Upper Buffalo Wilderness:
Whitaker Creek to Dug Hollow
October 26- 27, 2010
Downstream of Whitaker Creek, the Buffalo River gradually took on a whole new personality as the water ran underground, leaving a swath of bone-dry stones. But that's the big picture; immediately below the mouth of Whitaker Creek, I had to walk among big rocks on a high right bank to get to the end of a 100-yard-long deep hole of water. Below there the river bed flattened out and the water drifted down a long shallow hole on the left; I was able to walk alongside on a flat rocky stretch to the right.
Around mile 16, I waded through a section where the river bed consisted of wide, flat bedrock covered in green algae. The water was warm in places, which, along with the algae, made me think the water was standing still instead of being refreshed with flowing water.
Downstream from there, I had to detour through the woods on the left around a big, long hole too deep to wade. When I walked back down to the river, I got out the camera to photograph a car-sized sandstone boulder sitting in the middle of shallow stream bed. It was surrounded by smaller boulders and big sandstone rocks, all scoured by water in times of flood. The opposite bank was lined with yellow Witch-hazels and green alder bushes, which were leaning downstream, also hinting at how much higher the water gets in wet periods.
Looking upstream, I could see Beagle Point, which was already in shadow. The sky was still a high-pressure clear blue. The air was warm enough that even with a moderate wind, I was comfortable wearing a t-shirt.
As I continued downstream, I started looking for a spot that fit the description of The Keyhole, a favorite obstacle of the whitewater group. Kayaks go left of a large flat-topped boulder, then immediately go right, through a slot and over a 5-foot drop. A spot named Deliverance Falls, with a slot between two big rocks followed by a drop into a third rock, was also supposed to be somewhere in the next two miles. It was fun to view the countless boulder jams I encountered from a kayaker's point of view. When I passed a small boulder in the middle of the stream, with a jumble of boulders just below, I wrote in my notebook "May be the keyhole."
Near mile 16.1, after the stream made a short, rocky drop, it formed a long pool on the left with five big boulders all in a row; the first boulder had an even bigger one stacked on top of it. Below there, where the river makes a right turn to face northeast, was a rugged spot with five big boulders arranged in a cross pattern in the middle of a rocky drop. In my notebook I scribbled "Yep, that was the keyhole, but impossible to photograph." Though in retrospect I was still only guessing.
Past there, the river disappeared underground, leaving a dry river of stones and leaves. I spotted limestone on the right bank, a clue as to why the water was gone. My biggest "Wow!" moment of the entire trip occurred just downstream, where the river makes a sharp left turn to face north. On the right side, the river bed dropped 9 to10 feet into a small leaf-filled hole of brown water only a foot deep. Layers of limestone 9 to 10 feet tall formed a wall above the right side of the hole. It was two massive boulders, one resting at the end of the pool, and another just past it, that made me say wow. The wide-angle lens on the camera makes them look much smaller than they really were. The entire scene was just amazing.
At the second boulder, the stream bed to the left was blocked by a jumble of small boulders. "How could a kayak ever get through this?", I wondered. I scrambled over the boulders, not an easy thing to do with a 25-pound backpack and a sore back. Back down on the rocky river bed, I stopped to take a photo looking back upstream. The hillside behind the big boulder, and beyond that the mountainside across from Whitaker Creek, were lit up by the late-afternoon sun.
Another little isolated pool on the left contained murky, but at least not brown, water. I had to stop and filter as much water as I could carry; for all I knew I might not see water again until the next day.
I walked straight down the dry stream bed to mile 16.4, where I encountered another lone pool of water at the bottom of big round depression. At the base of the hill on the left side, long lines of gray limestone bordered the pool. The color of the rock abruptly changed to brown where it was covered in dry mud. A car-sized angular sandstone boulder sat in the shallow water. Green and brown algae floated at the surface, but the water was surprisingly clear, probably because a tiny stream was trickling in at the upper end. I was amazed by a natural levee of rounded river stones surrounding the pool on three sides. Past there the river of dry stones continued; though I passed several tiny holes of stagnant water.
One hundred yards above the mouth of Little Pine Hollow, I walked beside more massive boulders. When I reached the entrance to the hollow, I was really surprised to find lots of fresh water gurgling across the boulders in the small side stream. I set up the camera and took a photo to document the location.
Immediately past there was a long narrow pool at the base of a steep hill on the right. The right bank was bordered by small gray limestone boulders and rocks with the now-familiar line of dry brown mud.
Beyond the Little Pine Hollow hole, two small boulders sat in a small round pool; following that was a jumble of big boulders blocking the dry river bed. As I climbed up on the boulders to get past them, I discovered a big drawback to my felt-soled boots. Sand sticking to the bottom of the boots made for slippery footing on the wide flat surfaces of the boulders. One of my feet began to slip out from under me, and had I not recovered I probably would have fallen four or five feet to land on the smaller boulders below.
From my perch atop the boulder blockade, I could see downstream to another major landmark, a section of fractured limestone bluffs, 20 feet tall, on the left side of a big deep hole of water. This hole was 150 to 200 yards long, and the water was so deep I couldn't see the bottom in the indirect lighting.
Past the big hole, the stream bed had water running in it again. The 500-foot stretch above the mouth of Dug Hollow was a wide rocky area with big shallow pools here and there. Flat woods on the right, full of big beech trees, was the perfect place to camp. At 6:20, I sat down the pack and put up the tent. When that task was complete, I got out the camera to record the scene. The camera captured my SPOT GPS locator, which I'd hung in a sapling for better transmission.
 The SPOT had been transmitting my location the entire trip. Stacey and the boys could use a web browser to check on me at any time, plus I sent them an OK message with the SPOT every evening and again every morning. If I ran into trouble, I could send an SOS message that would alert Search and Rescue.
A magical quiet stillness came over the woods as the light faded; there's nothing like the mood of the forest on a windless fall evening. Though it seems the wildlife didn't want things to get too silent; way up above the mountain behind me, a pack of coyotes occasionally howled and yipped, the sound echoing through the valley. A couple of times, a Barred Owl let out a loud cackle and caw that sent shivers down my spine. And every so often I'd hear a thud down on the river; it might have been a heron flapping its wings. As I ate dinner, I suddenly heard the approaching patter of many feet running toward the tent. Soon I was surrounded by them; I guessed it was six to eight deer. They stopped once, walked around briefly, then ran away. Moments later a coyote howled from a short distance up river; the volume was similar to a neighbor's dog barking a couple of houses down the street. I was grinning from ear to ear!
I already had the sleeping bag up over my shoulders; I could tell this would be the coldest night yet. Before turning off my headlamp I scribbled a few things in my notebook. I was in a much better mood than this time the previous night. Even though I had been behind schedule most of the day, I never felt rushed, and I was able to catch up along the many dry sections of river bed. My back hadn't bothered me much either.
I slept like crap, perhaps because it was cold enough that I had to zip up the mummy bag and keep my arms inside. At some point early in the morning I woke up completely and put on a jacket. I must not have been sleeping that terribly, since I didn't hear my alarm clock go off. The sound of a noisy vehicle rattling down a road, probably Cave Mountain Road to the west, woke me up. Or maybe I dreamed it. I got up at 6:45, which was 45 minutes before sunrise. I was OK on time though, since my plan for the morning was to stay in that area until the sunlight made its way down into the valley to light up the fall foliage. That didn't happen for another two hours.
The mouth of Dug Hollow was less than 100 feet downstream. I made sure to take a photo showing the dry, leaf-filled stream bed coming down the hill from the west.