Sitting in front of the computer after 3 days of steady rain looking at a bunch of purple coded gages, a thought occurred to me that maybe now was the time to try a run that I had in mind for almost a decade. The Cohutta Wilderness Area in Georgia is full of beautiful creeks that feed into the Conasauga River drainage. These creeks are relatively unexplored by southeastern standards due to the difficult access. I had previously hiked in to the largest of the Conasauga’s tributaries, the Jack’s River, on a few backpacking trips. There is a popular waterfall you can access via the approximately 3 mile long Beech Bottom Trail. In 2005, I toted my boat and gear down the trail and did a solo run from below the falls to the confluence with the Conasauga. It was enough to know that the run needs a lot of water and there was nothing bigger than the class IV ledges right below the falls on the bottom 6 miles of this gorgeous canyon. A few facebook posts and texts later and we were in the car on our way to the Cohutta Mountains.
We dropped a car at the trailhead near the confluence and completed the 130 mile shuttle back to Blue Ridge, GA. Jack’s River is a wilderness run through the Cohuttas of somewhere between 17-20 miles depending on who you believe and had only been run a couple of times. Kevin Palmer, Jordan Sherman, and Joe Gudger all agreed to join me, Nick Fiedler, on this little adventure and the next morning about a half hour before dawn we met at the end of the pavement and drove to the end of the dirt road. Loading boats riverside with a ridiculous amount of gear and food, we waited for the light to get bright enough to see any strainers in the creek.
Putting on the river is tiny and easy to touch both banks with your paddle. Floating around the first few bends through the lower end of the valley, we quickly come to a riverwide strainer and make quick work of a portage. No one says it but we are all thinking if there are lots of these then this could get ugly quickly. Leaving the valley the river picks up to class 2 boogie water and the rhododendron begins to close in all around you. We come around a bend and see a small horizon line. Joe signals center boof and we all nail a beautiful 6 foot ledge boof into a small pool. Another portage around a downed tree, and river is definitely getting steeper as the rapids increase to class 3ish. Catching an eddy above a riverwide log, it looks possible to ramp it center and we notice the walls are starting to gorge up. Ramping the log one at a time is sketchy but everyone makes it without any difficulty. The river is really dropping now more class 4ish as we get into a section with single boat eddys and must rely on hand signal directions. Leap-frogging down the river we come to another horizon line and all get out to take a look. Luckily, the trail crosses the river right here and its fairly easy to scout this drop. Its a big double drop with a tight 90 degree turn halfway down. The river shows no signs of letting up as the gradient looks steep for the immediate future. I make the turn too tight and end up running the bottom drop backwards but it goes smoothly in reverse. Everyone else runs this drop with mixed results. Somewhere in this section Kevin decides that he has reached his limit with this gorge and discretion is the better part of valor. Shouldering his loaded boat he starts down the trail.
The river is full on now with continuous 4+ rapids, single boat eddys, and occasional logs to avoid. We get in a great rhythm with each of us catching an eddy when possible and give quick directions to the next paddler through. Occasionally, we catch a glimpse of Kevin on the trail above us giving any beta he can from up there. Jordan manages to find a piton rock that rearranges his bow and sends him into a playboating session but it happened out of my view and apparently he was able to work it out. After a couple of miles of this, the trail comes close to the river again and we all meet up to discuss the situation. Kevin estimates he hiked a mile on the trail. Looking at the map, it’s impossible to tell how many of these gorges we might face. I say it even though I know I shouldn’t. Kevin agrees he can’t hike his boat 20 miles and will need to put back in. We get moving again and karma strikes in the very next drop. I miss a boof stroke into a pourover and roll up into a side surf. I try to move forward and the eddy is feeding into hole on that side. I try to move back and that just takes me deeper into the trough. Unable to initiate either end of my creekboat, I glance over my shoulder and see eddys on both sides of the river. I flip away from the hole and reach down for some green water. My boat is locked in and I can feel it stay put in the hole. I think it’s last ditch effort time and maybe I can pull, fill with water, and sub out of the hole? Pull the skirt and immediately the boat is gone. “Karma is a bitch and I never should have said anything” is all I can think as I swim dejected into the eddy.
After getting everything back together, we start moving and the river immediately eases off to class 2-3 boogie again. Mile after mile we keep waiting to drop into the next gorge and it never happens. Tributaries keep coming in on both sides of the river and the volume has really increased. The scenery is amazing with cliffs on alternating sides of the river and clear clean Cohutta water. We come up on a couple of larger ledge rapids that are lots of fun but really pool drop. I see a campsite on RR and think that couldn’t possibly be Beech Bottoms we haven’t gone anywhere near that far. In front of us, we see what looks like 2 more ledge drops. We run the first and catch an eddy RR. Joe and Jordan eddy hop to the very last eddy above the next drop. They can tell its big but can’t see around the corner. I look at Kevin and we both seem to recognize the horizon line as the entry to the falls. We all take a look and are amazed to discover that we are indeed at the falls. That means we have covered somewhere between 11-14 miles in 4 hours.
As we scout the falls, the rain stops and the sun peeks through the clouds for the first time all day. The entry drop is 15-20 feet and 95% of the water feeds into a RL pocket hole that looks unforgiving to say the least. It could be run RR with a great slide to boof but must make the eddy before the main drop of the falls. The main drop is a two tiered fall of maybe 70 feet or so. The entire thing lands on rock except for a 6 foot wide crack on the left side. Imagine a bouncing fall from 30 feet up trying to hit a crack that small with another 40 feet left to fall if you make it there. No one was feeling particularly frisky so we portaged RR and enjoyed the brief period of sunshine on the rocks below the falls.
After the falls, there is a series of 4-5 ledge rapids of varying height all in the class 4 range. Then again, the river abruptly eases off into class 2-3 boogie water for the next 6 miles to the takeout. We rolled up to the car at the confluence by lunch time 6 hours after we put on and laughed about all the camping gear and food we had toted through the gorge without needing. We all agreed that if we hadn’t brought it then we would have needed every bit of it. That’s just the way it goes sometimes.
The exploratory nature of this trip was exactly the type of paddling I have fallen in love with. There is something very special that is hard to put into words about pushing off into an unknown river and hoping for the experience of a lifetime. Regardless of what you find out there, you will learn something from taking a chance and leaving the routine behind in search of something better.