Monday, December 21, 2015

Rediscovering Drinkwater Pool

We almost lost Drinkwater Pool, which is a shame because it was one of Harvey Broome and the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club’s most cherished, wilderness sites. I developed an obsession with Drinkwater Pool a few years ago, but couldn’t seem to find anyone who knew exactly where it was. Harvey Broome wrote lovingly about it, and he’d drop occasional, unintentional hints about its location, be he never gave step-by-step directions. However, through a careful reading of Broome’s writing, plus several trips above Ramsey Cascades, and finally some pictures by Herbert Webster on the UT Libray’s website, we now know for sure (and are putting in writing) the location of Drinkwater Pool (and Drinkwater Gap and Buck Fork Cascade).

First, let’s start with the sources. The book Harvey Broome, Earthman is a big piece of the puzzle. The primary chapters of interest are: “Guyot at Last!” (p.11 ) and “Mount Guyot via Buck Fork Creek” (p.73) and “Buck Fork and Ramsay Prong” (p.81). Likewise, Broome’s book Out Under the Sky of the Great Smokies is equally important, particularly his entries for July, 1955 and July, 1957. There’s also a passing reference in Carlos Campbell’s book entitled Memories of Old Smoky. It would be helpful if you would read these passages by Broome either before or after (or both) reading the rest of this document.

In trying to make sense of the various descriptions of Drinkwater Pool, the actual trips up and down Ramsey Prong and Buck Fork were done by me and my most consistent hiking partner, Greg Harrell, from 2009 to 2012. Later in the process we received some help and confirmation from Ken Wise and his UTK library photo archives website.

Topography Above Ramsey Cascades
We know for certain that Drinkwater Pool is an exceptionally beautiful pool on Ramsey Prong, somewhere above Ramsey Cascades. Of course, there are thousands of beautiful pools on hundreds of creeks in the Smokies, so we can’t simply walk up Ramsey Prong and pick out the prettiest spot. It just doesn’t work that way. Nevertheless, it’s somewhere above Ramsey Cascades, so let’s talk a bit about the topography above RC.

Today there’s a rough path that leads to the top of RC. (Ramsey Cascades is the first/left star on the map below.) According to Broome’s July, 1955 entry in Out Under, the official trail used to end at the top of RC, not the bottom as it does today. Once at the top one must slosh upstream, either rock hopping your way up or simply giving in and wading. While there was once a trail that paralleled the river, it was barely discernible in the 1950s and has long since disappeared. About a half mile above Ramsey Cascades is another, nameless cascade. It is not as vertical as Ramsey Cascades; it consists of a long, tumbling series of plunge pools, one immediately after another, that rise over a hundred feet vertical over a distance of about two hundred feet horizontal. We’ll call this the Second Cascade. (The middle star on the map below.) [Our altimeter and GPS readings, which aren’t always highly accurate, tell us that this Second Cascade rises from 4,515’ to 4,645’ (about 130’ vertical) in about 200’ horizontal.] 

At the top of the Second Cascade, the creekbed levels out for a few hundred yards, after which there is a Third Cascade. (The third/right star.) [Our GPS readings indicate this Third Cascade begins about a quarter mile beyond the top of the Second Cascade.] This TC is not as consolidated as the Second Cascade. That is, it’s a series of plunge pools, but there is sometimes a bit more level creekbed between them – sometimes 40 or 50 feet apart. It’s not exactly a single cascade, but it is a series of adjacent plunges and terraces, so it’s easier to talk of them as a Third Cascade simply because they are strung together with a very clear beginning at the bottom and a very clear end where the creekbed levels out at the top. From here Ramsey Prong continues up to the Stateline Ridge near Mt. Guyot.

Notice also that about a mile south of Ramsey Prong is another river that runs parallel to it – Buck Fork. Buck Fork and Ramsey Prong flow down into the Middle Prong of the Pigeon River. The ridge running parallel and between Ramsey Prong and Buck Fork is Guyot Spur. If you look carefully at the map above you’ll see a low swag in Guyot Spur just below the “u” in Guyot. This gap is near the second/middle star. There’s also a swag (gap) in Guyot Spur near the third star, at the number “5125” near the “t” in Guyot. These gaps are important because Harvey Broome writes of “Drinkwater Gap” which is a gap in Guyot Spur near Drinkwater Pool. These two gaps in the spur are the two main candidates for Drinkwater Gap.

Making Sense of Terminology
A complicating factor in making sense of Broome’s references to DWP and its location in relation to these three cascades is the unusual, changing terminology that Broome uses. He often writes of “Ramsey Falls” and rarely if ever uses the name Ramsey Cascades. Other times he makes reference to “cascades” and “second cascade” and “upper cascades,” and there’s even a reference to “Buck Fork Cascades.” Let’s make sense of this terminology….

In the Earthman book, we find a chapter entitled “Mt. Guyot via Buck Fork Creek.” On the first page (p.73) of this 1928 hike description, there is a note by Anne Broome telling us several interesting pieces of information. First, what we today call Ramsey Prong was in 1928 called Buck Fork. This 1928 hike begins by hiking up the route of today’s road from Greenbrier Cove to the Ramsey Cascades trailhead, following the Middle Prong of the Little Pigeon (in 1928 called East Fork). Broome says, “Stay on the left side of the stream, now the Buck Fork, for approximately four miles more, until the trail crosses it to the right, just at the foot of Buck Fork Cascade. A few sentences later, Broome mentions the Wild Cherry Orchard (a section of today’s Ramsey Cascades trail), then he writes, “The Buck Fork Cascade is easily the climax of the trip.... Another half mile scramble [past Buck Fork Cascade]… brings one to the striking Drinkwater Pool.” In a footnote to this hike description, Anne Broome informs us that this hike up Buck Fork in 1928 is essentially today’s Ramsey Cascades trail. Broome’s Buck Fork of 1928 is today’s Ramsey Prong. Sometime in the 1930s, presumably as part of the many nomenclature changes that accompanied the creation of the national park, the old Buck Fork was renamed Ramsey Prong and the river just south of Ramsey Prong was given the name Buck Fork, as today’s maps show.

