Thursday, February 7, 2013

Spring Begins Early at Fort Harry Falls (Part 4 of 5)

The little valley leading to Fort Harry Falls is short and easy – rocky, mossy, and open. There is some rhododendron on the upper, side slopes of this valley but the lower parts near the creekbed are blessedly open and tangle-free. The incline is a bit steep in a few places, so there’s always the possibility of a slip and tumble, but these steep spots are never more than a few yards in duration. It’s the kind of walk you can do in tennis shoes (during warm weather) but probably not sandals. There will be a few moments of heavy breathing, but you’ll sweat only if you are visiting during summer or you are wearing a bit too much clothing on a cold, winter day.

I suppose there could be a rattlesnake or two in among the rocks during the green months – it has that sort of jumbled, snakey look to it – so if it weren’t winter, I’d be poking carefully with my walking stick and looking to see if anything slithers or rattles. In other words, the best time to visit this spot is probably November to March, when those cold-blooded critters will be cloistered away, doing whatever it is they do during the cold months, trying not to freeze to death.

I trudged and slid up the valley through the snow and arrived at the base of the cliffs in just 15 minutes. These cliffs are perhaps 60 or 80 feet high and are mostly vertical and even past vertical so the water really does fall rather than cascade. During warmer, less-slippery months it’s possible to crawl and slide to the thin veils of water at the base of the falls, but today there was too much ice both above and below. But not enough ice to form a solid column of merged stalactites and stalagmites of frozen water. The ice column I had hoped for was not to be.

Instead, there were hundreds of five or six foot, dangling icicles scattered across the upper reaches of the cliffs and a ragged, car-sized block of ice at the bottom. Even without an ice column, it’s an impressive scene – the kind of place you vow to come back to during other seasons to become better acquainted. After all, every outdoor lover needs a secret spot with which he or she is comfortable and well acquainted; the kind of spot you could show to a friend or keep all to yourself. And either way, you’d feel no guilt.

Perhaps the most impressive part of the day was caused by the fact that this is a south-facing valley. Today’s temperatures were gradually rising into the 40s, and the mid-day sun was shining directly on the cliffs. So the melt was on. Icicles were dripping, then cracking and falling onto the ice slab and rocks below. Most of the falling ice was thin icicles that would clatter and tinkle like delicate wind chimes as they cracked and shattered. Occasionally a thin sheet of ice, maybe the size of a piece of notebook paper, would float and flutter down – something I had never seen before. I didn’t see any of the large icicles break and crash, but during my walk back to my truck I heard a couple of shotgun blasts that were made not by guns but by large icicles crashing and exploding on impact on the rocks below.

I’ve seen the same thing happen on sunny, winter days at Alum Cave Bluff just a few miles up the road. It’s an intimidating moment – even more so if you’ve just walked through the line of fire without thinking about it. You noticed all the shattered pieces of ice on the ground as you followed the trail into or out of the huge, rock alcove, but you didn’t think about what all that broken ice meant. A few moments later, when you see or hear a huge icicle fall and shatter, you realize that you’ve barely avoided being crushed by a hundred pound spike of ice. Timing is everything: in comedy and, apparently, in cheating death.   [To be continued.]