Taum Sauk

By Chuck McHenry (Riverlog – October/November 1998)

“Look guys, it’ll be an adventure. Fun? I think so – but fun and adventure aren’t necessarily the same thing. Adventure is it’s own word, it can be easy, difficult, relaxing, arduous, hellacious – or it could be none of the above – but it WILL be an adventure, I can guarantee that.”

Unbelievably I was standing in my kitchen at noon, July 26th, pitching Taum Sauk Creek.

Outside our lake was swollen and brown from the four inches of rain that had fallen overnight. Linda K. and I didn’t even realize it’d rained so much. We got an 8 am call from a boater who had seen the red on the radar image and wondered if we had indeed gotten any rain. Linda, drowsily awakened, had happened to take a glance out the window, and saw my small armada of boats heading for the dam.

Nothing like jumping out of bed and into the cold water, wearing only shorts, to wake you up! I managed to save the paddle boat, and kayaks, etc. all but ‘Osmosis’, my extremely beat up aluminum canoe. The old girl decided to seek her own adventure and disappeared over our dam, heading for Stout’s Creek. I’d tried to call Chris Amelung and John Tansil but could not get through, the line along 72 being down. Stout’s Creek was huge. A call to Farmington and I learned they’d only had a sprinkle. The gauge, even if it was working, was not going to register that the Saint was up. The 8000 CFS coming down Stout’s would enter a half mile downriver, below the gauge.

(Actually it did register when Stout’s came in so voluminously that it backed the Saint up to the gauge. For awhile the Saint was actually flowing backwards at 72 bridge).

At 10 o’clock Chris called me on his car phone and the ESP-gifted John called me from Cape.

Chris came right over and we drove to the Taum Sauk Creek take-out. There we found the water 2 or 3 feet over the bridge, well past the do not cross warnings. There was a line of stranded cars on the other side, campers from Lake Taum Sauk. We left Chris’s car there. When we got to the intersection of AA and 21 highway we were at the base of Taum Sauk. The top was obscured by clouds and mist. Like some B movie, it seemed remote and prehistoric, waiting to throw everything at anyone crazy enough to try a first descent.

By 12 noon a crew was assembled in my kitchen where we decided on our various afternoon fates. Slim, Joe Sartori and Reynolds decided to do the Saint (which was to peak at 7 foot – all due to Stout’s). John T, Chris and I headed in the opposite direction to Taum Sauk.

If there is one creek in Missouri that indisputably deserves the description “hair” – It’s Taum Sauk Creek. It drops from 1786 feet to 550 feet. From the put-in, which is about 1600 feet, it drops 800′ in the next two miles – making it a true 400feet/mile screamer. In the next two miles it drops an additional 120 feet, and then runs out the last 130 feet in 5 miles.

On the downside there are two portages – one a 25 footer that conceivably could be run at higher water, and the bottom 2/3 of Mina Sauk Falls which is a totally unrunnable 100 foot vertical drop. There are pins on top of pins. On the upper, above Mina Sauk there are vegetation choked stretches that must be portaged. There are screaming-fast blind turns where a downed log might be waiting just around the corner. Below Mina Sauk Falls, we had no portages, but were often paddling in tunnels of vegetation, chin on deck, with a canopy of intertwined branches closing overhead. It’s a tiring, demanding nine miles. I’d call the three of us an ideal team, we’re efficient eddy scouters, know each others’ moves and signals, have steep creek experience, and know when to take chances. It took us 5 hours. A slower, less cohesive team, scouting every class IV and above, could not finish on a typical winter’s day.

On the upside every rapid of the IV and V variety was clean, the vegetation on the upper only choked out the Cl-II slower water. Above Mina Sauk the drops are more drop/pool variety. Below, there are very few pools. If you’ve ever wondered what 400 fpm looks like without pool drops – it’s just one long, extended Cl-IV. The scenery, when you have time to look at it is superb. It is definitely an adventure. There is no greater verticality, or constant array of rapids, anywhere else in Missouri.

Standing on the highest point in Missouri with kayaks on our backs seemed just a bit surreal to me. There had been so many times I had stood on this very spot with a back pack and wondered if it was boatable. There had been so many times we’d had the right rain at the wrong time and not been able to do it; so many nothing-to-do Saturday afternoons when I’d hiked to scout it.

