Canoe Stories From Hatchet Creek, AL

by George Sanders

Sometimes Canoeing is Like This

George had sausage, biscuits, eggs, and coffee fixed at 7:00 AM at his house where we all gathered to eat before hitting the creek. Uncle Bob Willis joined us for breakfast but since he was still recovering from
by-pass surgery, he decided to sit this one out and be ready for the 3-day trip coming up in April. We planned to do some fishing but since the water was so muddy and receding we decided to just paddle and not worry with
fishing gear.

This trip was planned in advance by watching the weather forecast that called for a couple of days of rain then clearing skies by the week end.  Perfect conditions for a one-day trip. The creek was running just over full
and stained like creamed coffee. The water level had gone down about 2 or 3 feet during the night as indicated by a stake that marked the water level the previous day.

Four canoes were loaded onto the canoe trailer at George's house. Since Charlie's (Charlie Cornelius) boat was already fixed on his truck to his new canoe rack he built, he decided to leave it there and Uncle Bob would drive his truck back to town after we launched. Mary drove the rest of us to the put-in spot in the Suburban after swinging by Steve's house to load his boat and gear. Charlie and Uncle Bob followed in the pickup.

George used Bob Willis's green Coleman, Dick used George's red Mohawk, Charlie used his green Mohawk, Bill used his modified Blue Hole (better seats), Steve used his green Coleman, and I used a blue 11.75' Old Town canoe. (I couldnąt use my red Coleman since it still had a hole in it from the trip last April.)

We put in at US 280 bridge and got underway at approximately 9:15 AM. The first thing I noticed was that waves broke over and into my little boat causing me to have to pull over and dump it out on a regular basis. It was no problem since it was so light and all I had was a dry bag and a canteen.  The GORTEX suit I had on was appreciated greatly since the sky was overcast and the temperature was only 45 degrees F.

The first encounter with trouble was in the rapids below Joe Man's cabin.  Everyone had gone through with the exception of Charlie and Steve. I was looking up the creek watching George come through and saw Charlie get side ways and roll over. I could see he was OK in that he was able to get up every time he fell down. His water filled boat kept dragging him down the creek despite his trying to stop it. Charlie was able to get his boat back
under control, pour out the water and paddle on down to where we were. I asked Charlie if he was OK. He said he had "scratched" his hand on a rock but, closer inspection revealed he had a deep puncture wound in the palm of his right hand as a result of one to the falls he had taken while being dragged by his boat.

We stopped at the next convenient sand bar so Charlie could change into dry clothes and let Uncle Bill dress the wound in his hand. The dressing consisted of what items were available, which were some gauze and silver
Duct Tape. While Charlie was being patched, Steve, Dick and I watched two wild turkeys make their way over a hardwood ridge across the creek. Charlie limped over in dry clothes waving a silver hand saying he felt better after slugging back the Jack Daniel's Bill brought in case of an emergency. Steve said that he had heard Charlie's accident from quiet a distance away. He said it sounded like deep thuds caused by the impact of ABS plastic on rocks and muffled by rushing water.

Bill turned over sometime later and behind me. He must have been able to get going again without any assistance. The next time I saw him he was soaking wet. He said from a bleeding mouth that he was wearing THERMAX under his GORTEX and that despite the cold water and cold air he felt warm, so warm as a matter of fact he felt like he was going to burst into flames he was so warm! Charlie told Bill, "I sure am glad I drank your whisky before you turned over!!" We all spend a lot of time laughing when we are not experiencing shear terror.

I wondered how cold Charlie and Bill must have been after getting totally wet. It wasn't long before I found out for myself. I was paddling down a series of rapids when I saw a boulder close to the bank that looked like a
good place to eddy out and watch the others go through. The decision to do this was "spur-of-the-moment", so I turned the bow of my boat into the eddy behind the boulder but didn't brace up creek, which resulted in my being 2' under the water looking up into my capsized boat . Hatchet Creek is COLD in February. Pouring the water out and getting back into my boat was not a problem. I was back underway in no time but my cotton clothes were ringing wet. My feet were the only thing that was painfully cold, they were basically numb, otherwise I felt comfortable despite the conditions, but I didn't think I was going to burst into flames any time soon.

Lunch was eaten at a cabin located approximately half way down the creek.  I changed into some dry clothes and felt better but my feet were still numb.  I tried walking fast up the steep road from the cabin but that didn't do
much good. Everyone ate their lunch but didn't taste it. The sun was just beginning to burn away the cloud cover that had been over us all morning. I said that if we can make it through the next set of rapids we would be home

