May 19, 2019

North Fork Holston River – Wadlow Gap to Big Elm

  • 11.19 miles
  • 4:48 duration
  • 1 geocache found
  • 1 geocache visited (previously found)
  • Quote of the day: (from Rob) “That’s what happens to bad girls. They get paddling.”

I texted LakeBum (Rob) late in the week and asked if he was free to paddle this weekend. I told him I needed some river therapy. We checked the weather and decided that Sunday would be our best weather day. We both invited our spouses to join us. Deban had other plans for the day, but karaboo (Kara) decided to join us when she learned that she could use Deban’s kayak. Since having knee surgery last year, she has not been able to comfortably kneel in a canoe.

We met up at the Big Elm Road takeout near the Highway 11W bridge. We loaded the yaks in Rob’s truck and left my truck there for the after-paddle shuttle. Rob then drove to Weber City where we planned to put in next to the bridge.

As part of the ongoing bridge reconstruction, the ramp here is closed. That left us with two alternatives. Go upstream to Wadlow Gap and put in there, or go downstream to the Carters Valley Bridge. We decided to drive up to Wadlow Gap to check out the put in there.

When we arrived at Wadlow Gap, there was a group of folks launching a kayak and several floats. We waited until they had taken off, and then unloaded our boats. We took some time to adjust the seat and foot pegs in Deban’s boat to fit Kara before getting in the water.

Launching from this point was going to be very tricky, but it looked doable. There is a nearly vertical drop off of about three or four feet with some crude steps. Rob put Deban’s kayak in the water first, and held it steady while Kara climbed in. As she plopped into the seat with more force than she expected, I assured her that it is nearly impossible to get into a kayak gracefully. She paddled a short distance downstream to an eddy where the water was calm enough for her to get the feel of the paddle and boat while waiting for us. Paddling a kayak is entirely different from a canoe.

I helped Rob get his canoe in the water and he was able to climb in without too much difficulty. I slid my kayak down the steep slope, got it in position at the bottom of the steps, and pondered how I would get in. I finally managed to flop into the boat without capsizing, but it wasn’t pretty.

This section of the North Fork is very slow and peaceful. The skies overhead were brilliant blue, and lush green trees lined the river. With no wind and a very slow current, the water was nearly like glass, reflecting the trees and sky.

A beautiful day to be on the water.

The temperature was in the high 70s and I didn’t see a single cloud in the sky. It was a beautiful day to be on the river. Although I expected very calm water for this trip, I was wearing my spray skirt just in case. Throughout the trip I alternated by having it secured around the outside of the cockpit to prevent water from coming in, and letting it lie loose around my waist.

Just .75 mile into the trip, Rob pointed out a stream flowing into the river and said, “I think that’s where Monkey Falls is.” I remembered discussing this private waterfall with Rob in the past, looking it up on the map and searching for photos on Google. I had not found any info on it, and had totally forgotten that it was along this stretch of river. We pulled over to shore to check it out.

Rob told us that when he was here before there were private property signs, but we did not see any today. We walked through the creek upstream for a better view of the falls. They were very pretty with an eight foot drop at the bottom and a more gentle, diagonal falls above that were perhaps 25 feet high.

Kara and Rob at Monkey Falls

We took photos, and I climbed up the lower drop to get a different view of the falls. With all of the lush vegetation surrounding the falls, we felt as if we were in a tropical paradise. It was difficult to get good photos of the falls since it was such a sunny day. The sunlight streamed in between the trees, making brights spots among the shadows that do not convert well to the camera lens. Perhaps I can come back on a cloudy day.

We returned to our boats and continued downstream. Rivers and individual rapids are classed in six categories from Class I (the easiest and safest) to Class IV (the most difficult and dangerous). The rapids along this stretch of river do not even earn a one rating. This made it a perfect place for Kara to learn to paddle a kayak.

She asked me for pointers, and there was not much I could offer other than to not turn over. I did share with her the technique for making certain your hand placement was correct on the shaft of the paddle. But, I failed miserably trying to describe proper paddling technique that I had seen described on various instructional videos. She said, “I don’t think I understand.” I told her that was because I didn’t either, and that I had never perfected the techniques those videos taught.

I did correct her after she had gone through one very gentle rapid, saying, “You didn’t do that right!” I then explained that if you are in a kayak you have to yell, “Wooooo!” as you go through rapids. She excelled at that the rest of the trip.

A Class 1/4 rapid

At one point, Rob said, “Check out that satellite dish!” It took me a minute to locate what he was referring to, but when I did, I had to smile at the ingenuity. This was a perfect way to re-purpose an old dish.

Do you see the satellite dish?

As we approached the Weber City bridge, I noticed something I had never seen on the river – an orange “Construction Ahead” sign.

Unexpected sight on the river

As we passed it I could see another sign just behind it warning boaters of the construction activity ahead. We joked about watching out for falling cranes. This is because the construction crew had an incident a couple of years ago where flood waters toppled a crane that had been left parked on a temporary bridge. You can read about that here.

