Monday, November 15, 2010

Upper Ramsey Cascades (Part 2 of 2)

Recently I was able to explore above Ramsey Cascades by finding a small path to the top of this popular spot and sloshing my way upstream for about an hour. There were several rock-and-water barriers that I had to hike around, but there were often small, pink pieces of surveyor’s tape to show the best route through the brush and thickets. A few people, but only a few, had been here before.

The Upper Ramsey Cascades – as far as I know, it doesn’t have an official name – was about a half mile from Ramsey Cascades. It’s hard to compare waterfalls because they have different shapes and volumes of water, but in some ways the Upper is much bigger. Its drop is not as steep as the lower Ramsey. It’s a long, sloping series of 10, 30, or 50 foot cascades, and for this reason it’s hard to say where it begins and ends. Some folks might say it’s 100 feet high, others would say 200 or more, and they’d all be right. Standing at the bottom, you think you can see the top, but as you make your way up through the woods, you see cascade after cascade after cascade coming into view. It’s so long and sloping that there’s no place you can stand and see the entire cascade, so it’s impossible to take a picture of the entire thing. In fact, I took just one picture (from the bottom looking up) and gave up.

Only as I hiked up alongside this upper cascade was I encountering new territory. This was the reason I came, not to see any fabulous new views or to make any dramatic discoveries but simply to see a bit of Ramsey Prong that I hadn’t seen before. So I weaved my way along a vague path decorated with a few pink strips of plastic until I reached a point where I could safely re-enter the river. I suppose this is what I would call the “top,” probably 200 or 300 feet from the bottom where I had to get out of the river to circumvent the cascade.

An unnamed pool between the lower and upper cascades
It was at this point that I unpacked my fly rod, assembled it, and tied on a Light Cahill, a yellow mayfly imitation about the size of a dime. I spent the next hour gradually working my way upstream, casting to likely looking chutes and pools. Whenever I fish I fight the urge to get my hopes up, but if there was ever a piece of water that had potential, this was it. The number of people who fish this stretch of water in a year must be incredibly small. In that respect, this water is every fisherman’s dream, about as close to virgin water as can be found east of the Mississippi. On the other hand, the quarter mile of water above the upper cascade was fast and rough. If any fish were there, they had to be native survivors from 50 or 100 years ago, or they had to have been stocked in the days when the NPS still stocked these Smokies rivers. Migrating from below was not an option.

I spent about an hour sloshing and climbing over rocks, and the answer to one of my questions was obvious from the start: “No the landscape doesn’t level out above the upper cascade.” This is rugged country, more than average for the Smokies.

The bottom of the upper cascade

More of the upper cascade (it just keeps going and going...)

I desperately wanted to catch a fish to answer my other question, but it was not to be. I didn’t get a single strike – no splashes, no tugs, nothing. This, of course, was the worst possible outcome, not only because catching fish is better than not catching them, but also because of the nature of proof. Catching a fish would prove that there are fish in this water, but not catching a fish proves nothing. The river could be fishless, or it could full of fish, but I just couldn’t entice any of them to show themselves.

Which means I still don’t know about the fish. Which means I’ll have to keep coming back until I either catch a fish or am skunked enough times to convince myself that there are no trout up there. Of course, if I come back and manage to catch some fish, then I’ll have to keep coming back because I will have found a lonely stretch of good water – a trout fisherman’s dream.

Such is the gloriously twisted logic of fishing new water. Whether you catch fish or you don’t, both lead to the same conclusion: keep fishing, even if – no, especially if – you have to walk three hours and past two waterfalls to get there.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Ramesy Cascades Do Over (Part 1 of 2)

Recently I was able to scratch an itch that’s been nagging me for several years: I did a little exploring above and beyond Ramsey Cascades.

For many years, I assumed that every interesting feature in the Smokies had a trail going to it. If a trail stretched four miles to Ramsey Cascades, then stopped, it must be because there’s nothing more to see. It was as if the water cascading down that rock face didn’t actually come from anywhere. It just magically appeared at the top of the cascade and came tumbling down.
(Lower) Ramsey Cascade

To make a long story short, someone informed me that there’s another cascade about a half mile upstream from Ramsey Cascades. (Actually, he told me it was a mile, but I’ve measured the distance using GPS coordinates, and it’s only half a mile. But, in his defense, it’s an hour-long, upstream slog, and it does feel like a mile when you are doing it.)

Soon after I learned about this second cascade, I hiked the trail to Ramsey Cascades, crawled through rhododendron and between boulders to the top, and sloshed my way further upstream to see the second cascade. Once I saw the cascade, I lingered for a few minutes, then left because I was tired and it was getting late. It was a long hike back, but within fifteen minutes I was already disgusted with myself. I had intended to fish a little between the two falls, but didn’t. I had stopped at the foot of the second cascade, but hadn’t crawled around to the top of it to see what was further upstream. Were there more cascades? Did the landscape level out? Were there fish upstream? The answer to all those questions was, “I don’t know because I didn’t bother to find out.”

Finally, a couple of years later, I decided that first trip would be my mulligan, so I went back, hoping to get it right this time. This wasn’t a once in a lifetime, “bucket list” kind of trip. It was just an excursion to fill in a couple of missing details. And for that reason, it took me awhile to get around to it. (The fact that it’s a hard, eight-mile day might also have had a little something to do with it.)

The four mile trail to Ramsey Cascades is a fine hike, of course, but it isn’t easy. It’s rocky and uphill, and it was made even harder by the fact that it was just the warm up for me. On this particular day, this four mile march was nothing more than the price to pay for the opportunity to explore above the falls.

The first question to be answered at Ramsey Cascades is how to get to the top. I had been to the top a couple of times, and both times I had crawled through a tangled mess of shrubs and rocks. The result, eventually, was that I’d emerge into the river about 10 or 15 yards upstream from the top of the Cascades, giving me the option of moving downstream closer to the precipice or heading upstream toward the second cascade. It’s a route that’s messy, but safe.

I had been told of another route, a light path leading to the top, which was much easier. I found this path, but I’m not going to say exactly where it is, and here’s why. Yes, it was much easier than my previous route. This path was even marked with small pieces of pink surveyor’s tape, so it was fairly easy to follow. But there was one significant detail that I hadn’t understood – this new route emerged from the thicket at the top of the cascade within 2 or 3 feet of the edge. I suppose that some people could simply walk along this narrow ledge at the top of the precipice, but I suspect that the four people who have fallen to their death at Ramsey Cascades walked where they should have crawled on hands and knees, perhaps in this very spot. So I crawled like a trembling, newborn kitten, not wanting to become a statistic on a wooden sign and leave Phyllis a widow.

Once I was across the ledge and in the river, I began to slog upstream. This type of river hiking is not usually intimidating, but it can be slow and tiring, which it was. I was wearing my felt-bottomed fishing boots, which made my wading less slippery, so as I stepped from one spot to the next there were no dramatic slips and slides.

Within 15 minutes I encountered a 20’ waterfall consisting not of boulders but a wide wall of rock. It was the kind of obstacle that can’t be climbed, only avoided. So, I waded to the shore and found a path leading around and up, and once again, there were strips of pink surveyor’s tape showing the way. As on many other occasions in the backcountry, someone had been here before and had done me the favor of providing a few helpful clues. Several times during the day, I’d encounter an impassible cascade and would move to the riverbank to walk around. I’d have my head down searching for good footing, and when I’d look up a pink clue would be hanging just a few inches from my face. I’d like to say that great minds think alike, but since small minds think alike, too, let’s just say I had picked the same route as the trailblazer and leave it at that. [To be continued]

Friday, October 15, 2010

Name By Committee (Part 3 of 3)

Bone Valley, Bearwallow Branch, Snake Den Ridge. Those are names that tickle the imagination, that have local, rural character. It would make a good writing assignment for school kids. Choose a name, then make up an imaginative story of how the name came to be.

Then there are the names with no charm, no imagination required: Mount LeConte, Mount Guyot, Clingmans Dome. How did these sites get their names? Explorers of the 1850s such as Arnold Guyot measured, mapped, and named many of these peaks, but ultimately a nomenclature committee sat down in the 1930s and decided to honor various people by renaming the most prominent features in the park. That’s it, a committee. No stories about cattle dying in a blizzard (Bone Valley). No descriptive names like Big Balsam or Black Top. No imagination. No sense of place. Just a motion, a second, and a vote of those in favor and those opposed.

