Monday, April 23, 2012

Raven Fork (Part 1 of 5)

This trip started in October, 1952. That’s when National Geographic published an article entitled “Pack Trip Through the Smokies.” I didn’t run across this article until about 55 years later as I was searching for old articles about the Smokies. I had been on an off-trail jag, looking for old trails from the past that were no longer maintained. This article described several trails that do still exist and one that doesn’t. The one that no longer exists led to Three Forks Pool on Raven Fork in the southeast quarter of the park, which the article described as “the most beautiful spot in the Smokies.” Of course, just about any article you read about any national park will describe its location of interest as the most beautiful spot, so you have to take all these claims with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, it all sounded interesting.

I was able once again to find a little bit of information in my old 1973 edition of the Sierra Club’s Hiker’s Guide to the Smokies. This guide had been my Smokies bible back in the 1970s and 80s when I was a young, rabid backpacker. I have since replaced it with updated hiking guides, but in recent years it has resurfaced as a treasure chest containing a few hidden jewels. The particular gem I found this time was the Raven Fork Trail, the route of the wilderness backpacking trip described in the 1952 article.

The Heart of the Raven Fork Wilderness

This trail no longer exists on recent maps and guide books. (It barely existed in 1952.) In fact, my most recent hiking guide specifically says that there is NOT a trail along Raven Fork. That sounded a bit suspicious to me. It’s one thing to simply not mention the presence or lack of a trail. It’s entirely different to specifically point out that there is no trail along Raven Fork. If Phyllis came home and asked me what I’d done all day, I’d be stupid to say, “Well, one thing I didn’t do was eat all the Oreos and take a three hour nap on the couch.” She’d know immediately that I’d been up to no good instead of cutting the grass; although the fact that the grass wasn’t cut would have been her first clue. So, I strongly suspected that the guide book wasn’t telling the whole truth. Maybe it was helping the NPS to return the old trail to pure wilderness by promoting the idea that there’s not a trail. Yes, this had all the markings of government sanctioned disinformation. It was time to blow the lid off this cover-up!

My 1973 guide actually described Raven Fork Trail as a manway, not a trail. In other words, it still existed as a faint trail, being maintained not by the NPS but by the feet of outdoorsmen who fished and hiked along the banks of this fine stream. So it was certainly possible that 35 years later the manway could be completely overgrown. On the other hand, 35 years worth of fishermen could keep it trampled and visible, so on a warm July afternoon Greg Harrell and I took off for Big Cove Road on the Cherokee Indian Reservation. This road would lead us to the Round Bottom parking area where our excursion would begin on Beech Gap Trail (called Hyatt Bald Trail in some books because it goes to Hyatt Bald, not Beech Gap; makes sense.).  

Dashed line across Breakneck Ridge
and down to Three Forks Pool

Some of life’s mundane details kept us from leaving Jefferson City until 5 pm, so we didn’t get on the trail until 8 pm, and the last hour of our two-hour hike to McGee Spring campsite was in the dark using flashlights. The moon was full so, although it was bright, it was too low in the sky to provide much light during the first hour or two of night. After setting up our tents in the dark, we had a quick bite to eat and crawled in for the night. [To be continued.]