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]