There
we were, surging like lemmings or buffalo over the edge of a cliff, a
mile and some upstream of the traditional chair lift access trail and
250 ft above the river. An impromptu trip of, well, I never heard a
count, but it looked like 20 paddlers, kayaks and some solo opens.

I
roped my Corsica down about a dozen feet, and climbed down the cliff
after it. Then I tied my throw rope on the grab loop and slid my
boat by stages over steep slopes of big broken rocks, through brush,
saplings, and downed trees. It seemed twice as long as the climb
down from Chicken Coop Gap on the upper Conasauga. Winded when I
reached the bottom, I sat on a log to recover. Opposite a sandy
beach was a very large, still pool. I could hear a roar to the left,
upstream, from among boulders the size of small houses.

Most
paddlers had not even started down the cliff, so I joined a couple of
other early birds on the clear pool and paddled up to see Humpty
Dumpty, one of the most severe obstacles on the upper canyon. There
were two big drops, separated by a short pool. I’m told there are
strainer rocks near the approach to the upper drop, and strainer
rocks could be seen leading left off the middle pool. Most water
flowed over the second drop and through a somewhat undercut chute
into a vicious hole. There appeared to be a sneak slide on river
right, if one could get to it while in the intermediate pool.
Opinion holds that Humpty is not that runnable that low, around zero
on the bridge gauge, our level that day. We saw some paddlers
portaging from upstream, having apparently already walked around
Roadblock. The walk around Humpty looks tough, and is, by all
accounts. Before climbing down, Jack Weems said he was glad to be
putting in below Humpty. After the descent, he wasn’t so sure. It
amazed me that no one in this large group was injured climbing down.

Once
the armada was out on the pool, we started downstream. John
Abernathy served as de facto trip leader. Supposedly we were split
into two groups. GCA paddlers included Jack Weems, Louie Reynolds,
Bronwyn Fowlkes, and David Ashley whom I hadn’t seen in quite a
while. Most of the others were TSRA paddlers.

We
weren’t far below the big pool when difficulty increased sharply.
We encountered an almost uninterrupted series of class three rapids,
comparable to some of the better series on the Tellico but harder to
read because of the huge sandstone rocks littering the river. John
Abernathy would describe what to expect, recommend intermediate
eddies, show us where to go over drops, and signal from below with a
paddle when he wanted the next one of us to come over. There were
occasional swimmers in the harder drops, but the sun had come out to
take the edge off the chill of immersion.

The
difficulty of the rapids increased somewhat, later ones being named
Mr. Bubbles, the Narrows, and finally Deep Throat. Some had scouted
the Narrows, and all scouted Deep Throat. I had seen it one summer
when the river was running about 10 cfs and my wife and I swam up
from the chair lift access. Empty, it had looked unrunnable. At
today’s level, it looked very tricky but feasible. (John said it is
somewhat easier with a little more water.) First you run a strong
3.5′ drop and get into a river left eddy. Then you ferry over to
right of center to run a sloping tongue which crashes left off of a
large rock. The current then blasts straight downstream toward the
final 3.5′ drop, where it splits around a rock which has a notch, the
“throat”, capable of swallowing the hapless. The trick is to
bear off to the left of the rock, over into an active hole with more
rocks in the run-out. In spite of my size and weight, I managed to
make all the right moves, except for getting spun in the final hole.
Bronwyn had been spooked for some time by paddlers pulling out in
front of her in unfamiliar rapids, but she hadn’t flipped before,
and she didn’t flip here either. Scouting must have helped,
because I don’t think anyone got seriously out of shape here. Deep
Throat is a serious rapid, probably a very high class 3 at this
level, but seems not quite as difficult as Bottleneck downstream.

