Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Land of Sharp Edges: “Park at Porters…” (Part 3 of 9)

While my three hiking partners and I had been talking for months about exploring Lester Prong all the way to the base of the Jumpoff, Greg Harrell was the first to actually do it. Of the four of us, he’s the one most likely to hike off-trail by himself. He may even prefer to go by himself; although, he hasn’t come right out and said so, probably because none of us have come right out and asked. It’s just generally understood among us that on any given Sunday, Greg may show up at church with tales of a Saturday hike that took him to some place that none of us had yet explored. He has topo maps at home with mysterious blue lines that he’s drawn up and down and across and along dozens of obscure creeks and ridges. It’s his three dimensional, Smokies “to do” list. To keep him from doing all these new trips without us, we’ve had to pressure him into solemn pacts with us – promises that none of us will explore Eagle Rocks or the Cat Stairs or some unnamed ridge until all of us are able to go. But we don’t have a pact for every blue line, so he takes off without us every now and then.

Greg seems to have a special “death wish” gene that the rest of us don’t have. The fact that he visited the Jumpoff by himself suggests the presence of this genetic defect. The fact that he went in February confirms it. Now we’ve all done February hikes before, and they are usually uncomfortably fabulous. You just have to put yourself in the right frame of mind by embracing the cold weather as a point of pride rather than discomfort. However, the thing that puts Greg’s initial Jumpoff trip in a special category is that much of it involves a wet, river hike – and by “wet” I mean hiking in the river. Not near the river. Not by the river. In the river, ankle to knee to waist deep. Yep, there’s definitely a genetic defect lurking under the surface. If it weren’t such dangerously bizarre behavior, he’d have our respect for such foolishness.

Like most of his hikes, the description of this one begins like this: “Park at Porters Creek ….” Greg seems to enjoy the fact that you have to hike almost four miles to the end of Porters Creek Trail before the real adventure begins. From the end of this trail there’s an old path that leads even further along Porters Creek, crossing it several times, and eventually crossing Lester Prong which flows into Porters from the southwest.

Actually, there are a couple of old paths, and the one that parallels and crosses Porters Creek is the less visible of the two. In August, 2009, a 70 year old, experienced hiker parked at the Porters Creek trailhead, hiked the four miles on Porters Creek trail and intended to continue on this old path along Porters Creek. Somehow he managed to lose this path, and instead of working his way up Porters Creek, he ended up lost and on the top of Porters Mountain, where he camped for several days until the search and rescue team found him.

My partners and I have been up this route many times. In fact, it was one of the first off-trail trips that we discovered in the Smokies. While I don’t know exactly how the hiker got off track and lost, I can visualize several spots where it could have happened. The most likely is at the end of the official trail, by the Porters Flats backcountry campsite, also known as Campsite #31. At this spot, the old path continues to the left, but within about a minute there’s a barely-visible split. At this split, the less-obvious, less-visible path to the right leads along the creek. The more-obvious, more-visible path bears to the left and heads up the western slope of Porters Mountain. After sending you up this slope, this trail quietly, calmly disappears. If you continue upslope, hoping to rediscover the trail, you’ll end up in the rhododendron thickets and rocky ridge of Porters Mountain. Without a good map and compass, at this point you’ll probably be lost. On the other hand, if you can figure out where you are, you can push your way along the ridgecrest to Porters Gap on the Appalachian Trail. I’ve done that trip once. I don’t intend to do it again. We weren’t lost, but we were roughed up a bit. It took over a week for my cuts and bruises to heal.

