Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Most Beautiful Spot in the Smokies? (Part 4 of 5)

It took about two hours for Greg Harrell and me to work our way along Breakneck Ridge and down its north slope to Three Forks Pool on Raven Fork. Three Forks is a pleasant spot in the river where two small creeks converge just as they flow into the main branch. Here the terrain flattens just enough to slow the river’s flow and to provide a flat, riverside area to rest or camp. Actually, camping here is now illegal, but that doesn’t seem to have completely deterred everyone. There were several campfire rings and small piles of firewood nearby – remnants of small acts of civil disobedience. Or, just spots where some guys decided to flaunt federal law and play hide-and-seek with the rangers. It’s a nice spot, but I wouldn’t call it the most beautiful spot in the Smokies as the old National Geographic article had done.

In fact, it was here that Greg and I decided that we would start our Top 1,000 list – our list of the 1,000 “best places in the Smokies.” The point is that there is no single spot that is the best or prettiest or whatever, and anyone who claims there is needs to get out more and look around. There are hundreds or thousands of river valleys, pools, waterfalls, heath balds, grassy balds, beech gaps, meadows, cliffs, boulder dens, rhododendron thickets, hardwood forests, log cabins, rock walls, old churches, mountain top panoramas, wildflowers, and spruce forests that could all qualify as the most beautiful sights, but none are better than the others. Don’t even try to come up with a single best location. Just put them all in the top 1,000 and move on. So, is Three Forks Pool the most dramatic, impressive, beautiful spot in the Smokies? Absolutely not, because there’s no such thing, but Three Forks, like many other bends in the river, is in the top 1,000. It’s tied for first with 999 others.

But Three Forks is special because it’s so hard to get to. In fact, that is probably the secret ingredient that qualifies some sites for special recognition within the Top 1,000. Knowing that you are enjoying a spot that only a handful of people see each year is not only good for the ego (“We walked four hours to get here. How many people would do that?”), it’s also good for the soul. The stillness is somehow stiller, the wildness is wilder, and the isolation is that healthy kind of loneliness that you get when you separate yourself from the pack because you are following a different drummer, taking a path less travelled. In this case, literally a path less travelled, or no path at all. There are reasons why people use phrases like “off the beaten path” or “the road less travelled” to describe their great, solitary, life-changing experiences.

The route we took from our car at Round Bottom up and over Breakneck Ridge to Three Forks takes a total of 3 to 4 hours. However, because we started our day at McGee Springs campsite, we were less than two hours into our hike when we arrived at the river. After lounging and fishing (Greg caught 3 brook trout and one brown on a Thunderhead dry fly) for about an hour, we were ready for part two: Raven Fork. We hoped to find remnants of the old Raven Fork trail leading us downstream for about 4 miles down to the Enloe Creek trail and campsite. The fact that there had still been a light trail across Breakneck Ridge was encouraging because the river would probably be more heavily travelled.

To make a long story short, if more people travel along the banks of the river, we weren’t able to prove it. We followed a faint trail out of the old (illegal) campsite at Three Forks for 15 or 20 minutes. It then disappeared into the river, never to emerge again. No pieces of blue tape. No unnatural openings in the riverside bushes. No worn trail. No government cover-up.

Of course, there could have been a trail. On those hikes which we do find an old trail, there is usually no clue to its presence until we step on to it. It makes such a small dent in the underbrush that you can be standing three feet away without seeing it. I suppose that’s good news because you can push your way through a thicket of briers or rhody with the feeling that you are nowhere close to the old trail, only to suddenly find that you are standing on it. Although, I suspect that it’s just as common to step on and across the old trail without realizing it. Or, to bushwhack your way almost to the trail only to give up just a couple of feet shy of your destination. That may have happened to us on Raven Fork, but of course we don’t really know how close we got to the old trail that may or may not still exist.

So we walked along and in the river. [To be continued.]