All this could easily lead us to assume that Buck Fork Cascade in the 1928 hike description is today’s Ramsey Cascades and that DWP is about a half mile beyond that. Probably not. Anne’s footnote also mentions that in 1928 the Buck Fork trail bypassed today’s Ramsey Cascades. (This is confirmed by Carlos Campbell in Memories on p.117 in which he says that in the early days (the 1920s), the footpath up this creek passed a few hundred yards to the north of today’s Ramsey Cascades. In fact, at that time the SMHC wasn’t even aware that Ramsey Cascades existed.) This means that the Buck Fork Cascade that Broome mentions as the highlight of the trip is not Ramsey Cascades but is instead either our Second Cascade or the Third Cascade. Having visited both the Second and Third Cascades several times, I can attest that the Second is the more dramatic of the two. I believe that our Second Cascade is the Buck Fork Cascade in Broome’s 1928 hike. If so, Drinkwater Pool is about a half mile beyond the Second Cascade. (Broome’s estimates of distances are not always highly accurate. His “half mile” might be anywhere from a quarter mile to a full mile. Nevertheless, we can take his estimate as a reasonable ballpark figure which can be used for general locations but should not be adhered to as a precise measurement.)

This hypothesis that Buck Fork Cascade is our Second Cascade is supported by another chapter in Earthman entitled “Guyot at Last!” This describes the hike that Broome took in 1926 with a teenager named Dys. It was on this trip that Broome encountered and named Drinkwater Pool. He describes a beautiful cascade that they encountered:

Notice the reference to a vertical fall of 100 feet in 100 yards. This does not describe Ramsey Cascades nor does it describe our Third Cascade, but it does describe the Second Cascade quite well. (Our estimate is about 130 vertical feet in about 200 feet horizontal.)

Broome continues,


He describes the ups and downs of the trail which ultimately leads to the pool (6’ deep) and plunge falls (6’ high) they named Drinkwater. From his hike description (p. 74 in Earthman) for the SMHC he estimated that Drinkwater was half a mile beyond the 100’ high cascade that he eventually (in the 1928 hike description) calls Buck Fork Cascade. We also see that DWP is that last or highest plunge pool in this section because Broome says that above and beyond it, the creek ran fairly straight and level for about 200 yards. This indicates that DWP is at the top of either the Second or Third Cascade. Given the fact that the Second Cascade is the more dramatic, it is probably the beautiful cascade he and Dys admired on this hike. About a half mile beyond this Second Cascade would put DWP near the top of the Third.

Before we move to Broome’s references to DWP in his other book, Out Under the Sky of the Great Smokies, we should note one more detail. Earthman (p.81) includes a 1941 description of a hike entitled “Buck Fork and Ramsey Prong.” This 1941 description uses today’s nomenclature for the rivers. Broome mentions the Middle Prong instead of East Fork. He speaks of Buck Fork, but it is clearly the Buck Fork shown on today’s maps. He also writes of Ramsey Prong, which didn’t even exist in his 1928 hike description.


For this hike, they would go up today’s Buck Fork, then cross over Guyot Spur at Drinkwater Gap (“its lowest and narrowest point”) and reach DWP on Ramsey Prong. He also speaks of going downstream from DWP to “the Cascades and Falls.” The Falls is certainly today’s Ramsey Cascades (which in the 1920s they were unaware of but by the 1940s they were aware of) and the Cascades is what Broome had at one time called Buck Fork Cascades but we are calling the Second Cascade. Finally, the “graded foot trail” that they would finish on would be today’s Ramsey Cascades trail which ends at the “Falls” (Ramsey Cascades) in this description.

My conclusion from all of this is that on our map we have stars at today’s Ramsey Cascades, the Second Cascade, and the Third Cascade. Our Ramsey Cascades corresponds to Broome’s Ramsey “Falls”; our Second Cascade corresponds to Broome’s “Cascades” (aka Buck Fork Cascade), and our Third Cascade is a series of pools and terraces, the topmost pool being Drinkwater Pool. [In the Dutch Roth photos in UT’s archives, there are several pictures labeled “Ramsey Falls” that are clearly today’s Ramsey Cascades. There are several pictures labeled as Ramsey Cascades that are clearly NOT today’s Ramsey Cascades. They are probably our Second Cascade, although I haven’t yet tried to identify their exact locations.]

Now, Out Under the Sky....

In Broome’s July, 1955 entry he speaks of Ramsey Prong, Ramsey Falls, hiking 1.5 miles on a road to the turn-around, and the trail ending at the Falls. All this conforms to today’s Ramsey Cascades trail except his use of the name “Ramsey Falls” instead of “Ramsey Cascades.” After they hiked past Ramsey Falls, he writes of camping at the “second cascade” In his July, 1957 entry two years later he specifically speaks of their campsite at the foot of the second cascade. So, the Second Cascade on our map is almost certainly Broome’s “second cascade” which in the 1920s was called Buck Fork Cascade, in the days when Ramsey Prong was called Buck Fork.

