Wednesday, June 16, 2010
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]
“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]