The scientists and explorers of the mid 1800s measured and mapped these peaks, then named them after themselves and their friends, rather than the names given them by the Cherokee and the local white settlers. Some guys never even hiked up the mountains that are named after them. Granted, many major peaks had several names, so the geographers and committees did create some order out of the chaos, and some of the names do honor men who are worthy of being remembered, but those names diluted the local character that saturated the topography. White Rock and Big Balsam became Mt. Cammerer and Mt. LeConte.

A well-known Smokies mountain is Smoky Dome. The Cherokee called it kuwahi, meaning “place of the mulberries” or “mulberry mountain.” It is 6,643 feet above sea level, making it the highest peak in the park and the third highest point in the eastern US. I love those old names because they are simple and descriptive – the place where a lot of mulberries grow or where the mist lingers. Of course, you probably don’t recognize Smoky Dome because Smokies explorer Arnold Guyot and the nomenclature committee renamed it Clingmans Dome.

Thomas Clingman was a North Carolina politician, Confederate soldier, explorer, and businessman who explored the Smokies in the 1840s. He is sometimes described as a “regional promoter” and a “colorful character” who had a long-standing dispute with Elisha Mitchell about who had been the first to measure the tallest mountain in the eastern US. Because the highest mountain is now called Mount Mitchell, you probably know who finally won that argument. Clingman had to settle for the third highest being named after him. Maybe Mitchell and Clingman’s spat was a serious scientific dispute, but it sounds more like two kids fighting over a toy or the last cookie in the jar. Reading between the lines, Clingman seemed to be a conceited self-promoter who enjoyed being in the center of public attention. (Maybe there should be a Clingmans Cave somewhere.) Of course, maybe I’m just bitter because I prefer the old names that have a sense of place that “Clingman” just doesn’t have.

A later nomenclature commission finished the job with names like Charlies Bunion and Mt. Kephart. I’m thankful that these explorers and committees didn’t have more friends; otherwise, we’d have no Eagle Rocks or Defeat Ridges left. They’d all be named Smith Peak or Jones Ridge.

The actual Charlie on Charlies Bunion
(from NPS archives)

Harvey Broome once suggested that we not even name mountains and rivers because people would be less likely to go to places that had no names. Planes and trains couldn’t run without named destinations. Erasing all the names could solve the problem of over-visitation of our national parks. He extended the logic, suggesting war would be impossible because people could not fight a country which they could not name. Might be worth a try. Or, just keep the old names. Local character would survive, and wars would end. After all, who’d fight over a spot called Maggot Ridge or Devils Den?

To give credit where credit is due, there is one decision that I whole-heartedly endorse: dropping the apostrophes from all the park names. I don’t know exactly whose idea this was or when the change was made, but it’s a change that has simplified the lives of countless printers and writers. Clingman’s became Clingmans. Cade’s Cove became Cades Cove. Quick. Easy. Painless. So put a list on your refrigerator entitled, Wise Decisions by the Federal Government. Item 1 could be, Creating the national park system. Item 2 would be, Dropping the apostrophes in the Smokies. If they ever have a third good idea, you’ll have a list started and conveniently located.

For the website only:

A pretty good book on the origin of Smokies names is Place Names of the Smokies by Allen Coggins. It covers a lot of names, but doesn’t really go into much detail. For example, for Panther Branch he might tell you that it’s named after the mountain lions (which were also called panthers) that used to inhabit the park. Well, yeah, I could figure that out myself. I’d like to know why that particular creek rather than some other creek was named Panther Branch. Or, why this creek is called Panther Branch instead of, say, Rhododendron Branch. Nevertheless, there’s some good information in the book, so it’s probably worthy of a spot in the Smokies section of your bookshelf.

Also, there are several books on the history of the Smokies which include chapters on some of the explorers, including Arnold Guyot, for whom the second highest mountain in the park is named. The standard history text, written in the 1960s, is Strangers in High Places by Michael Frome. It is my personal favorite. Other valuable histories of the park are: The Wild East by Margaret Brown and The Great Smokies: From Natural Habitat to National Park by Dan Pierce. All are available at any of the visitor centers in or near the park. By the way, there is a visitors center outside of the park, about a mile and a half down Hwy 66 from I-40’s exit #407. Look for the brick building with a green roof on the right and a Chamber of Commerce sign out front.

My hope is that some day I'll publish a book drawn partly from these blogs. It will be called Hallowed Hills, Holy Waters.  Of course, you'll want to drop whatever you are doing and run out and buy it immediately!!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Every Name Tells a Story (Part 2 of 3)

The African explorer Henry Stanley reported that the name of the Zambezi River in southern Africa came from the local natives’ word “zambezi” – meaning “river.” Apparently, the local natives called their river “the river.” It was the white explorers who began using the word “Zambezi” as the name of the river. That’s probably how the Oconaluftee River near the town of Cherokee, NC got its name. The Cherokee word for “river” or “by the river” was “oconaluftee.” That common noun (with a lower-case o) for “by the river” was converted by the white man into the name (with an upper-case O) of that particular river. Just as zambezi became the Zambezi River, oconaluftee became the Oconaluftee River.

The naming of our Native American tribes involved a similar process, but with an added twist. Most of today’s tribal names are not the names that the tribes called themselves; they are names given to them by the neighboring tribes and white frontiersmen. For example, the Cherokee called themselves “ani-yun-wiya.” Today, we should call them “Ani-yun-wiya,” but we don’t. We call them “Cherokee” which is probably a variation of the name that the Choctaw or Creek tribes called them – “tisolki” or “tsalagi.” It meant “the people in the land of caves” or “the people who speak a different language.”

To understand how this process works, picture the white trappers and traders of the 1700s and 1800s gradually moving west in search of land and game. Before moving farther, they’d ask the local tribe about the next tribe who lived further to the west. Of course, the host tribe would give the word that they called the neighboring tribe rather than the word that the neighboring tribe called itself. The white frontiersmen thought that was the proper name of the tribe when in reality it was just a word meaning, very roughly, “foreigners, not us.” So, not only did common nouns become proper nouns, but those nouns originated from neighboring tribes and not from the tribe itself. Thus, the Ani-yun-wiya (meaning roughly “us”) came to be called the Tsalagi (meaning roughly “not us”) which to white ears was Cherokee (now the name of the tribe).

It’s also interesting that almost without exception, a tribe’s name for itself meant “the people” or “the best people” or “the beautiful people.” A tribe’s word for its neighbors usually meant “enemy” or “inferior people” or “those who speak a different language.” The only difference between then and now is that today people in every nation will show others the courtesy of calling them by their own, official name, but with the oft-spoken understanding that our way of life is superior to theirs. Americans frequently call the US the greatest country in the world. Of course, that’s what Canadians say about Canada, Mexicans say about Mexico, Poles say about Poland, etc. etc. A lot has changed over the millennia, but ethnic or national pride seems to be hard-wired into our cultural DNA. Us versus Them.

But back to the names of the rivers and ridges in the Smokies. . .

I just picked out several USGS 7.5 minute topo maps and looked at the names of the various topographic features. Here’s a list of those with the most character: Doghobble Branch, Killpecker Ridge, Panther Den Ridge, Bee Gum Branch, Potato Ridge, Roaring Fork, Bone Valley, Brushy Mt., Cherokee Orchard, Trillium Branch, Peregrine Peak, Rocky Top, Breakneck Ridge, Bearwallow Branch, Eagle Rocks, Shanty Mountain., Mill Creek, Edens Garden Creek. Those are the kinds of names that have character – local, rural character. Those are names which tickle the imagination. It would make a good writing assignment for school kids. Choose a name, then make up an imaginative story of how the name came to be.

Buzzard Rock near Devils Den
Then there are the names with no earthy character, no imagination required: Mount LeConte, Mount Kephart, Mount Cammerer, Mount Guyot, Clingmans Dome.

Charlies Bunion (center), Mt. Kephart in background

How did these sites get their names? A government committee. [To be continued]

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Local Character Assassination (Part 1 of 3)

The town of Gatlinburg used to be White Oak Flats. The town I live in used to be called Mossy Creek but is now Jefferson City. Now I like Thomas Jefferson as much as the next guy, but “Mossy Creek” has character – a rural charm that “Jefferson City” just doesn’t have, which is exactly why the city fathers changed the name 100 years ago. They were embarrassed by the unsophisticated name. Likewise, Carson-Newman College was once the Wampus Cats. Today we are the Eagles. Same motives, same process, no charm, no regional connection, no character. I’d call it character assassination, where the character that’s being killed is the earthy, down-home connection that is born among the local residents. It’s what the poets call “a sense of place.”

