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Paddling Little River Canyon, Alabama

January 7, 2007

Good friends, balmy weather and a beautiful river canyon made for a great day on the Little River in early January. I was particularly amped because I had not been on the water for a couple of weeks, due to the holidays, and I had just acquired a new boat and was eager to try it out. Few things are better than a “new boat day”. It’s a lot like a little kid on Christmas morning.

Jamie Sanders surfing Hell Hole on the Ocoee RiverAfter checking the River gauge at the bridge (it was 5”) and scouting a line down the falls (to be run on a warmer day) we made our way to the put in for the upper two and chairlift sections. If you have not made this trip before be sure to allow extra time for a long shuttle shuffle. The put in is a few miles drive along the west rim and the take out is several miles down the east rim. There is a $3 charge to park at the bottom.

After making the shuttle you can rate your paddling buddies. They earn highest ratings if they have carried your boat down to the river for you while you made the shuttle drive. Medium points are awarded for hiding your helmet or other essential piece of gear (at least they thought of you). Lowest points are awarded for losers who leave all of your gear roadside for you to carry down after you drive their shuttle. Consistently low scoring paddle buddies will quickly make their way into the “guys I used to paddle with” category. My buddies made top marks on this particular trip. Smooth starts do not, however, guarantee a smooth trip.

There is plenty of warm up paddling before reaching the first major rapid on this section. It is best to take advantage of this warm up because the first test in this section is largely regarded as one of the worst holes in the southeast, Roadblock. If you are going to walk a rapid on this section, Roadblock is the one. Our group was evenly split between walkers and paddlers. The walkers went below to set up a rope while the others waited in the eddy above the pour over. We felt confident in letting in our first paddler’s abilities as he had run this rapid several times before. As he approached the lip it became evident that things were not going to go as smoothly as we had hoped. Our leader had suffered some sort of amnesia and was going over the wrong spot at the wrong speed. Rather than boofing over the hole, he landed, with no momentum, in the middle of it. Efforts to paddle out were futile as he was tractor-beamed back into the hole and introduced to the inner workings of one of the South’s nastiest holes. Five rope throws later we were able to extract him. Those waiting in the eddy for their turn opted to paddle to the portage.

AW’s description of this hole’s ability to hold people for an uncomfortable period of time was proven accurate. This hole is large enough to immobilize swimmers in the middle of its circular hydraulic. All efforts to swim to the surface for air, or to the bottom to try to “sub-out” were countered by the “vacuum” created by the hydraulic.

Paddling Little River CanyonImmediately following Roadblock is Humpty Dumpty. This is a great double drop rapid that really keeps you on your toes. Our group made it through with minimal carnage, mostly due to rattled nerves. Our Roadblock hole-tester was still boat-less at this point so the early descenders went looking for the missing boat and hand paddles. The boat was recovered a good distance downstream and after a cold swim its owner was reunited with it.

Epics like this one give you another opportunity to rate your paddling buddies. You find out who has safety equipment and, even more valuable, who knows how to use it! You also find out who has calm nerves in trying times. When things get ugly you want buddies who can make good decisions and execute them with skill. Whenever I witness carnage going down I remember that today I am on the rescue/recovery end of the rope, someday I will be on the other end.

The rest of the river went without incident. Deepthroat and Bottleneck rapids were great fun at this level. I was very pleased with my new boat’s inaugural ride. It showed great promise for many more great days on the river.

About the author:

Jamie Sanders is an outdoor enthusiast and jack of all trades. Paddling is his current passion, but you will find him trail running, climbing, backpacking, cycling, mountain biking or playing disc golf when it’s too dry to hit the river.

After a few years on the sales floor at Rock/Creek, Jamie is now the race director for Rock/Creek’s trail races, the StumpJump 50K in October and the River Gorge Race in the Spring.

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