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Valley of the Duck Hawks March 2, 2014

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
Tags: , , ,
A pretty little stream.

A pretty little stream.

This was one of the strangest hikes I’ve done. Events of the day included a surprising but pleasant coincidence and…  surveillance by helicopter!

The valley runs between the ridges of Little Duck Hawk and Big Duck Hawk. In the map below, it is the unnamed tributary of Alum Cave Creek that hits the Alum Cave trail between the letters “u” and “m” in “Alum.”

Click for zoom on any image.

Click for zoom on any image.

LDH and BDH are both classic routes for off-trail hikers, but LDH has been off-limits for many years. Park Service regs say the rationale is to protect the nesting habitat of duck hawks (peregrine falcons). I wouldn’t be surprised if safety is another rationale, since traversing the ridge involves an extremely exposed rock climb up and over a knife-edge that is just inches wide at its narrowest point. For going across the ridge, a whopping $20,000 fine is the threatened punishment.

In bygone years the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club went over LDH all the time, as well as BDH. I went back and forth across LDH a number of times before the route was banned.

Approach to LDH on SMHC hike in the 80s.

Approach to LDH on SMHC hike in the 80s.

At any rate, I had no intention of going over LDH, just climbing up the valley, following it where it bent to the northwest to hit BDH where it forms an open walkway below a steep slope.

So I set forth on a pleasant, warm Sunday morning. I figured my stream might flow under the Alum Cave trail through a culvert. I walked along slowly, looking at the terrain to my left, and spotted a culvert. It was embedded in one of the worst rhodo thickets imaginable, and I didn’t think the flow was large enough. So I went on, and suddenly a friendly voice said to me, “What are you up to today, Jenny?”

I snapped out of my trance and saw my old friend Dick Ketelle—longtime champion bushwhacker—carrying an overnight pack. He said he’d stayed up top trying to get some good pictures. I explained my strange quest, and he was one of the few people I could’ve run into who didn’t think I was nuts. He suggested that I start a little further up in an area of open woods I’d forgotten about. He accompanied me to the spot he was thinking and bade me good luck.

Ah! Open woods!

Ah! Open woods!

As expected, it soon gave way to rhodo. The boundary line was very distinct.

It had to happen.

It had to happen.

But soon I angled over to the streambed and found that the going wasn’t bad.

Dry streambed in this stretch.

Dry streambed in this stretch.

Like Styx Branch, this stream appeared and disappeared from time to time. There were slabs covered with moss, but the rock had edges good for footholds even where it was wet.

Mossy slabs.

Mossy slabs.

This whole hike was only half a mile long, though of course conditions were slow. I was about halfway up when I heard a voice calling loudly. It seemed too purposeful and too loud, and too far away, to be the usual babbling of tourists down on the trail. It seemed to be saying something like “Hey, where are you going?” And the person seemed to be yelling at me.

I was not exactly moving silently through the underbrush as I snapped twigs, trampled leaves, and wrestled past rhodo branches. But I can’t imagine that anyone was able to hear me that far away from the trail. The only thing I could figure out is that someone heard or saw me going into the brush and encountered a ranger afterwards, either by accident or searching one out.

And the ranger, if that’s who it was, must have been assuming I was headed for LDH.

I kept going, thinking perhaps I was mistaken about the whole thing. The brush got thicker, and I ran into a nasty patch of greenbrier.



I got up to about 4600′, not too far below where I’d make the climb up to BDH.  I got my first glimpses of LDH.

LDH from an unusual angle.

LDH from an unusual angle.

And it was around this point that I heard the helicopter going back and forth overhead. Were they hoping to spot me on the spine of LDH? I will never know for sure. It does seem awfully suspicious.

I kept going for a bit. But then I started thinking. “What if someone’s waiting for me on the trail? They’d spot me as an obvious bushwhacker by my dirty clothes—if they don’t in fact have my photo on a wall of “Wanted Bushwhackers” at Sugarlands. Along with the other suspects, of course.”

My problem was, what if they defined the valley next to LDH as part of the banned area? What if this was the excuse they were looking for to go after Jenny Bennett, that notorious off-trail hiker? WHAT IF THEY FINED ME $20,000?

I turned around. When I got back down to the open woods, I brushed myself off as best I could and stepped quietly onto the trail. Nothing happened.

The two photos below are telescopic views of the two holes of LDH. Most of the time people see only the upper one.

Upper hole.

Upper hole.

Lower hole.

Lower hole.



