Western
North Carolina got a ton of rain over the weekend so five of us plus
a shuttle bunny headed up to Fires Creek to finally get in a run on
this little-known creek. Participants were Steve Smyth, Augie
Westerfield, Brian Swafford, Tim Ward, Allen Pogue, and shuttle bunny
Betsy Westerfield. I have a little trouble putting into words the
experience I had paddling Fires Creek. We put in at the first road
crossing that was available upstream of the Fires Creek Recreation
Area. This gave us about three miles of continuous whitewater, and I
do mean continuous. We set up an alternate shuttle so we could opt to
paddle on down past the first takeout to add a few more miles of what
we thought would be Class 2. By the way, I now have a new definition
of “continuous.” This first section is basically a 3 mile long
Class 2-3 rapid. I have never paddled anything quite this continuous
and I have a little trouble imagining how I could ever possibly
paddle anything this continuous again.

If
you were to look at one small isolated section of Fires Creek, say 50
feet long, you would probably say “That’s a Class 2,” or maybe
“That’s a Class 2+.” While true, the wary paddler must take
everything in context. And on Fires Creek, the context is that the
rapid was probably preceded by about 1 mile of continuous Class 2+
and is probably followed by another 2 miles of continuous 2+, all of
this punctuated by a few Class 3 moves and wood, and if you’re
lucky, there might be five or six eddies big enough to hold, say, one
and a half boats. You might not be lucky however, and you will be
satisfied if you can merely turn upstream and paddle against the
current without losing too much distance downstream before you hit
that big pillow thing in between those 30 or 40 other pillow things
and rooster tails all why trying to scout the next blind turn for
wood.

Class
2 paddlers should not go to Fires Creek. You must be a Class 3
paddler. And you can’t just be the kind of Class 3 paddler who has
run Nantahala Falls a few times. You’d better be capable of
paddling full-on Class 3 without swimming or this creek will send you
on a rocky quarter-mile swim through 45 degree water at about 6 or 7
knots. And you probably won’t be able to find an eddy to swim to,
you’ll just have grab onto a Rhododendron branch and pull yourself
up the bank. You can forget about your boat and paddle. Just drive
down to the Hiwassee and try to grab them as they go by. As usual I
was very nervous about doing a new run of unknown difficulty. I
actually felt a little nauseous which happens when I’m stepping it
up a bit, and as I am still new to creeking, I definitely felt I was
in for an adventure.

Since
a couple of us were really nervous, Steve decided it would be a good
idea to hike upstream a hundred yards or so and give everybody a
chance to run a couple of rapids and catch some eddies. If things
didn’t go well, it would be possible to take out and still get back
to the car before dropping off into Nantahala National Forest. The
hiking trail up wasn’t too bad, but the rhododendron hell that
lined the banks of the creek wasn’t too much fun. We had to push
around through the jungle and after a couple of false starts, we
finally found a decent place to launch. Actually it wasn’t a very
good place to launch at all but with Tim helping to slow down our
seal launches, we were able to get in without any flipping-over
shenanigans. Everybody caught a couple of eddies, successfully ran
the first 3- without any real warm up and we waved goodbye to Betsy
and headed downstream.

Steve
was very concerned that we eddy hop our way down properly due to the
continuousness of the run and the unknown problem of wood around
blind corners. We didn’t have to wait long. There is a blind corner
less than 100 yards below the bridge. This was followed by more blind
corners, more continuous whitewater, and not one eddy big enough to
hold more than about three boats. It was incredibly fast paced, there
was a lot of wood and there were a lot of spots to get pinned, but
there was also a tremendous amount of high quality whitewater. I
began to get my reflexes in tune and was hitting all my lines and
adapting to the speed of the run. Everyone proceeded in good order
and I started to loosen up.

Brian
paddled up to me in an eddy somewhere and said, “Well, you wanted
to start creeking! You got it. This is true creeking!” He was
definitely right. This was my fourth creek of the wet season and it
was definitely the most intense.