Chuck and Chris at Taum Sauk Creek
Chris (left) and Chuck (right) on top of Taum Sauk Mtn.

Thick mists swirled about us adding to the surrealism as we hiked down to the put-in. Hikers passing us on the trail were incredulous, wide-eyed, and unbelieving. After about a third mile the creek had collected enough water where we could scrape down. (This is water collected by the meager ten square miles of Taum Sauk plateau, so you must be there when it’s raining, or as in our case, soon thereafter.) We would have had more water had we been there about an hour earlier, when it would’ve been optimum. While we had to walk around brush almost everywhere the water slowed, the major rapids were open, and we ran them all except the 25 footer which needed about 300 more CFS. (We had about 150 CFS at that point). The rapids being highly channeled and technical, were mostly in the Cl-III to IV range. You had to be on your toes, but nothing really scary. There was a very enjoyable, long slide into a pool which gave us all a cool and welcome dousing. The portages were easy as the Taum Sauk trail is right there and so I enjoyed the whole nine yards. Three years ago, when I first scouted it for boating, the creek had been much less brushy, (I don’t know why – maybe it was a few years post fire), but sans brush this top part would pan out as a totally delightful little run – that is until you get to Mina Sauk Falls.

Over the edge, Mina Sauk Falls
Chris looking over the edge, Mina Sauk Falls.

Mina Sauk is 150 vertical feet. The top 50 is runnable, the bottom 100 is a straight down shot, punctuated by two potholed ledges. In my wildest fantasies I can see myself running it. Standing there in person I felt dumb for even thinking something so outrageous.

To run the top fifty you enter into a mind-bending series of chutes and boofs. Near the end there is an absolutely must make boof over a ledge and down a long slide. Missing this boof means getting typewritered over to river left down a piton-infested chute with a stopper rock at the bottom. After all this you drop into the ‘most-must-make’ eddy I’ve ever known, just a few feet from the lip of the 100 foot drop. If this rapid complex stood alone, with a big pool at the bottom, I’d rate it a V, but seeing a horizon line lip with tree tops far, far below, signaling certain major hurt, adds something immeasurable to the rating.

There’s a good trail river left to portage around the falls. At the base we took time out to sit and watch the cascading spray. The cool chill and goosebumps belied the fact that it was late July in Missouri. I couldn’t shake the fall-in-West Virginia-feeling I was getting. I had time to reflect on the vagaries of fate. For three years I’d been eyeing this run, waiting for an opportunity. Springs and Falls had passed without a window. I almost went solo at about 5 pm on one spring thunderstorm day and now sitting here, I realized, I couldn’t have possibly made it before dark. If I’d known what kind of creek we were yet to encounter I’d have totally dismissed the idea of running solo – period. But then, never would I have thought July would be the right time …

We put on the Creek – now with plenty of water – with me only half believing that there’d be any more rapids. The topo said 600 more vertical feet, most in the next mile, but walking the Taum Sauk trail – it had never seemed that steep. Any doubts about steepness quickly vanished. We were immediately swept into torrents and cascades or whitewater. Cl-III or IV after another, with a slight peppering of IV+ and V-. Pools were rare, I would guess there were only four in that mile where we could collect ourselves, rest a little and discuss the rapids we’d just run. Otherwise it was on-boat microeddies and the exacting and precise choreography of the dance we do when eddy hoping and scouting. We talked about naming rapids and decided it was just plain pointless, there were too many and they all kind of ran into one another.

Things were going smoothly. We were progressing down the creek at a good pace. In places the brush was so thick above and about that it was like we were going through a tunnel – but at no place did we have to portage. With the current being so fast, and with there being so many major drops, my major concern was log strainers. We were often totally dependent on there being that last minute micro-eddy to scout the next rapid below and there were even a few times when that eddy wasn’t there and we committed without knowing fully the consequences. It was almost a necessary risk (we would have been past dark if we’d scouted every Cl-IV out of our boats). We countered this risk by maintaining good interboat distance and vigilant signaling. It was the best we could do. Luckily, we encountered no logs in this section, and were event starting to get comfortable with the pace. But as so often happens when things are going too smoothly and you’re starting to relax a tad, chaos rears its ugly head from hiding and ambushes you, sinking its fangs in deep.

I’d just come down a series of technical ledges onto a slide that careened around a corner when just ahead I saw a horizon line punctuated by a big rock in the middle upon which the water was piling. There were no eddies to catch above. Water to the right was filtering into a sieve. Water on the left was tumbling down about four feet into a rock wall, slightly undercut, which then diverted water sharply to the right. Your basic whitewater mess! I hit the pillow sideways and paused, trying to force the boat left. I could feel my stern sucking backwards. The whole event probably took three seconds but to me it was a long time. Just when I thought I was going backwards, down into a certain pin, water built on my bow and pulled me forward. I crammed my shoulder into the rock wall at the bottom and then caught an eddy. Chris came around the bend just in time to see my run and fared bumpily better. I gave Chris my eddy and dropped down to the next one. John came down and pillowed beautifully, dropping down and out of my sight behind the rock wall. I was about to whoop and congratulate him, except he didn’t come out. No word was said, Chris was out of his boat and going after John. I was out of mine and bring up the rope. Before I got there Chris had freed John who was wide-eyed and clearly adrenaline buzzed. I gathered it’d been a bad pin as Chris had to grab his bow and lift him up and out.

It had been spitting rain off and on all day, and as it got thundery-darker, threatening to really pour on us, I had to wonder what would happen to us in this deep, funnel of a valley. We were on about 600 CFS now and that was enough. I could see the highwater mark and it was bad news. Higher water meant we’d be flushed out from under the brush canopy and into the branches. Nor could I imagine doing this run with the water any faster. As it was I felt I was paddling on the edge of my reaction time.

In this mile section below Mina Sauk we scouted out of our boats maybe four times. Each time it was a long, involved, rapid complex with multiple horizon lines which we didn’t feel were eddy-scoutable – either because there was no visible eddy – or else we plain couldn’t see over the horizon line. Mostly we were just pointing our boats down, continuously down, juking rocks, twisting, boofing, ducking under brush, slipping down slides, and ruddering where we feared our paddles might get caught. After about two hours I saw where Taum Sauk mountain veered off to the right to go up Profitt Mtn. The river took a 90 deg. turn to the left. Here it eased up to 40 feet per mile. Concomitantly our CFS shot up to about 800 – 1000.

This is where a low-volume stern gets to do its stuff in the whirlpools and eddylines, slides, and easy Cl-III. The brushy areas were getting less and less. We were starting to relax and were joking about the take-out when the river decided to spank us one last time. Chris and I rounded a corner and saw a log stretching across the water. On the left there was about a foot of space and I could see there were no limbs straining the water. I figured I could force my bow under, then push myself down enough to slip under. It didn’t work. The current pushed me into it so fast I didn’t have time to push, it just stuffed me right under, and my paddle went flying. I was just setting up for my (very unreliable) hands roll when I saw my paddle on the surface. I lunged for it, snagged it and rolled on up. As soon as I was up I looked down river and instantly slammed into another log. This one had no air space. Thankfully I went on under and out the other side, and rolled up immediately.

Looking down river I saw what must have been pick-up six thrown by some giant. It was an impenetrable mass of logs and trees that the river was just screaming-sieving through. There was no way out of that! I caught the last possible semi-eddy and grabbing a branch hung on for dear life.

Chris who had also been ‘log-rolling’ came up from the second log and was far river right. He heard me screaming at him, and without looking back ferried across a tiny little wave and paddling for all he was worth managing to get close enough that I could grab his bow. While I held on, he climbed out and got his boat on bank, then he held mine for me so I could get out. John, who had been wisely further back managed to avoid the whole mess. I had learned my Taum Sauk lesson. You don’t relax, not no time, not nowhere.

Another mile of just really delightful play river and we were at the take-out. There was that same group of campers waiting for the river to drop that we’d seen 7 hours ago. John and I walked across to show them it was crossable (a little over a foot deep on the bridge) and talked to them. One guy in a 4×4 made it across, but the others with trailers still didn’t want to risk it. We waved them good-bye and good luck and started our trip back up the mountain.

Some addenda: I wouldn’t attempt this run in the winter, the days are too short and the valley too remote. John just plain old didn’t like this run. It was too brushy with too many blind drops, corners and slides. He calls it an accident waiting to happen and has vowed never to run it again. This is an attitude best described as “sanity” and it makes me feel good that our college children are in such capable and wise hands. Chris and I had a lot of fun and would really like to do it again …..