Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Magic of Winter in the Southeast

Unpredictability is something you really have to come to terms with as a paddler in the southeast.  Though there are a handful of good whitewater runs that have scheduled dam releases, 99% of the whitewater in the southeast is relatively unreliable.  Without any way to divine with some advance notice as to when something might run, you just have to take it as it comes.  When its dry, you'd better have some other things you enjoy doing.  

Sometimes much of the winter season can be a bust, with cold temps and little in the way of big rain events.   But inevitably, the winter holds the most promise for paddlers searching for new adventures and frequent doses of southeastern creeking.  The leaves have already long fallen, revealing the underlying strata that stays hidden much of the year.  The trees want little in the way of water, allowing whatever falls from the sky to run freely down the hundreds of navigable creeks that clutter the TN/NC area.  The karst water tables on the plateau fill in and a new world is born yet again, as is the case most every winter.  The highest reaches of the Appalachians develop a layer of snow that while inadequate to produce any significant season, pads the saturation of the ground in our favor.  The national and state parks  are deserted, the Ohioans, Indianans and Floridians back on their side of the country.  And left unimpeded to discover a place and time that almost seems designed for us, we rise before the first light, load our boats in the cold, hands hurting already, and embark on a mission to seize the day.  Never sure what exactly will be encountered, or how circumstances will unfold, we soak in the uncertainty and refreshing zeal that accompanies a trip to lands close in geographical distance, but eons far from the typical human experience.  

This has been a phenomenal winter in the southeast.  I've gotten on so many different streams with so many different people that trying to list it all would be a bit of work.  A good winter in the southeast is very hard to beat.  On my latest Little River run with Spring in full bore, seeing the tourists and spring breakers re-descending onto the promised land with an unstoppable ever growing thickness that will not wane untill the leaves are gone again next November, I took a moment to be thankful for how amazing winter is, and all the experiences it gave me this year.  Every season is perfect in its own way.  Spring is in full swing, and I don't want to miss a moment of it, but it sure is nice to take pause and appreciate what has been.

Steve K heading into the cool little gorge below Elkmont

I think they call this Scarface?  Great rapid.

Sinks with the semi-regular punji stick that  appears often

Natural Tunnel State Park (You could paddle the tunnel if you were so inclined)

Alexander's fourth birthday.  

A real fireman!

North White Oak Creek in the Big South Fork has always nagged at me.  Countless times I have paddled by as it joins in on the left shortly above Leatherwood Ford and wondered how the run was.  It seemed like a large stream with a big watershed, but an epic shuttle has always kept the numbers way down as far as trips down the creek.  In searching for access options on the recently first descended Laurel Fork of North White Oak Creek, I stumbled upon a pretty handy put in that cuts the shuttle from over an hour to 15 minutes each way.  So during our first big snow storm of the year, the Southeast Soul Boater Union joined the creek for an afternoon of surreal beauty; a fitting welcome to short but magical days of winter that were sure to follow.

I'm pretty sure that you normally have to pay a lot of money to have that many spokes on your wheels.

Looking into the bottom of the Laurel Fork gorge

The Laurel Fork is the most untouched part of the BSF.  There is nothing in there but quiet and indifferent wilderness.

Peace and quiet on pure terms

Out from the cold, in to the warmth.  Tony Robinson says that the best thing about boating in the winter is putting your dry clothes on afterwards.  It doesn't stop there though.  

Lesser run drop on White Top Laurel Creek

Cold day

One of the many Virginia Creeper crossing on the way down to Damascus

This winter we really took initiative on exploring the vast table lands of the northern plateau, specifically the Big South Fork's lesser known tributaries.  Here we are paddling a seldom seen stretch of creek that wouldn't win any awards, but ended up giving us a rich experience in a new canyon.

There is a reason no one talks about it.  This sieve is a cold blooded murderer.

Alex Zendel greasing through a nice slot

So many canyons out there.  Each one is different

Throw enough boulders and gradient together, and eventually, you've got to hit a nice boof.

Christmas Morning, the face says it all.

After the Christmas season passed, my cousin and I finally got a chance to do an overnighter together.  Ben has little whitewater experience, but his strength, cool-headedness, and military background pretty much qualify him for anything I can think of.  We headed to the Big South Fork, with the plan of using a two many ducky to paddle from the confluence to Leatherwood, with an overnight stay in the fabled rockhouses of the Honey Creek Loop.  This trip was incredible, and really gave Ben and I both a broad sense of the plateau in the winter.

Though the hike to the put in is only half a mile, carrying all the gear and beer was a real test of our sufferability.

Once on the water, the poor arrangement of our gear and boater positions became immediately clear.  After a sneak at Double Drop, which surely would have destroyed our trip before it began, we quickly closed in on Washing Machine, deciding to just "go for it!".  This resulted in us in the river, and our beer and a few bags floating in different directions.  All that training in Alaska paid big dividends, as Ben, little phased by the cold, swam around and retrieved our gear.  Then it was off to the El, where we displayed the finest boating the rapid has ever seen.  The adrenaline was pumping as the mercury dropped down to the mid 30's.

Honey Creek confluence

Here we start our winter wonderland trek  a mile up to the rockhouses.

Some of these icicles were 20 feet high!

Indian Rockhouse, with the lights out

The smaller rockhouse near the toplands

Our refrigerator

Perfect for keeping the beer ice cold!

Boulder House Falls

The next day we did the Honey Creek loop before heading down to Leatherwood.  There are a few waterfalls in there that go with enough water.  This hike is rough and the best ramble in the Big South Fork.

Clean 20

So many places on the plateau like this.  

Honey Creek Falls, plop and drop

Honey Creek Overlook

For those that know the river, Hand of God is one of those boulders in the middle.

Mischief afoot

Gov't issue drysuit

Yes, its a Kokatat

Our trip on the Big South Fork was unforgettable.  Can't wait untill next time.

If you look closely on your way to the Tellico, you may see one of the stranger collections of bush art around.

Crack in the Rock, Lower Tellico

The Lower Tellico is gorgeous, especially when its deserted.

First day of school!


Despite how classic the Obed is, I don't get out there as much as I would like to, but the stars aligned one warm winter day, and I got to paddle with my wife and many friends down one the best rivers in the south.

Nemo Bridge

Russell DeCastogrene in the real mans boat

Tony Robinson dwarfed by the sizable and intimidating Rockgarden

Laura in the crux

Russell gave it all he had, which ended up being just enough!   Russell is seen here being the hero of the day, firing into Rockgarden in a big canoe.  It was intense, and I got a great look at his face as he came in.  Priceless.

Thats all for now.  I've got a second Winter photo dump in the works.  Hope everyone had a great winter.

1 comment:

Jack said...

Cool Post! I've never seen Fat Tire in a can before!