I was fortunate enough to catch the Laurel Fork yesterday after getting off the Gragg Prong (12/1/2010). The good karma that surrounds rivers is no stranger to the Laurel Fork. A group of local TN boaters showed up at the put in just as I arrived. As it turned out, it's a good thing they did. It was late in the day in winter. 27 degrees. 15+ mph winds. 2-3 inches of snow on the ground. Doe was running 1400. Not the best time of day to be scouting down an unfamiliar and committing run. The TN boaters showed our group down and we had a stellar run. However, despite the fast pace and small group size (5 total boaters) it was sobering to reach the end of the rapids just as dark was setting in. I don't like to think about being half-way down that run and a cold winter night setting in.
At the end of the rapids, we (wisely) elected to hike our boats back to the car instead of fumbling down the runout in the dark. There is a lot of wood in this run and floating in the dark is not recommended. Instead we hiked through a silent forest, along a snowy appalachian trail, illuminated by starlight. Great end to a great day of boating.
Leland's description below is pretty spot on, but I think it makes the run sound a little too scary. I would say if you are comfortable running the green narrows, you will feel at home on this reach. None of the drops is particularly difficult, but the location, wood and steady pace make the reach veryy commiting--especially in winter when it most often runs. It's in a deep canyon, it's very continuous, and there are a lot of pin spots.
One critical piece of beta that I learned from the locals is that your best option is to put in and take out at the same point (the official put in). When you get down to the huge falls at the end of the rapids (and it does come up quick--watch out), you can hike back to the put in in about 30 minutes. It's a stiff 10-minute straight up climb on the AT out of the gorge, then you get up to the ridgeline and it's 20 minutes of flat ridgeline walking on good trail back to the put in. It is definitely faster to hike back to the put in, than to paddle out and run shuttle (similar to nffb). I am told that the runout below the falls is pretty flat and loaded with wood. If you get to the falls near dark, don't attempt to paddle out. It's much safer to hike in the dark. My advice is to leave a car at the take out since it is right on the way (AT trailhead in Hampton, TN) in case it's early in the day and you decide to paddle out. If you change your mind and decide to hike out, you will have a car at the top too.
The falls is pretty intimidating from up top, but looks more reasonable from below. To my knowledge, only Mac McGee has run it to date.
The AT trail hike out starts at the BASE of the big falls. The trail is a little sketchy getting down there so most people send one guy walking down from the top of the falls to get into the water in the lagoon below. Then, throw or belay the boats off a 30' cliff on river right of the falls just downstream. The guy in the water retrieves the boats, then everyone gets to the bottom of the falls and hikes up the AT trail. The AT trail starts in a long uphill vector headed downstream. When you reach the ridgeline, it zigs back and follows the creek upstream back to the parking lot. You will know you are close to your car when you cross a small foot bridge across the river (which you float under shortly after starting the run).
Catch this run if you get the chance, but go with someone who knows it unless you have all day to scout.
I've been on this run at various levels. (-4),(+4), and most recently (0)doe was 1200 this past saturday 6-26-04. i would like to reiterate the significance of "darwin's hole" i was trapped in the alcove on river left at the base of this drop and found it to be a difficult swim requiring several rescuers to extract me and my boat. we had to clear out wood in several places so beware of new wood with each run. it's beautiful but it is remote with few options if something goes wrong.<br />
From Leland on Boatertalk:
Date: Mar 01 2004, 14:20 GMT
the laurel fork is class IV/V for the most part at sale levels - doe about 1000 at elizabethton.
the reasons it doesn't see a lot of traffic are:
lots of wood that the locals have cut, but not cut out. instead of clearing strainers, they cut a kayak wide path that is class V to get to with death if you miss.
darwin's hole - this is one of the most difficult rapids on the run - a walker for sure at high water, and you CANNOT walk. we went in too high one time and ended up lowering ourdelves and our boats down a 25 foot cliff onto a boil, and trying to get in there while dangling on the end of a rope. not reccomended. don't go too high!
the portage - the 65 foot falls is a bitch of a portage, especially if you take a wrong turn on the maze of trails up there. it has been run once in a ducky.
it is also almost impossible to hike out of the gorge if you have to - i would rather try to hike out of linville. bring your climbing shoes if you think hiking out might be an option.
there will be a lot more info on this and a ton of other runs in my book - coming this fall!
Ran it 4-18-03
Lots of Fun, Fist biggie is a blind 10 footer, just run down the middle and boof.
Next is some Class 4 boogie, then a ledge parralel to streamflow of about 6 feet. just side boof and then wash out the flume. Next is the tough one if you ask me( I swam it). Its a fade and boof right to avoid landing in a front pin. watch the f.u. rock in the washout as it tends to flip you over and backwards right in time for a 5 foot pourover with a meaty recirculative alcove on river left. Its hard to walk it or set up safety but I advise doing one or both. Then there is some troughy Doe riveresque scrape rapids. Next is alefthad turn 7 foot slide/falls with a tree backing up the hyrdo. Take a look. around the corner and down is a big double drop you cant boat scout. it goes over a pencilsharpner like ledgy entrance and then you go far left and slide completely sideways pointing to the right to avoid t-boning a boulder. one drop and another double falls later you will be eddying out on the right to walk Laurel Fork Falls, a 45 footer that Tao might think about. After that it is beaver dams and shoals to Hampton. We ran it when Doe was at 1500. This was a nice padded level though the nasty pourover alcove spot is rather menacing. Its a blast. The hike out if you choose is the worst in the history of the world.
I did the cartographic analysis and From the AT/laurel Falls trailhead to the takeout at the trailhead on 321 it is 4.63 miles long
Avg gradient- 132 ft/mile
Max gradient- 290 ft/mile in the second mile of the run.
Personally, I think calling this class III-IV(V+) may be underating this run. I would not want to take someone down this run with class III-IV skills. Class III-IV paddlers may be getting in over their head on this one. It will be interesting for class IV boaters. Class V boaters will be comfortable. This run gets very tight in the inner Gorge. Scouting, portaging and walking out will be difficult (Although all have been done). There is a lot of wood on the run that moves around and be prepared for new strainers. It would be best to go with someone who knows the run because of this. Be careful, getting on this one too high could be very bad. There are a couple of holes that will get meaty. A lot of locals use a visual gauge on the river left rock wall upsream of the 321 bridge. There is a road that goes up the creek along the rock wall. The wall steps up. Zero is at the top of the step. Measure close to the furthest upstream point on the step. I like +4" as a minimum, +7" as a medium and I am guessing +12" as a high. I would not go in there much above +12". Some friends of mine have and have had to hike out both times. One had to go back in and find his boat after the creek dropped. Many have run this much lower than my minimum. I have done it at 0 (very scrapy).
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