This kind of local character assassination took place in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but on a fairly limited scale. Some names were changed, but there are still a lot of funky, local names in the park.

For example, in the park, you’ll find places like Devils Den, Panther Creek, and the Cat Stairs, names which provide some interesting images and room for the imagination to wander. I’ve seen several Devils Dens in the Appalachians, and they all are fields or slopes of huge boulders – scattered, piled, and balanced on each other, giving the impression that the Devil himself would live there or simply that a guy would have a devil of a time trying to walk through. The Devils Den on the southern slopes of Greenbrier Pinnacle is exactly the same. I spent a couple of hours one afternoon scrambling and sliding my way through it. I didn’t see the Devil, but it did look like the kind of place where he’d feel comfortable, although maybe a bit too serene for his taste – too many singing birds and chirping frogs and not enough weeping and gnashing of teeth.

There are at least six Panther Creeks, Panther Branches, etc. in the park, reminders that mountain lions used to live in this area. From the west you can see the rocky escarpment that forms the upper end of the Cat Stairs on the western end of Greenbrier Pinnacle. I assume the name Cat Stairs has something to do with mountain lions, as well. I’d like to think that it used to be a favorite haunt of these big cats. I can visualize them prowling around the cliffs and ledges of this mountain. I’d also like to think that there’s a cat or two living there still; although the official park literature says not. (Although, every year there are several alleged sightings of these cats in the park, often by knowledgeable people who ought to know.)

There are still a few Mill Creeks and Mill Branches in the park, which is a lot less than there used to be. When the park was being established in the 1920s and 30s, there were over thirty Mill Creeks in the Smokies, a reminder that local folks often give rather utilitarian names to local features. The creek with several grist mills on it would be… Mill Creek, of course. The fact that just about every valley had a creek with one or more mills on it meant that nearly every valley had a Mill Creek. Since the folks who lived in these valleys didn’t wander very far from home, the only Mill Creek each community needed to worry about was their own. The fact that there were dozens of Mill Creeks would eventually drive the map makers crazy, but it caused no confusion for the local folks.

Small (unnamed) falls on Mill Creek

Several years ago I spent a few weeks reading some of the writings of the African explorers Henry Stanley and David Livingstone. I believe it was Stanley who mentioned that the name of the Zambezi River in southern Africa came from the local natives’ word “zambezi” – meaning “river.” Yes, that’s right, the local natives called their river “the river.” No need to single it out with a special name because it was their one, big, local river. If a guy told his wife he was going to the “zambezi,” she’d know he was going to their river, just as my wife knows that if I’m “going to the river,” she could find me on the Holston somewhere downstream of Cherokee Dam. It was the European explorers who began using the word “Zambezi” as the name of the river. They turned a common noun with a lower case “z” into a proper noun with an upper case “Z” because they were mappers and explorers ranging far across the continent. They needed different names for different rivers. I suspect that many of the names of the rivers in Africa actually mean “river” in the local dialect

That’s probably how the Oconaluftee River near the town of Cherokee, NC got its name. [To be continued]

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Don't Do It! (Part 6 of 6)

After spending 4 ½ hours hiking, sliding, and finally crawling up Porters Creek manway, we arrived at the Appalachian Trail on the main ridgecrest with a surprise. For the past hour we thought we had been headed far east of Charlies Bunion and Dry Sluice Gap, farther east than we had hoped. Instead, we came out onto the AT where we had originally intended – just a few yards away from Dry Sluice Gap and about a quarter mile east of Charlies Bunion. Trusting the cairns all day had taken us up the tough, “don’t do it” route, exactly what we had wanted to do. While we had been ascending, I had been thinking: “If this is an easier, safer route then I really won’t be able to come down the old ‘don’t do it’ route. I’m not even sure I can descend this easy route.” But as it turned out, we had ascended the “don’t do it” route, and it hadn’t been too bad. Trust the cairns.

Once we were on the AT we spent a few minutes walking to Charlies Bunion – just a five minute walk to the west. But we soon had to make a decision. It was getting close to 2 pm, so we didn’t have a lot of day light left on this mid-December day. Should we walk about 20 minutes to the east and try to find an easier route down Porters Mountain? What if such a route doesn’t exist? What if it does exist, but its intersection with the AT isn’t obvious? What if there is more than one spot that looks like a Porters Mountain trail? If we walk 20 minutes and haven’t found it, how much longer do we walk looking for it? What if we do find it, but it’s not easier?

We could potentially waste an hour looking for another route that we weren’t certain even existed. So, we decided to go down the way we had come up. This would be exactly what the old Sierra Club trail guide had warned against: “Nobody should attempt to descend this trail from the AT. The latter section is the most difficult and dangerous stretch of trail described in this entire handbook. Don’t do it!”

Until that moment I had assumed that we might not do it. We would ascend that segment, but we wouldn’t try to descend it. But lack of daylight pushed us down the way we had ascended. So we stepped off the AT and back onto the old Porters Creek manway. We were able to stay on two feet most of the time, but occasionally I’d switch to a crab walk using all fives – two hands, two feet, and my butt – to drag and bounce down the slope. The result? Dirty hands and feet and butt, but otherwise fine. There was some slipping and sliding on wet rocks and a lot of holding on to those same trees, rocks, and roots that had helped us on the ascent, but it was enjoyable – as long as I kept my butt or hands on the ground and stepped carefully, often crab style. In fact, descending in this manner enabled me to see more of the surrounding forest, slopes, and valleys than on the ascent. Like before, being cautious and deliberate made it a bit stressful, but interesting – just the right level of adventure for a couple of middle-aged hikers in decent, but not great, shape.

We got past this steep, topmost section in about 15 minutes, reentered the creekbed, and soon encountered a four foot high cairn that we had passed on the way up and had wondered what it meant. Now we knew: “Brave hearts to the front, cowards to the rear. It is a good day to die!” I know, I know, that’s a bit overdramatic, but I love that quote by Crazy Horse, and unless I decide to climb a waterfall and somehow manage to survive and write about it, this may be my best chance to use it.

But, of course, we didn’t die. In fact, the hike back was beautiful, long, and uneventful – as most hikes in the Smokies are. We arrived back at the car just as dusk was settling in. Sometimes when you are warned not to do something, it’s best not to do it. But this wasn’t one of those times. Instead, we had been careful, managed not to get lost, survived without injury, and loved every minute of it. We were glad we did it.

And the next time we’ll be better prepared. I’ve always thought of walking or running as being the best ways to prepare for a hike. Now I can add crab walking to that list. On flat land. Up stairs. Down stairs. Just keep your butt near the ground and scamper around on your hands and feet. When someone asks what in the world you are doing, you can casually say, “Getting in shape for a hike” as if the answer should have been obvious.

Be sure to pay attention to the look on their face.

NOTE: An earlier article in the series of six on Porters Creek manway has detailed directions for this old, old route. Porters Creek manway (aka Dry Sluice manway) is an extension of Porters Creek Trail. The manway begins at the wooden #31 marker at the campsite at the end of Porters Creek Trail.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Caution: Slippery When Wet (Part 5 of 6)

On our December hike up the old, Porters Creek manway, there was one particularly memorable moment when it seemed that we were going east when we should be going south. We had pulled away from what seemed to be the main channel of the river and were following the rock cairns as they led us along a small tributary. We considered backtracking to the main branch, but we decided to continue on the small tributary because backtracking isn’t something you want to do unless absolutely essential. In other words, “The best thing about here is that we’re, well, here.” So we followed the cairns as they led us up a sometimes wet, sometime dry, always slippery streambed. It was fun and tiring and getting steeper by the minute. We didn’t know where this route would deposit us – somewhere on the AT, but where exactly? But things were going well. This off-trail hiking isn’t too hard when you have a trail to hike on! It was somewhere on that streambed that we learned to trust the cairns.

The higher elevation meant that the creekbed narrowed, so of course the rhododendron took advantage of the situation and squeezed in even tighter. Greg, who stayed a few yards ahead of me, would alert me with his standard rhody warning: “I see some rhododendron in our future.” The water was flowing, so we’d stay to the right or the left of the water, trying to keep our feet dry but giving the rhododendron branches their opportunity to reach out and grab us. If rhododendron is anything, it is relentless. It fights its battle by slapping, taunting, and grabbing; bending but not breaking. It’s like being pecked to death by a duck.

