Note: After the remodelling and reopening of Bucks Pocket State Park, there is now a day-use fee for all users, including paddlers who park outside the gate. Pay at the office or self-serve kiosk, and put the pass on your dash. They are giving out $150 tickets to those they catch without passes. Unfortunate, but at least there are showers again...
South Sauty is the sweet meat if your taste is nice III/III+ with several fun and not too hard class IV's. It remains one of my favorite Alabama runs. It is topped off by hot showers at the takeout. The action begins right at the put-in with a 6' drop known locally as Matheny's that can be run a variety of ways. The next 1/2 mile or so is warm-up class III/III+. The first group of major rapids include Welcome to Sauty (aka Aaron's Ecstasy), Egg Scrambler (Over Easy), Jonah's Whale, and Cliff Left. After this is a short mellow stretch. The action resumes at Drunken Horseman, which precedes Upper and Lower Minefields, The Slot, and Bonecrusher. After the bone, nicely spaced III+ takes you to Buck's Pocket.
Just below the put-in, a turbulent constricted rapid can cause the odd mishap. Like most of Sauty, it has a nice pool at the bottom. The warm-up class III continues until you reach a large flat rock area on river left, which is next to Welcome to Sauty. Not far below is Egg Scrambler. The entire creek goes off the right bank on a rapid that actually gets easier at medium/high levels. Jonah's Whale is a big undercut with tree-friendly ways. You want to end up way right at the Whale either by staying right the whole way or cutting across the entire rapid. Cliff Left can be run 2 or 3 different ways but the mushroom rock can collect logs and needs to be factored into any run. CL is easily scouted from the central island.
An interlude I call the intermission follows Cliff Left. You'll know when you get to Drunken Horseman when you see one of the world's best boat scout eddies on river left. It is run left or right (tree on right as of summer 2003). The next rapid is upper minefield, then comes lower minefield. Many routes are possible but I usually go somewhat right to left.
With help from Eric Baker: Between lower minefields and the Slot is a sieve rapid that has become seriously dangerous in spring 2003. This rapid is a slightly challenging right to left line with an angled 5' drop at the end. There is now a log around a foot in diameter lodged vertically in the notch of the sieve on the right. It sticks out above the notch a few feet and the other end (ends?) are jammed somewhere in the bottom. This is an easy place to recognize if you know when you are in the Minefields. There is an identifying rock on the right bank - it is a huge (50 ft by 50 ft or larger) rectangle leaning at about a 45 degree angle with the bottom at the edge of the creek and laying on the right bank. You can see this rock at the top of the second Minefield if you look - at the bottom of the second Minefield it is obvious if you are looking for it. As you run the rapid you will go from top right to bottom left and you can eddy across from it to see the sieve entrance. You can eddy behind the rock that forms the left side of the sieve to see the water coming out. The huge flat identifying rock forms the right side. This section of the rapid has changed from last year. It seems that the left most boulder that used to keep you left of the danger has dislodged and rolled back and other rocks have moved around there as well. Beware - this is not a place you want to end up!!
The Slot is next. Catch the eddy on the right or skip it altogether with decent water on the left. Slot-o-rama. You have some control over the entry, but it is likely the Slot will control you at some point. An eddy is on bottom right at medium to low water, a sticky hole awaits just below. Very cool. Now all you have left is the Bonecrusher. (think Ali: "the BONEcrusher"). Scout from the island or from the left bank. A sneak channel skips the meat to the right. The crusher rock is undercut.
The rest of the way is quality III+. One spot to watch towards the end is a 6' angled river-wide drop that sports a hole and a most unfortunate rock just off the right bank. Another is at the end of the Forest (you'll know) where a pinning rock is hard to see on the left around 1' or so.
A first run definitely warrants a look or good advice at the Whale, Cliff Left (which sometimes collects trees) and Bonecrusher. Each of these features large and menacing undercuts that are quite avoidable but potentially career threatening. Undercuts abound elsewhere but are hidden by water except at very low levels. Videos clips are now available on the American Whitewater site by selecting the video link above.
