River log: Mill Creek and Holly Creek

20160224 river log

We drove through the night to meet Justin Pagano somewhere near the Georgia-Tennessee border so that I could pick up a lightly used Jackson Karma that he had for sale. The plan started out as Tellico, then shifted to Chattooga Section 4, then back to Tellico when I saw the water start to rise. Storm warnings were coming in, and as we drove through Ohio and Kentucky the rain came down in drops of all sizes and even sheets. There was no way the Chattooga was going to stay within the safe zone if this weather was anything like consistent.

Sure enough, the message came in at around 9 that “everything is blown out.” Holly Creek, which Justin had suggested as “just like Tellico,” was above runnable. But maybe we could run this other nearby run that starts with a 40 foot waterfall. It turned out that he meant Mill Creek, in northwest Georgia.

We arrived at the chosen rendezvous- “on Old CCC Camp Road” wherever we happened to see a Tacoma full of kayaks – a bit after eleven. Among those kayaks was the large 2014 Jackson Karma that had brought me into contact with Justin through the WNC Gear Swap Facebook group. I hadn’t brought a boat down at all for this week in anticipation of committing to this boat. I’d better like it.

The Karma for me is a strange journey. I’ve been certain since Wilson Creek that it was time for a serious creeker. After countless backenders on the Upper Yough and seemingly every other steep creek I paddled in 2015, I was ready to part with my beloved Diesel. Hours after my first descent of Glen Park Falls at the end of 2015, I’d made a deal to sell the Diesel cheap to a Facebook friend who was struggling to learn in my old Nemesis. I was boatless for almost a month before picking up an old Nomad on the same group, in an epic adventure worthy of its own story during the massive southern blizzard. The Nomad was meant to hold me over while I decided between the Karma and a Recon, which seemed an impossible choice. As minimal an issue as this perhaps seems, I was torn between Wave Sport’s excellent 2014 seat and thigh braces, and the Karma’s innovative planing hull, and nobody on the blogosphere seemed to have a comparative review between the two. Everyone said Karma, but I’d struggled to roll it in pools, and the thigh braces posed a real concern. Nonetheless, Justin posted a nearly new boat on the group for just $650, nearly $200 cheaper than the only Recon I could find, and of course I love a good trip south.

So Karma it would be. We arrived at the top of Mill Creek and collectively elected to scout the waterfall with a long and steep hike. First was the entrance rapid, a hundred feet of drop in perhaps a thousand feet marred by a few blind drops into deadly strainers. That’s a pass for me, but let’s see this 40 foot “clean drop” I’d heard so much. Clean except for a pool supposedly all of eight feet deep, and a lead-in consisting of at least 20 feet of drop in continuous froth and long shallow slides. (AW says this is “Hickey drop falls” and it’s apparently quite runnable at lower levels.) I had left my phone behind and missed a great photo opportunity. There would be no chance of gopro footage to make this up. Not for my first time in a new boat, anyway, if ever. Thankfully I was not alone and we returned to the cars to run the middle section.

Other than a dozen significant strainers, the middle section of Mill Creek is a relatively modest narrow class 3. The Karma seemed to effortlessly plow through any kind of hole, except for one where I side-surfed a bit while avoiding a sudden riverwide strainer. I had a hard time keeping it straight – the planing hull with pronounced chines made turning very different than the Nomad. 

To be honest, Mill Creek quickly faded from memory after Holly. When we got off the river at 3:00, my shuttle bunny was ready to call it a day, and with inexplicable wetness inside my dry suit I was tempted to join in that call. But Justin insisted that we would be in and out in half an hour, that Holly was easy, and that I’d regret not running it. So after we had unequivocally agreed to head to lodging, I got back in to car to tell Amanda that we’d be doing this one quick run. Keep the car running.

The hike up (foot shuttle) is supposed to be 15 minutes, unless of course you’re 30 pounds overweight and struggling to balance a hundred gallons of new boat on your shoulder. It’s worth noting here that after last weekend’s challenges on the Yough and Stony, my confidence isn’t what it was in January. So when I looked down to see the curtain drop that caps out Turkey, I was ready to hike back out. But pride is a terrible thing, and swims be damned I never regret a tough run, but hikes out always seem to haunt me. So I proceeded through careful scouting and repeated back the line for the first two rapids as “stay down the middle.”