Then, suddenly, the water simply disappeared underneath us, and we were walking in a dry creek bed: a “dry sluice.”

Did I say dry? Well, it was a waterless creek bed. However, this cold, shady piece of land was very moist. The rocks were consistently slippery. It was slow, careful hiking. We were often using our hands as well as our feet as we would scramble slowly up the rocks, boulders, and tree trunks that littered the creek bed. Let me say it again: the rocks were slippery. I was reminded of the warning that the NPS gives about climbing on waterfalls; although, there was rarely a chance for any tumble farther than five or six feet. However, we also knew that it’s very, very possible to get bruised and broken by just a short, quick off-balance fall. Greg survived one potentially disastrous spill in which he ended up hanging upside down on a log, but other than an occasional slip or slide there were no other dramatic, near-death experiences. But to tell you the truth, there easily could have been. We had to be very careful in choosing our footing, and our years of experience in fishing and wading Smokies rivers really did seem to help. In fact, I think this part of the hike was as risky as the final, steep quarter mile when we were on a 45 degree slope and pulling ourselves up to the top with the help of roots and small trees.

Sometimes wet, sometimes dry, always slippery

Around 4,000 feet spruce trees began to appear, and above 4,500 feet we saw some fine walls of ice where trickles of water in a shady gully or north facing slope had frozen over. The final 30 minutes were risky but manageable – assuming we didn’t do something stupid. There were a few places where we could stand up on two feet and walk up the slope – but very few. We spent much of our time on all fours, dragging ourselves up the muddy, rocky slope. We were still in a forested area, so there were small trees, rocks, and roots that we used to keep from sliding backward. In such places, standing up and trying to walk really could have resulted in serious injury. It wasn’t a straight, vertical drop, but a lengthy, head-over-heels tumble over rough ground could do just as much damage. The secret was to not do something clumsy, and somehow we succeeded. Maybe this last quarter mile deserved to be upgraded to a seven on the danger meter – below climbing on a waterfall or grabbing a wild boar’s tail, but higher than poking a copperhead with a stick. [To be continued]

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Trust The Cairns (Part 4 of 6)

Greg Harrell and I had stumbled upon the old Porters Creek manway and were following this old, unmaintained path up toward Dry Sluice Gap on the main crest. This path was littered with blowdowns, rhododendron branches, and river crossings. It made for an interesting trip.

There was one other neat feature of this manway – one way in which it is maintained. There were frequent rock cairns to show where the trail was because it wasn’t always obvious. These rock cairns are small, simple piles of rocks placed at strategic intervals along the path. And the word “strategic” really is appropriate here. They aren’t every 30 feet. They aren’t even at every turn in the trial. They are only and exactly where they need to be – no more and no less. In other words, in places where the trail is obvious and well-defined, there are no cairns. But whenever you’d suddenly realize that you weren’t sure where the trail went next, just look around, there will be a small cairn sitting somewhere ahead of you to show the way.

I love these little piles of rock. Yes, partly because of the security that they provide to the bewildered hiker, but mainly because they are a spontaneous act by people you’ve never met; yet they were willing to expend a little energy to help other, future kindred spirits. It’s like someone in the past thought about me and decided that if I was interested enough in this hike to get out here and try it, then they were willing to share their secret with me. Without getting too mystical here, I’ll just say that those little piles of rock are like a connection with the past, like the passing of a torch. Most of these cairns were standing intact, but occasionally one would have tipped over, and we’d stop and repair it. It was our small contribution to future hikers. Some day someone will be writing or thinking the same thoughts that I’m expressing right now – and they’ll be thinking about Harvey Broome and the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club and the many anonymous hikers who aided in “maintaining” this old trail, two of whom would be Greg and me.

I wouldn’t call these cairns altars, but I would call them monuments. They are messages from the past to the future, saying, “Thanks for coming. Follow us. You can trust us.” As a matter of fact, after an hour of hiking and wandering, Greg and I developed an adage that we’d repeat to each other whenever we’d have a decision to make: “Trust the cairns.” That’s it. Simple. Direct. True. For the entire day, if we drifted away from the cairns because we thought we saw a better route, we’d quickly learn that we had made a mistake. If we followed the cairns, things would be fine. We were putting our trust in past generations of hikers, and they were worthy of our trust. Their words, as shown in the placement of these little piles of rock, were true.

The Mother Cairn

And I’m especially pleased that no punks and thugs have come along and knocked them down. This just isn’t the kind of place where you’ll encounter folks like that. These little rock messages from the past remained intact, threatened only by natural elements such as wind and water. As we walked, I wondered how many years these small signposts had been in place, with the same rocks being reused whenever a pile fell over. It’s very possible that these cairns have been in place for decades. Many decades.

There’s another potential threat to these cairns that hasn’t materialized – the Federal government. Again and again over the years I have been reminded – usually in the form of a helpful NPS employee – that the National Park Service is an outpost of sanity and compassion in a governmental world of insanity and hubris. If the NPS were the typical government agency, it might sweep through this area knocking down and scattering these rock cairns in a vulgar display of authority: “We said unmaintained, and we mean unmaintained!” That hasn’t happened yet. Although I have little faith in governments to do the right thing, in this case I can sleep at night, confident that the bureaucrats haven’t won yet.

So we spent the rest of the day trusting the cairns. [To be continued]

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Porters Creek Manway (Part 3 of 6)

After pausing briefly at the Porters Flats campsite at the end of Porters Creek Trail, Greg Harrell and I turned our attention to our reason for being in the mountains on a cold, December morning: a backcountry hike to the state line ridgecrest about 2,000 feet above us. We thought about going down to the creek a few yards down slope. We could begin there. However, the old trail guide hadn’t said much about the river, so maybe we should go back to the trail and look carefully to see if it continued up the river valley.

So we walked back to the small, wooden campsite #31 sign. The trail had appeared to end at this sign, but a closer inspection showed that it continued south as we had hoped. So we followed it, and it soon began to pull away from the river and proceed east up the side of Porters Mountain. After a mere 5 minutes we realized that this wasn’t right. The lay of the land and the old trail description indicated that we should follow Porters Creek at least a mile. So, we decided that this trail wasn’t for us. If it were named, it should probably be called Porters Mountain, not Porters Creek, trail. We should return to the river, so we pushed our way through the rhododendron, down the slope toward the river. It was looking like our day would be a long, tough march through a trail-less mess of rhody thickets. Then, suddenly, we encountered another obscure, lightly-used trail running south, parallel to the river. This just might be the old Porters Creek manway we were hoping for.

We took this route simply because it was going in the general direction that we wanted to go. This trail was barely discernable as a slight indention in the thick layer of leaves – but it was discernable. It became even more distinct whenever it would lead us through a rhododendron thicket because it would form a narrow, but obvious, passageway through the tangle of branches and leaves. The unmaintained manway from the early 1970s was still here, so in spite of starting on the wrong trail, we had quickly realized our mistake and stumbled upon the right trail. Things were starting well.

It soon became clear what “unmaintained” means. It means that no one trims the branches and shrubs that grow up along the sides of the trail. On a maintained trail, you don’t notice while you are on it, but someone has been diligent about trimming the branches and bushes on both sides of the trail. On a maintained trail you are rarely slapped on the shoulders and face by rhododendron branches. On this unmaintained trail we were being constantly slapped by wet leaves which forced us to wear our rain jackets even though it wasn’t raining. No big deal, but it did give us a deeper appreciation of the fact that trails do have to be maintained by people with clippers and chainsaws.

“Unmaintained” also means that blowdowns – trees that have fallen across the trail – are not cut and removed. Blowdowns happen on maintained trails, too, but they are usually removed within a few days or weeks by trail maintenance crews. So every Smokies hiker has encountered a few of them, and they are only a mild annoyance. You either climb over them, crawl under them, or walk around them. The only difference with unmaintained trials is that you encounter more of them. But even on this old trail their number was not excessive. Not a big problem.

“Unmaintained” also means that you’d better have waterproof boots because there are no log footbridges over the river. You cross the river by rock hopping and quick stepping. It’s kind of fun and adds an unusual element to your hike because this is something, again, that you just don’t think about on a trail hike. Maintained trails usually have quaint, pretty, single-log foot bridges. These little bridges are great for posed pictures. They even look like they’d be fun to make. But an unmaintained trail just doesn’t have them. So you hop, step, slip, and slosh your way across the river.

