized by the falling water and tried to puzzle out what was wrong.
Finally it dawned upon me that I could hear birds chirping and leaves rustling. Standing three feet from this torrent of whitewater, all I could hear of it was a sound like a gently babbling brook. It may have been a trick of the rock walls around the fall, or maybe it was a quirk of the weather that day, I donít know. But the fall was making hardly any noise. It was a strange sensation that just added to the beauty of this fantastic waterfall.
Just then the sun broke out from behind the wall of clouds and the whole gorge lit up with vivid greens and sparkling white water. The arrival of dancing rays of sunshine cutting through the clouds combined with the strange silence at the edge of the falls to invoke in me a feeling of complete peace and calm. I know it sounds crazy, but it seemed to me to be a sign from above that I had nothing to fear from this fall or this creek. I got in my boat, slowly put on my skirt, and pushed off without hesitation.
Ah, that old familiar discontinuity in time between staring down into a churning pool far below and plunging into the cold water. Iíve never been able to ascertain what happens to my brain in the moments between takeoff and landing on a big fall, but my senses seem to get lost in the blur of motion. Everything just moves too quickly, and the gray matter never seems to have enough time to catch up with whatís happening before itís over. Rapids I remember vividly; waterfalls are a permanent mystery to me. Maybe this is why I seek out big waterfalls. Perhaps I run them in the hope that someday I will be able to see clearly that compressed moment in time that has eluded me so far. Maybe.
Then the spell was broken as I sliced into the cold, boiling water below. My premonition had been correct. I had run a nearly perfect line, almost boofing the lip of the drop angling right into the deepest part of the pool. I paddled over to Dog in the eddy, and he helped steady my boat in the frothing water so I could get out.
"How was it?" he asked as I was taking off my helmet. "I think it may have been the best drop of my life," I replied. Iím sure he thought I was exaggerating, caught up in the euphoria of having made a first descent of a 20 foot fall, but looking back on it I donít think I was. It was a nearly perfect experience running a nearly perfect waterfall. Itís why Iíll keep chasing falls and creeks all of my life, one of those rare moments when I feel that Iím truly living instead of just existing, when I can sense everything in and around me. I carry the cumulative peace and wisdom of those experiences with me in my life, and Iím a better person for it.
While I waited for Dog to climb up for his run, I stretched out on the big rocks below the falls and soaked up the sunshine that was filtering into the gorge through the ceiling of green leaves that stretched over me. I could feel the big slab of stone vibrating from the force of the water that was pounding against the bedrock below. I nearly drifted off to sleep when I realized that I better stay awake to take a picture of Dog coming over the falls. So I climbed over rocks and trees trying to find a good spot above the mist that would lend itself to photography.
Almost 25 minutes had elapsed by the time Dogís helmet popped up beside the bluff at the top of the fall. He studied it for quite a while before giving me a thumbs-up and disappearing again. I clicked the shutter just as he dropped over the edge.
He dove a bit deeper than I had, and the impact knocked his paddle out of his hands. He broke the surface hand paddling in a cauldron of whitewater. When he hit the rocks on the bank I grabbed him and we waited for his paddle to quit recirculating under the falling water. Dog hopped out and grabbed his paddle, and we both sat down at the side of the pool and looked at the falls.
"Man, it sure was quiet up there," were the first words out of his mouth. I told him that I had had the same experience, and we agreed to simply name the drop "Quiet Falls." It was a name that was hard to imagine as we sat in the roaring grotto below it.
We still had some tough rapids ahead, but with blue skies above and the two biggest drops behind us, the gorge didnít seem nearly as intimidating. The rest of the creek was just plain fun. One of the best things about being the first boaters to run a creek is that you get to name the rapids. We named some of more memorable rapids as we descended. Just below Quiet Falls was Wondercut, where the left half of a broken ledge dropped into a cavernous undercut rock that couldnít easily be recognized from the bank. Downstream a little further was an impassable slot under a natural bridge, Big Nasty. Only someone the size of a smurf could have run it, and we had a nasty time portaging around it. Submarine lay near the end of the big gorge drops, a tight ledge that funneled into a rock. I pinned solidly on a small rock at the lip of the drop, and Dog helped me extract myself without going over it backward. Then we both ran it, plunging completely underwater in the deep hydraulic at the bottom.
The last quarter mile of the creek didnít have any drops that merited a name. The tight gorge finally receded, and the rapids tamed down to the class II-III variety. But the topographic maps of the area indicated one more potentially serious hazard before we reached the big muddy waters of Clear Cr. Between the bigger creek and us was a set of railroad tracks. Whistlepost Cr. had to cross those tracks, and everyone with a lick of sense knows that creeks donít generally flow over railroad tracks. Whistlepost is no exception to this rule.
The culvert was about eight feet in diameter and 50 feet long, and at its end the creek dropped six feet into Clear Cr. We scouted it carefully from both ends. It was clear of debris, but the last step was a real doozy. Clear Cr. wasnít just standing still as the smaller creek plunged into it. It was accelerating around the outside of a sharp bend and then slamming into a big boulder just a few feet downstream. The resulting hydraulic display was quite impressive. At least the hole below the drop wouldnít be a keeper. Clear Cr. would probably slam us into the rock wall before the hole could work us over too much.
