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]