Monday, December 5, 2011

Sand Mountain Tornado Update

The weekend started as all good paddling weekends do. Friday was filled multiple phone calls speculating on levels and discussing meeting times. By that evening, I had put together a tentative plan to hook up for 3 runs on Little River Canyon with 3 different crews. All of that changed when the phone rang at 7:30 that night. It was Tyler Phillips asking me what my boating plans were for the weekend. I told him what I had in mind and his answer was, “C’mon man, the canyon, really? Isn’t anything else running?” I was a little confused. Surely, nothing else was running. It hadn’t rained in several days. I looked over the gages, saw that Town was at 600 cfs, and came back with, “We might be able to get a low water run on Flat Rock/Coon but the tornado went right through there.” We made the decision to go check it out and scope out the damage. We made a few calls to see if we could talk anyone else into going with no luck.

For those unfamiliar with this run, it is long. By the end of the day, you will have paddled about 12 miles, 7 of which are flatwater. The drops are characterized by steep congested chutes in large boulder gardens. It has been the site for multiple epics, overnighters, and hike-outs. Tyler had done the run twice and I had done it 3 and a half times (did I mention it is known for hike outs?). We had no idea about the wood situation but were hoping that the high water we had earlier in the week cleaned it out.

We set shuttle and put on at 9:00, prepared for the worst. The level at the put in was scrapey but we were happy to have low water in order to scope out the tornado damage. Within the first mile, we hit the first part of the damage. It was unbelievable. Every tree within sight was snapped off or uprooted. The character of the gorge was completely changed. You could easily see all the way up to the pasture lands on top of the gorge. We continued downstream, able to pick our way around, over and under wood only getting out twice. Once, to portage a log that was there prior to the tornado. The other wood was in a junky class III that pins most boaters. This wood is not visible from the top so approach with caution.

That old log gathered a little bit of debris

Amazingly, the wood cleaned up as soon as approached the steep section. We cautiously picked our way down the rapids, scouting everything we could.

A fun one on Flat Rock

The only wood in play on Flat Rock was in the spout line of eye of the needle. This is not the piece that was there last season and you cannot get around it. It is visible from the top and the right line is still open.

Getting turned around on the right side of Eye of the Needle

Once we got to the confluence with Coon, we felt better about our undertaking. We had made good time, the wood wasn’t as bad as expected, and the level was still low. We walked around the next rapid (landslide?) due to low water.

Sneaking some wood below the confluence

The main portage on the run looked more runnable than it has before. Less water was sieving out at the bottom and more water was in the good line. Even though it looked more doable than ever, we didn’t even think twice before walking.

Tyler drops into the pocket

I chose an alternate line

Another chunky boulder garden near the bottom

We finally arrived at my favorite rapid on the run. It is very out of character with the rest of the river. It starts off with a 4’ boof onto a big boil then slides into a clean, river-wide, ten foot ledge. This rapid had a serious piece of wood in it this is visible from the top. The portage looked miserable so we debated about ways to get around it. Tyler went first and was able to run the first ledge, drive right, wheelchair around the wood, and drive back left for the bottom drop. I followed suit with but had a little wrestling match with the wood on my way by.

The bottom of my favorite drop

With higher water, it might not be avoidable. Immediately below here, we walked around Captain Sherm’s Rapid. It needed more water.

Lead in to Captain Sherm's

We cleaned up the rest of the drops and soon we were exiting the Cave Rapid on our way to the lake.

Typical Coon Creek scenery

Into the abyss

In the backwaters, we entered more tornado damage but, again, were able to make it down without getting out of our boats. We hit the take out at 2:00 and home in time for dinner.

There is a lot of wood in Flat Rock and Coon right now so be careful in there. It will be doing a lot of moving around over the season. Also, with all of the blow down in the area, hiking out would be ridiculous. Huge thanks to Tyler for shooting pictures and getting me motivated. We will definitely be going back soon.

Sam England