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Floods January 17, 2013

Posted by Jenny in hiking, nature, Smoky Mountains, weather.
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This is going to cause big problems for me. Source: Park Service

This is going to cause a headache for me. Source: Park Service

1/29/13: We’ve finally gotten an estimate of when Highway 441 (Newfound Gap Road) will reopen: “mid-May to early June.” We’ll see.

4/24/13: The road reopened April 15. Those contract incentives for early completion really did the trick! The town of Cherokee kicked in some for the incentives. I’ll be up past the repaired road section very soon.

It started raining four days ago. I was driving home across the Smokies from the Pigeon Forge Wilderness Wildlife Week, where I’d given a couple of presentations about my book Murder at the Jumpoff. It had just started to drizzle, but I wanted to get a bit of exercise, so I pulled off at the Kanati Fork trailhead and did a quick 6-mile, 2000′ vertical hike.

That day’s precipitation didn’t amount to much, but on Monday it started to rain in earnest, and it’s still pouring now, Thursday afternoon. There was a let-up for a while yesterday, and I got out and checked conditions in the Plott Balsams.

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West Fork of Fisher Creek.

The streams were all raging. They are small streams, but somehow the effects of the flood are more impressive in them than in large bodies of water like the Tuckasegee River, which flows below my hillside house. The streams are completely transformed, becoming wide ribbons of pure frothing white, unlike their normal calm, translucent selves. The change from “trivial rivulet” to “dangerous torrent” does tend to make one wake up and pay attention.

The basin of the Tuckasegee simply filled up steadily, like a bathtub. It has not yet overflowed its banks in this portion. The rapids that I see from my house are not more numerous than the rapids I see hitting the rocks in times of low water levels, but they have a different shape. The rocks are all submerged, of course. The rapids now take the form of standing waves that form, crest up, collapse, and re-form in a regular pulsating rhythm. The water is a murky, ugly shade of gray.

In the Plotts yesterday, I saw strange things that had to do with the high water table. Walking along the East Fork trail, looking at a slope covered with oak leaves, I saw a good-sized flow of water spurting up among the leaves, like a spring. I couldn’t tell whether the water upslope of it was flowing invisibly between ground and leaves or whether it had in effect formed a temporary spring by flowing below ground, under pressure, along a subterranean pathway normally above the water table.

In other places water ran across the trail, disappeared under the leaves, then re-emerged lower down. As always happens in big rains, the trail itself would become a streambed for a while until the water found a depression to the side and flowed off. Then the process repeated further down the hill.

The photo at top shows a landslide at mile marker 22 on the Newfound Gap Road, on the North Carolina side of the Smokies. The slide occurred at 9:40 yesterday morning, and fortunately no one got hurt. The Park Service must have had quite a time getting vehicles with flashers out quickly to stop the traffic in both directions. They are going to open (or already have opened) the road on the Tennessee side up to Newfound Gap, while on my side it will be closed at Smokemont “for an extended period.”

With the continuing downpour, the slide must be getting worse. It’ll be a while before they can even make an assessment of the damage. This means that North Carolinians will have to drive a long, long way around to get to the heart of the Smokies, the places I like best to explore. Well, could be worse—I-40 could be closed because of a landslide in the Pigeon River Gorge, as has happened many times. Wait a minute…  I shouldn’t have said that…  Please, gods of highway geology, don’t let that happen too!

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