Those desiring supplemental reading may enjoy the story of how Drunken Horseman got its name, by Bill Patterson, in the Trip Reports.
The run is generally made down to 0" (Bucks Pocket Stick Gauge), but features many rock/boat interfaces. I don't bother below 6" or so. Many prefer it from 1.5' to 2.5', yet I like it from 12" to 24". The beautiful people run it up to levels I prefer not to discuss. When the level is 0" to 6", the playing is better and the run is a little harder (tighter). Most of the lines are still the same, although the right line at Jonas disappears and the Left Boof at the Slot gets sketchy. A slick way to find out if the level is under or over 12" is calling the ranger and ask if the low water bridge at Bucks Pocket is passable. If it is not, then the water is over 12".
The USGS South Sauty near Rainsville gauge has replaced the TVA Town gauge as the indicator gauge as of 11/29/2015. Below is a correlation guide for the USGS vs Bucks Pocket stick Gauge:
8.35-8.9 ft USGS = Low = 6-12" stick gauge
8.9-10.0 ft USGS = Good = 12-24" stick gauge
10.0-12.2 ft USGS = High = 24-38" stick gauge
Watch the Precipitation gage. I have gotten lucky by seeing localized rain around Henagar and running Sauty when Town barely moves.
I have learned that trolls come in all shapes and sizes. Trolls also come from a wide variety of places. This particular troll emerged from a nasty undercut in South Sauty creek.
Our first encounter with this troll was in the mid 90’s during our first descent of South Sauty. Chuck Kirk was taking Jim Kelly, Josh the Punk Kayaker and myself down the creek on a nice 24 degree afternoon. After a brief respite from the some nice drops, Jim found a particularly menacing undercut. From the top of the drop it looks like you can run down a slope and boof left in front of the big rock in the center. Au contrair, trying to pull that move will find you landing on another semi-sloping drop below the boof rock. You will then slam sideways into the nice undercut rock in the center of the river. This is exactly what happened to Jim. As I looked down from the eddy above, all I could see was Jim’s pogies and paddle sticking out from under the rock. After several attempts Jim managed to extract himself from the rock and roll up in the eddy below. From the top eddy the whole event looked terrible. After I ran the drop and caught up to Jim, we discussed the situation. Laughingly Jim mentioned that it was pretty horrible under the rock. I seem to recall that he mentioned something about a troll.
Years later in the spring of ’02 Jim and I found ourselves back on the creek with Ross Kramer and Mike Huff. After meeting up with some more friends on the creek, our group grew to about eight including a first timer who was running it with her boyfriend. Since Jim’s incident we had learned to give that nasty rock a wide berth in order to avoid another encounter with the minion that lurked below. Our repetitive experience with the rapid had given us a certain amount of contempt so we gave that particular drop very little consideration. I was running sweep and told the newbie to watch the undercut in the middle as we began to enter the last busy section. As I told her to watch the undercut she did exactly that as she slammed into the rock. I am sure that she saw it from the side as well as the bottom once she went under. The whole incident looked absolutely horrible from the top. After a nice battle with the rock and the troll that lurked beneath, she emerged and was deposited in the eddy below the rapid. Shortly afterwards her boat followed sans paddle.
I quickly ran the drop and ferried over behind the undercut. I noticed a fair amount of water flowing out below the rock and quickly deduced that the paddle was still under the rock. That is where I made my tragic mistake. Another boater and I climbed up on the rock and attempted to dislodge her paddle. After quite a few attempts we gave up. Little did we know that the damage had already occurred. The troll had been disturbed one too many times and he also got a look at my face.
Not knowing what had actually taken place, I gave the girl my paddle and took off down the creek using my hand paddles. After running through the Minefields, the Slot and Bonecrusher Mike Huff produced a ceremonious flask of Scotch. Mike, Jim and I polished off the flask as we cruised the remaining class III’s. We were comfortably num as we beached our boats at the takeout. It was time for hot showers, more refreshments, river stories and hanging out at my party trailer.
