Monday, January 14, 2013

A Winter Day at Fort Harry Falls (Part 3 of 5)

After a week of on-again, off-again snow and constant sub-freezing temperatures, I hopped in my truck and drove to the Smokies. The plan was to visit an easily accessible wet cliff. Some folks call it Fort Harry Falls, but the word “falls” seems to me a bit of an exaggeration, although technically true. There is water, and it does fall, but the really impressive thing is the cliff that it falls over. After a week of frigid temps, I wondered if maybe the two or three spots where water slides over the edge might have formed a solid, ice column from top to bottom, much like Rainbow Falls on the other side of Mount LeConte during the depths of winter.

The road past the Sugarlands Visitors Center was icy, but the gate was open, so I popped my truck into four-wheel drive and headed up the road – past the Campbell Overlook, past the Chimneys Picnic Area, and past the Chimneys viewing pullouts. Midway between these Chimneys overlook pullouts and the first tunnel, there’s a small parking lot on the left side of the road. There are no special signs or markers, which gives visitors the sense that there’s nothing here – just a spot for slow drivers to pull over to let the hurried pass, or maybe a spot for an elderly couple to park their small camper and take a lunch break because all the good spots have been taken.

But there is something here – a small, nameless creek in a short, narrow valley. As far as I can tell, there’s no official hierarchy of terms in naming flowing water, but there does seem to be an informal rule of thumb: A river is bigger than a stream, a stream is bigger than a creek, and a creek is bigger than a branch. But what’s next? What do you call something that is smaller than a branch, something that barely stays wet during the dry months of late summer, and is so small that it’s hardly noticeable during the wet seasons? A rivulet? A trickle? A ravine?

I’ll call it a creekbed, even though Microsoft’s spellcheck on my computer insists that there’s no such word as “creekbed” yet the word “spellcheck” is perfectly fine. I’ll take that as one more shot in modern society’s war against the wilderness. Although, I may be overreacting just a bit.

So on this Saturday in early March, I parked at this obscure parking lot – the park service had been so kind as to clear this spot as it plowed the road after the recent snow. The sky was a crisp, deep blue. The trees were bare. I could almost see the Fort Harry Falls as I stepped off the pavement and into the snow, but not quite. These cliffs are about 200 yards from the road, making them easily accessible but not visible. They are so close, I didn’t even put on my day pack. All I carried was my walking stick to help me maneuver the snow-covered rocks and a knit hat that I’d sometimes wear and sometimes carry if I got too warm.

The snow in this tiny valley was pristine – a smooth, white, unblemished blanket about six inches deep. The only signs of activity were a few, small animal tracks. I have no skills at identifying these tracks, but the fact they were small, symmetrical, and tended to begin and end at trees would suggest red squirrels as the perpetrators.

During the green months, there’s a light path that leads up this valley. During the white months there’s no obvious path, but there is an obvious route: just follow the path of least resistance up the creekbed, which means you simply stay a few yards to the right or the left of the creekbed, going wherever the rocks and trees push you as you follow the water toward its source. 

This little valley has the same look that many creek valleys have in this part of the park – rocky, mossy, and open… as well as short and easy.  [To be continued.]