We all launched with Dick first, George second, Steve, Charlie, Bill and me last. We headed for the most challenging rapids on the creek. If you were going to turn over, this was where it was going to happen. I watched as one by one, different colored canoes disappeared around the bend and into white water. I didnąt see Bill turn over in the rapids since he was already around the bend when it happened. I headed my canoe into a large standing wave at the beginning of the rapids. The little boat rode to the crest then nosed under and rolled over. Somehow I managed to scramble on top of the capsized canoe and stay there. My hands were busily searching for handles while washing through about 100 yards of churning chocolate colored water. It was like trying to ride on the back of a big, greased, blue whale with it making every effort to shake me loose. (That canoe is actually more stable upside down than right side up.) I drifted into an eddy at the bottom of the rapids
where Steve was stopped and helping Bill empty water from his canoe. I emptied my canoe and helped Bill get back under way. I heard Steve say that Dick had gone over in the rapids on the other side of the large boulder from where Bill and I were. It turned out that Bill's utility box containing all of his effects, including a fine S&W stainless steel 357 magnum revolver, had drifted away after he capsized. Dick was able to catch the listing box
and haul it into his boat. However, before he was able to regain control of his boat, he had entered the next set of rapids sideways. This caused him to flip over loosing Bill's box but this time the top came off and everything
was lost in the muddy water. Dick's Canoe dragged him round the bend where George managed to help him stop. Meanwhile, Bill left out from behind the boulder and was headed down creek for more disaster. I got back into my boat and left shortly after he did. Steve waited on Charlie at the boulder. When I came around the boulder and entered the main stream, Bill had already capsized and was standing in the current holding onto his canoe. There was no way I could be of any help from inside my boat, so I fixed my paddle inside and jumped out just upstream of Bill. I sent my unmanned canoe down stream and around the bend with the hopes that George and/or Dick would get it. (You can imagine what they must have thought when an empty canoe came floating by.) Bill had a grave look on his face and I asked him if he was OK. He said, "no". I ask if he was hurt anywhere and he said, "I don't think so, I'm just tired". He was obviously exhausted and bleeding from the mouth worse now than before. I could see that his bottom lip was pulp. We held onto his capsized canoe for a couple hundred yards and let the current carry us along until we could wrestle it over to the bank. George and Dick were pulled up along side the bank holding the bowline of my boat as if they had caught a runaway horse. Steve and Charlie should have been coming by the time we got there but there was no sign of them. I got back into my canoe
and paddled up stream as far as I could until the current caused me to go to the bank. I still could not see Steve and Charlie since the creek bent around to the left. I started walking at a fast pace up the creek on the
left bank. The creek had been up out of its banks only 24 hours ago. This caused every stick, bush and briar to be pointing in the opposite direction from where I wanted to go. My feet were still numb. It felt like I had 2"
thick slabs of meat strapped onto the bottoms of my feet as I heavy footed it up the bank. Twice my ankles rolled over causing my legs to buckle. Itąs interesting how your pain threshold is raised under difficult conditions.
Once around the bend, I saw Steve crouched over on the opposite bank straining with all his might on a rope that went down into the water and about 5 feet from the bank. Charlie was in the water just below where Steve
was pulling on the rope. All of a sudden Steve's feet shot out from under him and he slid into the water and didn't stop until he was submerged up to his neck. It didn't take me long to figure out that Charlie's boat was
pinned to a rock and sunk down out of sight. I made my way up the creek bank until I was about 30 yards up stream from where Steve and Charlie fought against moving, waist deep water to dislodge the boat. I was no help to them from where I was so I jumped into the creek and swam like a rock to reach the other side before I washed past them. Steve threw me a rope and I grabbed for it as I washed by in the current. I held on but couldnąt touch bottom for the fast moving water that kept my legs horizontal. The small diameter rope burned through my hands and I watched it go limp in the current. Fortunately, I immediately stood up since the bottom turned out to be only a few inches from my feet, but the current pushed me backward until I managed to fight my way over to the bank. Charlie's boat was pinned hard against a boulder in about 4 feet of water. After lots of straining and prying, the boat unstuck but washed a few feet down stream only to stick again against another rock. We were able to dislodge it again with much effort. We poured water out of the canoe and Charlie got back underway.  Steve and I both agreed that by all accounts that boat should have been torn in half by the current, but the only damage we noticed was a large dent in the bottom that could probably have been stomped out. I rode back down the creek with Steve in his Coleman to where everyone had accumulated. We considered our options, which turned out to be only one. The only way out was to keep going in our canoes. I offered to tie my boat behind Bill's and paddle his with him in the front. Bill thought that might be a good idea.

Dick turned over one more time after we left but managed to get under way with no assistance. Bill and I went through a chute of water the same time Steve did. We wound up tangled in a holly bush next to the bank but managed to tear away after much jerking and sculling.

We all made it from that point on with no more disasters. Bill's Blue Hole paddled fine with my empty boat in tow using its 10 foot bowline as a tether. We got to the US 231 bridge at about 10 minutes before 3:00 PM, only
to have to deal with the steep, mud slick bank that in its self makes an otherwise good trip bad. George had made it all the way down the creek without getting wet. He was using Bob Willis's boat, the same boat that Bob
made his flawless 3-day trip in just last April. He looked as fresh and clean as he did when the trip began in his new teal colored GORTEX rain suit. No sooner had he climbed the mud bank than he slipped down and slid
into the water with his now mud covered GORTEX suit.

Charlie had thought to bring a long rope and we used it to haul the boats up about 12 feet of super slick black mud. There were 6 canoes and after hauling them up the mud bank, they had to be carried about 75 yards up a
grade to the highway where Mary had parked the canoe trailer. We loaded our gear into the Suburban and lashed what was left to the canoe trailer. We noticed Charlie's boat was unusually heavy when we were carrying it up the hill. We opened his utility box and the first thing we saw was his 35 mm camera floating in slow circles above other things he would have otherwise liked to have kept dry. The box held water remarkably well in that none leaked out during the process of hauling it out of the creek.

Back at the house everyone sorted out gear, shook hands and told the hi-lights of the trip to anyone who would listen. Charlie was limping more than usual as he gingerly made his way to his truck. Mary insisted on him
having some coffee before he drove back to Huntsville. Charlie resisted but soon caved in to the offer and stayed just long enough to gulp it down. I found out later that the clutch in his truck went out about 20 miles outside Goodwater. His knees and hands were already busted up and he was tired, wet and cold. He later said that you can drive a truck without the clutch, itąs just not as convenient. He made it all the way back to Huntsville with no other problems.

G. Sanders, Feb. 1994


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