Squirt boating at Rock Island, TN. December 31, 2002

Skip the long winded stuff and go to the videos.

On December 31, 2002 I had decided, midmorning, that I had been couped up in the house for too long. We were having unseasonably warm weather for Middle Tennessee that time of year and I wanted to get in my boat. So I grabbed my gear and my wife and headed for Rock Island, Tennessee which is only an hour and a half away from home. This would be my seventh time to go and paddle there. I've been injured two of those times, one being a dislocated shoulder and the other being serious enough to have to go to the hospital in McMinnville (which I really don't recommend due to inadequate cleaning of an open wound). I've also broken a plastic boat while playing in the hole. Take the Rock Island area seriously, just as you would on any semi-remote river.

I played around in my squirt boat for a couple of hours while my wife shot video. When I got tired, she ran off to shoot pictures and left me with the video camera. I shot about an hour of video of people playing in the play hole, most of whom were good. Two were definitely professional level (one being Clay Wright). I got hypothermic sitting there covering the camera from the spray from the falls, but the footage was worth it. I have yet to see any other squirt boaters at Rock Island, so obviously no footage other than me. Bummer ;) I'm really not that self centered. Really! I just don't personally know any other squirt boaters, yet.

Rock Island's double falls
Photo: April McCauley, 2002

A tour and a novice squirt boater's review of Rock Island

Great Falls Dam is located in Rock Island State Park. It holds back the Caney and Collins Rivers and forms the Great Falls Lake. TVA operates the dam for electricity and flood control. TVA releases water for a number of winter and spring days, especially after heavy rains south and east of Rock Island. Spring is usually has the most release days. I have only visited Rock Island when TVA was releasing between 3200 cfs and 3800 cfs and I hope to catch it at different flows in the future. I've heard that anything over 9600 cfs is impressive to watch.

The engineers that constructed the dam, flume, and the generator house thought that using a narrow gap of land between the Collins River, which was above the dam, and Caney River, below the dam, would be a great place to put the flume intake openings. They probably thought it was a good way to save money. The water needs to be at a certain height to reach the intakes. What has happened is the lake has done what mother nature was going to do sometime in the distant future. The water from the man made lake has eroded the soft rock and has formed "underground streams" through the gap. The end of these "underground streams" are high above the Caney River, just downstream of the generator house, creating two distinct water falls.

Rock Island is a plastic kayaker's holy (or holey?) site. It has one of the best play holes in the eastern United States. Paddlers typically go to Rock Island just to play in the hole. The day that I was there, Clay Wright was doing his professional plastic kayak rodeo thing (9MB QT/MPEG4 - see note below). If I remember correctly, Clay is an occasional squirt boater. The video I shot of him is a trimmed down version of 2.5 minute ride in the hole.

Rock Island is NOT a squirt kayaking paradise as far as I know. It is better than flat water, but nowhere near equal comparison to Cowbell on the Nolichucky. I'm still exploring the area at various water and lake levels, so we'll see what the future holds.

At a 3800 cfs release (plus the water from the falls), the Caney river is a medium-large flow river that can be pushy. The first rapid contains a surfing wave at the very start of the rapid. In a plastic boat, falling off of the wave usually means that you'll be pushed past the main eddy on river left. You'll then eddy out on river left below the falls and will need to paddle up and past the base of the falls. This can be a bitch in plastic kayak when it is really cold. The first rapid quickly flows into the second rapid. I have yet to actually paddle my squirt boat above or through this rapid, but I plan to sometime this coming spring.

The play hole is located in the middle of the second rapid. You can't miss it. Its the big pile of foam smack dab in the middle of the flow. Newbie kayakers tend to get puckered looking at it and get spanked on their first real ride (skirting the meat of the hole doesn't count as a ride!). The main current just above the hole hits the river left wall and deflects back to center. This causes a funky seam above the hole and sets the stage for the boils and erratic currents below the hole. There is a staging eddy on river right, above the hole. It is accessible from the large river right eddy below the hole. On river left, just downstream of the left shoulder of the hole, is another staging eddy which is underneath the water fall. Below the hole a portion of the current hits a jut of rock wall on river left. This jut of rock is undercut. A hairy ferry in front of the undercut is required to get to the river left eddy. I've never paddled to it plastic nor glass. There is a "pulsing" seam starting just after the right shoulder of the hole. I've been able to get neck deep and felt a tugging as my boat came really close to the main chunk of current. Someone with a longer squirt boat could tap in for a better mystery.

Rock Island's eddy below play hole
Photo: April McCauley, 2002

Below the second rapid, on river right, is a large eddy. Boils and funky currents form at the edge of the main current and the 100' foot long "squeeze". This is where I've played the most in my squirt boat. I've gotten neck deep on several occasions, but I'm hindered by my Hellbender (if I commit the bow 4 feet deep, I'm vertical). The easiest place to mush is toward the bottom of the eddy, where the whirlpools form and brush up against the up-sloping rocks along the river right river bed. The whirlpools will sometimes have a audible sucking sound with them, but only lasts for a minute or so before dispersing. A fun warm up exercise and a way to practice balancing in a squirt boat is to sit on the edge of this area with your eyes closed.

