Valley of the Duck Hawks March 2, 2014Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
Tags: Alum Cave Creek, Big Duck Hawk, Little Duck Hawk, Little Duck Hawk ban
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.”
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.
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.
As expected, it soon gave way to rhodo. The boundary line was very distinct.
But soon I angled over to the streambed and found that the going wasn’t bad.
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.
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.
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.