Unlucky Horseshoe September 10, 2013Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
Tags: Horseshoe Branch, Horseshoe Mountain, Lester Prong, Porters Creek manway
For the past month, I have been haunted by the memory of my adventure going up Shutts Prong. I wanted to venture again into those wild streams. And so it was that I came up with the idea of visiting Horseshoe Mountain. I decided I would follow Horseshoe Branch from Porters Creek to the summit and descend via the stream that runs down Horseshoe’s east side into Lester Prong.
I descended that east-side stream, which forms a slide in its upper section, on a trip three years ago, going down the slide and climbing up the Jumpoff. I was accompanied by Brian Reed and Seneca Pressley on that trip.
I set out on a beautiful cool, clear September day. The first challenge I faced was to locate the junction of Horseshoe Branch and Porters. That shouldn’t be a problem, I figured. After all, I’d located the Shutts junction with no trouble at all. Also, you can see Horseshoe Mountain from the trail.
The USGS map shows the junction at just above 3200′. Just to make sure of the location, I also printed out a copy of a Google map from Tom Dunigan’s Tennessee Landforms website, since it shows a GPS track of a person following the trail. Hmmm—the GPS track looks quite different from the dotted line of the trail on the USGS version.
To make sure I didn’t miss the junction, I left the trail below 3200′ and went to the stream through a wide swath of rhodo, then started rockhopping up Porters. Even though water levels are low these days, Porters is still a large enough creek that working upstream isn’t all that easy. I went from pool to giant boulder to blowdown, on and on, and didn’t see the junction. I went all the way up to 3400′ before heading back to the trail. I came out at the backcountry campsite—obviously past the junction.
“I must’ve just missed it,” I said to myself. “I need to go back and start lower down.”
I went down to 3050′ just to make sure, and once again proceeded upstream. After much work, I saw a wet footprint on a boulder—my own. It’s interesting how long it takes a footprint to evaporate.
I had already been concerned about time. “Okay, time to cut my losses. I’ll reverse the trip, go up the slide and down Horseshoe Branch.”
So along I went to the familiar Porters Creek manway. The stream crossings were all easy with the low water levels.
The manway is becoming more and more obscure with its many blowdowns. The first stretch, just past the backcountry campsite, is one of the hardest to follow. The trick is to look past each blowdown to see traces of foot travel on the ground. When you get to the stream crossings, you have the friendly cairns.
A cairn with a special shape marks the junction with Lester Prong.
Lester nearly disappeared in places with the low water, the way Styx Branch disappears and reappears.
I approached the first tributary on the left, the one I have followed many times to reach Rocky Crag (the “Real Bunion”). Distinctive cascades mark this spot.
The mouth of the first tributary had so little water in it that, if I hadn’t been familiar with it and hadn’t paid attention at that moment, I could have gone past it without noticing it.
“The mouth of Horseshoe Branch might have been hard to see,” I said to myself. I still don’t know. Perhaps it is located where I passed by on the other side of an island, or where I was struggling with some blowdown/boulder combo and just didn’t pay enough attention right then.
The bottom of the east-side Horseshoe stream was nearly invisible.
I climbed a pleasant jungle-gym array of rocks, punctuated with blowdown. Trouble with these narrow draws is, all sorts of debris rolls down into them. At times I left the draw to climb along the side.
I got into the bedrock section.
At around this point, I went to the side into open woods, put my hand down on a fallen log, and disturbed a wasp’s nest. I got three good stings near the elbow (I had my long sleeves pushed up). Youch! I could feel my arm stiffening up—it was pretty painful.
“This may not be the day for this hike.” I was already somewhat concerned about the amount of time it would take to descend Horseshoe Branch—especially since going down is harder than going up.
I turned around.
Finally I got back down to Lester.
I reached the Porters manway. Hard to believe that 25 years ago it was almost like a maintained trail.
As I went back down Porters Creek trail, the light had shifted, and I could see the northern ridges of Horseshoe Mountain more clearly—those are the ridges that give it the horseshoe shape it is named for. The trick is to find the tail of the more easterly of the two ridges, for that is exactly where Horseshoe Branch comes in.
“I will be back.”