As we were crossing Porters Creek for the fifth or sixth time, it occurred to me that Harvey Broome’s descriptions of his hikes in the early years of the park included frequent, wet river crossings. That fact hadn’t really stuck with me until this hike.

Why cross the river several times? Because the lay of the land and the turns in the river (plus the random thickets of rhododendron) sometimes make one side of the river steep and the other side relatively open and flat. As the river weaves its way down the river gorge, these steep and flat sides switch back and forth, so you find yourself being pushed by the terrain from one side of the river to the other. Thus, the river crossings. I was glad I brought an extra pair of socks to change into once we pulled away from the river. [To be continued.]

Website only:

Directions to the manway...

First, as you know, this route begins at campsite #31, which means you'll walk almost 4 miles before you even begin the old manway. So it will be a long day.

The first off-trail I ever did was Mill Creek Cascade (near Cades Cove, below Russell Field shelter). My second was Porters manway. A friend and I read about it in an old Sierra Club guidebook (the "blue book" to you old timers). There was very little description of the route, so we brought map & compass and followed our noses. We got off to a rough start by making a wrong turn and heading up Porters Mt -- but as we got higher and the trail disappeared we sat down and talked about it -- thus proving that two heads really are better than one. In the book Lost, Dwight Carter mentions that in the area of "lost person behavior," the chances of survival (making good decisions) are greatly enhanced if the lost hiker is not alone. He notes that even having a dog with you can help calm your nerves.

Anyway, we decided that this was called Porters CREEK trail for a reason, so we walked down toward the creek and soon stumbled upon a well-worn trail cut through the rhody. We hadn't expected a full-blown trail, but that's what it was. Yes, off trail hiking is much easier when there's a trail to follow!

Here's the important detail to avoid unnecessary wandering: At the small wooden #31 marker at the end of the official trail, bear to the left. (Right goes to the campsite.) Once you bear left at the wooden marker, you'll almost immediately cross a small gully (sometimes water, sometime dry). Immediately on the other side of the small gully, turn right. Don't go straight. That's the same mistake the guy who got lost on Porters Mountain made in 2009. That’s the mistake my friend and I made. So, if you'll turn right after the gully, you'll be on a pretty well-worn path that is the Porters Creek manway. If you'll follow the path, you'll be fine. There will be places where you won't be sure where to go as the path gets light or crosses the creek. At those places, look around for the small rock cairns. They are always exactly where and when you need them. It's a great hike. After about 45 minutes or an hour, the trail will pull away from the main creek and will follow a small (usually dry) tributary up to Dry Sluice Gap on the AT. The cairns will accompany you most of the way, so when in doubt… look for the cairns.

And, yes, it’s best not to do this alone – at least, not on your first attempt. Two heads are better than one. Shoot, if we could make our schedules work, I’d go with you. Email me at

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Greenbrier (Part 2 of 6)

A few days before Christmas, Greg Harrell and I exited I-40 onto US 321 near Newport and drove through the hamlet of Cosby. Before reaching Gatlinburg we crossed the Middle Prong of the Little Pigeon River and turned into the park at the Greenbrier sign. The narrow dirt road was deserted as it often is in the off-season. In the 1920s and 30s, a modest hotel (The Greenbrier) had operated near the junction of Porters Creek and Middle Prong, near the spot where this narrow dirt road splits – left to Ramsey Cascade via the Middle Prong or right to the Porters Creek area. We went right.

This Greenbrier area, like virtually every other river valley in the park, was once well populated, home to about 800 people in 1934. I assume there were Porters and Ramseys – those being names of the main tributaries to the Middle Prong – but Whaley is the most common name in the small cemetery less than a mile up the Porters Creek Trail. There’s a headstone that says, simply: Mary Whaley, Born & Died, Aug. 11, 1909. Another says: Lillian E. Ownby, March 14, 1909, April 16, 1909. Times were always hard for these folks, but the tombstones show that 1909 was an especially hard year for the Whaleys, the Ownbys, and the other families that lived along Porters Creek.

The sky was cloudy, threatening rain or snow, with the temperature hovering around freezing. Dressing for such cold weather hikes is always a bit frustrating. You are cold and it feels good to wear a light fleece jacket, but you also know that in about 10 minutes you’ll be too warm for a light fleece. It’s not a problem to stop and stuff your jacket into your pack, but stopping so soon after starting always creates a sense of incompetence. You are trying to get off to a good, quick start, but here you are, half a mile up the trail, stopping to adjust your equipment. Even though the stop takes about one minute – hardly a major setback in your schedule – it just feels unnecessary. Nevertheless, that’s what we did.

About a mile up the trail, near its intersection with Brushy Mountain Trail, sits an old cabin, built in the mid 1930s, that once belonged to the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club. This hiking club was responsible for scouting some of the trails in this portion of the park. In fact, it was reading excerpts of Harvey Broome’s hiking journals that kindled my interest in this Porters Creek trip. Today, if things went well, we would not be blazing a new trail; we would be following in the footsteps of the members of this hiking club who hiked this route a generation ago. And, on these trips they usually spent the night in this old cabin that still stands as a testament to their lives and their passion for these mountains, especially this Greenbrier area. Yes, the CCC built many of the Smokies’ trails, but the SMHC scouted and blazed many of the routes that those trails would follow.

The Porters Creek Trail follows the course of the river – occasionally rising a hundred feet above it then dropping down next to it – so it ascends gradually for its four miles to the Porters Flats campsite. Along the way Greg and I were both impressed by the size of the river – it’s not what most people would call large, but by Smokies backcountry standards it’s sizable. Both of us being trout fishermen, we pay a little extra attention whenever we walk along a Smokies stream. We’d have to return in the spring with our fly rods.

It took us about an hour and a half to reach the backcountry campsite at the end of the trail. It looks fairly well used – more so than I had expected. Since this is a dead end trail, I would have expected it to receive light attention, but apparently that is not the case. In fact, at the end of the day as we returned from our hike, there were several tents set up and four backpacks hanging from the bear-proof cables strung between the trees.

Okay, now that we were at the campsite at the end of the trail, it was time to shift gears and think about what we would do next. The main ridgecrest was about 2,000 feet above us, calling our names. [To be continued]

Accepting the Challenge of Porters Creek Trail (Part 1 of 6)

“No wild parties while we’re gone.” “Thou shalt not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” “Stay out of the cookie jar.” Warnings that are wise, but hard to resist.

My old 1973 Sierra Club Hiker’s Guide had this to say about the Porters Creek Trail:

“This trail consists of two sections which are very different in character. For four miles it is an easy walking trail through an undisturbed forest. After that it turns into an unmaintained manway and becomes very steep, rising 2,000 feet in the last mile. This section is for the experienced hiker only and even for him only one way. Nobody should attempt to descend this trail from the AT. This latter section is the most difficult and dangerous stretch of trail described in this entire handbook. Don’t do it!”

What I heard was slightly different from what appeared on the printed page. I heard what I wanted to hear, which was:

“Blah… blah… blah… blah… I dare you to try this one… Blah… blah… blah… blah… You big sissy… You aren’t man enough to try it, are you? Blah… blah….”

I took the “Don’t do it” as a personal challenge, an affront to my manhood. When I read the warning to Greg Harrell, his response was typical for him: “Sounds like we need to give it a try.” So we did.

I had been studying the topographic map of the Greenbrier and Sawteeth section of the park, and couldn’t quite tell how the 1973 trail description fit in with the wiggles and bumps that appeared on the map. I learned that the old manway ended very close to Dry Sluice Gap, which was about a quarter of a mile east of the cliffs of Charlies Bunion on the main ridge crest. So I knew the target that we were shooting for, but the exact route was a mystery. This trip could be pure, trial-and-error bushwhacking that might even take more than one trip to figure out. On the other hand, the 1973 trail description did talk of an “unmaintained manway,” so there might be some semblance of a path. But that was 1973. If it was an unmaintained manway in 1973, what would it be 35 years later?