After a couple of hours the Troll came looking for me. I did not know it at the time but he was under the guise of a horseman that lived at the top of the gorge. The Troll was quite ornery and a little drunk. For some reason he really seemed to have it in for me. The Troll was luring other members from our party to ride his horse. Jim went for a quick ride as Brian poured whiskey down the Troll, hoping that he would quickly tire and go home. No such luck. The Troll kept on insisting that I get on the horse. (I later deduced that he was trying to get me back to the undercut.) The more the Troll pushed the harder I resisted. Jim soon returned to allow the Troll to return to his lair. He did not accept the offer. That was when Jim poured him another triple.
After swilling down the last drink the Troll became quite beligerante. That was when Mark D and others arrived to witness the menace. After one last attempt to lure me back to the undercut, I jokingly asked the troll if he needed a good ole fashioned Alabama ass beating. The Troll bowed up and said “let’s go!” At that point in time I sensed that something was way beyond “not quite right.”
I assured the Troll that I was just kidding as Brian poured him one last one for the road. We then received our reprieve. The Troll mounted his horse and left for his lair.
The next day I realized how lucky that I had been. After talking to other campers, I learned that the Troll had fallen of his horse on several occasions trying to make it out of the canyon. In the end the Troll had walked off with his horse into the night and I had luckily turned in to my bed with visions of undercuts dancing in my head.
The moral to this story: Give the undercut in Drunken Horseman a wide berth. If the Horseman comes calling at the end of the run then give him at least ½ a fifth and run the other way!
It is funny how needs and desires affect your decision-making ability. One such example is of my trip on Mar 20th . In Feb., when Mark D and I needed a place to paddle we checked Blackoak and found it too low. On the way to Sauty I asked Mark what gauge reading he was looking for; reply 4’6” or below. Upon looking at the gauge we found it to be 4’10”. Mark felt this was too much for a virgin run on the SSauty. Here is where the story begins.
On Mar 20th , Mark D’, John Parker, and myself needed a river fix. A quick check with Blackoak found it to be too low. On the drive to Sauty I knew there was no need to ask for the desired gauge reading, because he gave it to me last month. The gauge showed 5’0”. This is where need and desire affect your ability to persuade. This was the only thing runable and since no one had run it this high, it needed to be run. “Ah, Chris you can run it. Sure it is higher than it needs to be, but if Dave B. can run this river at lower water, surely you can paddle better than him?!” As we headed to the river, many thoughts passed through my mind. “Don’t look to paddle Sauty until you are bored with Short.” Gary Holder, paddler extraordinare, will not paddle Sauty. 4’6” is a good beginner lever. Undercuts, undercuts, undercuts. By the time I got to the put-in, I felt like I did on my virgin run on the Ocoee. How am I supposed to hold my paddle with my hands shaking like this?
This is what I remember of the day. Big, pushy, technical water. Dynamic eddies. Lots and lots of rapids. Lots and lots of rocks. I became an omelet on Egg Scrambler. I looked down the throat of Jonah’s Whale and decided I did not want to speak with God yet. I dodged the explosions on Mine Field. I surfed the bottom of The Slot. I walked The Bone Crusher. The adrenaline pumped for 4 hours. I was still shaking during the drive home. Now I know why I had run all of the hard routes on easier rivers, why I learned to catch every eddy with confidence and, why I practiced surfing (front, side, back) so diligently.
My conclusions: don’t paddle Sauty until you are bored with Short. Gary, you can do it. 4’6” would be a good beginner level. Undercuts, undercuts, undercuts. Practice, confidence, and presence of mind.
Mark D’Agostino (C-1), Ken Pevahouse (OC-1), Dave Curry (OC-1)
Mark had been trying to get me on South Sauty for over a year. I used every weenie excuse I could come up with. Apprehension towards rapids with legendary names like Jonah’s Whale, The Slot, the Mine Fields, and Bone Crusher were driving my fear factor higher than its normal sky-high level. Mark, however, was his typical bulldog persistent self, and I eventually ran out of excuses and capitulated.
When we got to the gauge at the takeout, the level was 1.7 feet, somewhat higher than Mark would have liked. He bolstered my confidence by telling me that it wouldn’t be all that pushy, he knew all the lines and would hold my hand all the way, and I should be able to handle it, more or less. I’d heard this tale from Mark before, and, just like before, I fell for it.