Just
when I was starting calming down a bit, Steve warned us we needed to
get out and scout a drop that was around the next corner for wood.
From upstream I could see most of the river bed was not viable to
paddle and that the drop was probably about 6 feet through what
looked to me like a rock jumble. Brian paddled up to me in an eddy
just upstream and asked what was coming up. I held up four fingers
and shouted over the roar of the creek, “A Class 4.” I turned out
to be wrong about the rating (probably) but it’s definitely a
serious drop. Fortunately there was a large eddy just upstream of the
drop where we all got out to take a look.

I
had to climb up the slope about 15 or 20 feet to get a

good
look and determined that there was no good portage available on this
side and getting to the other side would involve a hairy ferry right
in front of the drop. I was a nervous wreck. At first I said I needed
to portage it, then determined that portaging was possibly more
dangerous than running it.

There
was a very narrow entry slot that really needed to be hit correctly
to get the only clean line through the top part of the rapid. It was
a tight slot where current went through a slot in a ledge and drove
directly into a boulder. If you were far enough right, you would ride
a curler off the boulder into the center of the rapid. If you were
too far left, you would drop to the left of the boulder into a series
of very shallow pour-overs that might harbor potholes and also might
have been too shallow at that level to pass without getting pinned.
No matter what, going over there would probably be the elbow-bashing
line, and I didn’t bring any elbow pads. There weren’t really any
other options. There wasn’t anything to the left of the slot and
the alternate line on the right side was full of wood.

Steve
and Augie offered to go first to show us the line. I saw Steve and
Augie run it cleanly and it looked like they were able to negotiate
their way down the rest of the rapid without too many issues and eddy
out on the left. I started to think that I could do it and I began to
get into my boat. Tim and Brian were waiting to see what happened to
me.

I
finally took a couple of good deep breaths to calm down a bit and
peeled out high into the relatively swift current in order to line up
properly. Steve had paddled aggressively into the drop but I decided
to match speed with the current until I could get a good look at the
slot. When I saw where I wanted to go, I took a couple of forward
strokes to make sure I got over some shallow rocks and then used a
couple of draw strokes to pull myself right where I wanted to be.

For
a moment I thought I was going to hang up on the right edge of the
slot, having cheated a little too far to the right, but I skidded by
and dropped into the curler where I wanted to. I fell into the middle
of the rapid with a little too much right lean and had to brace a
little. Then I could see that the middle wasn’t completely clean,
there were a couple of holes to contend with . . . but nothing that
couldn’t be punched.

All
this was followed within a few feet by a long tongue backed by a
hole. I took all of this in within about 1 second. I punched through
the upper holes, got a little more swished around than I expected,
hit the tongue slightly left and eddied out by Augie and Steve. I had
done it and boy was I relieved! Steve said it was a Class 3. I
negotiated upwards a bit and called it a 3+. In my mind, it was a
little longer and more difficult than Nantahala Falls, which is an AW
“benchmark” Class 3 . . . and the consequences were definitely
worse.

However,
it wasn’t really a Class 4, although at slightly higher levels
there’s no doubt in my mind that it gets considerably worse. There
were plenty of pinning opportunities, any swim, especially a swim
early in the rapid, would be almost guaranteed to be terrible, and
there was no recovery pool. You might just have to keep on swimming
around that next blind turn. Brian and Tim both ran the rapid well,
although Tim got a little stern-squirted in his Centrifuge. That
happened to him quite a bit all day. Hopefully some day Tim will be
able to get a creek boat. There were so few eddies below that the
group had to string out a bit when the last couple came down to make
room. It’s that kind of stream.

After
this, I began to feel a lot better and relaxed quite a bit. Steve
assured me that the worst was over and I really began to enjoy
myself. Brian was riding an adrenaline high and got a grin plastered
on his face that didn’t come off for quite some time.

The
continuous whitewater didn’t stop. It just kept coming and coming.
We had to avoid a couple of log jams, making sure to choose the
correct channel when going around some islands. We had to eddy hop
carefully in controlled descents in several places in order to scout
for wood.

