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Whitewater hike up Raven Fork Gorge January 17, 2009

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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Waterfall on Raven Fork.  Not easy to get here!

Waterfall on Raven Fork. Not easy to get here!

When they put this hike on the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club schedule, the Program Committee members must have been thinking, “Hot July day.  Beautiful cool stream.  A pleasant rockhop.”  Under low water conditions, that would probably be a good description.  But we hiked it the morning after a heavy rain….

Because of the conditions, it took between five and six hours to travel  the 2.3 miles of the stream we went up, as far as I can remember.  But I finished it within an hour of the fastest time, and Steve Higdon’s “For the Record” report said there was a three-hour gap between when the first hiker completed the section and when the last one arrived.  That means it must have taken some people upwards of eight hours.  (If anyone who reads this remembers more of the details, I’d welcome your comment!)  Our leaders were there in the stream until everyone came through, which allowed most of the rest of us to get back to our cars and go home.

The leaders were Steve and his athletic teenage son, Brad.  Steve’s  newsletter writeup recommended that we wear sneakers (for wading) and shorts.  “Any gear you bring should be protected from water and you should pack in a way as not to have cameras, books, etc. dangling from your person….”  I believe Steve would have opted for a substitute hike had he known what the conditions were going to be like that particular day, July 23, 1988.  The problem was that where we started, at the end of Big Cove in the Quallah Indian Reservation, the stream is relatively flat and not such hard going for the first bit.  By the time we had gotten up into the massive boulders and the deafening waterfalls, we were already committed.

I’m not the most agile rockhopper.  Fear has been known to come into my soul when faced with the prospect of a long leap over roaring waters.  Countless little hesitations slow me down, but I tend to make up for the slowness by impressive speed when it comes to clambering over fallen trees, hanging onto branches, and slithering through cracks between rocks.  By the time I got into the heart of the gorge, I was entirely engaged in the problem-solving of the moment:  each challenge loomed up, engulfed, and receded in an endless absorbing flow of experience.

This was early in the hike

This was early in the hike

The boulders were the color of an elephant’s hide, and they were about the size of elephants.  I’d fling myself onto the side of one, scrabble and scribble my way up to the top, then look for the next elephant to jump onto.  Our group of 19 had divided into knots of three or four people, little subgroups offering mutual advice, assistance, and commentary of helpful or unhelpful nature (“You’re not going to like this next bit”).  As I alluded to in an earlier post, at one point someone offered me a helping hand in jumping over a cascade, and I managed not only to fall in but to pull my would-be helper in with me.  I was immediately swept down a long, surging cascade, and the thought quietly crossed my mind, “Maybe I’m going to die now.”  But my pack seemed to act like a life preserver, and after an exciting ride, the stream coughed me up onto the bank—still on the wrong side, naturally.  My helper had managed to land on the side we were trying to get to.  I eventually found another way across.  By that time we were not far below the Enloe Creek bridge.

Above the bridge

Above the bridge

Raven Fork is one of the major streams of the Smokies.  A 7 lb. 7 oz. brook trout was caught there in 1980 (a state record for NC).  The stream has become increasingly popular with whitewater kayakers, rated as Class V+.  (It’s worth looking at this YouTube video of paddlers going down waterfalls on that same stretch of Raven Fork.)  To me, Raven Fork is the essence of the Smokies, which are not an assortment of peaks so much as a monolith carved by countless streams that string together sparkling chains of cascade and pool as they drop thousands of vertical feet from their many remote headwaters.  The section of Raven Fork above the Enloe Creek bridge is one of those famous places in the Smokies, deep, dark, and mysterious, surrounded by giant trees.  The old manway that goes up to Big Pool at Three Forks and then up Breakneck Ridge is pretty much gone now, from what I hear, all grown over with rhodo.  I’ve never been there, but that’s one of the places that I want to go while I’m still able.  That and the headwaters of Eagle Rocks Prong.

All you had to do was not fall in

All you had to do was not fall in


1. Gary - August 18, 2010

Kayaking down and walking up both seem implausible for mere mortals.

But quite a beautiful stream.

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