1. Clyde - March 2, 2014

You are going to have to write a lot of books to round up $20,000 shekels of Royalties!

2. T E Stazyk - March 2, 2014

I wonder how many $20,000 fines they have to collect to pay for a helicopter scouting mission?

3. Steve K. - March 2, 2014

Great story Jenny…thanks for sharing. I’ve backpacked in the Park for 30 years and had never heard of the “Eye of the Needle”. Of course I’m always near the trout streams. I’m curious, is the “hole” in the mountain a natural phenomena or is it the remnants of an old mining operation or some other form of human intervention? I find it odd that there are two “holes” in close proximity. Are there any other similar “holes” in the ridgetops…in the Park?

So many questions. 🙂

Jenny - March 3, 2014

I believe the holes are natural, even though there was mining at Alum Cave during the Civil War. First of all, the ridge is incredibly thin near its crest. Secondly, the rock is Anakeesta, which has many angular joint lines and fractures along which the rock could weather. I don’t know of any other such holes.

Brian Reed - March 3, 2014

I found a remarkable tunnel that went about 50 feet right through a remote section of the Pinnacle Lead ridge in Greenbrier. I was following bear tracks in the snow and they led through it.

That is a curious series of events. Perhaps they really were curious hikers calling out to the commenter below on Big Duckhawk?

4. Al - March 3, 2014

Jenny, was that Matt Kelleher in the shot from the 1980s ?

Jenny - March 3, 2014

Yes, that’s Matt. I’m amazed you were able to recognize him in the poor-quality photo!

Al - March 3, 2014

I picked Matt right away. Have not seen him in a long time. I think I was on the hike too.

5. Chris - March 3, 2014

You did this hike on March 2? Three of us hiked out to what I believe is Big Duck Hawk Ridge yesterday and on our way back, we noticed the helicopter… We must have not been too far apart.

Jenny - March 3, 2014

Yes, it was March 2. I was basically right under Big Duck Hawk when I turned around.

6. Jenny - March 3, 2014

Brian, I remember now your mentioning that hole on Pinnacle Lead. That was on your infamous snow-whack backpack! Regarding the voice calling to me, it definitely came from below me, on the lower Alum Cave trail. No one down there would be able to see up to Big Duck Hawk. I wonder now if it was a ranger using a bullhorn, since I was at least a quarter mile from the trail. P.S. I heard there is a big new landslide on upper Ramsey Prong.

Clyde Austin - March 3, 2014

Where is the tunnel on PInnacle Lead? Interesting. Does it look natural or man made?
Also, Jenny do you know where the slide is on Upper Ramsey? It has been a long time since I have been up there.

Jenny - March 4, 2014

If Brian revisits this post, he might be able to answer about Pinnacle Lead. From what he mentioned, I don’t think it was in an area of human settlement. Regarding the slide on Ramsey, someone sent me a Google Earth photo that shows it in a file format I haven’t gotten around to opening. I’ll let you know when I find out.

7. Kent Hackendy - March 4, 2014

I envisioned that whole scene with the helicopter to the soundtrack of “Goodfellas.” ; )

Jenny - March 4, 2014

The funny thing was, when the copter passed overhead I instinctively dropped down under a rhodo bush—the instincts of a fugitive!

Kent Hackendy - March 5, 2014

Heh! Helicopters have a way of inspiring that sort of reaction – even when you’re not doing anything wrong.

Al - March 7, 2014

Seems like a chopper could alarm the duck hawks more than an occasional hiker.

8. Andrew Sisson - March 5, 2014

It is a sad day when you feel like you are an imposter in our own National Park. Your story is very interesting and I wonder if was the NPS yelling at you?

Jenny - March 5, 2014

Thanks for the comment, AJ. I’ll never know for sure, but the combination of the yelling and the helicopter make me think it was indeed the NPS. In a way it was an annoying experience, but I agree with the NPS ban on traversing Big Duck Hawk,* and they must have assumed that’s where I was going because no one but a complete nut like me would do something obscure like go up the valley next to it.
*I meant to say Little Duck Hawk (see below).

Chris - March 5, 2014

Is big duck hawk banned too? I thought it was only little duck hawk…

9. Jenny - March 5, 2014

Sorry, I meant to say Little Duck Hawk. Big Duck Hawk is not mentioned in the Park regs. (The only other place named as off-limits is the old Essary route up the Chimneys.) The Smoky Mountains Hiking Club still does outings involving BDH on a regular basis.

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