The first rapid began pushy but surprisingly rocky; I was broached on a boulder before I knew it, peeled back in and plowed a substantial hole, and got stuck in a central eddy. Justin tried to assist me out of the Eddy and proceeded onward a boat length or two ahead of me. He went over after the first big rock, where I found myself on nearly the same line but further right. It turned out the rock formed a nearly exposed shelf where I could park to wait out his carnage. I saw a single carp before spotting separation between boat and boater. The other two from our crew were already out of their boats with ropes ready when Justin dropped the ten-foot falls, boatless, and I was shortly behind, fully upright. I was stunned. The Karma was indeed taking care of me. Justin’s Villain was not far behind and exited its eddy before we had any hope of giving chase. This was Turkey, the most dangerous rapid, consisting of two substantial drops with a frothy hole in between and a curtain at the bottom. Following the first guy’s line, I made it through cleanly until rolling right after the curtain, but I made the roll, and at that moment the handling of the Karma gelled for me- it’s a giant playboat. It rolls like a playboat. It surfs like a playboat, except that it can also boof and punch holes. In my humble opinion I styled the run from there, although it was just class 3 boogie water. In hopes of finding the errant boat, we blew well past the standard takeout to give chase; two boaters stayed on after I hit my time limit and had to head out. I gave Justin his money and expressed my condolences.

It’s only been a day, but no activity has turned up online. If you find a red Villain or a paddle downstream of Holly Creek, please let me know. 

The fruits of the day's labor, my new 2014 Karma
The fruits of the day’s labor, my new 2014 Karma
Mill Creek
Mill Creek

Not exactly my best weekend

Some days I just don’t feel like a very good kayaker.  This weekend was two of those days.

Anthony rang my phone at 7:26 AM.  We both knew the local creek would still be iced over, but the next creek west, Chautauqua, was expected to break free and flow, according to the local paddlers in Erie PA.  So we should head over there.  I felt it was still a bit early but given the choice between sleeping in and paddling, I always know the answer.  I don’t have to want it, I need it.  I rolled out of bed, strapped the Nomad to the roof of the car, and hit the road.  The Tim Hortons stop was not optional, and my XL triple milk really … well, it was almost enough to get me to wake up.  I needed help from AWOLNATION and whatever other high-energy pop I could find in my phone. 

Half an hour from Chautauqua, my phone rang and it was Anthony again.  He’d beaten me out there, only to learn that the creek was still iced over.  We needed another plan.  Erie guys apparently were moving on to Walnut Creek, in their backyard.  “They say it’s great and it never runs.”  And it’s only another hour away.  I needed more coffee.

We arrived at the takeout and beheld the creek.  It was… well, a creek, I guess.  In the strictest sense of the word.  I was assured it would be epic once we were on it.  Spoiler alert, it wasn’t.  Now, that’s not to say that it isn’t a perfectly worth neighborhood run, but with the exception of one quality 3+ drop behind the Lowe’s, nothing about this run justified a three hour drive.  Anthony and Laura agreed and one of us suggested, half jokingly, that we might as well just proceed on down to the Lower Yough since we were basically halfway there.  We did the math and figured out that we could make it down in time for an evening Loop lap before sunset, so we did.  We met at the put-in at 4:45 and were on the water shortly after 5.  The level was 4.6 – not the highest I’ve done, but quite a bit higher than the usual level.

A few minutes in, at the entrance rapid, Laura took the first swim of the day.  Everyone had been clean in Erie regardless of a few sticky holes and some congestion with a raft.  Seeing Laura swim before we’d even hit the meat of Entrance made me feel a bit hesitant.  These waves were tall and the holes substantial.  I decided to take sneaky lines down the left, and minimized hole play.  In fact I spent about half my time in the rapid eddied out waiting for Laura’s recovery.  We held a meeting at the beach eddy to discuss a plan of attack for Cucumber.