I’m sure that Kara is used to Rob’s dry sense of humor after living with him for several years. What she may not be accustomed to is how he and I tend to feed off of each other with corny jokes and bad puns. After this trip, she may never spend a day with the two of us again. I hope she will though. As I told Rob when we were planning the trip, I was not only in need of river therapy, but Kara therapy. It had been far too long since I got to spend some quality time with her.

A beautiful butterfly thought Kara was pretty special as well. It kept circling her and landing on her back or side. I moved it once since it was under her arm where it might get squished as she paddled. It circled a couple of times and landed again on her back, riding there for quite a while.

Kara’s new friend

Rob pulled over at an island a short distance below the bridge to check for a cache he had hidden there a few years ago. Despite the fact that he had hung it as high in a tree as he could reach – standing on a fallen log to do it – it was gone. We feel that most if not all of the caches we have hidden along this section of river are gone. We will come back on another day to check and replace them, but were not prepared for that today.

We stopped at 1:30 for a quick lunch – much later than we usually would due to our later launch time. I had munched on a protein bar earlier but my stomach was very happy that I was finally feeding it a sandwich.

Boats at rest during lunch

After crossing from Virginia into Tennessee, we paddled a short distance up into Possum Creek. This is a beautiful little creek through a tunnel of trees, and a cool spot to get out of the sun on a warm day. I have a cache hidden here, but chose not to get out of the boat to check on it. It is hidden atop an old bridge pillar, and requires climbing an adjacent tree to reach it. It is definitely high enough to be above the flood waters and is attached to a steel rod, so unlikely to blow away. We decided to assume it was still there and in good condition until someone logs otherwise.

Possum Creek is much prettier when it isn’t so muddy.

We chatted with a young man near the mouth of the creek who was “fishing” for treasures on the creek bottom using a magnet tied to a rope. As we were paddling back out, he lost his grip on the rope as he tossed the magnet into the water. Rob was kind enough to paddle over and fish the line out with his paddle and hand it to him. He suggested that the man tie an end to a tree to prevent that happening again since we weren’t willing to stick around all day and fetch it for him. Very smart suggestion!

Rob stopped to check on another cache that he had hidden on the shell of an old car along the bank. This is a favorite spot along the river for photos. Miraculously, this cache was still there!

Throw some new tires on her and she is good to go!

While we were lingering around the old car, I heard something further down the bank that sounded like water falling. I thought to myself, “I don’t remember there being a waterfall here.” Then, I heard the sound again, coming closer. It wasn’t water – it was the sound of cattle moving through the high grass on the bank above us. One young calf stopped and stared at us, looking puzzled. He must have been wondering how those humans got in the river.

I had begun thinking that I should have put on sunscreen. I had not anticipated being on the water this long. Before long, God took care of that for me. Clouds began to form overhead, and I heard thunder rumbling in the distance. A few minutes later I began seeing the rings that raindrops falling on water create, but commented that I hadn’t felt any raindrops yet. Before long, I began to feel rain, and could see downriver that it appeared to be coming down heavily.

The rain is coming

Sure enough, a few minutes later we paddled into a torrential rain. It became hard for me to see because my sunglasses were covered with raindrops on the outside and fog on the inside. The water running down my face and into my mouth tasted salty, and I wondered why. I finally realized that it was because I was wearing the same ball cap I had worn bicycling a few days earlier. It had become sweat soaked and the rain was rinsing the sweat from it and down my face.

There was nothing to do but keep paddling and laugh at our situation. I could hear Kara nearby laughing gleefully as well. Occasionally I could hear thunder in the distance, but luckily saw no lightning near us. I thought of an incident I heard about last summer where a family of four was struck by lighting. They had been rafting on the Watauga River in nearby Carter County when a storm rolled in. They paddled to shore and took shelter under a tree. Lightning struck the tree and all four were taken to the hospital with minor burns. I decided we were better off in the river than under a tree, and just kept paddling.

This wasn’t even the strongest part of the rainstorm.

Fifteen minutes later, the rain was gone and the sun started to shine again.

We looked all around us for a rainbow, but none was to be seen. However, high in a nearby dead tree, a blue heron perched, watching us paddle by.

Heron in a tree

Soon we were paddling under the railroad bridge that signaled our trip was nearly done. We paddled through the last little rapid and then exited the river next to my truck.

The railroad bridge signals that our trip is nearly ended.

Rob and Kara both had quite a bit of water in their boats from the rainfall. I was happy that I had worn my spray skirt. I only had a little bit of water that I had splashed in with my feet when entering the boat. This also meant that I did not have to ride home in wet shorts, which can be a bit uncomfortable. I did have a dry shirt with me, so put it on.

After we had loaded all the boats in back, I drove back up to Wadlow Gap to retrieve Rob’s truck. As he was moving his canoe from my truck to his, I wandered off to find the geocache hidden there. I spotted it lying out in the open, but all was dry and intact inside. I signed the log and replaced it in the spot that matched the hint.

There’s the cache

This was a great day on the river with wonderful friends. We parted agreeing to schedule something for the next weekend if weather permits. Before I left, Kara said that she sees the purchase of a kayak in her future. While she would still prefer to paddle a canoe, as she said, “A kayak beats not being on the river!”

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