Of course, today we’d be avoiding Porters Mountain. We’d follow Porters Creek along the old, barely-visible path. Staying on this old path will lead you up the rough, slippery creekbed of Porters Creek to the Appalachian Trail on the main ridgecrest, near Dry Sluice Gap. But things get even rougher and more interesting if you hop off this path and slosh your way up Lester Prong because Lester Prong leads eventually to the Jumpoff.
One of the many beautiful cascades on this Porters/Lester trip.
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Here's the important detail to avoid unnecessary wandering: At the small wooden #31 marker at the end of the official trail, bear to the left. (Right goes to the campsite.) Once you bear left at the wooden marker, you'll almost immediately cross a small gully (sometimes water, sometime dry). Immediately on the other side of the small gully, turn right. Don't go straight. That's the same mistake the guy who got lost on Porters Mountain made in 2009.  So, if you'll turn right after the gully, you'll be on a pretty well-worn path that is the Porters Creek manway. If you'll follow the path, you'll be fine. There will be places where you won't be sure where to go as the path gets light or crosses the creek. At those places, look around for the small rock cairns. They are always exactly where and when you need them. It's a great hike. After about 45 minutes or so there's a quasi-obvious split in the creek. The right is Lester Prong. The left is Porters Manway (aka Dry Sluice Manway) which leads up to the AT near Dry Sluice Gap.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Land of Sharp Edges (Part 2 of 9)

Little cliques of hikers have been giving their own names to their personal stomping grounds for years. For example, I’ve heard some folks speak of the Real Charlies Bunion, the Tourist Charlies Bunion, the Boobs, and No Name Ridge – all names that have no meaning outside the insiders of those groups. Because this process of naming happens so naturally, I’d bet the farm that this same thing has been going on since the beginning of time. Ancient hunter-gatherer tribes undoubtedly encountered rivers and waterfalls and gave them their own, common-sense names. If a tribe’s first encounter with a watering hole resulted in killing a panther, then that watering hole might forever be Dead Panther Spring. On the other hand, if the panther got the better end of the deal, it might henceforth be known as Dead Hunter Spring. Either way, the names evolve out of common use based on real life (Panther Springs, Mill Creek) with an occasional flourish of creativity (Jumpoff) or humor (Charlies Bunion).

Giving permanent, official names to rivers and mountains is a relatively new phenomenon in American history which began only as outsiders in the form of explorers, scientists, and government officials encountered these remote places. These ambassadors of civilization had to standardize the names so they would know which rivers and ridges they were talking about amongst themselves for the purposes of navigation, boundaries, and ownership. You can’t make a good map of your domain without names for the places you are mapping. In the Smokies, this process didn’t happen until the 1930s as the old pioneer names were replaced by a different, official set of titles, and apparently only those groups of hikers or hunters who are appointed as advisory committees to governmental boards will ever have the chance to emblazon their place names on an official map.

So “Jumpoff” provides a vivid description of this sheer, eastern face of Mount Kephart. It’s an appropriate name, but keep in mind that “jump off” is a colorful description, not a suggestion – a noun, not a verb. Declarative, not imperative.

Sharp Edges: East of Jumpoff

The view from the Jumpoff is dramatic and unique. For those who think of the Smokies as a land of smooth, green mountains… okay, you are about 95% correct. But to see some of that other 5%, go to the Jumpoff and look east toward Charlies Bunion and the Sawteeth, into the area that could easily be called the Land of Sharp Edges. Of course, the rocky outcrop of Charlies Bunion is a centerpiece of this section, but the ridge leading up to it as well as the parallel ridges beyond it are battered and scarred. While this is a great view in any season, a summer view will be the most visually distinctive, allowing you to see the contrasts of green foliage versus the brown-gray, rocky scars.

View East from Jumpoff

From the other side of the Land of Sharp Edges, just beyond Charlies Bunion, looking back at Mount Kephart is equally impressive. How long has Mount Kephart looked like this, like a deformed giant? Since birth? Or has its entire eastern side been scooped off and deposited downstream in more recent millennia? Walking up the watershed where the debris would have to flow, there are many tangled trees and boulders from recent landslides, but there’s not half a mountain in these creeks. Whether it was a sudden catastrophe or a long, slow process, visualizing the huge piece that is missing from this mountain is mind-boggling.

While the view from the Jumpoff to the ridges of the east is best during the summer, the view from those ridges west toward the Jumpoff is best after a light dusting of snow or ice. This whitens the moss and shrubs that cover the upper half of the Jumpoff and gives it a Yosemite look, like a wall of bare granite. This is the perspective that shows how truly rugged Kephart’s eastern face really is.