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The place we can’t go anymore March 30, 2009

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, Smoky Mountains.
Tags: , , ,
This is why

This is why

Before I say anything else, I want to say that I agree that we shouldn’t traverse Little Duck Hawk anymore.  That is a place where peregrine falcons live, and it is wrong to invade their homes.  This post is partly about how a sense of adventure can collide with environmental responsibility.

Matt Kelleher starts the approach to the ridge

The approach to the ridge

The Smoky Mountains Hiking Club used to go up and down, backwards, forwards, and sideways on this ridge.  It was a standard hiking club thing to do.  Looking through the old SMHC handbooks, I found one from the 1960s that spoke of how the ridge had formerly been the haunt of the peregrines, but because of DDT, they were no longer to be found in that area.  This would have been a few years after the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.  But now, thank goodness, the peregrines are back.  And the hikers are gone—at least, the ones who care about these things are gone, or those who obey the current National Park Service restriction that forbids people from climbing the ridge.

For me, Little Duck Hawk was always a test of my ability to master my fear of heights.  At its narrowest point, the ridge was little more than a foot wide with sheer dropoffs on both sides.  Before I ever climbed it, I saw a picture in a slide show that captured the spectacle of a whole line of maybe 12 or 15 people going up the hand-over-hand section into the thin air, progressing one by one in steady unstoppable fashion, conquering the ridge in something approaching military indomitability.  I recognized some of the people in that line.  I won’t name any names, but I knew that some of them were real chickens when it came to things like difficult rockhopping.  I decided then and there that if they could make it up Little Duck Hawk, I could make it up Little Duck Hawk.

The first time I did it, it was not on an SMHC hike but with my former husband Chris.  He was always much less afraid of heights than I was.  We dropped down from the trail into the unofficial territory, maneuvering over slabs of Anakeesta shale that were like giant layers of strudel.  This was a good warmup.  Before long we had completed the initial descent, and we were looking up at the “crux”—a rock staircase with an extreme amount of exposure.  I don’t remember who went up first, me or Chris, but after stopping for a moment to focus and take a deep breath, I simply maintained my forward progress and systematically climbed up the staircase, reaching up and grabbing the Anakeesta layers with my hands and stepping up with my feet.  I remember that the rock was nice and toasty in the afternoon sun.

Soon we were up on the narrowest part, the section that has the hole underneath that forces of nature have drilled all the way through the rock.  The narrowest part of the ridge is about 18″ wide and continues for about six feet.  Walking forward was no more difficult than walking across the living room as long as you didn’t think about what would happen if you stubbed your toe or stepped on your shoelace.  Before long the ridge had widened and we were working our way down into the dense rhodo that surrounds the ridge.

The interesting thing for me, something I still don’t fully understand, is that my fear of heights has never bothered me in the Smokies anywhere near as much as it has in some other places, like the Rockies or the Sierras.  In fact, I have climbed in some pretty preposterous places in the Smokies.  There is something about the Smoky Mountains that seems to nourish me and take away any fear that I might have.

Sometime in the mid-1990s I brought Bob down to the Smokies and took him across Little Duck Hawk.  Bob said at the time that it was the scariest place he had ever hiked, but he made it.

I have done it by myself, going up and going down, just to see what it felt like to do it alone.  It’s easier to do it from the top down.  If you start from the bottom, you have to angle through a jungle of rhodo and keep the faith that you’re going to get past all that rubbery vegetation and up onto solid rock.  Going from the bottom, it also means that you downclimb the trickiest part.  It meets the definition of Class 3 scrambling: you have to face the rock to go down.  It would probably meet another definition of Class 3 that I read somewhere: your dog wouldn’t be able to do it.

The hiking club hasn’t done it for a very long time.  I don’t know exactly when the Park Service said you couldn’t go there any more.  I understand there are signs now on the rough herd path that tell you not to go any further.  I suspect that some people will probably criticize me for even writing about this place.  But for me, trying to understand and describe experiences is the most important thing that I do in my life, and I’ll take whatever lumps come my way.  And I will also say that there are other places you can go that are just as interesting and challenging.  You just have to study the maps.

It was nice while it lasted.

Little Duck Hawk seen from Big Duck Hawk (you can't go there either)

Little Duck Hawk seen from Big Duck Hawk


1. Tom - September 8, 2009


I came across your blog trying to find more info about the Porter Creek manway that fellow Martin got lost on, which I may try to hike this fall. What a delight to find your writings and photographs.

I have spent three evenings working my way through some of your blog.

You have an astounding ability to write about the surprises that make hiking so engrossing. No doubt, this is in part because some of your off-trial hikes are amazing (as in seasoned hiker gets lost for five days trying one). But the other part — the best part — is your writing and your — I don’t know what — your sly and wise view of it.

As the song goes, “Never change; never stop…”

But where are the poems you reference from time to time? I am curious to read one.

Tom from Coral Gables

2. Jenny - September 8, 2009

Thanks for your interest. My writing style could be considered to fit into the “extraneous frills” category, a little extra icing on the cake of a basic dough- or bread-like experience like a climb up a mountain. That is, unless you find the frills to be the key to the experience somehow. By far the majority of my hiking visitors are interested in the photos, the route descriptions, and the basic stats (distance, vertical, weather). As well they should be. But you can probably understand that the frills are the most entertaining part and maybe what you wouldn’t be willing to “part” with, such as embroidered discussions of what it’s like to crawl through myrtle during an approaching lightning storm. (You can find that if you go to my post called “Off-trail hikes in words and music” and click on the links). These details sort of try to reveal why these ridiculous things are worth doing. I don’t actually write that much poetry, but I have a few pieces about experiences in the Smokies, the Catskills, and the Sangre de Cristos. And a long ridiculous piece about climbing the Chimney Route in Baxter. My mother’s poem about galaxies tops anything I could do (search on “Mom and Cosmology”).

What are you going to do on Porter Creek manway? Just take it straight up to Dry Sluice Gap? Morgan Briggs I don’t think ever really did find even the lower part of the manway and he ended up crawling up some steep Anakeesta and somehow got paralyzed. Still mysterious to me. I understand they found him at 4800 feet on Porters Mountain. That’ awfully close to the A.T. and also awfully close to several ways you could drop back down into the Porters Creek drainage.

3. Tom - September 9, 2009


I like your writing style. The last thing in the world I would call it would be “frilly.” Outdoor Magazine should be publishing your work instead of the constant stream of he-man stuff — your writing avoids the self-absorbed, self-aggrandizing aspects of some of the worst nature writing, but it still seems personal, intimate.

As for the manway at Porter Gap, I am open to suggestions. For over 15 years, I have been going to Gatlinburg in the fall for a week or two of day hikes. I have hiked most of the major trails on the Tennessee side of the Smoky’s a good bit and I do not get tired of them. Plus I like the speed of a good trail. I once hiked from Clingman’s Dome to Fontana Dam in a long day.

But I have often studied the maps and wondered why there was no trail coming off the AT between Charlie’s Bunyon and TriCorner Knob into the trail net on Tennessee side. And now I learn there is one!! Of a sorts anyway. God, those mountains still surprise me.

I think I will just walk up to campsite 31 and follow the creek upwards as far as I can go. As I said, any advice would be appreciated. I am okay at map and compass work, but I am obviously not in your league. Are the cairns still there? Any landmarks you could suggest?

Also, you wrote elsewhere you had a poem set to music. Just curious.

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