At the put-in, Mark and The Peve decided to run the first drop. I looked at the 8-foot long log going round and round in the pool and decided to take the “sissy option” and put in below it. Mark said the log just added a Russian roulette element. They both ran it without incident.
The first half of the run, we had no problems, just fun. The creek was pushy, the rapids long, and the holes were big, but everything was pretty well manageable. We bank scouted the first major rapid, Welcome to Sauty. There is a huge flat area to the left of the rapid where Mark said he wanted to have his wedding ceremony (Mary had control of that social event and had it in church). The rapid was pretty straight forward: just peel out, ferry to river right, avoid the big rock in the middle at the top, and work left to avoid the monster undercut at the bottom. At Jonah’s Whale, I used my patented “boat assisted portage” technique to scrape down the rocks on the opposite bank to avoid the hungry grasp of the whale’s mouth. At Cliff Left, I sort of messed up by going to the right around the Mushroom Rock, but squeezed through the slot in good shape. The Peve, who was also making his first run, was having a great time bouncing over the holes and through the waves. Mark was doing a good job of showing us the lines.
After lunch we hit the really tough stuff. Drunken Horseman was easily boat scouted by sitting in the eddy next to the rapid and looking over the rock right next to the drop. Both Minefields were long and tough; they required catching the necessary eddies, making the right moves, and keeping the boat pointed downstream to avoid being “window-shaded” by one of the zillion big holes. The Peve and I both did OK, although I did spend a bit of time going sideways in the Lower.
At the Slot, things began to get a bit messy. Mark said it didn’t need scouting; all you have to do is enter the slot in the right place, and the rapid will take care of everything for you. The Peve and I were sitting in the eddy while Mark went round and round in circles trying to decide how to enter the Slot. I was getting antsy and started nagging him to hurry up. He gave me a dirty look and turned his boat downstream. The current turned his boat to the right and the last thing we heard was the staccato rattle of his paddle as he rock-braced his way down the right hand side. I followed, but further to the left; I heard a grinding noise as the rocket-alloy gunwales of the Whitesell cut a groove in the rocks. Luckily, I managed to stay straight and the rapid did its thing with me. As I paddled downstream, I started looking for Mark. I eventually saw him standing on the bank draining the water from his boat. He had flipped just below the Slot and after about ten roll attempts had “pulled the plug.” He yelled at me to look upstream. The Peve was following his lead and bouncing over the ledges on his side. Mark threw him a rope and all was well.
We had a brief Class III+ no-name breather before Bone Crusher, which I had planned to sneak. Mark and I ran the short entry rapid and were sitting in a “truck-stop” eddy when The Peve blew past us on the left with half a boat full of water. I saw him disappear round the bend. I was sure he was swimming by then and Mark and I gave chase. We caught a couple of tiny eddies on the left just above the really nasty stuff. From there we could see Ken safe and sound about 100 yards downstream. I realized then that I had screwed up running the sneak and had to run the meat. It looked fairly simple: slide just to the left of the big pour-over, get right quickly to avoid the two massive bone crushing boulders, and then just bounce over the drops while avoiding the holes. I did OK on the first part. I skimmed past the pour-over and started to get right. In my efforts, I got spun around by a small hole and was facing upstream. I wasn’t sure I could turn the Whitesell back downstream before I got my face smashed on the rocks, so I just ferried to the right and ran most of the rapid backwards. Somehow, just like The Peve, I made it safely to the bottom.
We had only a couple of miles of Class III+ whitewater to go. This was time for sightseeing. Mark pointed out several important sites, such as the place where Chris Parker trashed the nose of his boat, several places where Dave Branham had messed up a boat, and near the end, the spot where he (Mark) pinned his boat; see the Alabama Whitewater web page for photographic evidence.
When I at last saw the Buck’s Pocket ranger station, I would have twirled my paddle in exuberance, but I was too tired. It was a long run and I was glad to have made it in one piece. I just might want to run it again.
(Dave has since run it up to seven times a year, and I think he has still yet to have any swims, nor has he run the put-in rapid)