At
one point we came upon a nearly river-wide hole that I had seen from
high up on the mountainside when we were driving to the launch. It
was a stopper but not a keeper. Everybody made it through but Tim in
the playboat got turned completely sideways when he dropped in and
sat there for a minute on the backwash. I thought we might get to see
a little freestyle rodeo action but he got lined up straight again
and slowly flushed downstream.

We
rode curlers, skidded over shallow ledges, dodged boulders and trees,
and did quite a bit of laughing. Brian decided that Steve had made up
for taking us to the Upper Tallulah a couple of weeks before, where
we had ended up paddling three miles of Class 1 at the end of the
run. We were having one of the best runs of our lives and we knew it.
The creek never disappointed, continuing to run between steep
forested slopes, and rhododendron-lined banks. At the beginning I
feared that we wouldn’t get to the takeout but by this time I began
to fear that we would reach the takeout. I didn’t want it to end.

When
we finally started to get close to the first takeout, we saw Betsy on
river right. She had hiked upstream on a paved trail to warn us that
there were two slightly offset strainers ahead that were passable but
a little sketchy. We got out to take a look. Steve, Augie, and Brian
decided that it was good to go and didn’t want to carry their boats
but Tim and I decided to walk it. We weren’t missing any good
rapids so I decided there was no point in taking a chance. Steve,
Augie, and Brian all made it through the strainer slalom with some
aggressive paddling.

After
this we paddled around the corner and avoided a big hole right in
front of the first takeout that turned out to be a play spot and
eddied out to regroup. We could stop there and take out, just stretch
and eat lunch, or we could keep going, since we had set another
vehicle at an alternate takeout a couple of miles down the Hiwassee
from the confluence. It was getting late, the sky had clouded up, and
it was cooling off so I voted that we just continue so that we could
run the entire thing before dark. Everybody else also wanted to keep
going so we told Betsy to meet us at the Big River takeout. We
paddled downstream and the creek quickly began to calm.

We
had to get out to walk around a tree that was all the way across the
creek. It was an easy, quick portage. Then we passed out of Forest
Service property and the houses began. The banks along this stretch
of the stream are clearly under development and there were “For
Sale” signs facing the creek in wooded lots. The lower stretches of
the creek are going to suffer the same fate as so many other streams
in Southern Appalachia, “Cartecay-ization.” At one point we had
to paddle over a submerged concrete driving bridge forming a ledge
disturbingly similar to low head dam. It didn’t appear possible for
water to go under it but it has a pour-over and there could be an
upstream recirculation. Need to be careful there at higher water.

There
was a really fun four foot slide and several other Class 2 rapids by
these houses. This was a sign of things to come. The further we
paddled, the more we came to appreciate the creek. Although it had
lost it’s character of being a mountain creek, it had taken on the
character of being a high quality Class 2 playboating run, similar in
places to the Cartecay, in other places more like the Nantahala. We
got in a bit of surfing and we entered a stretch where the channel
narrowed between overhanging rhododendron hells on both sides. This
continued for quite some distance. Steve was very surprised at the
length as he had thought it was much shorter.

Even
though the creek was a bit calmer in this stretch, we still had to
look out for wood, and at one point Augie and Brian stacked up on a
log that went nearly all the way across. Fortunately the water was
neither deep nor extremely fast moving in that area and they were
able to extricate themselves. More paddling continued and spirits
were very high. I knew it was one of the best trips I have ever been
on. It was a spectacular run!

Finally
we reached the confluence with the Hiwassee River. We thought the
takeout would be right around the corner and we would be glad to see
it as it was getting truly cold and we were hungry and thirsty. We
paddled and paddled and paddled and ran some Class 1+ shoals here and
there. And then we paddled and paddled more and I verified with Steve
that the takeout had to be downstream, right? Finally, when it was
beginning to get dark, we rounded a corner and saw the takeout ahead.
Whew!

As
we changed clothes in the frigid wind of the early evening, we all
agreed we’d be back (but maybe use the first takeout). The trip and
creek get my highest rating!

by
Allen Pogue
From The Eddy Line, June 2009