Location of Drinkwater Pool
Continuing with Broome’s 1955 entry, the next morning they left their campsite at the base of the second cascade and moved up the valley on the old, obscure trail and reconnected with the creek several hundred yards below Drinkwater Pool. Having explored this section of the creek, I can assure you that the entire length of the second cascade is 100 yards at the most, and is probably more like 200’. To hike upstream and emerge from the woods to the creek several hundred yards below DWP means that DWP cannot be part of the second cascade. It must be significantly beyond the top of the second cascade. This fits Broome’s 1955 entry (p. 166) in which he says they were caught by a thunderstorm about 300 yards below DWP while they were still about a half mile above their campsite at the base of the second cascade.

Clearly, then, DWP is significantly beyond the Second Cascade. In fact, it is almost certainly a part of the Third Cascade; undoubtedly the top of the Third Cascade. In Broome’s July, 1957 entry he speaks of DWP being the “culmination of a succession of limpid pools.” Soon after, he describes hiking down from DWP as moving “headlong back down the great terraces of the stream.” This sounds like a series of plunge pools and terraces – which is exactly what the Third Cascade on our map is – not quite a single cascade, but a succession of pools/terraces and five to ten foot waterfalls creating those pools. Combining this description with Broome’s statement (in Earthman, Guyot at Last, p.21) that the creek above and beyond DWP is straight and flat for 200 yards requires that DWP be located at the top of the Third Cascade – that is, it must be the last (uppermost) obvious pool of the Third Cascade, after which the creek becomes flatter and tamer. (In Broome’s April, 1950 entry in Out Under he mentions a moment at which he was “half-way to the upper cascades and Drinkwater Pool.” While I may be making too much of the details of his words, it may be significant that he says “upper cascades” rather than “second cascade.” Those “upper cascades” could very well be our Third Cascade, which is, as we’ve said, not a single cascade but actually a series of plunges, pools, and terraces.)

Happily, this location at the top of our Third Cascade fits well with the topography of Drinkwater Gap. Recall that our map shows two candidates for the title of Drinkwater Gap. While the topo map might give one the impression that the gap in Guyot Spur adjacent to the Second Cascade is a more obvious, significant gap than the gap adjacent to the Third Cascade, this is not the case. A close examination of the map and the location of the Second and Third Cascades shows that Ramsey Prong is much closer to the crest of Guyot Spur at the Third Cascade than at the Second Cascade. To hike from the Second Cascade to its adjacent gap involves a climb of about 300’, whereas a climb from the Third Cascade to its adjacent gap involves a climb of only about 100’. The climb from creek to the crest of Guyot Spur is surprisingly quick and easy from the Third Cascade; from the Second Cascade it is a predictably tough push through the rhododendron to the crest. This is important because in Broome’s April, 1950 entry in Out Under he says: “We reached the low point in the divide between Ramsey and the Buck Fork after five or ten minutes of bucking the rhododendron. The altimeter showed an ascent of 150 feet from the pool, although it seemed much less than that.” The topography virtually requires that Drinkwater Gap is the gap adjacent to the Third Cascade, not the Second. Again, having explored this section, the hike up from the Third Cascade to the gap in the crest really does take no longer than 10 minutes. It is shockingly quick and easy. The climb up from the Second Cascade to its gap is two to three times longer as measured in both time and distance.

Therefore, Drinkwater Pool is at the top of the Third Cascade. Its approximate GPS coordinates are: 83 17.446W; 35 42.309N. Drinkwater Gap is the spot on the topo map where “5125” is printed. In the picture below, the “falls” of DWP are about 6 feet high (and the depth of the pool is about 6 feet), which conforms to Broome’s description.

Drinkwater Pool: Top of the Third Cascade

There are a couple of details that don’t fit well into this interpretation, but only a couple, and they are rather minor; furthermore, I think I can explain them (at least, to my own satisfaction).

The main problem is that Broome says in his July, 1955 entry (p.162): “I spotted Drinkwater from far downstream by the casket-shaped rock on its shelving rim.” Early in our explorations, as Greg Harrell and I became hone in on the location of DWP, we were unable to find a casket-shaped rock at the top pool of the Third Cascade. I should add, however, that there are several rocks that one can lie on (see the picture of Greg Harrell and Charlie Roth below; Charlie is lying on the most likely candidate).

After more thought on the casket-shaped rock, here’s what we’ve concluded. We were thinking about this casket-shaped rock the wrong way. Broome told us about a casket-shaped rock, so we hike up the river looking for the rock that looks most like a casket. When we find it, we think we’ve found DW Pool. But that approach is backward.  We should find a pool that we think is Drinkwater and then look to see how we would describe the rocks that we see there – could any of them reasonably be described as “casket-shaped” rather than “car-shaped” or “house-shaped” or “bowling ball-sized” or “refrigerator-sized” or whatever. In other words, there are thousands of rocks that could be called “casket-shaped” – is one of those thousands at Drinkwater Pool? I’d say, yes, the rock Charlie is lying on in the picture below could reasonably be called “casket-shaped.” The fact that there may be other rocks in the river that look a bit more like a casket is irrelevant and misses the point.

Greg Harrell (standing), Charlie Roth (lying on casket rock)
Drinkwater Pool: Top poof of Third Cascade

There are some “Drinkwater Pool” pictures on the internet of a casket-shaped rock that sits at the base of the Third Cascade, but there is simply no possible way, based on a careful reading of Earthman and Out Under, that DWP is at the base of this, or any other, cascade. Only at the top of a cascade can the creekbed above run “straight and almost level for nearly 200 yards” (Earthman, p.21). People who claim this is DWP because of this casket-shaped rock are mis-thinking exactly as I described in the previous paragraph. They look for the “best” casket rock and then name that pool Drinkwater – which is exactly backward from the way rocks and other features are described by hikers.