So I followed Dog into the mouth of the tunnel with my camera drawn to record the first run of the last drop of Whistlepost Cr. As we raced past the dark corrugated walls, I clicked the shutter twice before I retrieved my paddle from my armpit. Then I followed Dog off the drop, paddling like crazy and angling sharply left in an attempt to line up with the flow of Clear Cr. at the bottom. It was a futile attempt.
Paddlers have developed their own set of terms to describe what happens to them when they fail to make a drop cleanly. Terms such as hammered, clobbered, worked, douched, and trashed. All of them could be applied to what happened to me as the nose of my boat intersected Clear Cr. I canít remember any of it very clearly myself, but the play-by-play would have gone something like, "and heís jerked around sideways before the boat can even sink into the water. Just look at that hydraulic try to tear him out of his kayak. And there he goes trying to roll as he slams into the big rock!" "Man, Howard, thatís really gotta hurt! He got hammered!" the color commentator would have no doubt added cheerfully.
But I eventually spun free, rolled up, and headed for the huge eddy where Dog was sitting. Actually, the eddy wasnít all that big, but any eddy looked big compared to what we had just experienced on Whistlepost. Dog looked as dazed as I felt. Looking at it from below, I couldnít see any way that anyone could run that culvert without loosing control at the bottom, but Iím probably wrong about that. After all, Iím just one the most dedicated whitewater boaters in the country. Iím certainly not one of the best.
One thing was certain though. We had just run one of the steepest, most technical creeks that I had ever been on. We had descended over 500 feet of elevation in two miles with the first mile weighing in at over 350 feet. Sitting there in Clear Cr. basking in the glow of this accomplishment felt pretty damn good! An perfect day on a perfect Ozark steep creek! But then, it wasnít quite over yet.
The five-mile trip down to Chester was relatively uneventful, as we crested wave after wave on a flooded creek dropping 50 feet per mile. Trees whizzed by as we zipped along the endless wave trains in water that looked like chocolate milk. At one point, we paused for pictures at a new freeway bridge where a tributary dropped over 100 feet straight down into Clear Cr. "This sure doesnít feel like Arkansas!" I told Dog smiling ear to ear. We bounced over more waves and the occasional hole, stopping to try to surf some of the friendlier looking ones. Finally the creek calmed down a bit and we came past some junky old shacks and debris that looked like they came straight out of Deliverance. Now it was finally starting to look a bit more like an Arkansas stream.
About that time, Dog dropped over a barely visible six inch ledge across the creek, but as I tried to follow him my kayak pinned at the top. I tried to wiggle off of whatever had me stuck, but despite my best attempts the boat wouldnít budge. Thatís when I saw the rebar. The owner of the Y2K-ready vacation spot we had just passed had poured a concrete slab across the creek. For reasons only a do-it-yourself bridge builder could explain he left a fence of three inch spikes of rebar poking up on the downstream side. I wasnít happy about this. Dog just kept drifting and looking back up at me trying to figure out how and why I had stopped at the top of the small bridge. Finally, I tried to carefully roll the boat up on its side to dislodge it from the metal spikes, and it worked. The boat came free and I went sailing on downstream trying to catch Dog.
When we finally got to Chester, I got a chance to inspect the hull of my 6-month-old creek boat. One rebar spike had impaled the boat just forward of the seat, and had stretched the plastic so thin you could see light through it. The gash was at least an inch deep and a couple of inches long. After several choice words concerning the one-dimensional family tree of the guy who had built the concrete slab, I was ready to head for home. We hauled the boats the remaining 200 yards to the general store in downtown Chester where we ran into an old man, a boy, and a very lazy dog.
So here we sit with our boats and paddling gear piled up on the front porch of the general store. Waiting for Chanoy to arrive, weíre gazing out at the steam rising up off the street and railroad tracks as the afternoon sun works on evaporating the water left over from the morningís deluge. Time passes lazily in this small Ozark town, and that suits Dog and me just fine. Weíve had plenty of excitement for one day.
I look over at the old dog (the real one) lying flat out on the ground. Weíre fairly sure that we saw him move at some point, but itís hard to be sure. A casual observer might mistake him for roadkill.
I reflect on the fact that this will very likely be the last big run of the season. No doubt the hot, dry summer will soon be upon us with a vengeance, and by mid July even hiking the creeks wonít be an option unless 95 degree temperatures, ticks, and poison ivy sound like your idea of fun. "Itís like God turns off the big faucet in the sky," an old buddy of mine used to say. For the next three months those boaters who can will travel to places where the faucet is controlled by the Corps of Engineers or fed by snow. Today the faucet was opened up for a brief moment and we made the most of it. Tomorrow weíll have to find other pursuits to keep us busy for a while.
I think Iíll start my summer by patching my boat.