Cucumber is one of my favorite “one drop” rapids anywhere.  At low water, it becomes possible to eddy out at the edge of the drop and surf down through the whole thing.  At medium levels, all lines are good lines if you’re balanced, but there are a few submerged rocks to trip you up if you’re inattentive.  At high levels it becomes a cluster of massive holes with a wide boof line to the left, and the river right eddy flushes out.  I can piece this all together now, to write, but in the upstream eddy I couldn’t for the life of me remember what the rapid was like above three feet.  I bullshitted my way through a rapid explanation for Laura, before volunteering to just lead her down a safe, easy line, skipping the eddy-hop I’d been planning to do, if I could have made the eddy.  Instead, my “easy” line led straight down a tongue into a massive peaking wave.  My Nomad caught some air coming over that wave, but ultimately crashed through.  Spinning upstream as I ferried left, I caught a glance of Laura running the boof line that neither of us realized was there.  Woos were hooed all around.  Anthony followed my clean line and showed me how easy it looks from downstream.

Next was… some other rapid.  It’s the Loop, to me it’s Entrance, Cucumber, something or other, maybe Bottle of Wine or something, Eddy Turn, and Railroad.  I don’t know the order or recognize most of them until I’m inside.  They’re all usually pretty manageable, a few flat slot moves and a lot of hidden surf spots and boofs.  Somewhere in the named rapids the names of which I forget, Anthony took a swim.  It wasn’t long, none of those rapids lasts too long, but he swam at least to the next eddy.  I joked that two out of three of us had swam so far, and quipped that it sounded like a bad omen for the third.  On the one hand I tell myself that’s a silly joke; I’m a solid class-4 boater with a reliable roll in almost every river condition, I’m not swimming on the Lower Yough.

That held true, and we got to the bottom of Railroad uneventfully.  Anthony ran the frog’s back slot move, which I don’t think is what that’s called, and I boofed a little left of that line, before somewhat accidentally taking the sneak line down to the bottom along river right.  I was at the takeout, and there was still almost half an hour until sunset.  I had to go back and surf for a while, or at least tire myself out with attainment drills.  So I started my way upstream in the right eddy, then up a level, then over and turn back into the holes to surf across.  I get across the first hole and slide into the second with a little too much angle.  My upstream edge catches and I find my paddle on the wrong side, getting ripped down by the current.  I can’t recover the brace and I’m upside down.  Looking back, I look disoriented in the GoPro video, taking far too long to move to a setup position.  I wasn’t sure if I’d flushed out of the hole.  I carped up, saw that I was still in the hole, and panicked.  I don’t know why I didn’t try again but a moment later I was watching my boat go over a rock without me.  No big deal, of course, as I have to get out of my boat here anyway; it’s the takeout.

Then I saw Laura’s unattended canoe.

I’d somehow landed sitting on a rock, so upon seeing the empty canoe I actually reached down for my whistle and blew.  Turning upstream, I saw the last thing I wanted to see – Anthony out of his boat.  All three boaters in the water, swimming past the takeout at minutes to sunset.  I watched helplessly as Laura eventually managed to catch and reenter her boat.  I passed a few eddies but I wasn’t getting out without my gear, Laura, and Anthony.  My hands were starting to freeze even in my pogies as I paddled downstream as fast as I could.  I came around a corner and caught sight of Laura again, now swimming.  I felt hypothermic signs coming on and decided I had to get out, equipment be damned.  Laura was near her boat and one advantage open boaters have is the ability to get back in midstream, so she would be okay as long as I didn’t make myself a worse victim.  As I warmed up on the rock, Anthony shouted something as he swam past, and I realized he was nowhere near his boat or paddle.  I lost sight of them downstream and quickly surmised that there was no path to hike along land.

I hopped back in.  A few hundred yards down I saw two boats and two boaters in an eddy.  Success!  But only two boats, we should have three.  It’s an eddy, anyway, and it’s getting too dark to worry about equipment; if we could make it to the car we could just set watch at the take out and hope the boat drifts down, or look for it in the morning.