A nice casket, but the wrong place -- at the base of the Third Cascade

The other nagging detail in this mystery is Broome’s description of the length and width of DWP. Broome mentions that DW Pool was about 25 feet long and 12 or 14 feet wide. Our top pool doesn’t fit those dimensions, unless…

I would estimate that the pool is 25 feet across from one bank to the other, and 12 or 14 feet long from the falls to the rock shelf.  In other words, Broome and I might be using exactly opposite terminology, which makes sense if we were standing in different places. What I mean is this… every time I’ve approached DWP, it’s been in the river, sloshing our way upstream to the top of the Third Cascade. Looking from downstream, the dimension from one bank to the other would be “across” or “width,” not “length.” On the other hand, if Broome were standing on the river bank at the side of the pool, that dimension from bank to bank would be described by him as “length” rather than “width.” In other words, Broome and I were standing in different spots as we looked and described the pool.  

Do we have any pictures of DW Pool from the past that are labeled as Drinkwater Pool?

For several years of my obsession, I couldn’t find any.  There is a fuzzy, black and white copy of a single, small plunge falls accompanying a description of a 1974 SMHC hike to Drinkwater Pool. It is attributed to Charlie Klabunde, a long-time member of the SMHC. In 2012 I asked Charlie if he remembers anything about the picture or the location of DWP. He said he can’t remember the location of the pool, and he does not remember how that picture came to be on the page with the DWP hike. He doesn’t know if that picture really is DWP.

This (below) is an old Dutch Roth picture of the top pool of the Third Cascade – the pool I believe to be Drinkwater Pool. It’s not labeled as Drinkwater Pool. Its label says:  “Just above the cascades on Ramsey Prong.” It’s probably safe to say that there is some significance to this spot. After all, there are hundreds of fine plunge pools on Ramsey Prong. So, why choose this one?  Unfortunately, one picture and a vague title don’t tell us what that significance is. And I must admit… I really, really wish Dutch had labeled this “Drinkwater Pool.”

Finally and thankfully, in 2013 Brian Reed (a member of SMHC who is presently living in exile in Florida) informed me that he had found some online pictures by Herbert Webster of Drinkwater Pool. Apparently, Webster knew Harvey Broome and had hiked with him to Drinkwater and had taken pictures of it. These pictures have been posted on the UT-Knoxville library website by Ken Wise.  Here’s an excerpt from the UTK library page:

Within a few years, he was visiting the mountains regularly, venturing into the backcountry with many of those whose names are synonymous with early twentieth century exploration of the Smokies—Dutch Roth, Jim Thompson, Carlos Campbell, Guy Frizzell, Wiley Oakley, and Harvey Broome—and capturing on film the vanishing way of life of the mountaineer, the Smoky Mountain backcountry, and his own adventures in the wilderness. The images in the Herbert M. Webster Photograph Collection rank with those of Dutch Roth and the Thompson Brothers as an enduring historical record of the Great Smoky Mountains.

The Herbert M. Webster Photograph Collection is maintained as part of the U.T. Libraries’ Great Smoky Mountains Regional Project.

Visit  and search for Drinkwater.  These pictures match perfectly our thesis that DWP is at the top of the third cascade.  This is the photographic evidence from the past that had been eluding us for the first few years of our search.

Finally, I don’t think the top pool of the Third Cascade is fabulously beautiful. Or, more accurately, it is fabulously beautiful, but no more nor less than a thousand other pools in the Smokies. I honestly don’t know why Harvey Broome was so mesmerized by it. Based on my own hiking experiences, it probably had to do with the fact that they were in a fabulous wilderness and the moment Harvey and Dys stepped out of the woods and back into the creek, this pretty spot mixed with the magic of the moment simply spoke to them in a special way. Anyone who has spent much time hiking off-trail has had that same experience… many times. [Greg Harrell and I were both stunned by the beauty and drama of Mill Creek Cascade on our first, truly off-trail hike. We sloshed down from Russell Field over many, small falls and plunges. Around 3,000’ we found ourselves at the top of a long cascade, seeing only air and treetops in front of us. It was magical. We are reluctant to go back because we’re afraid we might be disappointed with it, simply because magical moments are nearly impossible to re-create.]

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Frosty Woods

The bears in our Smoky Mountains don’t actually hibernate, but they do sleep deeply. For the biologists and wildlife experts, there is a difference between the two, but for the rest of us hibernation and deep sleep are pretty much the same thing. The bears hunker down and become inactive because it’s just too stinkin’ cold to be out and about.

I know how they feel.

In my younger years I’d stay active during the winter. Looking back on it now, I can’t recall why. I’m not sure I ever really enjoyed the winter weather. In fact, there’s a significant chance that I went outside solely to prove that I wasn’t a sissy; in other words, peer pressure, pure and simple, even if that peer pressure sprang from my own psyche rather than from my peers. I apparently had something to prove, even if I was the only one who cared.

Now that I am rapidly approaching senior citizen status, December is the month in which I gradually shut down. Early December is usually fine hiking weather, but by January I will have begun my hibernation, which for me involves: reading some of those classics I should have read back in high school and college, watching Seinfeld re-runs, and tying flies for next year’s fishing season. If I get desperate I’ll watch some old Alfred Hitchcock movies and maybe the Godfather trilogy. I’m just trying to run out the clock until March.

