Big Creek (Upper)
|Stretch:||Hike-up above NPS Campground|
|Difficulty:||Class IV to V|
|Distance:||2.6 miles (+/-)|
|Flows:||2.3 to ~3.5 (Boating Beta predicted 2.0 and we had 2.5 at the surge tip). BoatingBeta.coms flow page.|
|Gradient:||278 fpm for 1.8 miles then 198 fpm|
|Put-in:||When you get tired… Most hike to the bridge over the creek|
|Take-out:||NPS Picnic Area|
|Shuttle:||2.3 miles (+/-) all hiking!|
|Season:||Winter and Spring, Rain and (with occasional runs in Summer and Fall when storms permit)|
I remember my friend Jim Janney telling me of this local Knoxville classic years ago, well before I ever had a hint that I would live there one day. He spoke of a 3 mile hike for 3 miles of continuous class IV/V boulder gardens rapids with literally no pools. At the time I thought to myself how glad I was that I did not live there so I wouldn’t have to think of excuses regularly as to why I didn’t want to boat the river to hide that I simply hate hiking and the idea of continuous class IV/V rivers are absolutely foreign to Californians who are accustomed to recovery pools below nearly every rapid.
Well times have changed… I mean heck, the past 7 months have changed even. In July when I ran the West Prong it was my first experience with the continuousness of the Smokies’s rivers. I was winded, tired, and certainly intimidated. A week later Diane and I hiked up Big Creek one weekend when there was nothing to boat and I realized that 1) I would have to get more comfortable on technical, steep, congested creeks, and 2) I needed to get back into a respectfully fit shape… “round” was not going to be a shape I could work with out here. Speaking of that, I have done WAY more hiking here for run-of-the-mill everyday sort of runs that I ever did in California. Sure California has the big hikes for the High Sierra… but nearly none for the go to runs. But I digress. As the hike went by quick and relatively painlessly, I felt pride in the fact that to date I have ditched 44 lbs since fall. And as fun boof after fun boof was hit, I also took relief in knowing I am growing more accustomed to the style of river. And I really look forward to experiencing more of them!
Most folks will put in at the bridge, 2.6 creek miles and 2.3 trail miles upriver from the parking at the NPS Campground. Some go a few hundred yards further to get Superman which is apparently a great boof followed by a series of ledges. Others will choose to take the class V aspects of the run out of it completely and put-in below Action Alley. Either way, stay on your toes, scout for wood and rock hazards often if you are unfamiliar with the lines. Additionally, I would suggest scouting Action Alley on your hike up the trail, as well as taking special note of the eddies above Monster. Both these sections are trailside and should demand a little extra attention. The rest of the run is steep boulder gardens with an occasional hole to punch through. There are literally no pools except the one below Midnight Hole. The run starts off with some smaller rapids amongst smaller rocks, but in my mind those are the most dangerous as pins and broaches can most easily happen here. As you approach Monster, the run enters its crux section. Monster is usually portaged and then you run one big rapid to the lip of Midnight hole. Below the action continues straight up to Action Alley, a sequence of big, tight, and continuous drops which define “fun” in the Smokies. Below, the river gets easier before become extremely shallow and congested leading up to take-out.
- First Rapid (IV+). Scout the first few rapids as you hike up the trail. The first rapid involves a big flake boof on river right before finishing down the right. The next few moves all are bigger than they look from the trail. A few fun lines worked back to the left before the river bent left and got a little cleaner.
- Monster (V/P). Scout the approach to this one while hiking up. As you are hiking up and pass Midnight Hole, in about 100 yards the trail gets right next to the river, this is Monster. The rapid gets run but also has been the site of several bad pins. Eddy out on the left before the river plummets over the two ledges above the danger spot. Put back in in the outflow of the rapid.
Pre-Midnight Hole (IV+). Just downstream is a fun rapid where the river splits several times into small channels. Stay middle throughout. There is a big eddy on the right of Midnight Hole to catch to scout from.
- Midnight Hole (IV to V). At low flows it is really straight forward boof right of center, without getting too much of the shelf on the right for fear of drying out. At higher flows the hole becomes horrible.
Just Downstream (IV+). Just downstream of Midnight Hole are two fun rapids. Both run down the right. The first is a big of a hole bashing affair and the second is a bedrock double drop. Then you get some mellower water that leads to Action Alley.
- Action Alley #1 (V). In my mind this is the crux of the rapid and the run in general. Scout this whole rapid on the hike up… it is the first spot that you get right next to the river. The river splits around an island with just a trickle going left. Most bang down the left to enter this first move… also the most commonly walked rapid that is also run regularly (i.e. not Monster). The entry move is tricky through a fold of water between ricks on the left shore. Downstream is a pile of rocks, being upside down would not be fun here! Assuming you are upright, drive down the middle and hump up and over the shallow slab landing in the eddy behind it. Lots of folks choose to portage via the small offshoot channel down into this eddy to take the top move out of the equation.
Action Alley #2 (V-). Action Alley is really long one rapid that is certainly class V in total… but by catching some eddies you are able to break it apart and make pieces easier, hence this V- rating. Anyways, we went far right and did a nice shoulder boof over a 6 foot ledge before running down a narrow chute with all the water to a sweet autoboof. We then caught more eddies on the left.
Action Alley #3 (V-) AKA "Baby Gorilla". A class IV lead in rapid leads to some slack water directly above a apartment size boulder that splits the river. Boof green water, but far right (not so much to get the rock point) and land in the very narrow landing. If you don’t boof right moving right you will land on a rock shelf below.
End of Action Alley (IV+). “That’s the end of Action Alley, back to boogie” I was told. After one in-between rapid we entered two sweet rapids which I don’t recall the order of. One ended in a super sweet boof over a large-ish hole and the other involved a rock smear to the right of a good size hole.
Tight lines continue but gradually get easier.
- Rapids eventually end up being very shallow at low flow and rock bashing/dodging is the name of the game. It was in here in a perceived deep run out of a class II that I suddenly hit something in the face of a small wave and was quickly flipped upstream and pinned under. A little trashing, pushing off of the river bottom to unpin, gather my paddle back together, and a quick roll revealed a hidden log. Moments later before I even rolled up Diane pinned on the same log. This log is completely blind before it appears and is not a problem with any additional water over 2.5. Just goes to show you though, stay on your toes… even in class II.
For more details on the run, see the AW write-up...
Take-out: From Knoxville take Highway 40 towards Asheville. Take the last exit before crossing into North Carolina, exit 451 toward Waterville Rd. Turn right onto Waterville and stay left to follow it up the Pigeon River and then up Big Creek. You will come to a cross road after 2 miles on Waterville. The bridge on this cross street has the gauge painted on the upstream side of a pillar. Continue straight up Big Creek and enter the park, follow this road to the end of it and park at the picnic area.
Put-in: The trail starts 100 feet back up the road the way you came in. Follow the trail upriver, making sure to scout Action Alley and Monster on your way up to ensure you catch eddies before dropping in! Some people put in below Action Alley for an easier day, most put in at the bridge over the creek 2.3 miles of hiking (2.6 miles of river) upstream. Other still continue a little further to add a few more good drops to the run. For those super motivated hikers you can put in almost 2.5 miles further upstream for more rapids though this isn’t common apparently.
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