Beyond the Amphitheatre: Ivan Opens the Door to the Walls
Mark D’Agostino with help from Curt Ruffing
I’ve always wanted to hike into The Walls of Jericho. I never really knew exactly where they were but I did know that they were on private land. I had heard mention of pretty extreme class V rapids. In the last few years, they had popped up on my radar screen a few times when someone would ask whether Turkey Creek had been run through the walls. At least a couple groups claimed to have made the run but I never had seen pictures. At long last, after the Nature Conservancy purchased the property and even told us how to get there at a HCC meeting this spring, I had to go at least look at it.
Curt and I hiked in via the AL 79 route from the east in the spring of 2004. It was steep, but we found The Walls, culminating in the amphitheatre and the famous cave where at normal flows all the water flows over a big waterfall, into a pit, and then through the rock wall for a few hundred yards. Below this were lots of slides, a fair bit of wood, and nice scenery. The fateful move was our decision to find out what lay above the amphitheatre. Many have hiked into the amphitheatre but few have ventured beyond. It was a fairly easy free climb up a small cliff. We were apprehensive about getting back down but went for it nonetheless. Above the amphitheatre, we found more excellent scenery and a series of clean, very fun looking class IV drops.
I filed the trip in my memory, put it on my to-do list, but did not take it too seriously. Access was a major issue. I generally refuse to walk up from the bottom of a run and this one would require several miles of hiking just to get to the bottom. It looked like you could get in from Tennessee to the north by hiking on logging roads, but I never got around to verifying that the road was navigable to the old cemetery where the trails begin.
Fortunately, Curt took the trip seriously. We were supposed to go to West Virginia, but as Ivan approached, it seemed silly to travel. When I asked him in the week leading up to Ivan’s arrival what he wanted to do, he said, “that teacups run over in the walls of Jericho”. In a day or so I was psyched as well. We met for lunch on Tuesday so he could borrow my GPS unit. He then drove up that night to verify that we could get to the Little Mountain Cemetery. His report was positive, and the game was on. All we needed was a crew and rain.
The rain fell in significant quantities on Thursday. We assembled a good group or four. Wade Amis and Brian McAnally joined Curt and I. Both had climbing experience and are great exploratory trip members – they almost never get mad. Wade and I had been through the Flat Rock / Coon experience, and both he and Brian had suffered through Rice Creek. Each of the group members has been a beneficiary and a victim of several of my wild goose chases in search of new water. We all felt this first run should be a decked boat affair, and in retrospect we were correct.
We knew we needed a long day. We left Gurley at 7:20am, left vehicles at the semi-flooded take-out north of Estill Fork on CR9, met Brian, and were hiking in by 9:30am. We stopped several times along the way to make sure we did not get off the correct old road. It was mostly flat or downhill. We had covered about 1.5 miles when a steep uphill section at a small tributary confronted us. We decided to eschew the uphill and instead drag down the travertine covered tiny creek. We put on Turkey Creek about 0.5 miles above Poplar Creek confluence at 11am.
The first mile+ was fairly flat, as expected. Even though the area had just received 5-7 inches of rain, this section was bony. It was pretty, but there were only some II’s and maybe a III. Then it all became worthwhile. The drops we had seen above the amphitheatre were, if anything, better than I had expected. They started off with a small ledge, then a boof, and then they got bigger. A 10’ clean slide, a three part rapid with the top under a high clearance undercut cliff– this was cool stuff. The level here was about right. Maybe a bit more would have been better, but for a first run, this was very good. We could even easily run the rapids to within a short distance of the mandatory amphitheatre portage.
The expedition really kicked in at the amphitheatre. As we were getting ready to lower boats down past the unrunnable waterfall flowing into the pool where the cave starts, Curt bumped into Wade’s stuff and knocked his paddle into the water 50’ below. Did we have a spare paddle? No. Hand paddling time had evidently arrived.
We had hoped to run the drops below the mandatory portage. The first rapid was no nig deal, but it had a sticky looking hole that led directly into a 12’ waterfall, which landed on rocks. This in turn fed into the really big drop/slide that falls into the amphitheatre. , Though it would have made an incredible picture, it was ~30’ of rock-induced pain waiting to happen So we lowered boats down the 12’er, lined them through the last pool, then rappelled and lowered boats into the amphitheatre. This took a while. We each ran the last part of the slide, and Brian walked back up and tossed his paddle across the rapid to Wade so he would not have to hand paddle it. Meanwhile, I had cut out a pesky log that went across the next rapid with my Sven saw. Wade ran the drop and began to don the hand paddles. To Wade, the four mile flat water paddle-out on Hurricane loomed even larger than the remaining rapids on Turkey. I ran next. After landing, I glanced downstream and there was Wade’s paddle. Sweet.
I continued my photo slut ways and ran that drop twice, made Curt go ahead to take my picture, and generally irritated and amused Wade. The rest of the run was low water slides, ledges, and rock gardens. The rock gardens were highly boat abusive at this level. Curt’s Huck re-cracked for about the fifth time. By the time we paddled the four miles of Hurricane in about 90 minutes or so, Curt was either dumping or carrying an extra 20 gallons of water. A fitting last run for the Huck.
Now that I’ve had time to reflect, this may have been the most satisfying run I’ve ever done in Alabama. It had hardship and great reward: hiking, paddling, rappelling, incredible scenery, the works. We may have been the first group to run above the amphitheatre. Amazingly, Bill Thornton and his group were only an hour or two behind us. Even harder to believe, the hiked out to Hwy 79!
Our run through The Walls of Jericho was really all you could want in high exertion paddling adventure. It took a fair bit of planning and a willingness to take a chance on water, orienteering, fitness, and the odd outdoor skill. As Curt puts it, it is hard to overemphasize the significance of a good crew in making the day so astounding. The absence of real complaints regarding the hiking and trail confusion, Wade not getting mad about Curt bumping his boat and the resulting paddle loss, Brian's competence with the ropes, etc. allowed the enjoyment of the rapids, scenery, and adventure to stay firmly in the forefront.