And yet, I can’t fully resist the call of the mountains in mid-winter. In the spring, I’ll be drawn to south-facing slopes like Fort Harry or Styx Branch on LeConte for their warmth, but in the winter I’ll go to a north-facing slope like the Rainbow Falls trail or the north side of Greenbrier Pinnacle for the ice and snow. I’ll only do it once or twice because it’s hard, just plain hard. The cold is not just uncomfortable; it’s bone-chilling, snot-freezing, lung-stinging, toe-numbing, finger-stiffening, muscle-cramping cold. Sometimes even life-threatening.

A quick summer hike is no big deal. You throw a water bottle and some snacks in your pack and you go. If you later find that you’ve forgotten something, you make do with what you have. It’s not like your gonna die. In winter, on the other hand, you think long and hard about your equipment. You make a list, check it twice, and pack accordingly. Then you take everything out of your pack and double check your list and your equipment. Then you put it all back in your pack with a small sense of apprehension that you might be forgetting something important – because everything is important in the winter.

The mountains in winter remind me, in an odd sort of way, of the desert in summer. The weather is not fit for man nor beast. It’s quiet and still and lifeless. We humans can take it only in small doses because it seems to stretch out forever with no end in sight. And yet, it’s beautiful in a stark, almost oppressive, way. If nothing else, winter gives you a deeper appreciation for the other three seasons the way the desert forces you to appreciate cities and air-conditioning, and maybe even people.

And so we go to the winter mountains for their stark beauty with just a hint of danger. In June, as I walk out the door with my day pack hanging on my shoulder, Phyllis says, “Have fun!” and I say “I will!” In January, she says in a more solemn tone, “Be careful.” And I promise her, “I will.” Then she looks at me, seriously, and I add, “I promise.”

So I spend the day with the ice and snow… and the quiet. The soft, deep, serene silence. These gray & white woods are so quiet that I feel lonely, even awkward, like I don’t know how to act or what to pay attention to because there are no noises to grab my attention. Nothing to distract me except my own thoughts. This must be what a sensory-deprivation experiment is like… or a monastery.

And then it starts to snow… silently. It’s only three o’clock, but the sun is low and these lovely woods are getting dark and deep, and this day hike that had been a chore now becomes a holy moment. I stand still and watch the woods fill up with snow, and for the first time today, I am not tired, and I am not wishing I was at home in front of the fireplace. I don’t want to leave because I have finally, finally, become comfortable in these frosty woods – lovely, dark and deep. But I have miles to go and promises to keep.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

November 1 (Part 2 of 2)

As I drove up the gravel road in the Greenbrier section of the park, the air temperature was about 35 degrees so wet globs of snow were falling off trees onto the road and into the river. This was one of those moments when I had to decide what kind of person I am. Am I a manly man who will venture out into unpleasant conditions because that’s what manly men do, or am I the kind of guy who is afraid of a little snow? Because I want to be thought of as a manly man, I put on some extra clothes and slipped into my waders.

A few cars stopped to chat about the weather, or the fishing, or simply to figure out what in the world I was up to. I’m pretty sure as they drove away, some of them were saying to one another, “Now that’s a manly man.” I am equally certain that just as many were saying, “That guy’s an idiot.” I would take both as compliments, which is another sign that I’m a manly man. We manly men are misunderstood by mere mortals in shiny, clean cars. 

So, because of this imaginary peer-pressure, I walked across the road, down the hill, and into the river. I tied on a size 16 Royal Wulff – a red, green, and white dry fly with a long history of catching fish, even though it looks more like a tiny Christmas ornament than a bug. It’s what fly fishermen call an “attractor pattern,” which can be roughly translated as: it looks more like a tiny Christmas ornament than a bug.

To make a long story short (or am I too late for that?), trout like cloudy, dreary, rainy days, but they don’t like globs of snow splashing into 38 degree water. I fished for an hour, floating my dry fly along all the seams and runs in any water more than six inches deep, but without results. I continued to slosh my way upstream, casting with fading enthusiasm, when a 7”’ rainbow took my fly in a lightning-fast moment of indiscretion. I pulled him to me quickly, before he could fully grasp the severity of his situation. As I held him in my hand, he was cold and deeply-colored, and I think he may have shivered for a moment as he looked up at me, as if to say, “What are you doing out here in this kind of weather?” He seemed genuinely baffled that a human would be out in weather not fit for man nor fish. Of course, I could have asked him the same thing. He had taken a tiny Christmas ornament for no apparent reason. Maybe he was simply getting into the holiday spirit. We tend to anthropomorphize fish – they are moody, angry, curious, shy, horny, bored, etc. Why not add “festive” to the list?

I’ve never been so glad to catch a 7” fish because he had given me permission to get out of this weather and go home. I said I was going fishing, and I went fishing. I intended to catch a fish, and I caught a fish. Mission accomplished, let’s declare victory, pack it up and go home.

But as I waded back downstream, I stopped and looked back upstream for a moment in the direction of Greenbrier Pinnacle, which was hidden behind the clouds. Stop and enjoy the moment. The Smokies are one of your favorite places in the world, and Greenbrier is your favorite section of the park. This was… what? Good? Yes, of course, but it was more than that. It was… necessary. I needed this.