As we all climbed on to stable dry ground, Anthony explained that he’d stashed his boat on land at the takeout and actually swam down without it.  Why he chose that over getting back in his boat to give chase is unclear, but chalk one up to the casualty mindset.  That meant we had two boats for three bodies, on the railroad side of the river, as opposed to the conveniently accessible bike trail on the other side.  But at this hour crossing the river seemed impractical, especially as one of us would have to swim.  We elected instead to climb a hundred feet to the railroad tracks and hike along them.  For this plan, being a boat short worked to our advantage as the canoe was an easier carry for two than one, taking turns with a rope.  50 feet shy of the top, I had the foresight to balance my boat on a rock and tie one end of my throw rope to the bow handle, and walk the rope up as I climbed.  This last stretch was about as vertical as loose dirt can get, but if you’re willing to lay down in the mud it’s not impossible to scramble up.  So we did.  Drysuits aren’t meant to stay clean anyway.  We all felt very clever for thinking to use our throw ropes.

Walking along the tracks was the easiest part of this whole adventure, except when the train came.  I could see that Laura and Anthony were at the narrowest section of the trail then, and I’m not quite sure where they would have gone if the train hadn’t been on the other track.  My GPS says that hike was only a bit over a mile, but it felt like forever by the time Laura signaled to me that we’d reached the fence by the cars.  The hike from the loop takeout to the put-in never felt like such a relaxing walk, after shedding boat, paddle, PFD, and skirt; just walking through town with a muddy throw rope slung over my shoulder so that I could pack it and shake off the dirt on my way back.

The rest of the night was unremarkable.  We hadn’t actually planned this trip, so after dinner at the pub we headed out of town to the nearest Walmart to grab some last-minute supplies, before camping in the pub’s parking lot. It rained all night, and in the morning the level read 5.7.  More than a foot higher, nearly double the water volume, but not quite high enough to start washing things out to my knowledge.  Too high for me to want to run without a local guide.  I shared my view with Laura and Anthony, and I think we were all on the same iffy page; we decided to skip it.  We scouted the waterslides of the Meadow, and saw that they were also frighteningly high.  So we opted for the Stony, an hour northish.

At the chosen section of the Stony, we learned of an “extra” rapid at the put-in via a “hiking only” (Toyota optional) trail.  So we headed up, scouted extensively, watched a local happen by, and then hopped on.  We had been planning on the sneaky left line, dodging the meat of each of the big holes and safely keeping a wide berth of the hidden pillow rock behind that one massive wave.  But the local started left, ferried upstream to river right, and snuck into the eddy right of the massive wave.  I elected to replicate this line.  I did not succeed.  Fine on the first hole but pushed a little further right.  I hit the second hole with that same bad angle that wiped me out in Railroad the day before, and to my astonishment backendered over in my Nomad.  Set up, hip snap, orient, I’m facing upstream but moving downstream, and by the time I’ve turned around I’ve drifted into the left sneak, slightly less sneaky backwards.  My left hand is throbbing again.  I must have impacted something hard with my paddle, or maybe it was just too much pressure in my roll.  In any event the pain was back.  I wasn’t looking forward to five more miles.  The local was waiting in the bottom eddy, and asked if he could tack on with us instead of continuing solo.  That meant there would still be three without me, and a safer crew than mine since there was now an experienced local involved.  So I opted to hike out, rather than further aggravate the hand injury when I’ve got a week of southeast creeking lined up.

As I reset shuttle and changed into street clothes, I started to feel a sense of remorse for walking off the river.  What a weekend this turned out to be for me – one of the most embarrassing beaters of my career so far, followed by an aborted run on a casual “to do” river and an aggravated injury.  And I still had to drive five hours home, get back to work, and prepare for the next trip.

Musing on the events afterward, I debated for a while about whether to even write this up.  I feel a sense of shame about it.  My pride wants to keep this story to myself rather than openly admit failure on what could have been a simple and rewarding adventure.  But pride isn’t why I boat.  I boat to push myself, to do things that are hard, and to achieve something that feels meaningful.  And yeah, for the adrenaline, the adventure, and the comaraderie.  But not for bragging rights.  I can’t say that it’s been very long since my last swim, or since my last hike.  And I’m okay with that.

Personal First Descent log: Beaver Meadow Creek, Java, NY

February 3, 2016

I saw that the gages were all going mad overnight between the thaw and the rain, so before I got out of bed I texted Scott to see what was up.  

    Hey, it’s James, do we know if Beaver Meadow is in?

    I’m sure it’s running but I couldn’t find anyone to paddle it with so I’m doing Chautauqua instead.  I hope to hit it around 3 pm.  Have you ran it before?  It’s running V high not a good idea for first time.

