Paddling Tennessee's Obed/Emory Watershed

Lower Island Creek
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Lower Island Creek Map

Beginning as peaceful streams atop the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee, the rivers of the Obed/Emory watershed cascade off the edge of the escarpment, giving the area its incredible scenic and whitewater characteristics. Generally, these streams flow quietly for several miles until they reach the escarpment, and then they rumble for miles through the dramatic gorges that have been carved by millions of years of incessant erosion, only to reach bottom and become once again peaceful, pastoral streams. What follow are two outings that offer paddlers a taste of the 142 miles of paddling trails in this gorgeous whitewater country.

Without doubt, this is one of the Southeast's whitewater crown jewels. It is a very small, very steep creek nestled in a micro-gorge that may be the most beautiful in the Southeast. Island Creek is very demanding, and at high water rates Class V because it is unrelenting.

Because of its difficulty, inaccessibility, and the high water required, few have made this trip, and many who did ran it with too little water and were disappointed. All rapids in these two miles are runnable, with the possible exception of Compound Fracture, which is Class IV+ and deserves close scrutiny because it is an unnatural rock formation (dynamiting). The scenery is unsurpassed and the canyon rock conformations are unique. There is a dismantled parallel rail bed on river right and it is possible to hike through this lovely, small, totally enclosed gorge. Island Creek is a special trip that should not be attempted without plentiful water; otherwise it may be disappointing (although outrageously beautiful and unique under all circumstances). With sufficient water this is a true rip snorter.

River Conditions (Overview)
Bill Brown once wrote that Island Creek was as beautiful as the Doe River Gorge, as technical as the Middle Prong (of the Little Pigeon), and as mean as Crooked Fork Creek. Bill was right. Beautiful, technical, and mean are accurate adjectives for Island Creek.

With a good flow (10,000+ cfs), lower Island Creek is undeniably intense. The stream is very small, fast, steep, congested, constant, and demanding, through a micro-gorge with a rocky course and continuous rapids of the Class III and IV variety. Some of these rapids are more than 100 yards long, cannot be scouted easily, are congested with boulders, feature multiple drops, have very few eddies, and because of the ledge structure of the stream bed have numerous powerful diagonal souse holes. This stream is very pushy for its size, with unpredictable cross currents that are both complex and powerful. Several rapids are difficult to scout and are so long that the bottom cannot be seen from the top. Running them requires scouting from the top as far as possible and thereby carefully plotting a course to the first eddy from whence another reconnoiter can be accomplished. Needless to say, it is advisable to catch these few small eddies. The eddies on this trip are a special experience: scarce, tempestuous, and with uncharacteristically powerful eddy lines for a small stream.

The stream bed is confined to a narrow rock corridor with frequent points of dramatic erosion where the stream is carving enormous rock houses. At one point the stream flushes over a jumble of boulders and breakdown detritus from a waterfall and rushes into a rock house. Ever paddled in a cave? It is possible to eddy out inside the rock house!

River Conditions (From Top-to-Bottom)
The first half mile consists of continuous unpleasant rock stubble and overgrowth. In this initial section, whenever in doubt stay left because river right harbors two potential traps. When the stream widens, the obstructing bushes disappear (to reappear near the bottom of the run) and the first mayor rapid appears, Slip-n'-Slide (Class III).

Slip-n'-Slide has a couple of small drops at the top and then a long curving course over tilted solid rock with diagonal souse holes that are powerful at high water. At the bottom of the rapid the stream rolls into a boulder. Scout from river right, and run far right to avoid the holes.

A long course of technical Class II-III water follows Slip-n'-Slide, with a tight spot about two-thirds through. Look next for an undercut canyon wall on river left, announcing Write Yo' Momma (Class IV). The stream veers right and downward and into the second major rapid. About 100 yards long, it requires entry through a congested course and then down a slide into a diagonal souse hole, down another slide in order to catch a mandatory eddy (river left) in order to avoid a river right hole. Catching the eddy permits visual scanning of the remainder of the rapid and realization that it requires the paddler to power out of the eddy over a wave, keeping far left to avoid a diagonal wave, then suddenly correcting course in mid-rapid and paddling hard to river right in order to line up for the final drop, which focuses all water hard left into a ledge; and if you think this sentence is complex you should see the rapid. This rapid is rambunctious at higher flows, with surprisingly aggressive holes and dynamic eddy walls. The bottom of the rapid is not visible from the top because of stream curvature, congestion, and healthy gradient.

After this rapid comes a 200-yard respite and then a 70-yard complex rock garden. Look carefully for a boulder beach on river left. Stop here and scout Compound Fracture, a Class IV+ rapid with mangling potential because the rocks are unnaturally jagged.

As with many Cumberland Plateau streams, loggers snaked a narrow gauge railroad up this narrow defile back around the turn of the century. Close inspection of the micro-canyon stream side reveals the remnants of the rail bed. At one time or another these narrow gauge railroads snaked up every significant stream on the Cumberland escarpment, permitting removal of virgin timber stands and/or coal before the area was penetrated by highway or internal combustion engine. Island Creek surely represents the apotheosis of the narrow gauge railroad building art. A first descent leaves the paddler wondering if this stream is traversable on foot! Only upon second inspection are the narrow gauge railroad remnants discovered.

As the builders audaciously ascended these small canyons they would, of necessity, switch back and forth to utilize the best road surface. These artful, serpentine tactics are nowhere better demonstrated than on Island Creek. (Also note the same tactics on Laurel Fork in West Virginia, the Piney in Tennessee, and Big Laurel Creek in North Carolina.) At one point along Island Creek the builders encountered a spot with sheer rock walls on both sides of the stream. End of the line? Hell no!

