Shoal "In The Grove" 3/21/02
Paddlers: Mark D'Agostino (C-1), Dave Branham (OC-1/swimfins), Curt Ruffing, Brian McAnally (K-1)
Not too often does it come to pass that a person can realize a longtime ambition, especially one thought to be just a hardship waiting to happen. For many years, Shoal "In the Grove" has been that run for me. Not to be confused with the Scarham Creek tributary, this Shoal flows into the Tennessee River just downstream of Guntersville Dam from the south side, not far from the little town of Union Grove. If you've ever driven CR 240 from Morgan City towards Guntersville, you've essentially passed over the put-in at the BP station. Many years ago, at least prior to the fall of 1995, I walked about half of it with Mike Abernathy, and about ¾ of it with John Parker. The completely dry streambed I saw through my eyes then was continuous class IV and V with undercuts and a rapid so heinous that it was actually a challenge to walk. Over the years, the run was on my 'list' but usually categorized as "stupid" or "scary". I have never met anyone who has run it more than once, except maybe for Keith Yell. If you know Keith Yell, you know this fact is inconclusive as to the nature of the run. Ricky Pollard also had nothing but bad things to say about it - one of his friends pretty much quit boating with him after they ran Shoal.
But this year, it was on my radar and I had been working Dr. Branham, who was concerned. Finally, we had a small crowd going this particular Thursday, and our plan A had too little water. So Curt, Dave, and I met Brian at the put-in. As we drove up the immediate conclusion was that the level was perfect. We wanted the first falls rapid to be a nice but not high level, and that it was. "Oh S*#t, I guess we have to run it" was Dave's response. The BP station folks had no problem at all with us parking there. The sky cleared and it was a beautiful days in the 60's. No excuses were to be found. The atmosphere was upbeat fatalism.
After running the short shuttle, we set up safety and camera coverage on the glamour shot opening double drop. The first 12' drop is run on a slide at far right, and the second is run out towards the middle left. We all had good lines, and got pretty good pictures to boot. The falls were easy, and spirits were high, if a tad nervous.
The next mile+ or so were an exercise in waiting for the other shoe to drop. The rapids were easy III to III+/IV, and at least initially pretty well spaced. After close to an hour or so, I was beginning to doubt my memory of the run. I knew that your perception of a run can be inaccurate on any scout, and back in 1995 I had not run much hard stuff. It also took me a long time to realize that water, especially high water, could make seemingly easy stuff much harder than it looked dry, but that water can also fill in lots of gaps and 'smooth out' ugly looking things as well. There were a few fun slides, only a couple trees, and generally fun class IV drop/pool rapids. Tighter than Sauty, harder than Short, very much in our comfort zone. I felt on top of my game. Brian led the way though the harder boat scout stuff, and he or I led the shore scout rapids. Dave even threw in a swim for old times sake. Finally, I got out above a horizon line and said "aha!"
This was the big one, and it did not disappoint. This one rapid falls a total of 120' (Brian has an altitude watch) over a series of constricted 10-20' individual drops. Amazingly, it looked upon quick inspection that the very highly skilled and motivated could actually run several of these drops. However the whole mess eventually goes under a big rock with trees at the entrance. It took us about 20 minutes to walk it once we concluded that the left side was the lesser of two evils.
Much relief was to be had once we cleared the big walk, but the action did not left up for at least another ½ mile. By this time it felt like we'd lost some water, which made a few of the rapids pin-friendly. There were at least three really fun IV's after the portage. One had a move or two followed by a boof into an eddy. After the eddy, a simple enough drop had several pinning rocks which Brian bounced off. Curt, Dave, and I decided to run most of the rapid then walk that part. Dave went to heroic and successful efforts to avoid having to do the 4' boof move, which he was convinced would make him flip. Two other rapids stand out, one was long enough to not be able to see the bottom from the top, but after a quick scout Brian led the way. It felt a tiny bit like South Boulder Creek, just deal with the stuff and you'll make it to the bottom. The last IV was semi-long, and Dave went amphibian here to appease the new run gods. A few class III's signaled the end of the line. ¾ of a mile of easy lake slough paddle brought us to the trucks.
Now that we have made the run, we can say it is one of the more enjoyable class IV creeks around at reasonable levels. Certainly proximity to Huntsville is a strong suit. It took us about 4.5 hours all told, but since we now know the lines, it could be run in 2 hours or so. Who knows, we may even run it again.