First descent of Lower Rock Creek

Submitted by Kevin Olson (written by John Tansil – Riverlog 1990)

We don’t have to call it “Secret” Creek anymore! On Saturday, May 26, 1990 with the St. Francis running 10 feet over highway D bridge, Slim Olsen, Chuck McHenry, Bruce Wagner, and yours truly completed the first run of Lower Rock Creek. Dubbed “Secret” Creek by the group of boaters who wanted to be the first to run it, Lower Rock Creek received its mysterious nickname after whispers of another runnable creek close to the St. Francis prompted the following conversation between the uninformed and those in the know:

Where is it?
I can’t tell you. It’s a secret!
Oh, a secret creek?
Yeah. That’s right. Secret Creek. Ha-Ha-Ha.

This conversation, repeated many times on various boating trips, not only provided a nickname for the mythical creek, but also presented convincing evidence that the social interaction between whitewater boaters is sometimes similar to that of young children.

It all began in storybook fashion – the ground was saturated from previous rainfall and the Friday night TV weather radar indicated heavy rain in the Fredricktown area. Early Saturday morning a reliable source (Deep Throat?) confirmed that the St. Francis was several feet over the D bridge. Who to call? Rick Dippold and I had scouted it together, but a quick call to him revealed imminent multiple in-law visitations to witness the newborn. Nix to Rick. Greg Brown and Stan Stoy had also scouted the creek, but they were boating in Washington (remember, it’s Memorial Day weekend and many club members had scheduled out-of-area trips). I didn’t know whether to feel sorry for them or not. How about Chuck, Slim, and Bruce? Only way to find out is to call. I set a record and wake up all three families. A typical conversation went like this:

Slim! The Francis is way over the bridge. Today’s the day to do Secret Creek.
Barb will kill me.
Yeah, I know. But this is important. We may have to wait five years for another chance.
OK. I’ll meet you down there.

We agree to rendezvous at Chuck’s place in Ironton. I can’t pass up the chance to go by the take-out on the Francis. It’s an honest 10 feet over the bridge and still rising. Hot dog! I blast over to Ironton to meet the rest of the crew. We discuss logistics and agree to carry in from a point off highway D. How to get there? We sure can’t go by way of Silvermines! I thought it was straightforward to enter from the other direction, but Chuck says “No, there are low-water bridges.” He calls a friend in the area who confirms potential difficulty with access. Our plan is to try it anyway and if we don’t return within an hour, Chuck’s wife Linda is to assume that we made it to the carry-in point. She has thankfully agreed to pick us up at the take-out where Lower Rock Creek crosses highway E.

With anticipation building, we set off on the shuttle. Sure enough, water is over the road in several places but we make it anyway. With the vehicles parked and secured, we walk the 2 1/2 miles to the put-in. The walking is easy with everyone dragging boats through the mud and cowpies. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which. We put in and almost immediately have to portage a strainer. Not a good start, but then we realize we put in on a tributary and that the actual creek is less than 100 feet away. The second time things go a lot better – it’s fast and narrow but easily boatable. We paddle down the river single file from the eddy to eddy with Slim leading almost the entire run. Most of the drops could be boat scouted with only a few requiring closer inspection. We named three of these. Upchuck, a two part drop, was not named for the nauseous feeling it produced, but because Chuck flipped in the first drop and as the bottom drop was particularly nasty, we were thinking “Roll up, Chuck!” Copperhead, named because one was sighted as we pulled over to scout, was a complex long rapid made more difficult by the splitting of the flow into two channels with the left one too congested. Bruce climbed a tree to scout the right channel and announced “No way, man.” (say “man” to rhyme with “con”) It’s too gnarly.” After a powwow, we decide to do it anyway one at a time with safety set up. Slim and Chuck have questionable runs but make it to the bottom. Bruce gets pinned but frees himself as I frantically scramble along shore to give assistance. It’s my turn. I must have watched Bruce’s line too closely since I pin in the same spot! Fortunately I’m able to get out of my boat, line up again, and do it right the second time. The last named rapid, Slimslide, consisted of two steep blind drops which had Chuck directing traffic between drops. We cruised on down the creek and reached the take-out in plenty of time to get a run in on the St. Francis at 8 feet. What a fantastic day!

In retrospect Lower Rock Creek proved to be well worth the several years wait for the proper timing. In my opinion it is the best of the other steep runs in the St. Francis area, i.e. Turkey Creek, Pickle Creek, Stouts Creek, etc. This is based on its greater length, steep gradient, and the fact that there was always one clean route the whole way down. (OK, OK. So we bounced over a few rocks. That’s what plastic boats are for!) In fact the length and the gradient is what got our attention in the first place. Consider the particulars:

  1. From the put-in at Barren Hollow to the take-out at highway E bridge, Lower Rock Creek drops 300 feet in 3 miles giving an average gradient of 100 ft/mi. However, the middle one-mile section is steeper with a gradient of 150 ft/mi. For contrast the Tiemann Shut-ins on the St. Francis drops about 60 ft/mi.
  2. The watershed area above the put-in is only about 5 square miles, and there are no major tributaries to add flow on the way down. The flow must certainly be less than 100 cfs (maybe only 50 cfs). Thus in spite of its steep gradient, the low flow lowered the overall difficulty rating (in my opinion) to a class IV.
  3. The river bed is incredibly small and intimate. The description of the upper Stony River in the West Virginia guidebook reads “This is the absolute limit of small river navigability.” I’d venture a guess that all of Missouri’s steep creeks are smaller than the upper Stony.

Finally, I should point out that Lower Rock Creek is truly a beautiful unique area which has been well-known to hikers and backpackers for some time. The Sierra Club has published a brochure describing the area in the hope that the Forest Service will acquire more of its watershed and seek wilderness status. On the topographic maps Lower Rock Creek gorge is named Dark Hollow and there is certainly an aura of mystery about it. As we paddled down, it was difficult to believe this was actually in Missouri and so close to our usual run. Now the question is “How long do we have to wait to do it again?”