Sometimes I think all that stuff people say about “communing with Nature” or “cleansing your spirit” in the outdoors in just poetic hyperbole or New Age chatter, but on a cold, dreary day in November, as I stood alone in a cold river, I felt nourished and cleansed. Winter would be long and dark, and spring was just a dim light at the end of a long tunnel, but the challenge of a cold, rushing river and a seven inch fish had given me something indescribable and delicious. Not a sense of accomplishment or victory, but a sense of fulfillment, of being the kind of person I want to be in a place where I want to be. To be honest, all the talk about manliness is just empty, male chatter, and I’m really just a guy who knows where to go when my spirit needs a strong dose of Creation and a glimpse of the Creator.

Monday, September 14, 2015

One Day in November (Part 1 of 2)

For several years I’ve been telling people that my favorite month for hiking in the Smokies is November, but that hasn’t always been the case. For a long time, May was my favorite. In May the weather has warmed up nicely, wildflowers and Mountain Laurel are showing off, the heavy tourist traffic is still a month away, and temperatures are warm but not muggy. The older I get, the more January feels like a near-death experience (with no warm glow and bright light to walk toward), but May is an invigorating breath of warm, fresh air.  I love May.

And the snakes love it, too.

I’ve had a couple of close encounters with rattlesnakes in April and May that were not so close that I have quit hiking in those months, but they were close enough to make me be a bit more cognizant about where I put my hands as I hop over logs or on top of rocks. They were also close enough to move November to the top of my “favorite months” list. By November cold weather has become well-entrenched in the mountains, sending the snakes underground where they belong, but it’s not so bone-chillingly cold that it sends me underground, too. November is usually crisp, clear, and nippy. In other words, ideal hiking weather – if you can manage those first ten minutes of hiking when you can’t decide whether or not to wear a coat. If you don’t start with that extra layer, you’ll be a bit too cold for about ten minutes, but if you wear one, you’ll have to stop and take it off ten minutes into the hike. That’s usually the biggest challenge you’ll have on a November hike.

Unless it snows 12” overnight.

In spite of my best efforts, I spent most of October acting like a responsible adult, so I was determined to head to the mountains every weekend in November, starting with November 1 – the very first Saturday in the month. That was the year that on the night of October 31 the temperature below 1,500’ hovered just above freezing with a steady drizzle, while anything above 1,500’ got snow. A lot of snow. LeConte got almost 2 feet of snow. It was a record for snow on LeConte in a 24 hour period. Not just a record for November 1. A record for… ever.

Now I like snow as much as the next guy, but I don’t own any snowshoes, and wouldn’t have been in the mood to use them even if I did. It was November 1 for cryin’ out loud! Many years we haven’t even had our first frost by November 1.

So I decided to go fishing.

Trout tend to prefer cloudy, nasty days, and this November 1 certainly qualified. I love trout. I love to fish for trout. I think trout are as pretty as a freshwater fish can be. I have paintings of trout in my home. But their greatest character flaw is that on bright, crisp, blue-sky days they hunker down beneath and behind rocks and sulk; on cloudy, rainy days they come out to play. So I drove to Greenbrier to fish the Middle Prong, and against my better judgment, I dared to be optimistic.

At the Greenbrier entrance the snow on the roadside and tree branches was a few inches deep. By the time I reached my upstream (and, therefore, uphill) spot, the snow was about six inches deep. The air temperature was now about 35 degrees so wet globs of snow were falling off trees onto the road and into the river. This was one of those moments when I had to decide what kind of person I am. Am I a manly man who will venture out into unpleasant conditions because that’s what manly men do, or am I the kind of guy who is afraid of a little snow? I think there’s a strong chance that I’m neither, but I really want to be a manly man with more testosterone than is good for him – or, more accurately, I want people to think I’m a manly man. Of course, people who know me know that’s not true, but those people weren’t here. Instead, there were complete strangers driving along the gravel road, watching me get out of my truck, take off my boots, put on several more layers of clothes, and slip into my waders. [To be continued]

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The Joy of Failure


So, a fly fisherman dies, and he wakes up in the afterlife, lying next to a beautiful trout stream. The sun is glistening off the water, and because it is a crisp, clear day, he can see the wavy reflection of the mountain peaks in the smooth, swirling water. He sees a trout rise gently to a floating mayfly in the middle of the river, so he picks up his fly rod, ties on a #12 Quill Gordon, wades out into the river, and casts to the rising fish. On his very first cast, he hooks him. The trout shakes his head for a few seconds, then makes a long, hard run across the river and stops and pouts for a moment, a strong clue that this is a brown trout, the fly fisherman’s favorite fish. After a 5 minute game of tug ‘o war in which it was never clear who the winner would be, the fish finally relents and comes closer to his captor. This was the fly fisherman’s favorite moment – when he could see his prey floating effortlessly in the water, a long, shiny, buttery-brown creature, angry but defeated, his fins waving ever so slightly to maintain his balance. The fisherman reached out with his net, which panicked the fish and initiated another two or three minutes of battle. Finally, the exhausted fish came to the net – a flawlessly magnificent 22” brown trout, deeply colored and cold to the touch.

Then he sees another fish rise upstream. He wades. He casts. He catches the fish, again on his very first cast. Another trout – a lively, acrobatic rainbow – well over 20”. Of course, the fly fisherman is thrilled! Eternity will be exactly what he had hoped for – an endless string of days full of big, dumb trout.

That night as the fly fisherman lay in his bed in his cabin by the river, he dreamed of flowing water, mayflies, and rising fish… big fish. In the morning he awoke with the sun and hurried to the river. The trout were rising to a steady hatch of delicate mayflies. This second day was a duplicate of the first: more big fish, always caught on the very first cast. Never a wasted cast. Never a missed fish. It was easy, almost too easy.