Around 3 I got this disheartening text

    We’re just hitting cat up at three now.

The Cattaraugus is a great local class 2+/3- at ordinary levels that bumps up to 3+/4- at high water.  It was at high water, but it had been up plenty in the past few weeks and I just wasn’t feeling it enough to take the day off from work for it, as strange as it felt to skip a six-foot day.  

At 3:45 my phone rang.  It was Jonathan Ortiz, a phenomenal semi-pro paddler from Rochester, about an hour away and about the same distance from Beaver Meadow Creek.  “What up homie?  I’m thinking of hitting Beaver Meadow.  You down?”

I knew that it would take about an hour to load up my boat and drive to the takeout.  From there, we could maybe stage shuttle and get to the river in as little as 15 minutes or so, for a 5:00 launch time.  I reminded him that while I felt ready for the river, Scott had backed down from taking me down it for fear that the level was too high.  “Do you feel comfortable enough taking me down for my first time, while chasing daylight?”  He didn’t see a problem so we agreed to meet at the river.  

I arrived at the takeout first, right on time at 20 to 5.  The waterfall was visibly running with plenty of water and I didn’t see any exposed rock above or below it.  To be clear, when I say “the waterfall” I’m not implying that there’s any shortage of waterfalls on this creek, but there’s only one two-tiered drop visible from the street.  Jonathan was nowhere to be seen, but as I was scouting, the third paddler, Parker Czerniak, pulled up.  Time was ticking.  I called Ortiz and he said he was 5 minutes out.  4:50, still no sign of him.  It was 5:00 when he arrived at the takeout, and I was the only one dressed.  I strapped all three boats to the roof of my car while the other two got dressed, and when the last drysuit was zipped we piled in and bolted to the start.  It was 5:15 when we began the hike, and in a few minutes we were at the traditional put-in site where we discovered a downed tree creating a riverwide strainer.  Hiking down a bit from that we saw two more, putting on after the second strainer and boofing a partly submerged portion of the third.  We came to the first big drop and got out to scout, to discover the top blocked by another riverwide strainer.  We debated for a while over whether the second tier of the ledge could be run before ultimately all deciding to hike it and seal launch downstream.  

Beaver Meadow Creek is a low-volume steep creek.  There’s a decent number of waterfalls, by which I mean sheer vertical drops with a curtain, four or more feet.  The main attraction is Angel Falls, a four-tier drop totaling around 30 feet.  When we approached the lip of the first drop, a mandatory scout, darkness was already presenting a visibility issue, both for the paddlers and for our GoPro cameras.  The status lights of the cameras, which are of constant brightness day or night, served as a reference point as our eyes adjusted to the darkness; the brighter the red blinking lights, the darker we knew that it was, and it was only a matter of time before our eyes could no longer keep up.  At this point, the lights were starting to look bright.  

Ortiz ran first, letting me watch (and film) to get the line.  The top tier is a 12 foot boof onto a shallow ledge at river left, or a six foot boof onto an even shallower ledge followed by a second six-foot tier on the right.  We all chose the right line, because as awesome as the left looked, the shallow ledge meant near certain damage to boat and back.  Besides, the final drop is another 10+ footer into a bit of a pool.  So right line it is.

I hit hard at the first tier, and harder at the second.  I am not sure, looking back, whether one of these was the drop that cracked my boat, but I hit almost vertically a few times and the hits were hard.  Reviewing the GoPro footage, though, my lines were clean so I’m not entirely sure where the boat cracked.  After Angel there is some class 2 boogie water, a few slide drops, and a 10 foot or so pool drop waterfall into the eddy above Mosh Pit.  

Mosh Pit is one of those rapids that makes the whole thing worthwhile.  I imagine that it’s a breathtaking sight to come around the corner and see the series of ledge drops and reaction waves lined up – but I’m limited to imagination as I haven’t actually seen the run.  As we prepared for this rapid, the last of the daylight faded away and we were running in full darkness.  And to add to the blindness, only Ortiz got out to scout – to check for downed trees, which weren’t in the way, as far as could be seen anyway.  I asked him for the line.  “Stay left in the current.”  I wasn’t sure whether that meant “stay at the left edge of the main channel” or “stay river left where the main current is.”  I shouted back, “I’ll follow you.”  

