On Tuesday, November 11th, the remnants of hurricane Ida brought heavy rain to most of the southeast and mid-Atlantic. Streams were rising, and Wednesday was going to be Veteran's Day. School was out which freed me up from teaching, and other local boarders had the same idea. Jusbyn left a message for me letting me know that it was also “raining like a son of a gun” in Tennessee and that he was also off from work, so we knew it was on. Later that night I started looking at the rain gauges and getting familiar with maps to know exactly where some of the creeks were.
It was easy to wake up when my alarm went off at 5:30 ( a lot easier than when I have to be at work that's for sure ) so I could check gauges and make a visit to the storage unit where I keep extra gear. I saw that the Pigeon was at the same level that I had ran it during the heavy rain in September and rising, plus Big Creek was estimated to be running due to other creeks around it starting to flow (Big Creek doesn't have an online river gauge), so that was our first choice.
As we drove up to check Big Creek, I said that my cut off would be four feet, definitely four and a half. I've been told that the painted gauge on the bridge goes up to five feet. When we got to the bridge, I was wondering if I was looking at the correct bridge pylon when I realized that the reason that I couldn't see numbers was because the water level was up above the five foot mark. It didn't take me long to realize that Big Creek was out for the day. We both concurred that it was blasting a little too high. Despite knowing it was running high and seeing just a little wood on the way down, the holes didn't look too bad. However, the eddy at the take out was now very small and the current was ripping by it. Missing the takeout would not have been good because immediately downstream was a tree caught on a bridge pylon. If it didn't kill you, it would definitely separate rider and board and result in someone swimming over the concrete spillway at the confluence with the Pigeon. Normally, I want nothing to do with the shallow spillway and wicked hole it makes, but today there was enough water to pad things out and flush through the hole. I didn't want to be swimming it without a board though. The make it or die take out and wood downstream sealed my decision. I can only hope the Chainsaw Fairy pays a visit to Big Creek very soon, as the lower section would be a bonsai high water run.
We put on the Pigeon and hit the first set of waves at Powerhouse rapid. We thought the river was running at 6,700 cfs from the most recent gauge reading, and I remarked that these waves seemed a lot bigger today than they did when I ran it at 5,000 cfs. Little did we know that the power company had opened up the floodgates on Douglas Lake into the Pigeon Dries section adding about 4,000 cfs of water spiking the level in under a half hour. The top of BFR (Big “Freaking” Rock) was now only about a foot above the water.
BFR almost completely covered. This rock normally sits 6 to 10 feet above the water line. The other spooky thing is that it used to sit upstream in the dries section before floods moved it downstream. Wish I would have been around for that one. Photo by Jusbyn Lockard
We kept going and certain rapids felt a little more washed out, but we were moving at a rapid pace and avoiding the tree branches coming down the river. As I came into Lost Guide, at first I thought it must be another rapid because I didn't see the rock on river right. Then I saw the concrete wall on the left and knew that the big boulder was underwater today. I moved left to avoid the pour over behind this monster. Unfortunately, the waves at the bottom are better at 5,000 cfs. The flat water seemed like a breeze, then it was time for the grand finale at Superglue and Accelerator. Superglue was slightly larger at this level and anywhere in the middle or left is big and juicy. I also knew that at Accelerator there wouldn't be a bad line whether you picked left, middle, or right, but that the big stuff would be in the middle. As I entered the bottom of Accelerator, I saw the last few waves in the middle, large than I have ever seen them before. It was when I went over the next to last one that I caught a glimpse of the last wave. It was one of those waves that sort of blurs the line between a wave and a hole. It looks like a wave, but has some stopping power like a hole. Punch it straight on with speed and you will get through it, but barely. As I flushed slowly through the slack water created on the backside of this monster, I was aware of how heavy it was and stoked that I punched it. No joking, this wave would be at home on the New River in West Virginia when it's flooding. Jusbyn got through as well and was out of breath.
I noticed that there was a dredger on the river right from interstate reconstruction up the bank, and motioned Jusbyn to the left. He rides without his glasses so his range of vision is pretty short. He didn't hear me explain that the left side was open and thought that the whole river was getting dredged, so I told him to hang back and watch me get through. After he explained this to me, I made a note to explain things in greater detail when I'm on the river with him. I've been boarding with him for two years and had no idea.
We pulled into the takeout in under 25 minutes on a run that normally takes an hour and 15 minutes to run. As we went back up to get the other vehicle, we met some raft guides at the put in waiting for others to do a private raft trip down what we had just run. They gave us props for boarding it and said that the level was up above 10,000. We said ignorance is bliss. Honestly I wouldn't have had any trouble running it knowing that the level was a little higher, but I'm glad we ran it early during the spike in levels. The fact that the level had now been high for a half hour or more was starting to send more debris down the river. I have no problem with tree branches, but definitely would have reconsidered if the tree trunks and car tires that were going down as we left had been flowing down when we put on.
Now it was time to decide where to go for the rest of the day. We hoped that the rest of the creeks in the Great Smokey Mountains wouldn't be too high....