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Wrestling with Balsam Ridge manway March 31, 2013

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, nature, plants, Smoky Mountains.
Tags: , , , , ,
Bradley Fork doesn't give up its secrets easily.

Bradley Fork doesn’t give up its secrets easily.

For the past couple of months, I’ve been thinking about Bradley Fork—one of the classic major streams of the Smokies—and wondering how it might be possible to explore the very wild, rugged area of its headwaters. I’ve questioned some truly experienced long-time bushwhackers, and not a single one has been up Chasm Prong, Frowning Rock Prong, or Gulf Prong, or the dramatic knife-edged ridges around them.

An old friend of mine, Al Watson, mentioned the Balsam Ridge manway. It connects Cabin Flats with Hughes Ridge up toward Pecks Corner, following close to Bradley as far as the Gulf – Chasm confluence and then heading up the ridge. Oddly enough, I’d been up that manway myself—close to thirty years ago. In my very dim recollection, it hadn’t been hard to follow.

The Balsam Ridge manway shows up on the 1949 map.

The Balsam Ridge manway shows up on the 1949 map. The Gulf – Chasm confluence is located at the top of the right bar of the letter “U”.

When I posted my blog about circling the Bradley watershed and looking at those upper ridges, Adam Beal mentioned that a fisherman told him an F-15 jet engine was located right in the stream at the Gulf – Chasm confluence. Two jets were doing maneuvers in Smokies airspace, one clipped the other, and one of the jets was able to fly off while the other fell into pieces. The pilot managed to eject. (He must have had quite a time getting out of the wilderness.)

So—an obvious goal—see if I could follow the Balsam Ridge manway to that point, look for the engine, and then (time permitting) continue up to Hughes Ridge and loop back to Smokemont via trail. I recruited my hiking buddy Chris Sass to come with me.

We set off yesterday morning, hiking the five miles up the wide somewhat tedious lower section to the Cabin Flats backcountry campsite. We passed a small patch of trillium, the first I’ve seen this cold spring.

A rare warm day brought out this trillilum.

A rare warm day brought out this trillium.

A bridge over Bradley Fork was damaged by the January floods. Interestingly, it is the downstream side of the bridge that was affected. A log must have been lifted up and over the upstream railing before smacking the bridge and being carried a short distance down to a big logjam in the stream.

Not only was the railing splintered, but a thick metal plate attaching the beams was bent. Amazing.

Not only was the railing splintered, but a thick metal plate attaching the beams was bent. Amazing.

We had a bite to eat at Cabin Flats and started looking for the manway close to the stream. I thought fisherman traffic might have kept it open at least for a while. But we soon found that the manway wasn’t next to the stream in this section but ran across the slope about fifty feet up.

Can you see the manway? It runs just below the mossy boulder.

Can you see the manway? It runs just past the mossy boulder.

Because of the way it was dug into the slope, it wasn’t too hard to see where it was, but blowdowns and rhodo made for slow going. The manway sidehills past a place where the stream makes a sharp bend and gradually descends to reach Bradley close to the confluence with Louie Camp Branch. The map clearly showed it crossing the stream there. We waded across, bracing ourselves against a strong current.

We couldn’t see the continuation of the manway immediately, but we found welcome open hardwoods on the other side. We stopped to wring out our socks.

Chris wrings out his socks.

Chris wrings out his socks.

We never did find the manway on this side, not even in what should have been an obvious spot where the slope pinched in close to the stream. The open woods soon reverted to an endless tangle of rhodo. I looked for old log cuts, anything indicating trail construction from long ago. Nothing. At last we reached Bearwallow Branch coming in from the right. It was time to take stock of our situation. It had taken us two and a half hours to go a mile. We could not make it to the Gulf – Chasm confluence and back out with any confidence of getting out before dark—unless the vegetation thinned dramatically, but we couldn’t count on that.

Retracing our steps seemed an unappealing option. We decided to climb up a small draw heading east to reach a side ridge of Hughes Ridge. We’d decide up on the ridge whether to continue over to Hughes or to drop back down into the Bradley valley by one of several possible routes.

The route we ended up taking. We dropped down to the valley of Taywa Creek to hit the Bradley Fork trail.

The route we ended up taking. We dropped down to the valley of Taywa Creek to hit Bradley Fork trail.

We climbed up this draw that had a small stream running down over mossy rocks.

We climbed up this draw that had a small stream running down over mossy rocks.

Soon we found open woods to the right of the stream that seemed very pleasant compared with the oppressive rhodo jungle of the Bradley streamside.

