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