And the third day. The same. Exactly the same. A 20+” fish on every cast. It was too easy. The fly fisherman began to wonder if he would ever again not catch a fish.

At the end of the third day, as he stepped out of the river, he saw an old man – the river keeper – walking along the river bank toward him. As they approached one another the old man asked the obvious question: “How’s the fishin’?”

The fly fisherman replied, “Great! Fabulous! A fish on every cast! I’ve never seen anything like it!”

The river keeper nodded his head and replied, “Yeah, that’s what everyone says… at first.”

Then, as his adrenaline and enthusiasm began to settle down, the fly fisherman continued, “But you know, I’m starting to get a little… bored, I guess.” Then, as he paused to swat a mosquito on his neck, he said, “I didn’t think there would be boredom in heaven.”

The river keeper gave the fly fisherman a puzzled look, and replied, “Heaven?”


Success is great. It’s what we all yearn for. And yet, as much as I hate to admit it, challenge and failure add spice to life. Without the agony of defeat, we’d never fully grasp the thrill of victory. We only know and understand success when we have something – failure – to compare it to. Many activities in life – including fly fishing for trout; no, especially fly fishing for trout – are frustrating because they are hard, and success is rare and fleeting. And yet, while an endless string of successes might seem like it would be heavenly… I don’t think so. Indeed, it might be just the opposite.

Friday, April 17, 2015

The Land of Sharp Edges: The Top of the Jumpoff (Part 9 of 9)


Keith, Charlie, and I had managed to find our way to the top of the Jumpoff, but Greg Harrell was still scrambling around somewhere down below us. I went to the middle of the Jumpoff overlook and yelled for him, wondering where he was.

His response came back to me immediately, because he was only about 50 feet below me. (Later, as we sat at Arbys eating our celebratory meal, Greg told me that at that moment, he was just sitting and wondering what to do next. To quote him: “It was good to hear your voice.” For Greg, that’s a warm and fuzzy moment.) We talked for just a moment – me above and Greg below but both hidden from each other by the shrubs – then I moved north along the Jumpoff and found Charlie and Keith sitting at the spot where they had topped out. About 15 minutes later Greg came up at their spot by aiming at their voices as they taunted him for being so slow. Because I’m the slow one in our group, this was one of those rare instances in which I arrived at our destination before he did. I should have taken advantage of the situation and joined in the taunting, but I was too tired to muster up any enthusiasm for the project, so I let Keith and Charlie do all the work.

We spent fifteen excellent minutes on the Jumpoff, basking in the view, the quiet, the cool breeze… and the sense of accomplishment. It was only at this moment that I realized how relieved I was to be finished. It wasn’t physical relief; it was mental. This trip’s stress level had been a bit higher than average, probably the result of risk mixed with angst about the unknown. I wouldn’t go so far as to say we were in serious danger, but for those last few hours we all understood that the consequences of a moment of clumsiness or carelessness could have been serious. We also understood that a few people had probably done this route before, but we didn’t know any of them, so we weren’t 100% assured that we could reach the top before the sun set. Running out of daylight is always a nagging concern when we are off-trail because there’s a very, very thin line between being off-trail in the dark and being lost, and I’m pretty sure that while you are doing it, they’d feel like the same thing.

Of course, the views, the 1,400’ cascade, the effort, and the angst all worked together to make this one of our most memorable Smokies trips. For a full month afterward, during quiet moments I‘d find my thoughts drifting to that eastern slope of Mount Kephart – everything from the rush of adrenaline to the delicacy of the Grass of Parnassus.

As I write this, we’ve all done this Lester-Jumpoff trip one or two more times, and I must admit, each time has been a challenge. I had expected that the drama of the unknown wouldn’t be quite as pronounced because we now knew that it is possible to get to the top, but that wasn’t quite the case. Yes, we now know it’s possible to reach the top, but finding that route isn’t a foregone conclusion. Even a slight deviation from a previous route can create a trajectory that puts you in a spot that you don’t want to be in, which is something that has happened to us every time we’ve made this trip.

The Jumpoff: A bloody good trip

Eventually, sanity prevailed and we decided that we should take a break from the Jumpoff. While we’d had no near-death experiences, we did begin to wonder aloud if perhaps we weren’t pushing our luck. How many times can a guy put his trust in sand myrtle bushes, worn slate, spruce roots, and globs of wet moss, and escape unharmed? We’d been rolling the dice and had continued to win, but eventually the laws of probability would catch up with us. So we quit while we were ahead.

But like any temptation – gambling or otherwise – a relapse isn’t completely out of the question, especially in late summer when the Grass of Parnassus is in bloom and the Jumpoff beckons.

The delicate beauty of the Grass of Parnassus


Friday, March 20, 2015

Land of Sharp Edges (Part 8 of 9)

The rock faces that I continued to encounter pushed me further and further away from the cascade and up the slope of the creek valley. I hated to lose contact with the cascade because I had visualized myself following it all the way to its source, but the ridge that I was ascending was too comforting to pass up. Although I had never been on this particular ridge before, it felt very familiar. It was steep but not dangerously so. It was heavily wooded so I knew there was enough soil to support the trees – another sign of manageable terrain. There would be less rock and more dirt than what I had been crawling on for several hours. Although I couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, I knew there was an end of the tunnel up ahead.

This ridge was thick with trees, Mountain Laurel, briers, and other obstructions, but it was a pleasant relief from the cliffs and cascade. My sissy gene liked this route better, so I followed the one main rule of hiking up a ridge – when in doubt, go up. My partners and I had become well acquainted with this rule. It’s one that never fails, and it didn’t fail me this day. Later on, after we were all reunited at the top, Greg said that he spent a few minutes sitting among the bushes, wondering what to do next, when he heard me pushing and crashing along the ridge less than 100 yards away. He watched me make my way toward the top. Once again, being a guy of few words, he didn’t say whether this gave him comfort or more frustration at his own plight.