Sometimes in studying a topo map, you can get a good feel for the ruggedness of an area not by a close examination of the map but by actually stepping back several feet and just looking at the overall color of the map. If your topo lines are brown or black, then where does the map look dark instead of the typical light green? Where does the shading look a bit deeper and darker? On my map of the Smokies, the brown topo lines squeeze closely together and create a fuzzy, brown mass along the north side of the 6 miles of ridgeline from Mt. LeConte along the Boulevard and the AT past Charlies Bunion to Porters Mountain. If you are familiar with land forms and topo maps, those tight topo lines speak of deep, steep, shady ravines. These are the places that get very little sunlight, and even less during the winter months when the sun is low in the sky, so they are moist and cold. The springs and rivulets high on a north-facing slope will probably freeze over in December, providing beautiful walls and columns of ice until March. If these sites are off trail, you can be sure that very few people have seen them.

Lest I exaggerate the trail’s danger and our boldness, let’s get something straight. If a trail was truly dangerous, the hiker’s guide probably wouldn’t even mention it. So, we’d take their warning to heart and be careful, but we knew this trip would probably rate about a 5 or 6 on the danger meter – where 0 is walking along the sidewalk at Sugarlands Visitor Center and 10 is pulling a wild boar’s tail. It’s also worth noting that a guy might pull a wild boar’s tail because he’s very brave or very foolish, and it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference. So we headed to Porters Creek, knowing that the real purpose of the book’s warning was to keep the lawyers out the picture if something went wrong. Happily, the question of whether to sue or not to sue never arose because no one got hurt. [To be continued]

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Thanks Mom.

My wife mentioned something to me the other day that I had never thought about. She was trimming the dead leaves off one of our house plants and told me that this was the original planter, dirt, and roots that came from my mother, who died over 20 years ago. That’s a simple, unplanned connection to the past. My mother didn’t buy this small plant with the idea of passing it on to her one, immediate descendant. No, it was just one of the houseplants that remained after her rather sudden death. It was a remnant, an after-thought, just a plant in an empty apartment that needed to be cleared out by the end of the month. Thankfully, my wife had the foresight to save it.

Most of our connections with the past are like that. Yes, there are statues and plaques and other memorials to help us remember those that went before us, but most of our “memorials” are old plants, old dishes, old pictures, old tools. Stuff that you find in the attic.

And, of course, memories.

One odd memory that sticks with me is my mother’s habit of reaching over to hold me back every time she suddenly hit the brakes. In the days before seat belt laws, my mother made it a habit of protecting me from injury by reaching across and putting her hand on my chest. She continued to do that all of her life, even when I was nearly 30. At the time, I was embarrassed by it, but now I think of it fondly – a mama protecting her child to the very end. Car seats and seat belts have eliminated this endearing reflex from our culture, and although I know our children are now safer in their seats and belts, I still mourn the loss of such an obvious sign of love and protection.

One of my vivid, childhood memories involves the Smoky Mountains. I was about five years old, and my mother and I were traveling from our home in Florida to visit relatives and friends in Ohio. Because there were only a few interstates at that time, we generally drove US 441 from Orlando through Georgia, western North Carolina, and most importantly, through the Smokies. This was my first real road trip, and it was all great because it was all new and different. But the highlight, by far, was the night that we parked our Studebaker in a small, gravel pull-out next to the Oconaluftee River in Cherokee, NC. We slept in the car that night with the wild, relentless sound of the river filling our heads. (Florida’s rivers don’t make noise.) It took me a long time to fall asleep. The sound of the river mesmerized me. That night by the river was magical… and probably illegal. Although, those were simpler times, so maybe there wasn’t yet a law against sleeping in your car on the side of the road.

Did I say that night by the river was the highlight? Well, it was the highlight of my life up to that point. Remarkably, the next highlight of my life came the next morning. How lucky can a kid be to have the two highlights of his 5 years of life happen within 12 hours of each other! That foggy, cool, early morning drive through the Smokies was a step into another, better world. It was love at first sight. I learned new place names as my mother showed me the Chimneys and took me to Cades Cove and Clingmans Dome, all places that I would visit many times as the years rolled by.

My mother wasn’t a very outdoorsy person in terms of camping, but she did love the outdoors enough to make sure that most of our family vacations involved America’s national parks. And somehow, some way her love of the outdoors managed to rub off on me. She and I never talked about that, and I don’t think I ever thanked her for it, but I think she must have realized that the apple hadn’t fallen far from the tree. Most of my family vacations now involve national parks – the same ones she took me to – but only in recent years have I come to see that as a memorial to her. Those times and places sunk deeply into who I am and were so important to me that I wanted my two kids to have those same, wonderful experiences: bears, buffalo, geysers, redwoods, birds, red rock canyons, deserts, mountains, cacti, rivers, even the long hours in the car watching the fields and farms pass by. I love them all, and I have my mother to thank. That love and those memories are an unwritten memorial to her.

Thanks Mom.

Freedom on the AT, Parts 1 & 2

Freedom on the A.T., Part 1
Not long ago I did a quick, one-night backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail in the Nantahala Mountains of North Carolina. It was a “bucket list” kind of thing – a section of the AT that I’d been intending to do for about 20 years but hadn’t gotten around to. So my wife and daughter kindly dropped me off at Wayah Bald, and I hiked down to Wallace Gap, spending the night (with half a dozen Boy Scouts from Florida) in one of those old, three-sided shelters that are scattered along the entire 2,100 miles of the AT.

This is probably the moment where you are expecting me to whine a little bit about the crowded shelter and having to share it with several others, mostly kids, from Florida. (They might have been Gator fans for cryin’ out loud!) But, believe it or not, I didn’t mind their company. First of all, they were mostly Juniors and Seniors in high school, so they were beginning to show subtle glimpses of maturity. (If they had been middle school boys, then yes, I’d be whining right now.) Second, they were Boy Scouts, so they were interested in the outdoors and didn’t talk about video games and reality TV the entire time. And finally, crossing paths with kindred spirits (we all were hiking the AT, after all) in these shelters usually has a good, communal feel to it. It’s a reminder that the world hasn’t gone completely crazy, and there are still people who can sit around and be entertained by the wind, stars, trees, campfires, and civil conversation. There is hope for the future, and you’ll sometimes discover that hope in these old shelters on the AT.

Oddly enough, my 20 hours on the AT between Wayah Bald and Wallace Gap started out unenthusiastically. It was raining; the trip was a last second, hurried decision; the scenery and topography would be average. In short, I was doing this mainly to get it done, not because I was drawn to the magnificence of the scene, but after an hour or two I began to get my groove back. I began to feel an old familiarity that I hadn’t realized that I had ever lost.

It soon occurred to me that it had been quite a few years since I had hiked on the AT outside of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Since we live only an hour from the Smokies, I’ve spent the past 20+ years fishing and hiking mostly in the park. Sure, I fish some other rivers, and I’ve also visited Maine, Michigan, and the Rocky Mountains a few times, but most of my regional camping has been inside the Smokies – mainly because the Smokies are higher, more majestic, and wilder than anything else in the south. I keep going back to the Smokies for the same reason that you keep returning to your favorite restaurant and ordering the same meal. It works. It ain’t broke. Don’t fix it. It’s not quite an obsession; it’s more like a habit, but a good habit. And since so many of our habits are immoral, fattening, or just plain stupid, whenever you develop a good one, it’s in your best interest to ride it as long as you can.

But it was good to be on the AT outside of the Smokies again. Part of the familiarity that I was recovering was the rural feel of the surroundings. I was reminded that most of the 2,100 miles of the AT is not raw wilderness. On the AT outside of the Smokies, you will encounter more roads, towns, farms, and fences. Not enough to be annoying, but enough to remind you that you are on a carefully planned trail that twists and turns not only because of the lay of the land but also to avoid roads, private property, and “no trespassing” signs. There are glimpses of semi-civilized, rural America scattered all along the AT.

Another part of the familiarity that I recovered on this trip was a sense of freedom. There’s absolutely no paperwork, no itinerary, required to hike the AT outside of the Smokies. No park ranger will arrive after dark and check your papers – because there are no papers to be checked.

Freedom on the A.T., Part 2

On a recent backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail in the Nantahala Mountains, a few miles south of the Smokies, I was reminded of the freedom that is an essential part of that experience.