Pleasant going up the side valley.

Pleasant going up the side valley.

Chris spotted an interesting blue bug. It crawled away as I tried to take its picture, but I include this photo since I have no pretensions to offering great nature photography, just to give you an idea.

Shy about having its picture taken.

Shy about having its picture taken.

We came to an open spot up on a side ridge where we had tantalizing views of that magical realm of the upper Bradley ridges, way off in the distance, outlined in snow. The light was flat, offering little detail.

When we intersected Long Ridge at point 4535′, we decided to follow the ridge south and drop down to Taywa Creek and the trail when we got to about 4200′. We followed a bearway through the laurel. As usual with bearways, the path was easy to follow but designed for creatures much shorter than ourselves. So we had to bend over or crawl on our hands and knees much of the time. The path had seen so much bear traffic that it was indented into the ridgetop, and a bruin had gone that way just recently.

Bear tracks in the slushy snow.

Bear tracks in the slushy snow.

We found a good spot through open woods to drop down to Taywa Creek. Trout lilies adorned the creek.

Trout lilies.

Trout lilies.

From there it was an easy trail walk back to Smokemont.

My conclusions from this experience: to get to the Gulf – Chasm confluence and beyond, there are several options, none of which involve following the Balsam Ridge manway, which is simply too grown over after all these years. .

1) Go right up the stream in warm weather and low water conditions.

2) Go out from Newfound Gap and drop down into the headwaters somewhere around Laurel Top.

3) Start in Greenbrier, go up False Gap Prong and Kalanu Prong, and drop down into the headwaters the other side of the stateline ridge.

All of these would require at least one night out.

Pink and white hepatica.

Pink and white hepatica.


1. Brian - March 31, 2013

Jenny, this sounds like a challenging day. Do you have a guess where the manway might have been?

Jenny - March 31, 2013

In the section above Louie Camp Branch, I believe we may have actually been stepping on it in places, but the manway was so overgrown you couldn’t make it out. In that stretch, there is a flat area next to the stream and then a fairly steep slope rising sharply above the flats. It wouldn’t make sense for the manway to be up the slope, unlike the first stretch, where there was little of a flat margin along the stream. As you know, it’s much harder to see an old manway on flat ground than when it sidehills.

2. Clyde Austin - April 5, 2013

Jenny, I have a friend who has been up this thing all the way to Hughes Ridge. He says it is maybe the worst rhodo flog he has ever been in and gets worse the further up you go. For that reason I scratched it off my wish list. And this is a guy with a ton of off-trail experience.

3. Volbike - April 6, 2013

Hi, Jenny
Not that it makes any difference but I made my trip up Bradley in February after the floods and did a loop up Taywa (which means flying squirrel in cherokee) over the ridge down to cabin flats and back bwo the iron bridge. All the bridges were in fine shape at that time but maybe that bridge you saw is above the iron bridge. If not my guess is that a tree fell on the bridge but in that case you probably would have seen saw dust of cut logs from when they removed it. so who knows. Strangley the flood in Deep Creek was much much greater than what happened in Bradley Fork so kind of doubt that the water got that high. But as they say in German “Machts Nicht”!.

Jenny - April 6, 2013

No sawdust, no cut logs, no fallen tree anywhere nearby, just a big logjam about 20 feet down the stream. The way the thick metal plate was bent, I have to conclude that a tree or cluster of trees was forced against the bridge by water at high speed and stayed there a bit before breaking loose. That just wouldn’t have happened from a tree falling on top of it. I don’t know for sure, but I’ve hiked along both Deep Creek and Bradley since January, and I have seen many signs of high water along Bradley and its tributaries.

4. Al - April 6, 2013

My trip up Balsam Ridge with Bil Hart and Ed Hina was about 30 years back also. 1986, as I recall. We did not cross Bradley Fork until we got up to the Chasam / Gulf junction or just below. This hike today has to be one of the most difficult ones in the entire Park. After the mid air collision of the planes several park rangers were dropped in to walk out with the pilot per news coverage in the papers. (this was Bill’s second trip up Balsam Ridge).

Jenny - April 6, 2013

Hmmm—I’d thought the 1949 map and the Blue Book map were essentially the same. Just looked at the 1949 map, and nope, they are different, with the early map showing the manway staying on the W side until near Chasm Prong, as you say. This makes me wonder about the methodology behind those little dots on the Blue Book map!

I’m pretty sure it was in 1983 that I did this manway. I do not recall the stream section at all, only the ridge section, which way back then was easy to follow.

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