Keith and Charlie had apparently crossed a rocky scar at a different place than Greg did which highlighted how much luck is a part of this process of picking your way around rocky scars and faces and through mountain laurel thickets. In this kind of terrain, you tend to hike in ten or twenty foot segments. You don’t usually have the luxury of looking far ahead and seeing the big picture. You just try to get from point A to point B, and point B is rarely more than a few yards away. Only after you arrive at point B can you begin to look for point C. Sometimes the route you take leads to the end of the tunnel, sometimes it runs you into another wall. It’s a lot like rolling dice. Sometime you get lucky and sometimes you don’t. Keith and Charlie managed to find a path of least resistance that evaded Greg. At one point he was in such tight quarters that he had to take his pack off and tie a rope to it so he could climb over a rocky spot and pull his pack up after him. I think that was one of those spots that he didn’t want to be in. If he has a sissy gene, it was probably causing him to wonder – like I had – if there really was a path to the top and how much a search and rescue mission costs, and who pays for it?.

About an hour after we had split up – yes, it took us about an hour to travel that final 300 feet – Keith and Charlie reached the top, a mere 100 feet from the northernmost overlook at the top of the Jumpoff. At about the same time, I pushed through the bushes at the top of my nameless ridge. As I stood on the trail at the top, it seemed too small to be the AT or the Boulevard. Could it actually be the thin trail that runs along the edge of the Jumpoff? After walking a minute or two, I passed the southernmost overlook of the Jumpoff. Somehow my ridge had topped out not near the AT as I had expected, but about 200 feet from the southern end of the Jumpoff.

I went to the middle of the Jumpoff overlook and yelled for Greg, wondering where he was. [To be continued]


Friday, February 13, 2015

The Land of Sharp Edges: The Four Inch Ledge (Part 7 of 9)

As I worked our way slowly up the mossy, brushy, upper portion of the Jumpoff, I didn’t exactly visualize my own death, but I did wonder how much a NPS search and rescue mission costs. I guess I’m just not cut out for off-trail hiking in unknown territory by myself. Greg Harrell has a death wish gene. Apparently I have a sissy gene. Although, in my defense, one of my fears did materialize. I found myself hemmed in by the cascade on my left and a rocky cliff above me and to my right. So I began to backtrack, not knowing exactly what I’d do if I came to a point that would allow me to move right again. I had climbed through that territory a few minutes earlier and had ended up stuck. What could I do differently? (My sissy gene was definitely exerting its control over me.)

It was then that I noticed that the other side of the cascade looked a bit more manageable, a smoother slope and maybe fewer rocky walls to maneuver around. So I worked my way down the edge of the cascade, clinging to spruce roots and sand myrtle when available but settling for other shrubs and moss when necessary, until I found a narrow ledge across the cascade. Stepping along this wet ledge wasn’t my preferred option, but I was down to Plan D or E by now, so I worked my way across the flowing water, making sure I always had two hands and two feet firmly planted on the rock. The slope here was only about 45 or 50 degrees, so it was manageable, the main drawbacks being that my ledge was about four inches wide, and wet, and the long, fast, bumpy slide that I’d have to endure if I slipped. If my feet slipped off the narrow ledge, my only hope was to grab that ledge with my hands as I began my slide. If that didn’t work… well, my grandchildren would one day hear stories about their Grampy, without ever actually knowing him. I decided that my best option was: just don’t slip. Period. That’s why this was Plan D or E, not A or B.

As I crossed the cascade, I wondered how Charlie, Keith, and Greg were faring. Earlier I had looked across the slope and seen one or two of them stuck in the shrubs of a nearly vertical slope. From where I sat I pitied them because there seemed to be no alternative for them other than backtracking downslope and trying again. At the end of the day, I was amazed when they told me that they had found their way across and up because from my vantage point it had seemed impossible. As Greg succinctly put it about some of his predicaments, “I was in a few spots that I didn’t want to be in.” He didn’t elaborate further. He didn’t have to. We all knew exactly what he meant. At this moment, as I crossed the cascade, I was in one of those spots.

As I shuffled my way across on my little ledge, I used that tactics that I’ve developed from other, drier rock-scrambling trips: focus on those four points of contact (two hands, two feet), move only one part at a time so there are always three points of contact, and your whole world at that moment consists of that 8’ by 6’ piece of rock directly in front of you. Oh yes, one more: don’t have an emergency, don’t slip, because if you slip that’s your last alternative. Oh, and another: don’t lean too far in toward the rock. That’s a really, really hard one to obey, but it’s good advice. If you’ll stand mostly straight up, the soles of your boots get better traction on the rock than if you lean in. Leaning in too far tends to push your feet out from under you. In situations like this, you just repeat that list of instructions over and over, and before you know it, you’re across and breathing a sigh of relief.

As I sat on the other side, breathing and sighing, I noticed that this side of my cascade was not as smooth and easy as it had appeared, a “grass is greener on the other side” kind of thing, I suppose. As I looked up along this edge of the cascade, it looked exactly like the side I had just left. It took only about two seconds to decide to stay on this side rather than shuffle back across. So I resumed my upward crawl.

[Note: If you’ve ever done a trip like this, you’ll understand why there are no pictures of this part of the trip. I was a bit preoccupied. ]