Tuesday, May 3, 2011

On Walden Ridge: A Thoreau Look at the Unsung

I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself,
than be crowded on a velvet cushion.

- Henry David Thoreau

While most serious boaters in the Tennessee Valley are aware of this, many boaters outside of the area really don't know how thick it is on Walden Ridge. "The Ridge" as many call it, is an elongate table top 10 miles wide that stretches from The Tennessee River Gorge in Chattanooga over 60 miles north past Interstate 40 up to the Emory River Watershed. Around 30 runnable creeks gain steam on top of the ridge as it tilts down and to the east. These streams then break through the caprock in a series of waterfalls and epic sliding features before entering beautiful sandstone canyons filled with often complex and distinct rapids all the way to the valley, before being consumed by the Tennessee River. All of these creeks must drop 800-1000 feet of gradient in their short trip to the valley, and they all have their own unique way of doing it. Some drop at a moderate pace the whole distance, while others stay flat until a final mile or two of dizzying gradient. There is something for everyone up here.

With all the options though, most people stick to a few classics like North Chick, Possum, Henderson, Suck, and Richland Creek. But there are tons of others. No one has run them all, and there is always another adventure waiting a short ride further up Highway 27, which runs along the base of the ridge, marking takeouts like vending machine buttons. Picking your pleasure often involves riding up and down 27 finding something at the ideal level. If one run isn't looking doable, it is usually a 5 minute drive down to the next watershed. Each creek has a level of commitment and adventure you often don't find elsewhere in Tennessee and are all worth seeing in one way or another.

So after doing all the classics on the ridge, it is hard to keep paddling the usuals, despite how great they are. So with the purpose of seeing new places, seeking adventure, and looking for the road less traveled, we have been trying to focus on the lesser known runs of Walden Ridge lately. Through this we have generated some interesting memories, and run some of the best and worst whitewater around.

While the Nashville floods were truly a disaster for so many people, the rain was more of just a normally epic storm east of McMinnville, and with lots of water and warm temps on a Sunday, we headed out super early to try and run as many different new runs as we could. After hearing a lot of positive accounts of Deep Creek into Soddy Creek, we checked flows at the takeout, and they looked good. After hiking in the creek ended up being at a minimal level, but heck, it was warm, and we had all day to explore! The run was pretty solid, with a few portages, but mostly good rapids with a few BIG ones thrown in for good measure. With more water, this run would rock your world.

Caleb on the first slide.

Ted Hayes emerging from his cave and paddling hibernation.

This was the best drop, a tight slot into a big pool.

On the paddle out, Board Camp Creek looked like it had good flow, so we finished shuttle from the first run, grabbed some food, and then headed right back up the mountain to drop the ridge again, this time into the river left side of Soddy Creek. Ted had done Board Camp before, and said it was alright, with some good drops early on. Well, floods around 2005 turned the bulk of gradient on this creek into a totally unrunnable pile of misery that we spent at least an hour and a half portaging around on slimy unstable rockslides avoiding copperheads left and right. This is the worst creek ever. But in the spirit of "everything is good once", we did end up finding a sweet 6 foot boof, as well as a super long and fun class 3 slide that seemed to last forever near the bottom. Well, at least now we know. Life is like a box of chocolates, right?

Jim boofing the first ledge as an old bus hanging from the canyon rim looks on.

The only good drop. Like a marshmallow in a bowl of grape nuts.

The never-ending slide.
Dats my boy C-Packet, representin'

Jim couldn't even pretend to be a dope kayaker. Uh, Hey Guys!

The next weekend brought another friendly Saturday night weather system that hit a little further to the north. After a quick dawn sleigh ride on Little Clear, we headed south to we knew not where. Phone calls and visuals quickly whittled our options down to another attempt on Basin Creek, a seldom paddled microcreek south of Ozone Falls.

The lip of Ozone Falls.

This thing is totally runnable, and bigger than DeSoto and Cane. Just wait.

It was around three years ago when we first tried to run Basin. Even after scouting around in there months prior to the attempt, we spent 3 hours or so wandering around aimlessly in the woods, baffled and discombobulated from the foggy conditions and the flat and confusing terrain. I would say a good map and compass are a minimum in finding this creek, and while I normally look upon gps use in the southeast with scorn, a gps with a coordinate pre-programmed would be tits.

We eventually honed in on the sound of rushing water, only to find that the creek we stumbled upon flowed in the wrong direction. Almost hysterical at this point, we resigned to running what must have been the upper reaches of Little Sandy Creek down to the road and hitching back to the car and going straight home, finishing the night with maybe a nice warm bath and some Saved by the Bell re-runs. But after a short slog through the rhodo ditch we had embarked down, we saw a road heading back towards the cars, and got back out. It is then that we found out that the trick to getting on Basin Creek is to actually be looking for something else entirely. While looking for the cars, we finally happened upon Basin Creek.