That’s when I discovered the extent of water in my boat.  I had felt a bit of sloshing at this point, and even in my drysuit my legs felt a bit wet.  But I wasn’t sure of the extent of it until I felt the boat’s hesitation to ferry.  Getting into the flow meant ferrying upstream just a bit down from the curtains of the previous waterfall, a hole I didn’t want to get too close to.  Put simply, my boat wasn’t behaving properly.  The ferry was sluggish and when it came time that I had to turn I wasn’t far enough toward river left, and then the turn itself went slow.  I wasn’t in full control.  I entered the rapid too far right but there was nothing to be done.  I let the current drag me through, reaction wave after reaction wave.  I did my best to stay upright and to push forward to blast through the few big holes that came in the middle.  One knocked a contact lens off center, taking away what little vision I had.  A few blinks later I was back to dim visibility, using the flashing red light on Jonathan’s GoPro as my lighthouse.  Just head toward that light, generally, and I should be okay.  Only my boat was losing speed, and maybe sinking a little.  Parker passed me as I kept slowing down in the holes while he was sensibly maintaining speed.  After the second bend in the river, they were gone.  

I caught up briefly in the mild doldrum between Mosh Pit and the waterfalls in town, the finale.  I was within shouting distance of the others, and shouted out that my boat was filling with water.  “Do you want to stop and empty it?”  No way, I said, observing that at this point the banks were too steep to climb out, and worrying that if I got out I might not be able to get back in.  At some point my hand came out of a pogie and wouldn’t go back in, so I had cold to contend with.  Light came back into the world as we entered the town of Java, where the river winds behind a few houses and businesses before plunging under a bridge for the final pitch-dark stretch to the takeout.  A small ledge drop snuck up on me ahead of where I’d been warned to stay left for the first big drop, then center for the second… I strayed a bit too far left and slammed into a rock wall, with the inertia of not just myself and my boat but an extra hundred or two pounds of water creating a free surface effect inside.  The boat crashed against the wall pinning the paddle between the two, and my left hand didn’t quite back off fast enough to avoid the impact.  It felt like a bone may have shattered, but again there was nothing to do besides loosen my grip and stay with it.  Every move took twice the effort, I hit bottom in every shallow spot, and every ferry was in slow motion as once again I lost sight of the others.  Stay left at the first big drop… is this big?  No that was just three feet, couldn’t have been it.  Here it is, a big boulder that I can plainly see I want to be left of.  Boof, turn, ferry.  I may have made the center, but I may have been a bit left of where I should be.  Boofing is hopeless when your boat weighs more than you.  I hit the bottom of the last waterfall hard, again in sudden darkness passing under the bridge.  But that was the end of the meat.  

I paddled through a quarter mile of flat water, nearly missing the slow downstream turn to the takeout as the creek bed widened and the current slowed to nothing.   I was exhausted from ferrying my heavily loaded boat and my left hand was swelling and inflamed with pain.  I couldn’t see it to determine whether it was red or purple, but I knew I’d rather avoid using it.  I hopped out of my boat and rolled sideways into the shallow bank.  Standing up in the waist-high freezing water felt strangely satisfying.  I tried to lift my boat to slide onto the bank without luck; I had to roll it sideways to start dumping water before I could even lift an end on to the bank.  It was as flooded as if I’d taken a swim, even though I miraculously hadn’t.  I popped open the drain plug and watched the boat happily relieve itself as I dragged it slowly up the hill, daintily carrying my paddle in the curled fingers of my swelling left hand while dragging the gradually lightening boat up the hill with my right.  By the time I got to the road Parker had his headlights on, in which I could examine the damage.  The base of my thumb was swollen to half again its usual size, but it was red, not black or blue, a welcome sign that there was probably no fracture.  The boat, on the other hand, was most definitely fractured, but not nearly as bad as I feared; near the centerline by the foot block I found a 6 inch split, which we deemed weldable.  This was the first time I had this boat out on big water and I fear it may not get another chance.  

And that was the run.  Beaver Meadow Creek, the elusive local legend, after dark, half swamped and half blind.  

It doesn’t get any better than this.