Sand Mountain Creeks, Alabama, Spring 96

By Shelby Johnson


 

The Discouragement

Spring break was coming on like a runaway Mack truck, and most of Arkansas 
was still under a burn ban and without any measurable levels of precipitation.
Jeesh! The curse was living on!

Steve Robertson and Micah "Nick" Adams had not paddled in quite a long time, 
and had reached a moderate stage of depression. Steve called me at least once 
a day during the week before spring break, each time saying that if  we didn't
have any rain forecasted in the early goings of the spring break week that he 
and Nick were eastward bound for some running water in the Appalachians. Steve
really had to twist my arm to talk me into going along for the trip if it 
evolved. 

I begged, and pouted around the house for three days straight until the grace 
was blessed on the proposed trip. The telling tale came on Monday of that 
week when a weak frontal system passed through Arkansas and brought the 
Mulberry up to a whopping 2.31! Enough was enough, or rather too little, too 
little.


Cyberspace Lends a Hand

About three years ago I was reading the Internet News Group rec.boats.paddle, 
and saw someone asking a question about Arkansas. I responded to that guy and 
a couple of days later got some email from a chap in Huntsville, Alabama. We 
became Internet pen pals, and shared war stories about paddling trips. Last 
year in October I had the chance to meet and paddle with my new friend, John 
Parker. John had shared quite a bit of river knowledge with me about the 
Alabama creeks which run off Sand Mountain into Guntersville Lake. My interest
was peaked, because it really sounded similar to the steeper creeks in Newton 
County. Similar to Arkansas these runs are rain dependent so it wasn't like 
you could just plan a trip and have water when you got there. Through the 
Internet I gathered guidebook information about the runs, including putin
takeout, levels, and such. John also supplied me with phone numbers for 
gauges, and locations to operate base camps from. I also used the Net to 
track radar for Huntsville, Alabama, which became a key ingredient.


Cooperative Weather

The weak frontal system that passed over Arkansas gathered Gulf of Mexico 
moisture for fuel as it worked its way eastward, and by the time it reached 
Alabama several tornadoes were spawned, and about four inches of rain was 
spread throughout eastern Alabama over a two day period. Much of the 
Cumberland Plateau, and the Smokies got nailed too. Everything north of the 
Tennessee line was supposed to get darned cold the following day, which 
narrowed the choice. John was notified that we were on our way to Alabama.


The Drive

Departure time from Fayetteville was 3:00pm Tuesday afternoon. We struggled 
across the Arkansas Desert, and plunged into the concrete jungle of Memphis, 
I-55 south to Jackson, then 240 East to swing around the southern edge of 
Memphis. We hit U.S. 72 which cuts right across the northern edge of 
Mississippi on it's way toward Decatur, Alabama. We went right by Muscle 
Shoals of Lynard Skynyrd fame, and later on developed the sense that it 
must be a state law for every FM radio station to play "Sweet Home Alabama" 
at least once every broadcast day. We strung into Huntsville at 1:00am and 
headed for John's house to crash in the floor.


South Sauty Creek

Our first day on Sand Mountain we headed for South Sauty Creek because it 
wouldn't have held it's level another day. At the takeout the level read  
4.7 feet, medium/high according to John and the snow was just getting started.
>From the putin we could see that South Sauty had plenty in store for three 
paddlers who hadn't  done anything in two months. At the putin we ferried 
from the river left bank across to other side to scout the putin! Pre-run 
jitters were quickly over after we all ran the eight foot waterfall. We had 
about one mile of warm-up Class III rapids, until we got to Aaron's Ecstasy 
Class IV, the last words from John were don't end up on the right side, which 
is exactly what Nick did! He pulled the rabbit outta his hat and the Probe 12 
came through unscathed.

Next on order was a big III called Egg Scrambler. One river right eddy to 
catch, then a peel out from there put you right on the tongue which blasted 
through a slot and over a drop. From there we began to ease our way into 
South Sauty's Gorge. Jonah's Whale and  Cliff Left were both Class IV's with 
serious undercuts, we also did a really tight Class IV called The Slot, that 
made us pucker. Upper and Lower Mine Field were two rapids which were just 
boulder choked sieves, with about four different routes through each, we 
picked our way through these as the snow starting sticking to the ground. 
Steve was having trouble wrestling his XL13 through the mess and Nick's 
rabbit finally failed to come out of the hat, and Nick ended up perched on a 
boulder midway through the Minefields. He tried to do a seal launch and ended 
up in a swim. Steve pulled over a little farther on and turned his boat over 
to dump. Beavers had scoured both banks through the gorge and left spears 
sticking up everywhere. These spears punctured Steve's front airbag, and as 
he turned the boat back over, it ripped a six inch gash in the fabric. 