So with an hour left of daylight in January, we dropped in, only to find out the creek was flooding. While the ensuing hour was "fun" to Keith, everyone else was just trying to keep up, as we participated in what only could have been the fastest series of portages conducted to date. If there was a place for a Speed Portaging competition, this was it. We were pioneering a new sport!

After paddling out in the dark, there was much laughter at the takeout, along with some cussing. Tom Zimmerman said he will never EVER go on another paddling trip with me again, which he has kept his word on since.

But this warm Sunday afternoon we had plenty of light, reasonable flows, no whiners, and more importantly, no map. So while we did spend around 15 minutes being lost, and an extra half mile of walking, I'll take it! And with a lower flow than suicide, we actually got to squeeze every drop we could out of Basin Creek, having a fun afternoon in the process. The top starts with some cool open bedrock scenery and a few sliding drops before turning a bend and vanishing over a mine shaft of a horizon line eminating a deafening roar from the depths. In combination with the slides above, this 30 foot drop could be the most cranked up start to any run on Walden Ridge. Four or five tight and precipitous drops stack up immediately below for a short distance before the mank comes out in full fury, forcing some walks and sneaks here and there. The final chunk of gradient exhibits that classic "if only that rock wasn't there" character, requiring a final walk. A long class 3 paddle out ends the run. Would I go back? Probably. It is certainly worth doing once, and might even fit into the "once a season" category. For the big drop alone it was worth all the tripping around in the fog, portaging, and estrangement of paddling companions that resulted from the first trip.

Jim running the first little slide, cutting through Basin Rock.

Basin Falls

Caleb on the falls, from the top.

Caleb boofing into the next rapid right below the falls runout.

Same drop

Jim on the next double drop

Caleb finishing the double drop

Though we failed later in the day to obtain shuttle for a run down the Tiny Piney, we did get caught up in another rain storm, ushering in another two days of good water. The next day Tony met me for a late afternoon trip in the Piney River watershed near Spring City. We started by hiking into Stinging Fork Falls, a huge rapid on an otherwise boring run. This is definitely the best and maybe only true park and huck on Walden Ridge, but it is a real doozy! The whole thing must drop at least 60-70 feet. It starts as a fast low angle slide before it drops off a 15 foot shelf into a mini canyon, and then accelerates down a spiraling turn and races down off a 40 foot waterfall, with the first 15-20 feet being a steep slide into a final 20-25 feet of air time. I had been wanting to run this for years, and it finally had adequate flows. While it was enough water, I wouldn't want to see much less, and too much would also be problematic, due to the log jam immediately downstream of the plunge pool.

After a bit of scouting, I walked back up and got in the frame of mind to take the monster on. I haven't run many big drops, but knew what to do. I peeled out and was instantly going faster than I thought I would be going, and getting faster. I then fell off the big entrance drop and was careening at lighting speed around the big banked turn before straightening out and seeing nothing but tree tops. Before I knew it, I had launched down the slide and was in space, my cerebellum quickly enacting the proper muscle memory required to bring my bow down for a gradual hit. I landed with a perfect angle, but the high speed of the beginning and middle of the rapid throws you out of the fall line and into hard water, so the hit was notable. My face was numb and chest was sore. I would equate the hit to doing a belly flop off a diving board with a full head of steam. Survivable, even repeatable, but certainly memorable. I can only imagine what the hit must be like running something like Wabena Falls or Metlako Falls.

Getting ready to leave this world behind

Only to make a quick return

Fun slide just down from the falls

After a few victory laps on the lower slide, we hiked out quickly in pursuit of a run that Tony had never done, and a run I needed pictures of, just a few miles from where we had parked.

Duskin Creek is similar to the Tiny Piney and Crooked Fork. It has alot of fun class 3-3+ bedrock, with some solid ledges thrown in for variety. The scenery is great, and the trip typically ends with a swollen big water paddle out on the lower section of the Piney River. I'll add that with high water, the run turns into a full on class 4 flush with some SERIOUS holes. This day though, we had a fun minimum, and made quick work of the run, vainly chasing good lighting for photos.

The first slide, a nice 12 foot cascade

This ledge is scary at higher flows, but just a great boof on the lower end.

One thing about Walden Ridge is that it doesn't hold water for too long after the last rain drops fall, so it was unusual to wake up the next morning and see that the North Chick gauge was flattening out quickly, suggesting the possibility of an afternoon run down Chattanooga's classic class 4 creek. But once again, in the pursuit of fresh territory, I had my eyes on Soddy Creek, which being one watershed north of the Chick, and having a sizable encatchment, was rumored to run as much as North Chick. Matt Wallace is THE local explorer in Chattanooga, and was more than willing to come up to Soddy after a morning run on Jones Creek in Alabama. This is after he worked all through the night the night before, which was after another long double creek day before that. Four serious creeks in a single waking period. The man is driven!