The third rapid is just below the large eddy. I've been told that at the very top, left of center, is a small hole/pour-over that can yield mysteries. I haven't tried it yet due to the significant drop just below. It looks like if you have too long of a ride and you'll be in the main drop. Most of the current flows left of center and at several points, part of current flows into the undercut left wall. Get any swimmers to the right channel and away from the river left wall! There is a channel of current that flows right of center.

Last spring I had planned to explore the third rapid, but the lake that usually starts below the third rapid was backed up to the very top of the rapid. The raised lake level allowed me to paddle down the third "rapid" and attain back up into the large eddy above the rapid in my squirt. When the lake is up like that, on river left, well above the undercut (in height), there is a strong eddy line that yielded 2 to 3 second mysteries for me. Again someone with a longer boat could probably tap in deeper. Be very sure about the water level and the location of the undercuts! My only complaint about this spot is the fact that the river left wall is vertical and the only place to stretch my feet was on the other side of the river. Getting to the other side of the river required a damned difficult ferry to get to the only reasonable flat rock. Below the flat rock required getting out of the boat in about 3 feet of water and walking back up.

There are still many nooks and crannies to explore around Rock Island. There are the rapids, water falls upstream, and pools in between. If Center Hill Lake (downstream of Rock Island) drops low enough, there might be cool spots that are currently submerged. 800 or 2000 cfs might also turn out to be interesting flows. Its going to take a while to figure out, but hey, its better than paddling flat water in a squirt.

My recommendation about Rock Island is if you live close to it and nothing else is running, then it is better than paddling a squirt boat in flat water. Bring your plastic kayak just in case you get bored. Please email me at the address in the image below if there are any comments or corrections to the above information that need to be made.

Note: Due to previous complaints about large file sizes (which I agree with), I've encoded the video using the MPEG4 codec in this set Quicktime video files. The trade off for the file size reduction is the compatibility with older versions of Quicktime and Windows Media Player. You will need at least Quicktime 6.0. Or for the really insane computer geeks, get the ASCIIMoviePlayer source and compile it. I don't know if Microsoft's Windows Media Player 9 works or not and I really don't care due to their policies and licensing agreements.

Encoding the video using the QT/MPEG4 yields approximately 25% smaller file sizes than QT/Cinepak at the same frame size, frame rate, and same sound compression. Also stepping down to a 12 frames per second frame rate and a smaller frame size significantly reduced file sizes without making the clips too choppy or too small to watch, in my opinion.

Frame Size/File Size
Small Med. Med.
Title 12fps 12fps 24fps Format Paddler Video Credit
"Boil Charging" 1.3M 2.1M 4.2M Quicktime/MPEG4 Kelly McCauley April McCauley
An unsuccessful attempt at "charging" into a boil, in the eddy below the play hole, and doing a mystery/mush move.
Falls 992k 1.6M 3.1M Quicktime/MPEG4 Kelly McCauley April McCauley
A good shot of the falls right at the play hole.
Mushing (falls backdrop) 2.3M 3.7M 7.3M Quicktime/MPEG4 Kelly McCauley April McCauley
The eddy line is very erratic and none too predictable as the end of the clip shows. My squirt boat's short length makes it difficult to engage enough of the boils' current to have any significant downtime here.
Micromush 440k 706k 1.4M Quicktime/MPEG4 Kelly McCauley April McCauley
This seems to be the typical move for me at the moment.    ;)
Another Micromush 1.4M 2.2M 4.4M Quicktime/MPEG4 Kelly McCauley April McCauley
If you stay in one place long enough the eddy line will come to you.
Yet Another Micromush 939k 1.5M 2.9M Quicktime/MPEG4 Kelly McCauley April McCauley
Yet again.
Long Stern Stall 3.2M 5.1M 10M Quicktime/MPEG4 Kelly McCauley April McCauley
A nice long and relaxing stern stall. Good shot of the falls at the end.
Short Stern Stall 774k 1.2M 2.4M Quicktime/MPEG4 Kelly McCauley April McCauley
Backside of Play Hole 552k 852k 1.6M Quicktime/MPEG4 Kelly McCauley April McCauley
A down stream shot of a plastic boater coming out of the hole while I'm messing around in the forground.
Warming up 1 1.3M 2.2M 4.3M Quicktime/MPEG4 Kelly McCauley April McCauley
A look at the downstream third of the large river right eddy below the play hole.
Warming up 2 1.9M 3.1M 6.2M Quicktime/MPEG4 Kelly McCauley April McCauley
Same view of the eddy.
Warming up 3 3.0M 5.0M 9.9M Quicktime/MPEG4 Kelly McCauley April McCauley
Same view of the eddy.