When I’m camping or fishing in the Smokies, I don’t resent being checked by park rangers occasionally because I’m always legal. In fact, I’m glad they stop and check, just as I like the cashiers at Lowe’s to check my ID when I use my credit card. If someone steals my card and tries to use it, I’d want those cashiers to refuse the purchase and to notify the authorities. Likewise, I want the park rangers to catch guys who are (illegally) using corn and worms to catch trout in the park. Tennessee has very, very few rivers with any sort of “artificial only” fishing restrictions and absolutely no “fly fishing only” rivers, so in those rare places where there are a few, meager restrictions, I want those restrictions to be enforced. Otherwise, the rivers would be emptied of their fish pretty quickly.

On the other hand, the one time I was checked by a park ranger, my joy that he was enforcing the rules evaporated pretty rapidly as he continued to ask me what kind of vehicle I was driving, where I was parked, whether I’d be spending the night, did I have a fishing license, and was I carrying any live bait. I began to wonder if he would be taking out the waterboard to extract information on my links to al Qaeda. But once he was convinced of my innocence, we chatted awhile about the mountains and rivers. We both loved the Smokies, so we had that in common. We parted amicably. (But not as buddies. I pointed out a hornets’ nest in a nearby tree and said, “Hey, you wanna throw rocks at it?” He didn’t realize I was kidding and began to lecture me about our responsibilities to care for the natural world, and of course, the dangers of aggravating hornets. Note to self: Guys with badges and guns have no sense of humor.)

My overnighter on the AT in the Nantahalas was fairly quick and routine – walk on the trail, sleep in a shelter, finish on Old US 64 just west of Franklin. But as I walked along the trail, I would occasionally see a simple, worn path leading off to the side, ending at a small, worn campsite. These obscure campsites don’t show up on any maps. There are no cables to hang your food bag on, no facilities of any sort, unless you call a spot worn thin by previous hikers and a simple rock, fire-ring “facilities.”

These side trails and campsites are 100% unofficial, unsanctioned, undeveloped, unauthorized – and completely legal. And pleasant. I’d turn off on one of these short, side trails and find just a worn spot in the grass and a campfire ring – and a good view, or a level spot, or a small spring, or an opening in the trees providing an unhindered view of the stars. There was always something there to attract a hiker. There was always a reason why the path led where it did. I’d walk down the path, arrive at the campsite, look around, and think, “Yeah, I see why people camp here.” Then, at that moment, I’d realize that my footsteps had just added to the worn path. It was a great example of many different individuals making separate, individual decisions, yet making the same decision. That’s how these unofficial trails and campsites are made and maintained. You see the same thing – informal paths in the grass – in cow pastures and on college campuses. Students and cows voting with their feet. Simple, primitive, laissez-faire democracy.

It’s funny, isn’t it, that a small, worn spot in the woods can provide a taste of the fundamental American values of freedom, choice, and even a little risk. Those worn spots aren’t just a metaphor for freedom. They are the result of freedom. They are freedom. Not the crazy, selfish, irresponsible freedom that harms self and others. No, it’s the simple, healthy liberty that enables you to relax and breathe because no one is looking over your shoulder. There’s no one in a suit or uniform to exert their authority, to check your papers. There’s also no one to protect you because freedom entails risks. It’s just you and that haphazard campfire ring. That, my friends, is a good reason to get out of the Smokies every now and then and bask in the harmless, healthy anarchy of the Appalachian Trail.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

High Rocks: There's No App For That (Part 4 of 4)

The seven mile hike on Bear Creek Trail up the eastern slope of Welch Ridge was wonderfully, deathly calm. It was so serene and lonely that if a tree had fallen, it would not have made a sound, regardless of whether or not I had been there to hear it. The solitude caused me to stop several times to simply appreciate the fact that this is how it would have felt in October, 1491, or October, 3,000 BC. Same birds. Same clouds and fog, although a bit less acidic than now. Similar trees, but probably not the identical species – all the chestnuts are now gone, and the hemlocks are fading fast. Definitely the same quiet, the same feel. That’s the kind of stuff you think about when you are lucky enough to spend an entire day in the mountains without seeing another human being. Even if you aren’t the contemplative type, the stillness and loneliness forces it on you, if for no other reason than there’s nothing else to do.

About three hours after leaving Melissa and John at the Forney Creek campsite, I arrived at the Welch Ridge Trail. This portion of Welch Ridge is very easy, but I was only on it for about half a mile. As I began walking on Welch Ridge, I was hoping the trail to High Rocks would be well-marked and obvious. If I missed it, I would be alerted by Cold Spring Gap Trail which would be about half a mile past the High Rocks side trail. If I reached Cold Spring Gap, I’d just turn around and try again.

After a few minutes I changed my mind. I began to hope that the High Rocks side trail was obscure and poorly marked. Maybe the trail would be overgrown and the wooden sign would have rotted and washed away. After all, the point of this trip is to have this peak all to myself, right?

Well, no such luck. After a mere ten minute stroll on Welch Ridge, I came to the well-maintained side trail to High Rocks, marked with a solid wooden sign pointing the way. For about two seconds I considered tearing the sign down and throwing it in the bushes, but my conscience intervened at the last second, as it occasionally does in moments of severe temptation. Hikers tend to be good, altruistic people. They love wilderness and solitude, but they tend to be accommodating of other hikers, too. Just one, big, happy family. That’s why the sign was still standing there for me to see.

The side trail to High Rocks was quick and easy. There was an interesting spot where a few stairs had been cut into some rocks. There were shrubs growing in and around the steps. It looked like part of an old, undiscovered Mayan temple.

A few yards beyond the Mayan stairs was the site of the old firetower (four concrete pads) and a deteriorating cabin with a large blue tarp over the top of it, probably a sign that the NPS is trying to save the cabin and would soon repair the rotting roof and floors. Nevertheless, the inside of the cabin was still partly intact. Windows, paint, and even a few old tools. Someone had taken an old metal chair out of the cabin and set it up on the exposed rocks next to the cabin. I’m thrilled and amazed that it’s possible to find hidden jewels like this – old cabins that have not been ransacked by looters and defaced by vandals. High Rocks is a good, lonely spot.

High Rocks

The view? Well, it’s good, I suspect. High Rocks is one of the highest spots in this neck of the woods, but thick clouds were speeding across the peak, so the visibility was about 30 feet. It would be a good view, weather permitting – but keep in mind that in the Smokies weather often does not permit. Even on a clear day, the view would not be 360 degrees, but I can say with confidence that the trip was well worth the effort. A pleasant hike on a beautiful trail. A good variety of experiences – rivers, ridges, a fine view (“weather permitting”), an old cabin, mist, wind, and isolation. It’s the real world at its best, or to quote a recent commercial: “There’s no app for that.”

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Fall Colors on Welch Ridge (Part 3 of 4)

On a crisp October afternoon, my daughter, her husband, and I had paddled across Fontana Lake to the Lower Forney Creek campsite. As evening approached, Melissa and John sat in their camp chairs by the small fire they had built. Wood is not plentiful at these backcountry sites, but we can always find enough downed wood if we’ll just search away from the trail. I’m not much of a fire builder, which gives the appearance of a thoughtful, low impact, wilderness ethic, but the truth is simpler – I’m lazy. I like a campfire, but I can do without it. Fortunately, just about every other person on the planet enjoys a good camp fire, so unless I’m camping alone, I usually have a fire provided for me. I felt guilty for letting Melissa and John do all the work, but not guilty enough to actually get up and help. In their youthful enthusiasm, I don’t think they even noticed.

Later that night, well after we had settled into our tents and sleeping bags, it started to rain. Rain on a tent fly, one of life’s best sounds. We all slept well. Mud in the morning is a small price to pay for rain at night.

The next morning was cloudy and wet, but not rainy. I ate a brown and orange breakfast – cheese crackers, granola bars, ginger snap cookies, and filtered river water. Lunch will be the same, plus some peanut M&M’s. One of the best things about hiking is that I can eat chocolate and peanuts with reckless abandon – a guiltless pleasure with no consequences; although, I have discovered that if I hike more than 12 hours, something amazing and unexpected happens – I get tired of the chocolate and peanuts. That’s something that has never happened in the other, civilized part of my life. It’s one of those indescribable mysteries that can happen in the mountains.

After breakfast I took off on another excursion – a seven mile hike up Bear Creek Trail to Welch Ridge and High Rocks. Melissa and John had decided to lounge around the campsite and attend to three essential campsite chores: eating, reading, and napping. Through self-discipline and sheer determination they managed to accomplish all three in the seven hours I was gone.