The
action eased, and we had a better chance to look up at the sheer
cliffs at the top of the gorge. These were now about 400′ above; we
had dropped over 100′ in about 1.5 miles. Most were ready for a
break, so we pulled up on a ledge a third of a mile below Deep Throat
and ate lunch. It was about 2:30 Eastern time. I had stayed warm
ever since the exertion of the put-in, even though the polypropylene
insulation under my dry top was quite damp with perspiration from the
climb down. Eating doesn’t make you warmer right away, and it
pulls blood into the digestive system. I started to get a bit cold.
Still, the sun was out. The gorge was beautiful and we were
content.

Back
in the boats, we paddled past Bear Creek and the remains of the chair
lift. We knew there was another mile of serious rapids coming up,
culminating in Bottleneck. Suddenly I was having big problems,
cramps in both arms, forearms, upper arms, the worst muscle cramps I
have ever had. Fortunately they did not lock on all at once, so I
could manage the boat while trying to stretch them out. Was I too
tight and stressed out from the new and difficult rapids earlier?
Was it partly because I was cold? Or, as my mother would have said,
had I erred by getting back on the water without waiting an hour
after lunch?

I
had to make a decision, to drag the boat 1/2 mile back upstream and
up the chair lift trail, or to nurse my crampy muscles down through
Bottleneck and over the remaining 6 miles to the highway takeout.
Walking out was sure agony; paddling out might be relatively easy, or
I might just end up stuck farther downstream, looking at miles of
poorly maintained exit trail to be walked in disappearing sunlight.
Bronwyn offered Pogies to cut heat loss, but I was afraid that if I
did cramp, they would just be in the way as I struggled to regain a
grip on the paddle. I decided that the best way to avoid further
cramps was to paddle with extreme economy of effort, keeping my hands
as relaxed as possible and being sure to get power from the torso,
not from the arms.

I
eased through the “hard” rapids in the 1/2 mile above Bottleneck.
When I felt no more sign of cramps, I did some straight-line
paddling in the pools to warm up generally. Nearly everyone scouted
Bottleneck, which might be called a low class 4 at this level. I
hadn’t set eyes on Bottleneck in a dozen years, but it didn’t
look hard if my arms would work: about three stages of technical
moves from one pool to the next, and then peel out to run the
turbulent final drop, which contains most of the difficulty at this
low level.

I
got down OK, and I think everyone else did too. Then began a long,
strung-out procession of boats over the remaining miles. The water
was a little low for this more spread-out section, but there were
occasional small scale surfing opportunities. Poor David Ashley got
flipped while surfing in a spot too shallow and rocky to roll. Even
in a full dry suit, he looked cold.

Everyone
got off the river by dusk. I was very tired and very satisfied. The
“extra mile” was well worth the appalling climb down, even with
the subsequent cramps thrown in. The reason is simple: that mile and
some has more to offer, in quantity of action and scenery, than the
rest of the run.

The
“over the edge” put-in for this extra mile section was not cited
in David Wallace’s Little River Canyon Fact Sheet, reprinted in the
December ’95 Eddy Line. It is somewhat over 4 miles down the scenic
road from highway 35, a short walk upstream of where the road loops
around a substantial side creek, where there is an overlook at the
upstream corner. You can find the access point by a process of
elimination, because there is only one spot where clambering down is
even feasible.

Jack
Weems and Louie Reynolds, who have run the section above Humpty a
couple of times, decided that getting around Humpty by portaging was
easier than avoiding it as we had, by climbing down the cliffs to put
in below. A good argument, though the climb down at the “Upper
Two” access cited by Wallace is still over a 200′ descent. And I’m
uneasy about Wallace’s suggestion that Humpty is “an excellent
rapid to test yourself on.” If Wallace and friends have come
through upright, or at least unharmed, more power to them. But
Humpty is an honorable portage, even more so because it is not near a
road like Bull Sluice, but is instead very remote from aid, separated
by another mile of class 3+ rapids, with gradients in the 60 to 100′
per mile range, before you reach the chair lift access. I don’t
think you would want to climb out the way we climbed in.

by
Gary DeBacher
From The Eddy Line, May 1996