"Zeke! Brang up the dynamite! Don't fergit the bustin' caps! And if bustin' caps in 1900 are anachronistic, brang up the anachronism sauce."

They placed the dynamite along river right and blasted, providing a stable rock-solid base for the railroad and bad news for paddlers 100 years later, as the detritus fell into Island Creek, to be swept at high water to the small rubblefall that forms the final, formidable drop in Compound Fracture.

Scout this nasty spot because it could be most unkind to floating objects. Don't miss the significance of the undercut cliff on river left or the huge slab of dislodged rock 40 yards downstream. This rapid is definitely runnable but the consequences of a mistake could be serious. No one seems to know who first ran Island Creek, but Eugene (Bo) Rocker was among the harbingers. On his first two descents he portaged this spot. Third time, he went for it and jammed his boat into the undercut cliff on river left, extricating himself only with the tactical genius of Bucky Scarborough and his own ability to climb hand-overhand up the face of the undercut.

More rock gardens and rock houses and then rock house Rapid, which begins with a 10-foot slide into a pool. (Avoid river left. Trap!) The pool washes out through a boulder field, with the left course going into a rock house. The rock house provides a convenient eddy at high water, and weird currents.

Below the rock house washout is a short calm, ending in Maelstrom, a 125-yard rapid of significant intensity and technicality. Another short calm ends when Island Creek fans out to strain through several small islands. Left is best.

Below these islands, the rapids moderate to Class II and soon the Emory River is encountered.

Don't be misled by stories you may have heard or read about Island Creek. Some trips have occurred at too low water with resultant disappointment. This creek is not a good low-water trip. This is a run to be enjoyed by very good paddlers when the Obed system is flush with water (10,000+ cfs).

This creek (along with the Upper Citico and the first mile of Tennessee's Tiny Piney River) are working definitions of the limits of navigability on the small end of the scale. Along with its small size and congestion (including dangerous undercut hazards and "unnatural" rock formations), it is very steep. This combination produces a very technical stream where precise and instantaneous maneuvering is the order of the day. Big water paddlers may be uncomfortable.

Although the entire length of the run measures only 2 1/2 miles, the first 20 percent of which is unpleasant bushwhacking, don't be surprised if a first descent requires four hours or more. Frequent scouting may be necessary at higher flows and is recommended in any event in order to appreciate the unusual beauty of this miniature defile.

Putting in is simple. Take the Catoosa Road out of Wartburg. Cross Nemo Bridge and continue on the serpentine Catoosa Road as it ascends the Emory River Gorge walls. A mile and a half past Nemo Bridge you will reach the Catoosa checking station at the periphery of the Catoosa Wildlife Management Area (CWMA). The road forks. Bear left and within a few yards the road parallels Island Creek and then crosses over a wood bridge. This bridge is the put-in for the two-mile trip to the Emory River.

After crossing Island Creek the road continues through the CWMA to the Crab Orchard Creek put-in. The Island Creek put-in also can be reached from Crab Orchard, Crossville, and Genesis Road by taking other roads that wind through the CWMA.

Access to the Island Creek put-in is somewhat limited by its location on the periphery of the CWMA. The Catoosa Road from Wartburg will be open except during managed hunts. The other road approaches, however, are closed from mid-January to mid-April (ostensibly to prevent deterioration of the gravel roads during severe weather and thereby save money). Dates for managed hunts change annually, but they are frequent. Contact the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency for specifics.

For take-out you have a choice. Island Creek flows into the Emory River about one-third mile below Nemo Bridge. The next downstream access on the Emory River is at Camp Austin, which is 5.5 miles downstream. One disadvantage to using the Camp Austin take-out is the long shuttle, requiring either a trip from the put-in back across Nemo Bridge through Wartburg and south on US 27 and TN 29A to Oakdale, and thence up the county road that parallels the Emory River to Camp Austin, or in the other direction away from the put-in through the CWMA, across Crab Orchard Creek, into Oakdale, across the Emory River Bridge and the rail tracks, and finally up the county road that parallels the Emory River to Camp Austin. Both shuttle runs are unpleasantly long.

Now the choice. As surprising as this sounds, it is possible to paddle upstream on the Emory River the one-third mile from the Island Creek confluence to Nemo Bridge. The reader will not be surprised to learn that this course of action requires considerable exertion. (You see, people usually paddle downstream.) The strong attraction of this arduous one-third mile upstream endeavor, however, is that the round-trip shuttle is reduced from a few minutes less than forever to about 15 minutes.

Alternatively, it is possible to walk from the Island Creek/Emory River confluence to the Catoosa Road. The distance is only 0.4 mile, but it is uphill with no established trail through dense poison oak gardens.

These somewhat unpleasant details on shuttle runs and egress strategies may discourage some people from attempting lower Island Creek, but that is OK because the details are not exaggerated and the paddler should anticipate a demanding physical workout. For individuals with sufficient skill and endurance, lower Island Creek is well worth the time and effort.

Only the bottom two miles of Island Creek are described. The 7.5 miles above the wood bridge put-in described above are badly congested with trees (and with islands). The gradient, however, is quite attractive at 67 ft/mi. The alternate upstream put-in is a low-water concrete bridge that may be reached by driving three miles southeast from Buckswitch in the CWMA. These upstream miles feature few pleasant rapids, but there are two memorable waterfalls, the second of which is a ten-foot angled plunge into a hole where the water recirculates back under the rock promontory from where it falls. This waterfall could prove hazardous.

© Article copyright Menasha Ridge Press. All rights reserved.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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