Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Up the Creek, Almost Clueless (Part 1 of 6)

Our destination felt like it was unknown, but in fact it was just the opposite. It was precisely known: 35° 33’ 44” N and 83° 48’ 2” W. But my hiking partner, Greg Harrell, and I didn’t know exactly where on our map those coordinates lay, so it felt like we didn’t know anything about Molly Creek Cascade. It seemed safe to assume that Molly Creek Cascade was on Molly Creek, so we weren’t completely ignorant. The most obvious starting point would be the spot where Molly Creek crossed Forge Creek Road on the southwest corner of Cades Cove. The problem was that this waterfall was not on any recent map that we could find, and there was no clear trail along Molly Creek. We planned to bushwhack (aka “off trail hiking”) up Molly Creek until we found the cascade. Sounds simple enough, right?

You’ve probably learned by now that nothing in life is ever as quick and easy as it seems: computers, tax forms, fast food. You estimate how long it will take, then double it. The same thing applies to bushwhacking in the Smokies. Make your best estimate of the time, energy, and obstacles involved, then double it, then add some sort of injury, equipment failure, topographic oddity, or good, ol’ stupidity, and you’ll be in the right ballpark.

Our hike to Molly Creek Cascade would have several challenges. First, we knew exactly where we would start. The point where Molly Creek crossed Forge Creek Road was clearly indicated on the map. No problem. However, we didn’t know exactly where our destination was. We knew the general area, but as Molly Creek twisted and wound its way down the slope from the main ridgecrest, we didn’t know which twist or turn held Molly Creek Cascade. So, our compass couldn’t tell us the precise direction we needed to follow.

Second, our intended route to Molly Creek Cascade would be uphill. There might not be countless forks in the river, but there would probably be several. The shorter the hike to the cascades, the less likely that we’d encounter many forks in the river. A longer hike would mean more forks, thus more chances for a wrong decision. And we didn’t know whether our hike would be one mile or five, or somewhere in between.

We’d do the best we could in trying to figure out where we were and where we were going. We’d try to make the right decisions at each fork in the river by following what appeared to be the larger of the two. If we encountered a split in the river with two equal creeks flowing together, then we’d stop, look at the map, eat a Snickers bar, and discuss our options. If still undecided, we’d eat another Snickers bar under the assumption that chocolate is the solution to many of life’s problems.

That was our initial plan. But then, with the help of the folks in the Smokies Backcountry Office, we found a website that told us not only the exact coordinates of the cascade but also the location based on an old, 1931 map. According to the map, the cascade was right on the 3,000 foot contour line. We had several useful gadgets: specifically, a GPS and an altimeter. If we got in a bind we could use one or both of these to get oriented and find the cascade. Greg and I are both old-school, map & compass guys, so using barometric pressure and satellites to find our way seemed like cheating. John Muir and Daniel Boone didn’t need those electronic toys, so why should we? (The fact that those guys knew what they were doing, but we didn’t, hadn’t yet occurred to us.)

So with a guilty conscience, we entered the coordinates of the cascade into the GPS, and stuffed it and the altimeter into Greg’s daypack. We didn’t want to resort to using them, but they were there if we got desperate. They were our dirty, little secret.

[To be continued. ]
On the website only: The confession is that I’ve withheld the real name of the creek and cascade. It’s not Molly. The clue is that everything else in this and subsequent articles about M--- Creek Cascade is true and accurate (including the fact that the world really would be a better place if, when confronted with a problem, we’d just sit down and eat some chocolate).