So while North Chick was on the low end, we met at the Soddy Creek takeout hoping that the here-say was legitimate. We deemed it pretty low from the looks of the creek at the takeout bridge, but it is always better to regret what you did than what you didn't, so we loaded up and drove up the mountain, resigning ourselves to at least finding out what the run looked like.

After hiking in and puting on Gray Creek, we quickly noted that there was plenty of water, and this was even before the confluence with the main stem just a half mile downstream. Once on Soddy, the flow was great, the sky blue, and the creek was studded with large hemlocks and big boulders. The water quality seemed decent and had a nice bluish green glow to it. We could already tell it was going to be a great paddle, and we wouldn't see another soul out there.

The general consensus on Soddy Creek, other than that it runs alot, is that it is the most dangerous creek on Walden Ridge. I wasn't convinced yet. All the creeks on the ridge are dangerous, and the shape of the boulder break down dictates this all over the area, so I was a little doubtful that this run was inordinately more dangerous than any other surrounding creek. I am quite used to being pleasantly surprised by how doable and reasonable some of the more dangerous runs like the Meadow and Linville end up being, but Soddy Creek was way more dangerous than I could have imagined. The run started with a bit of boogie, and some tight stuff here and there, and I kept thinking it must get sicker, but it didn't. Then when I started to wonder what the fuss was all about, we hit the real stuff.

While the first drop was tight and undercut, it was pretty chilled out, but I could see around the bend that the creek narrowed down and dropped through some serious gradient and big boulder piles. Thus began the scouting and dealing with all this creek had to throw at us. Skywalker is the true gateway into Soddy Creek's enchanting world of doom, with a swirling entrance into a huge 10 foot boof that lands in a disgusting hole that had backwash coming from 15 feet downstream. The right was badly undercut, but the left was something else all together. The true debate would be whether being in the hole or under the house sized boulder on the left would be worse. If you made it through, there were a few more sieves on the right before the creek dropped off another 6 foot drop where the only safe line was to drive the left corner away from another disaster waiting to happen. Despite the caution tape littering the drop, it is the definition of a scary classic. It was like a juiced up creek version of Rites of Passage on the Lower Meadow, with the vibe of Daywrecker on Black Canyon of the Gunnison.

Below here, the run continued on for almost two miles of non-stop action. Everything was runnable, though we did walk the first half of one smaller rapid with an ill placed siphon. There were probably 15-20 serious class 4+ to 5 rapids, most of which containing tight but clean moves through boily corridors and strange boulder configurations to stay out of trouble. The air was tense, but the lines were so much fun, and deep pools separated each drop making the environment one easily approachable with the "divide and conquer" attitude of taking it one step at a time. I fear this place at high water. Taking out the breaks and linking it all up must really make a sick sight. The scenery got better and better with shaly palisades coming down from the right bank. As we approached the confluence with Deep Creek the rapids eased a little before bending to the left into the final piece of disturbia.

Hoochie is the last serious rapid, and blind-dogging into this one would have to yield a 100% failure rate to anyone who hasn't at this point realized that boat scouting this creek is a bad idea. The channel barrels down a complex ledge garden on the left, with all the flow smashing under one undercut after another, before choking up and breaking back down and to the right through a 10 foot sieve laden drop. The only line is to drive against the grain through a touchy top move into a river right eddy, power-ferry the next ledge face to the left eddy, and then drive back to the right and then through a cheat chute in the middle that drops 10 feet onto the shelf below. This offers up 3 opportunities to mess up dicey moves with consequences that compound every foot further downstream you flush. What a relief it was to see Deep Creek bubbling in on the right, knowing we were back in charted waters.

From the bottom up at the first rapid we scouted

Matt finishing

People never run this!?

An honest moment at Skywalker

Finishing Skywalker

Soddy Creek had some of the best boating on Walden Ridge, and runs as if not more often than the North Chick. With that said, it is absolutely NO place for uncertainty. Few runs live up to their respective danger hype, but Soddy Creek exceeds its reputation. If you like precision boating in technical multidrop rapids, this is the place to be, but don't mess up, and keep an eye on your buddy. You won't see anyone else out there, and for that alone, the trip is worth every stroke.

So the last few rain events have been great, and what made them so memorable and worth while was that we tried to do new things and see new places. Beyond rocks and water, trees and sky, it's the newness and volatility of trips down unseen river corridors that really keep it fresh. And though some days may not end up being filled with good boating, the days of adventure AND good boating constitute the peak of paddling.

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