Brad McMillan hadn’t ever seriously considered running Alabama’s Desoto Falls on the West Fork of the Little River.
But with storms in early April blowing up the rivers in the Southeast, the North Carolina local knew the time and flows were right. On Tuesday, April 8, McMillan canoed the 70-foot waterfall, claiming the record for the highest waterfall run in an open canoe.
McMillan is a Class V open boater who regularly runs the Southeast’s stoutest whitewater rivers, including North Carolina’s infamous Green Narrows. “I have been paddling for 20 years and I feel like every stroke along the way helped to prepare me for this drop,” he said.
“When I first saw it my heart rate spiked,” McMillan said. “It was at a perfect level for a canoe and I knew that I was going to do it.” Desoto Falls was first run by Asheville paddler Chris Gragtmans after a huge storm soaked the Southeast in 2008. Since then Desoto Falls has been run somewhat regularly, but only in kayaks.
Then in 2013, a friend of McMillan’s ran the falls in a C-1, which got McMillan thinking.
“My friend said the hit at the bottom was incredibly soft for being such a tall drop,” McMillan says. “So for the past few months I had been thinking about this drop and waiting for the rain to bring it to a runnable level.”
While McMillan waited for his chance to run Desoto Falls, Canadian canoeist Jim Coffey ran Mexico’s 60-foot Truchas Falls last February — breaking the previous record of 55 feet on Elk River’s Big Falls (a.k.a Compression Falls) in Tennessee. Steve Frazier had run that drop back in 1994.
McMillan watched as a few kayakers ran Desoto successfully. A safety crew was then set, and McMillan got into his boat and paddled. He lined toward the lip of the drop, getting one quick view down before tucking and whiting out in the veil.
“It is big.” McMillan said. And just like his C-1 friend said, McMillan was surprised by how soft the landing was at the bottom. “It felt like landing in a cloud with unicorns and butterflies prancing about,” McMillan joked. “Not really.”
McMillan landed upright, staying in his boat and bagging both the first canoe descent of Desoto Falls and the highest waterfall canoe record.
Video by Hunt Jennings.