Two months without dipping a paddle combined with South Sauty's nature was 
taking it's toll. Steve kept filling up with water, and would end up in a swim
almost every time, he self rescued each time wearing down more and more. We 
got to the last major drop, a hard four called Bone Crusher. The scout was 
Class V because everything was covered in snow and very slick. I slipped and 
fell once busting my tail pretty hard. John opted to sneak down the river 
right side. Both Nick and Steve decided to portage over to the sneak, and 
after they had portaged I scouted from the other bank and decided to run the 
drop. With Bone Crusher behind us all we had left was a short section to the 
takeout with some good Class III. 

At the takeout it was almost dark. Steve had managed the last three miles of 
South Sauty with only one bag in an XL13, Nick was beat, and I was in the 
same shape. Steve and I gathered dry clothes and headed for the heated 
restrooms, while John and Nick ran shuttle. During our wait in the restroom I 
took a hot shower which was heaven. Steve sat on the bench with his eyes 
glazed over and mumbled something about shorter boat designs, and kevlar 
airbags. All were in bed by 10:00pm, no creature stirred.


Short Creek

Up the next morning we faced a late start because the outdoor stores in 
Huntsville where we could get another floatation bag didn't open until 10:00. 
After collecting a bag John, Steve, Nick and I hooked up with Mark D'Augustino
another open boater from Huntsville. Short Creek has three runs available and 
today we would combine the last two sections with a level of one foot on the 
bridge painted gauge. That was a wise decision since the putin for the last 
section leaves you with a 100 yard warm up before running Short Creek Falls, 
a full fledged twenty footer! The top section went by quickly and we were at 
the falls. After long scouting each member of the group made his run, all went
well. I got such a kick out of it that I carried back up and did it again. My 
second run wasn't so good as I ended up underneath the falls upside down. 
Luckily enough the boil from the falls wasn't too nasty and it turned me 
loose. Below the falls Short Creek turned into a paddler's playground, with 
drops like Grotto Falls (ten foot waterfall), Tornado Sluice, and one Class IV 
called Rock Crusher. Near the end of the run Short confluences with Scarham 
Creek (what a name!). We got to see the final drop on Scarham which was a 
Class V. The tail end of Short was a paddle out of a cove and across 
Guntersville Lake. Nick said it was like buying on credit, buy now pay later, 
and the flatwater was making us pay. Short Creek was well worth the effort.


Town Creek

On day three the creeks on Sand Mountain were beginning to drop down, and we 
had saved Town Creek for last. Town is easily the biggest watershed on Sand 
Mountain so it comes up slower and stays up longer. The level was right around
500cfs, and our putin was at High Falls Park, just below the magnificent 
thirty-five foot High Falls. This run consisted of numerous Class III drops 
that were great fun. Since it was a Friday we had picked up several other open
boaters from the Huntsville crowd. Town creek passed by quickly, and 
uneventfully, with one exception! The Blockage a serious Class V, and in the 
new eastern scaling would probably rate around 5.1 or 5.2. This ugly rapid was
a sight to see. Our guides mentioned that it had been run before, and also 
that a pretty good decked boater had drown there too. We all portaged. The 
paddle across the lake gave us plenty of time to reflect on Town Creek and the
last three days.


Exhaustion and Satisfaction

We had paddled hard for three days straight, and now every muscle ached. The 
Tellico, Section IV, and several creeks on the Cumberland Plateau would still 
be running on Saturday but were all at least a four hour drive from 
Huntsville. We drove back into Huntsville all in agreement that home was where
we should head. The Weather Channel was forecasting rain back home for Sunday.
We stopped in Huntsville and had a tantalizing steak dinner. We left 
Huntsville, Alabama at 8:00pm Friday night, and I was home and in bed Saturday
morning by 7:00am. Off to Richland on Monday, rain in Arkansas finally!


Musings

Sand Mountain is a plateau about one hour eastward of Huntsville, Alabama very
near the city of Guntersville, Alabama. Considerably farther south than the 
Smokies or the Cumberland Plateau the temperatures are bearable straight 
through winter. This plateau is very rural, mostly livestock agriculture, 
with some chicken farming. The land on the plateau is mostly cleared so the 
creeks don't compete with forests for water. The soil there is very loamy and 
retains water with a gradual release. The creeks gather all their volume from 
the farmfields on the plateau, and become whitewater runs as they head off the
western slopes of Sand Mountain to Guntersville Lake. The gorges for these 
creeks are cut through flat bedded sandstone and the rapids are created by 
constrictions and large sandstone boulders. There is camping available at Lake 
Guntersville State Park, and Buck's Pocket State Park (takeout for South 
Sauty). You can obtain gauge information on Town Creek by using the TVA Lake 
Information Line 1-800-238-2264 then press 3. The rule of thumb is that Short 
Creek is running if Town is over 500cfs, Scarham and South Sauty if Town is 
over 1,500cfs, and everything if Town is over 2,000cfs.