It’s Friday afternoon, but not just any Friday afternoon… It’s the start of my last ever Spring Break. While most of my peers have plans to swarm the beaches of Panama City, Florida, my friends and I have a very different intent. We are going to venture north into the mountains in anticipation of a full week of action packed, world-class whitewater kayaking.
Our first destination – the infamous Raven Fork, known among Southeastern paddlers as one of the highest quality creeks around. This river packs 15 Class 5.0 rapids—as well as a handful of refreshing Class IV’s—into its one-mile plunge down a steep valley in the Great Smokey Mountains.
I’ve had my eye on this gem for about a year now, but for some reason or another never caught the right rain at the right time with the right mental preparation. But that was all about to change. This was my chance. Sean, John, and I loaded up boats Friday night in anticipation of getting an early start Saturday morning and meeting Burton in Cherokee. Our goal was to make the most of the daylight and leave plenty of time for scouting the many steep bedrock slides of the Raven Fork.
On the drive up there is nothing but mist and light rain, just enough to taunt paddlers hoping for levels to bump. When we arrived in Cherokee we got a visual of 15 inches on the bridge gauge.
“That’s higher than I was hoping for, but I think I can make that work. It’s still doable,” I say to myself as the other members of the group voice the same concern almost verbatim. The immediate area had not gotten much rain, so none of us were expecting the level to rise much more.
When we get to Manny’s place, the unofficial take out, we happen upon a small group of enthusiastic paddlers. It’s an intimidating bunch with a majority of the faces belonging to the renowned, top-notch paddlers of the southeast. My group and I get geared up and head up the mountain as quickly as we can. I’m hoping my Jeep Cherokee can make it up the notoriously rough put-in trail, but we have no such luck. Still full of excitement and anticipation we show no regret towards the idea of having to shoulder our boats from here.
“How long can the trail stay this steep?” I think to myself as we ascend towards the put-in, trying not to psych myself out thinking about all the gradient we are ascending.
After all, what goes up must come down, right? After an uncomfortable eternity of hiking through the world’s sloppiest, muckiest, and slipperiest mud, we can see a few trucks ahead.
“Made it!”, I thought, but I was wrong…very wrong. About this time we hear a large truck powering it’s way through the slop as it comes up behind us.
Paul Butler parks among the other trucks as we arrive to the ‘parking lot’ on foot. Wouldn’t it have been nice to score a ride on that thing!
Photo Courtesy of Clay Lucas
We meet many of the faces we saw at Manny’s at the parking lot. They were fortunate enough to catch a ride to the top, and thus still have enough breath for laughing and joking. My group and I seize the opportunity for a much needed breather.
Eventually, the group begins to move again up, down, and across what I assumed would be a very short final approach to the water. I should have known that would not be the case, as there was no water in sight, save for a tiny mountain spring trickling across the footpath.
We spend the next mile and a half or so ducking under a seemingly endless number of fallen trees on a narrow footpath, often having to improvise a new path where the existing path disappears under deadfall.
Along the way I spent a couple moments catching my breath and taking in the scenery. To our right was a steep ascent to the very crest of the ridge, and to our left was a steep, narrow gorge blanketed in fog. Sounds of cascading water rise from below, but the fog cover hides the origin; I am forced to use my imagination to picture the rapids below.
Soon my imagination is interrupted. We’ve reached what Burton refers to as the “Hillary Step,” comparing our hike to the final stretch climbers must conquer before summiting Everest. Here we scramble over a patch of rocks obstructing our path, squeezing between bushes and pulling aside branches to maintain some visual of what lies ahead.
After immerging, the path more or less disappears, and it’s every man for himself for the final 100 yard descent over a mess of moss covered boulders before reaching the water.
When we reach the water we take a minute to collect ourselves. We all agree we are going to portage the Class 5.2 “Anaconda” and seal launch into the water below. We regroup in the river’s left eddy above Headless Horseman, a Class 5.1, and line up single file to take a stab at it.
We agreed that we had all seen enough photos and videos of the iconic rapid to know the line, so we elected to run it blind. Burton went first, then it was my turn. I line up for the standard line, moving towards the right wall, and just before going over the plunge I notice how much bigger the hole below is compared to any video I had seen before.
I end up getting flipped over my stern and ride the remainder of the sluice on my head – there was plenty of flow to pad it out. At the bottom I roll up and take my spot in the eddy and watch John and Sean follow.
John had just about as much luck as I did, but Sean has a clean line. In the eddy we commented on how much water there was pumping through the river bed and elected to get out to scout the next set of drops: a small Class IV+ with some poorly placed wood, Right Right (Class 5.0), and Razor Back (Class 5.1).
As we are hopping out of our boats we get word from Raven Fork regulars that the level has risen to something more similar to 20 inches.
“That’s a lot more water than I bargained for!” I thought to myself, but decided to put eyes on the next set anyway.
We were able to scout Right Right but couldn’t find any real way to put eyes on Razor Back without first having to run Right Right.
It looked doable; however, Sean, John and I made the call to get out while we could. We were confident that we could run what we were able to see right now, but the further we went down the river the further we got from the trail and the bigger the rapids got. It’s difficult to shake what I assume to be the paddler’s equivalent of “Summit Fever.”
We were so close to achieving something we had dreamed about for a year. We were right there! I kept reminding myself that the rapids would only get bigger and the trail only further, and made the decision to hike out. Abandoning the closest I’ve ever come to reaching my dream of experiencing the Raven Fork.
We returned to Atlanta that night and took a full day for rest and recovery from our hiking excursion. I was slightly disappointed with having to walk off, but at the same time, I was highly energized and excited about having seen the rapids and knowing they were within my reach when the time came.
Sure enough, later that day we saw a gauge visual posted on Facebook. The water level had begun to subside after reaching a reported 24 inches and would be prime for a second attempt on Monday.
Sunday night Sean and I loaded up the car again and headed north. We camped out near the Chattooga and made it to Cherokee as early as we could on Monday morning.
This time Burton was not going to be with us to show us down, but we lucked out. We got to Manny’s and by a stroke of luck joined a crew consisting of Charley Bartlett, Paul Butler, Clay Lucas, and Andy Hobson. They agreed to show us down for our first time, and Paul’s truck made getting to the put-in a heck of a lot easier.
A few years ago, Charley was the one to really sit with me at Gorilla (of the Green River Narrows) and meticulously pick apart and explain the line through that beast. I felt so inspired that I ended up running Gorilla for my first time that day! (Thanks again, Charley!) And here he was, the first time I’ve seen him since, excited to show me down Raven Fork for my first time.
I was beyond happy to have him there. I had met Paul during our hike out from our previous attempt but did not yet know Clay or Andy. The whole crew was more than patient with Sean and I as we hopped out of our boats to scout pretty much everything. They were extremely encouraging, and because they were willing to take the time to pick apart the rapids and explain the lines, Sean and I were able to complete our personal first descents of the Raven Fork.
What a day! The rapids lived up to every little bit of their reputation. There were fast slides, tight slots, boofs, intricate maneuvers, combinations of all of the above stringed one after another and pretty much anything you could really ask for from a one mile stretch of river. We had perfect sunshine and one of the first warm days of the year. The stars aligned for an absolutely perfect day. We spent the rest of our break resting, recovering and getting skunked on the Narrows – not quite the full action packed week we had imagined, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything!