By Robert Martin

Copyright © 2004, Oregon Kayaking. No part of this page may be reproduced, linked, or copied without the express written permission of Robert Martin.

As I pulled up to the bridge at Upper Potter’s Falls on Crooked Fork Creek in Tennessee, the light was beginning to fade through the heavy overcast. I was running shuttle for Carl Malatin, Richard Mann and Mark Cosell, who were making a twilight run on the short class IV-V section above Potters Falls. They had been disappointed in the class II-III run we had done earlier that day on Crab Orchard Creek and made us stop as we drove across the put-in bridge on our way back to camp. I had enjoyed Crab Orchard Creek immensely.

It was the first day I had spent since coming to the Obed River system that I wasn’t white-knuckle paddling. I was tired, content and suffered no delusions about running any "hair", but they needed a shuttle and while I was there I could make the plunge over Upper Potters Falls for a photo shoot. After I parked my truck and got my kayak ready to put-in above the falls, I walked down the path to the Falls and sat down. Upper Potters Fall is an 18' vertical drop into a deep pool. It is considered to be one of the safest drops in the Southeast. Lower Potters Falls just downstream, while not being as high, is infinitely more dangerous.

Sitting there watching the falls was the first chance I had had to reflect on the incredible adventure we were having on our first trip to the Obed River system on the Cumberland Plateau. I had crawled into bed on the first night worried that the water wouldn’t hold and we may have to leave the Plateau to paddle elsewhere, but I was a long way from the Weather Channel. Around midnight I woke to the sound of rain. I thought, "this is good" and fell back to sleep. An hour later I woke to a thundering deluge. I heard someone do a "cat call" and realized that everyone in camp was wide awake. We were being "freight trained" with wave after wave of heavy rain that lasted all through the night. The sound was deafening on my fiberglass truck cap. It was like a hundred gnomes tap dancing on my roof. No one could sleep. I lay awake all night.

As the gray of first light began to show, the rains slowed and I crawled out of my truck bed to a world alive with the sounds of water. It was a symphony. The hiss of the rain and the trickle of running water were in steep contrast to the low rumbling roar of nearby Flat Fork Creek. The sounds were accentuated by pops and cracks of boulder and rock rolling down the flooded stream.

The campsite was awash; Gary Gurkin and Cuosino were already up. They had about 3 cfs sweeping through their tent. We were digging a diversion trench with our paddles when the park rangers showed up. They told us the bridge upstream had just washed away and the bridge to our campsite might be next. They suggested that we move our vehicles to the other side of the bridge immediately. Ranger Dave, one of the rangers at Frozen Head St. Pk., said he measured 5" of rain last night in his rain gauge and figured this would cause a big flood and “every river in the system will be too dangerous to run until tomorrow.” He then graciously offered to take the next few days off and guide us down some runs, if we would "just stay off the rivers today".
( Ranger Dave is an avid paddler and the Obed is his backyard, so we jumped at the chance to paddle with him and in doing so made a life long friend. Dave was right about the flood. The Emory at Oakdale gauge peaked at 75,000 cfs, one of the top ten floods on record. )

(In spite of his warnings, the next day Carl, Richard and Mark ran Flat Fork Creek, it was outrageous!).

From that day on it was non-stop excitement. Every morning we would wake up, call the gauge, break out our copies of Monty Smith’s Obed guide and the Tennessee Atlas and Gazetteer, and go. Every run we did was well over Monty’s maximum recommended level. We would paddle hard all day, then sit around the campfire at night recounting the days carnage.

The week had been very stressful physically. I was beginning to realize that adrenaline has it’s price. Both my physical capacity and my mental capacity had been diminished. I could only assume that I was not alone. Yet Richard and Mark seemed to be on a "run" following Carl’s lead. When Richard and Mark made the decision to run this section of Crooked Fork Creek with Carl, they advanced to the next level and left me behind.

Carl Malatin paddled on a level I didn't know existed. He was a true pioneer of hair boating in the southeast. But Carl was shy and didn't care much for fame and glory. He thought nothing of paddling with a bunch of hacks like us. Carl ran every waterfall on Crooked Fork Creek and made it look easy. He also made two first descents, one on Debords Falls on Flat Fork Creek the day of the flood and the other, an incredible plunge over an unnamed falls on Mill Creek at the confluence with Crab Orchard Creek. We call it Keep Out Falls because of the sign. One day Carl simply quit his job at River Runners Emporium, got on his motor cycle and headed into the sunset, never to be seen in these parts again.

Some say he went to South America others say he went to the wilds of Alaska.

Before long I heard a "hoopin’ and a hollerin’" coming from above the bridge as Richard, Carl and Mark came into view, eddying out just above falls. I could tell they were fired up as they got out to scout. They were giving high fives to each other and making primal, guttural noises. Richard walked up to me and said, "Man, that was the hairiest thing I’ve ever run." Mark walks up and proclaims, "I want to run Lower Potters! Who’s with me?" Richard looked at me and rolled his eyes. Richard’s cup was full and the fire in his eyes had dimmed. Carl said that he would be willing to lead Mark down Lower Potters if we would set safety, but first we all need to run Upper Potters before the light fades too much to get photos.

Carl, Richard and I each dropped over the falls while Mark snapped pictures. Then it was Mark’s turn. He gave me his camera and I climbed onto a large boulder on river right that affords the best view of the falls. I was soon joined by Richard and Carl, while Mark donned his gear. It seemed forever before Mark put on above the falls and while I was waiting I couldn’t help but notice that every photo I have ever seen of Upper Potters Fall must have been taken from this very spot, and I wanted something different. A worm’s eye view! That might add more depth to the shot and may eliminate the bridge from the picture. So I climbed down off the rock and began making my way down to the recovery pool.

Suddenly Carl gave a shout, "HE DIDN’T COME UP!" and leapt 8 feet off the boulder, landing like a cat and running down toward his boat. Richard climbed down the other side of the boulder and headed down to the base of the falls with a throw bag, while I just gaped open-mouthed in disbelief. A few seconds ago I was watching a friend paddling above a waterfall. Now I saw only the falls; No paddler, no kayak, no paddle.   "What could be holding him under? A submerged undercut would have been discovered by now. The flood! It must have washed something into the plunge pool, an old car, a wad of barbed wire fencing, something deadly.. Come on Mark! FIGHT!".

As the seconds ticked, I searched the water, looking for any sign of where he was but saw nothing. I knew now that Mark was losing the battle, and my mind raced.   "Maybe he will relax when he falls unconscious and float up or at least release his paddle..... We'll have to get the sheriff and start a body recovery. ......It'll be dark in a little while. No way to find the body in the dark....... his car will have to be driven home....... Someone will have to call his wife". When I thought of his wife, my heart sank into utter despair and the reality of the situation hit me like a train. "HE DOESN'T DESERVE THIS!........he was a good man. He was the best of us.”

Suddenly there was a gust of wind out of the west and the overcast opened, revealing the last rays of the setting sun. The light, reflecting off the clouds, illuminated the river with an soft golden hue. And the violin from the shower scene in "Psycho", that had been going "Reee Reee Reee" inside my head, stopped. A great peace descended on the river and I heard an almost imperceptible harmonic sound, like … angels singing.

It was then that the bow of Marks boat penetrated the wall of water at the base of the falls. Followed by a big grin with Marks face attached to it. The smile soon spread to all of us and we began to laugh. Mark had gotten off line at the top. Instead of going off the center tongue he slipped into a notch on the left side of the tongue and vanished. When he landed he back-endered behind the waterfall where there was a subterranean eddy. He had been paddling back and forth behind the falls trying to find the weak spot to paddle through. He said he had been blowing his whistle the entire time, but I couldn't hear anything over the roar of the falls.....and those angels singing.

After we all stopped laughing, Mark was convinced that this was his day and still wanted to run Lower Potters Falls. As agreed Richard and I went down stream to set safety. When we got to Lower Potters we realized that a throw rope was absolutely useless. If the first drop didn't kill him the rock sieve would. He would have no time to think about catching a rope. (They were running the river right line back then, also called the "suicide right" line.)

Richard and I watched Carl slide into the eddy just above the drop. What happened then was as dramatic a rescue as I have ever seen. Between Upper and Lower Potters Falls there is a hole. It's not a big hole, but it's got guardian rocks at each end. It's like a Roach Hotel for displacement hulled boats...

Mark dropped in, got stopped by this hole, and was not coming out on his own. If he swam out, he would be swept over Lower Potters. Carl offered him his stern and tried to pull him out but kept getting pulled into the hole. Finally Mark rolled over and swam, but the current was pulling him towards the brink of Lower Potters. At the last moment Carl made a mystery move and brought his stern around where Mark could grab it. It looked like they would both drop over the falls but as Mark approached the brink his knees found the bottom and he was able to crawl into the eddy above the drop. By this time it was almost dark. Mark decided to pull off and save Lower Potters for another day.

Sitting around the campfire that night we all had to tell our stories. Mark said that he wouldn't have gotten stuck in that hole if he didn't have such a Buffalo Butt. So we name the hole "Buffalo Hole" after Mark. It was lucky for Mark that he did have a "Buffalo Butt" because he contracted Giardia from the polluted water and was sick for several months afterward, losing 30 lbs in the process..