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The term “First Descent” (AKA: 1stD or FD) is used widely in many adventure sports. It is quickly recognized by adventurers as a feat that someone has completed before anyone else and merits respect. Skiers, snowboarders, and mountain bikers often use this term when dropping a line down a dramatic landscape that no one else before them has ever attempted. The term also rings true to this tone in the whitewater realm with paddlers trying to explore rapids or sections of rivers/creeks that have never been descended.

Back in the early days of whitewater paddling first descents of harder stretches of whitewater were ripe for the taking. The first descent of the world famous West Virginia Gauley River Gorge was in 1968 by John Sweet, Norm Holcombe, Jimmy Holcombe, Miha Tomsic, Jim Stuart and Jack Wright. Many of the harder popular rivers and creeks that we paddle today were pioneered in the 1970’s – 1980’s, like the Green River Narrows in 1988. The 1990’s into the early 2000’s saw many of the Class V+ “hair runs” first descents thanks to the improvements in design and mass production of whitewater watercraft in what many consider the golden age of paddle sports. By the end of the early 2000’s the thought about first descents started to trend toward most navigable whitewater had been ran in many of the regions of our country, but there were a few still for the taking.

Many whitewater kayakers, canoeists, rafters and SUP’ers find the first descent aspect of our sports fascinating. Some still become enamored with their own missions to achieve this ever shrinking elusive goal by exploring deeper into their local regions. This is the case for the Dalton brothers and myself. Over the course of the past four years the three of us have managed to accomplish 3 different first descents in our home of Carter County, TN.

Josh & Matt Dalton – Firescald Branch – May 2017

This is a stretch of steep of whitewater way up in the Laurel Fork of the Doe watershed near Frog Level (above Dennis Cove). The stream flows from Rough Ridge and confluences with the Little Laurel Fork before meeting the Laurel Fork about 1,500 feet downstream. It is in this area where Josh & Matt found this pristine piece of gradient filled with several “mostly” clean granite slides to achieve this first descent. Josh & Matt caught the right flow for this section of rapids after a rainfall event of about 2” and the Laurel Fork visual gauge was reading 25”.

Photo by Josh Dalton

Matt and Josh took turns knocking out the first descents on these slides and drops on that day. Matt culminated the attempt by firing down the larger slide of Little Laurel Fork at the confluence pictured above. He described what happened at the bottom as a “Turtlely Tu – It was unexpected. I got lucky, but that Aquabound paddle didn’t make it.” It is custom in the whitewater world for a rapid to be named by the person who runs it first, so Matt decided to name this rapid “Hellbender”.

Video by Josh Dalton


Wesley R. Bradley – Shell Creek Cascades – Dec 2018

This stretch of roadside whitewater is located up a hollow beside Shell Creek Road near the town of Roan Mountain. The cascade is only a half mile off the heavily traveled state route Highway 19-E. The stream flows from the TN/NC border at Bradley Gap on the Appalachian Trail near Big Ridge. The creek confluences with Buck Creek shortly after the cascade section and then joins the Doe River less than a mile downstream. This creek is normally a trickle, but after a wet month of continual rainfall that totaled over 5” the Doe gauge rose to about 6,000 CFS after a 1.25” rainfall and we found this section running at a high medium flow for me to get this first descent.

Achieving Local First Descents

Photo by Ryan Horn

My paddling friend, Jerry Smith, was key in helping me find this 1stD. He was raised in the Roan Mountain area and his local knowledge of the landscapes was what brought attention to this potential run. It was hard to believe that no one had ever considered this section before this time, but we checked with all the local legends and neighbors in the area and no tale of a descent had ever been realized.

Photos by Jerry Smith

We scouted the creek a few times prior to the mission and theorized a formula to find it at a runnable level to make this goal happen. When the stars lined up on that December 28th day it was a delight to show up at the creek with many of my local good paddling buddies: Jerry Smith, Steven Adams, Ryan Horn, Matt Dalton, Dennis Ashford and Paul Webb. I was thankful that they had showed up to witness the event and be my support crew for the run!

Video by Paul Webb

Matt Dalton – Blue Hole – April 2020

Achieving Local First Descents

Photo by Cortnie Dalton

This popular swimming hole is on Mill Creek at the south base of Holston Mountain in the Stony Creek watershed. This set of three waterfalls stacked up like teacups in this unique spot was Matt‘s and my original inspiration for our local first descent aspirations. We have talked about this 1stD possibility for several years with many of our other local boating buddies and a sort of folklore began to build for this intangible prospect.

Matt and I both have tried a few times other the years to figure out the perfect storm to complete this first decent. We’ve been skunked many times to find water flows too low or way too high on a couple of rare attempts. The drops are stacked up on top of each other so room for error is at a minimum; especially if strainers lodge at the base of drops or in the pools. The mission has been made more dangerous by a huge log pile that has been collecting all matter of debris over the years at the base of the final waterfall also.

Matt made this first descent happen with a “earn your turns” kind of attitude for sure. He has spent many visits hauling out debris and axing out some of the deadfall from the bottom of the final drop. He’s pulled mattresses, drug paraphernalia, tires and all matter of different kinds of litter from the area to make a positive impact and a safer attempt.

Photo by Matt Dalton

His worked finally paid off and he found a good medium flow after a nearly 3” rainfall the night before. The Doe River gauge was reading a little over 5,000 CFS at its peak on this day. He made this a Monday to remember with his brother’s family by his side as the 1stD media & safety crew: Josh, Cortnie, & Arlo Dalton.

Video by Josh Dalton

The recipe to make these first descent missions a reality is part skill, logistics, patience and a bit of luck. Being the first person to ever run a stretch of whitewater has its own set of stresses. There is no exact reference for the experience to trust upon and we have to figure out the line for ourselves – this is also part of the thrill! We have to build a good whitewater based skillset that includes reading water/flow, safety considerations and hazard recognition to complete a successful descent. We must constantly be weighing the risk verses reward factor when scouting and planning. We also rely on our many past experiences with similar rapids to draw parallels in our line choosing.

The logistics of making a first descent happen is very important for success. Using mapping skills and talking with lifelong residents of an area are ways in locating these potential places. Knowing the local paddling legends before you will provide a wealth of knowledge in figuring out a mission. Sometimes access to the reaches also require some creativity or leg work to make it happen. Another part of the logistics to consider is having a crew who is willing to tag along for safety and media coverage. After all if you didn’t get it on video or in photos… Did it really happen? Plus having the crew support helps cultivate confidence when it is “Go Time”!

Patience is a key element in achieving this goal. We have to do our homework to figure out the right conditions to catch a good flow and that is best done with multiple observations after various rain events. Failed attempts should be expected and seen as research for the next attempt. Monitoring the stream on occasion during dry times for the run to be clean of strainers will also make ready when the conditions are good to go. The waiting game is also part of the reward in the end of an effective effort.

In the end we do need some luck to pull all of these factors together. Finding something no one else has ever attempted is a difficult deed in itself. Then one must factor in all the natural conditions that must align to provide the opportunity. Plus we must make the time in that moment to make it happen with our selected crew. We are also trying something that is a new experience for us with a few uncertainties and hoping we can pull it off after careful calculation. If all that coming together is not good fortune… Then I’m not sure what luck is?

Achieving these successful first descents are unique accomplishments in being the first person to give something a try. In the grand scheme of life the act will not mean much in the end, but it does let us leave our own mark on the sport we love; while growing in appreciation for the pioneers that came before us. Cheers to you on finding your own first descent if you so desire!

Photo by Paul Webb