Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Relentless Rhododendron (Part 3 of 6)

Sometimes plans change, and due to stupidity on my part, our plans to explore Molly Creek had changed. The most significant change was that we’d now be bushwhacking down Molly Creek instead of up. We’d begin the last leg of our day hike by picking up the headwaters of Molly Creek near the Russell Field shelter and following it all the way down about five miles to Cades Cove. As it turns out, this was a blessing in disguise. Trying to stay on track going upstream would have been possible but very, very difficult. It’s surprisingly hard to find your way up a creek in a steep-sided ravine. You focus so much on just trying to walk on a steep slope through or around rhododendron thickets and on rugged game trails that you can easily head up a tributary without realizing that you’ve left the main branch. If you hike right next to the river, you can see the main branch and the tributaries, but you rarely hike right next to the river. More often, you are on the slope above the rhododendron thickets and river.

Okay, I’ve mentioned rhododendron thickets a couple of times. Let me just say it again. Rhododendron! That one word changes everything. When you look at the map, you think, “I’ll just stay by Molly Creek all the way up (or down). I’ll see the tributaries and avoid them. I’ll see the cascade when I get to it.” The flaw in that plan is rosebay rhododendron. This is the shrub that blooms beautiful white-pink flowers along the roadside in June and attracts thousands of sightseers. It also grows prolifically in river gorges and moist, shady ravines. It forms a heavy thicket called a rhododendron “hell” because that’s how you feel, what you go through, and what you say (repeatedly) while you are in it.


For off-trail hiking, the significance of rhododendron is that it pushes you away from the creek and up onto the slope. Not only is hiking along the side of a 45 degree slope physically taxing – giving you a distinctive set of blisters from what you are used to, mostly on your downhill foot – you also occasionally lose sight of the creek. If you are going down the creek, that may be okay. You’ll sometimes get too high on the slope and have to work your way down, but there’s no question about what you should do – go down. The slopes and creekbeds will funnel you down to the main river.

But if you are on the slope above the creek and going up, you aren’t in a good position to see the main branch of your creek. You might follow the route of your creek, only to find that you have accidentally followed a tributary that is leading you to the right or the left of the main branch. Of course, you might not actually discover this until you get to the top of the ridge three hours later and find that you are at Mollies Ridge, not Russell Field. Or, you may find that you don’t know where you are. This, by the way, is one good reason to stay on one side of the creek, rather than crossing back and forth. If you end up at the top, bewildered, you’ll know that you must have accidentally followed the wrong branch of the creek. If you spent the entire hike on the left side of the creek, then you’ll know that you followed a branch that led you to the left of your intended route. To get back to your intended spot on the ridge, hike along the ridge crest to the right.

So, if you are going up a creek, you’d like to stay near the creek to keep an eye on the main branch, but of course the rhododendron won’t allow that. You can try hiking along the edge of the creek which means slow progress as you climb and slip over rocks and logs. Unfortunately, the higher up you go, the smaller the creek gets, and the more the rhododendron reaches over the creek and blocks your path. One way or another, the rhododendron is going to exert its authority over you… just to remind you whose house you are in. You know how it is: “if you’re going to stay in my house, you’ll have to live by my rules.”  [To be continued.]