Wednesday, April 30, 2014

On the Precipice of Molly Creek Cascade (Pt 5 of 6)

On our wet, sloshing hike down Molly Creek, after passing four or five small waterfalls, we began to wonder where we were and where Molly Creek Cascade was and whether we had already passed it. We both wondered aloud if perhaps the adventure of this off-trail hike would have to be its own reward. Maybe the cascade was so unimpressive that we had already seen it without realizing it. Maybe it was special only because it was a secret, not because of its grandeur. We were both okay with that. The hike had been a challenging, interesting experience so far. We were deep in the Smokies wilderness, on a creek that humans rarely laid eyes on. Yeah, that would be reward enough.

Then, without any noisy fanfare, we got to the bottom of one of these 10 foot falls and looked downstream once again, and we could see only the tops of trees. It was an impressive, even intimidating, sight. Peeking over the edge (I was on my hands and knees with water running under me), we saw a long, rocky, cascading descent. Looking over the edge of a cascade such as this is not very safe, but there we were, at the top. What else could we do? So, we crouched near the precipice and stared, pretty dang proud of ourselves. The challenge of this off-trail trek (which had now lasted four hours) would have been an adequate reward. Seeing a rarely-seen cascade would be a nice bonus. The fact that Molly Creek Cascade really is impressive made us feel almost unworthy of the honor of being there and seeing it.

Getting to the bottom of the cascade was hard work. It was too long and steep to crawl down as we had done with the others, so we worked our way to the surrounding slopes and crawled up, around, over, and through the dirt, boulders, fallen trees, and the rhododendron. It was a wild scene in a wild place. I was too focused on the hike and the cascade to grasp the significance of it all, but now I can see that this trip was everything that I want in a wilderness experience. I’d rank it as one of my best experiences in the Smokies.

One reason this trip was special was simply that it was off-trail. Even if we had gone nowhere in particular, the fact that we were walking (and crawling, sliding, wading, and falling) away from the trails was supremely satisfying. Anything resembling a trail usually turned out to be an animal trail leading to places not fit for humans. The off-trail part of the trip was more physically challenging than a typical hiking trip.

I’m trying not to exaggerate the difficulty of this hike. The physical act was tiring, but it wasn’t something that is beyond the physical capabilities of an average guy in decent, but not great, shape. There were some uncomfortable moments, but nothing life-threatening. We got wet and dirty, but no broken bones. In a sense, there’s no dramatic story to tell. We weren’t Stanley and Livingstone (more like Laurel and Hardy, really). We were just two guys who had heard about a secret spot in the backcountry that might be worth a visit, so we spent a day in the wilderness to see for ourselves. There were, I suppose, a few risks, and a couple of slips and falls could have resulted in broken bones. But the main features of the entire affair were sweat, a few aches and pains, and a modest sense of adventure.

In fact, the biggest risk was the potential confrontation with the Federal bureaucracy. A few weeks before this hike, I had asked one of the rangers in a visitor center about off-trail hiking in the park – were there any special regulations or restrictions? In the process of talking to me, he commented that he had been a ranger in the Smokies for over 10 years, and in all that time no one had ever asked him about off-trail hiking. So, either not many people hike off-trail, or those that do don’t bother to ask the rangers about it. I myself was tempted not to ask, being afraid that he might say there was paperwork and permission involved. The National Park Service is part of the Federal government, after all – the same people who brought us the mother of all paperwork – the Internal Revenue Service. Happily, I asked and there was no paperwork and no condescending lecture from the ranger. Our little chat was actually rather pleasant. [To be continued.]

Friday, April 4, 2014

Down the Creek and Over the Falls (Part 4 of 6)

A miscalculation about the opening of the Cades Cove Loop Road (the road opening is delayed until 10 am on Saturdays and Wednesdays during the summer) had forced us to begin our day hike on a trail outside of Cades Cove. This was the first pin to fall, creating a chain reaction that eventually forced us to bushwhack down Molly Creek. Because the route down a creek is more obvious than the route up a creek, we wouldn’t get lost. And we didn’t. But that doesn’t mean the hike will be easy. It wasn’t.

Because the rhododendron pushed us up the slope, we couldn’t always see and hear the creek very well. We didn’t know how big and loud the Molly Creek Cascade would be. Could we expect to hear it when we got there? We didn’t know for sure, so we had to rely on one of our gadgets, an altimeter. Hoping that the 1931 map was reasonably accurate, we decided to drop down off the slope around the 3,500 feet elevation point. We hoped that the cascade would be somewhere between 2,500 and 3,500 feet. Consequently, starting at about 3,500 feet, we hiked in the creek.

Our first hour in the creek was slow. Rhododendron hung low over the water, blocking our path. We stepped carefully on rocks and in shallow spots. We both had good, waterproof boots on, so our feet stayed dry. But the hiking was slow.

Did I mention that by this point it was the middle of the afternoon? We had already hiked up to the AT, hiked east to Rocky Top, backtracked to Spence Field and continued another couple of miles to Russell Field. A total of about 11 miles, plus a couple of miles down Molly Creek. We were beginning to wonder how many more hours this trip would take. Hiking out of the forest after dark on a trail was a bit of a problem; hiking after dark off-trail could be very bewildering. So, we needed to speed up, but couldn’t.

At least, we couldn’t until we got our feet wet.

At some point in the afternoon, we both managed to step into the creek in a knee-deep hole. Obviously, that was not life threatening, but it did mean that water had now poured in over the top of our boots. Those waterproof boots that had been keeping water out was now holding the water in. Our feet were soaked.

Wet feet are not really a good thing on a hike. However, getting our feet wet did give us one less thing to worry about. We no longer had to step carefully to keep our feet dry. Wet feet gave us the freedom to wade in the creek with reckless abandon. So that’s what we did. Knee deep water? Just slog on through. Don’t waste time looking for rocks along the edges. Just charge ahead. A waist-deep run with huge boulders on both sides? Don’t get out of the creek and climb up the slope above the boulders – just wade through the middle, making sure you don’t wade so deeply that your pack gets wet. Needless to say, our pace sped up dramatically from that point on.

Three hours after we had begun following the creek at Russell Field, we began to encounter a series of small waterfalls, each maybe 10 feet high. We wondered if each one was Molly Creek Cascade or if putting them all together was the cascade. None of them really looked like a “cascade” to us, but we did stop below each one and take a picture, just in case.

These small waterfalls also slowed us down because they were at points in the river where the creek gorge was steep-walled on the sides. It was almost impossible to get out of the creek and hike around these falls. So, we took the path of least resistance and broke the cardinal rule of Smokies safety – we crawled down the wet rocks in and along the edges of these small waterfalls, keeping all four hands and feet on the rocks at all times. It was wet, slippery, and tiring. And moderately dangerous, or stupid, whichever synonym you prefer. It was also fun, as stupid or dangerous things sometimes are, if you survive. At that moment we were living examples of the joke about a red-neck’s famous, last words: “Hey ya’ll. Watch this!” [To be continued.]