I didn’t necessarily expect High Rocks to be the most dramatic spot in the mountains because I don’t think there is a “most dramatic spot” in the Smokies. There are numerous great spots, and I don’t waste my time debating which one is the very best. However, it did seem that High Rocks could be one of the most isolated spots in the park – a site rarely visited even by avid hikers. It’s not a famous or dominant peak; although it is high, almost 5,200’. It is too far from any roads for it to be the destination of a reasonable day hike, the shortest route being a 10 mile (one way) walk from the Road to Nowhere. Twenty miles is beyond the upper limit for a day hike for most folks.

And, High Rocks is not really “on the way” to anything famous. It’s sort of on the way to Hazel Creek; although it’s near just one of several trails to Hazel. Actually, High Rocks is at the end of a half-mile, dead-end, side trail off Welch Ridge Trail, so to go there you have to intend to go there. All I can say is, I didn’t see anyone else at High Rocks or on the trails.

So I set off on this cloudy, cool, almost-drizzly morning. I soon arrived at Bear Creek Trail and began ascending the eastern slope of Welch Ridge with Bear Creek flowing next to the trail. Like many trails in the Smokies this one is wide and smooth because it was once a railroad bed for the lumber companies of the early 1900s. The fall colors were vivid – mostly yellows at these lower elevations, with brilliant reds and corals kicking in at the higher elevations. I love all the colors, even brown, but there’s something about the reds and corals that just make me stop and stare, as if God had just invented them and was showing them to me to see what I thought about the idea.

I paused for a second to tell Him that I was impressed and pleased. [To be continued]

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Forney Creek (Part 2 of 4)

My daughter and her husband and I wound along the twisting two-lane to the shores of Fontana Lake. We had my kayak and canoe in tow as we passed a variety of cabins, houses, and trailers in varying stages of disrepair. This is by no means a resort community. It’s one of those poor-to-working-class, rural areas that has a lot of simple, local character. Every home has a pickup truck in the yard, and it would not be a bit out of place to see a dead bear hanging from a tree branch and a pen of Plott hounds out behind the house. I’m pretty sure they all have indoor plumbing; although, an outhouse wouldn’t be a complete surprise either.

We easily stored two night’s worth of camping gear in our canoe and kayak and paddled about a mile west down the main channel and about two miles up the Forney Creek channel. When the water finally ended, we were at the moveable mouth of Forney Creek. It was mid-October, so the water was low, and the mouths of the rivers flowing out of the park and into the lake were covered with a lot of soft, muddy, bare land that would be underwater during the spring and summer. When the water levels are high from the spring rains, the mouth of the river will move fifty yards or more upstream to the edge of the forest.

So the most pleasant time to visit is the summer because you can paddle right to the edge of the forest. As soon as you step out of your boat you are surrounded by trees, shrubs, and flowers. By October the water level has dropped and you step out into a moist, lunar landscape. It’s just one more reminder that this lake, as beautiful as it is, is human-made and human-controlled. If scenic beauty were the main point, TVA would keep it full, but the phrase “scenic beauty” probably doesn’t show up in TVA’s mission statement. It’s all about power – electrical power, that is. The beauty of the lake is merely a pleasant by-product.

That used to offend me until I realized an inescapable fact: most of life’s necessities and conveniences have been manipulated by humans. Homes, clothes, and roads come most immediately to mind, but even our food and pets are joint efforts between nature and people. Corn began as a grass that we selected and cross-pollinated, resulting in the large ears of corn we have today. Or, your dog started out as a wolf or jackal that was genetically molded by people who wanted a domesticated canine for some specific purpose, such as herding sheep, retrieving ducks, or chasing badgers. That’s why there are no packs of wild poodles roaming the mountains and no “Do Not Feed The Dachshunds” signs in the backcountry. Like corn, those creatures don’t exist in the wild. They were created by humans for humans (although, I’m struggling to understand the purpose of poodles). Human ingenuity is often amazing, sometimes beneficial, and on rare occasions beautiful, as in the case of art, poetry, and Fontana Lake.

Even though this was prime leaf season, we saw only three trucks and trailers at the boat ramp and just one boat on the lake this afternoon. All the leaf watchers were clogging Cades Cove and Newfound Gap Road, as well as the roads in Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg, Townsend, and Cherokee. The sky was a crisp, robin egg blue, so at least all those folks stuck in traffic had a nice day to do it in. In my more generous moments, I feel a tinge of sympathy for them because at least they tried to get outdoors and enjoy something without wires, silicon chips, and electricity, but that sympathy is quickly overshadowed by the sense of superiority that arises in the heart of anyone who has inside information about the secret workings of life, the best way to see the colors of a Smoky Mountain autumn being just one salient example.

The Lower Forney Creek campsite was less than a quarter mile from the mouth of the creek, so we brought a little more equipment than we normally would – a couple of folding camp chairs being the main additions to our sparse backpacking paraphernalia. Setting up camp was familiar and pleasant. My small tent smelled of dirt, leaves, and smoke, which is exactly how a tent should smell. Whenever I set up my tent, I think of where the dirt in it came from, and I spend a moment reliving that previous trip. This time it was Hazel Creek in May. It was the fishing trip that got blown out by a full day of rain. As I recall, I caught one small brook trout on a Parachute Adams, probably a size 16, in Sugar Fork before the water got too muddy and high. [To be continued]

The Road To Nowhere (Part 1 of 4)

I’ve never walked to Forney Creek because there are lots of places in the Smokies you can walk to, but there are only a few places to paddle to – and Forney Creek is one of them. So I paddle a kayak or canoe across Fontana Lake to the mouth of Forney.

Walking to Forney is perhaps a little easier than paddling. In fact, it was almost incredibly easy. We all came within a whisker of being able to drive to Forney and beyond. Just go to Bryson City and find Lakeview Drive – also known as the Road to Nowhere – and drive to its end, which is abrupt. I’m pleased that the Road to Nowhere goes by that name rather than the Road to Forney Creek or the Road to Hazel Creek. In fact, I suppose my favorite kind of road is the kind that goes to Nowhere rather than Somewhere, preferably the Middle of Nowhere.

Why is it called the Road to Nowhere rather than the Road to Somewhere?

The original boundaries of the park when it was established in 1934 were very similar to what they are today. The main exception was in this southwest quadrant of the park. The original boundary was a few miles north of its present location. The Little Tennessee River, Forney Creek, Hazel Creek and Eagle Creek were, for the most part, not in the park. In 1943 Fontana Dam was built, flooding the Little Tennessee River from Fontana Dam east to Bryson City. It also flooded the road that ran along the banks of the Little Tennessee, connecting Bryson City with points west. When the Federal government annexed the north shore of the new Fontana Lake, thus expanding the park’s boundary all the way to Fontana Lake, it promised to build a new road through this annexed portion to replace the road that now lay at the bottom of the lake. This new road would not only provide access to Fontana and beyond, it would also provide access to the numerous family cemeteries scattered along the creeks flowing out of the park and into Fontana Lake. These are the small cemeteries that you’ll bump into whenever you hike along a river in the Smokies.

The road construction finally began in the 1960s and extended about five miles into the park from Bryson City, across Noland Creek, but it stopped about two miles short of Forney Creek. Construction was stopped due to budget problems and environmental concerns; various studies were done and proposals were made in the subsequent years, and the project is now in the final stages of being completely abandoned. The Lakeview Drive will forever go to Nowhere In Particular. Forney Creek will remain a three mile walk from the end of the road.

Most folks nowadays are glad that the road project was aborted. About the only people who are upset are those who have loved ones in those cemeteries and those folks who think that the government ought to keep its promises. Under normal circumstances, keeping promises is a good thing, but we’ve all been in situations where we’ve made a stupid promise and later regretted it. This, I think, was one of those times. For many years I was worried that the government might actually keep its promise to build the road, thus ruining one of the great wilderness areas in the eastern US.

If it had been completed I would have grieved long and deep for the loss. Generally, I think the government should keep its promises; however, in this case, the promise was so potentially useless and destructive that I just hoped and prayed that the government would do what it often does – promise and not deliver. And, thankfully, that’s exactly what happened. In retrospect, as I think about politicians’ track record in keeping their promises, I don’t know why I was worried.

Why go to Forney Creek? Well, other than the fact that it’s a wild, pretty place, the fishing is pretty good. Another benefit is that it provides a great starting point for a hike to one of the most isolated, least visited spots in the park – High Rocks. [To be continued]