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Huge slide on Balsam Corner Creek May 24, 2015

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Life experience, nature, Smoky Mountains.
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18 comments
Tilted image of the upper landslide. Courtesy of Don Casada.

Tilted image of the upper landslide. Courtesy of Don Casada.

Added 5/27/15: I was in the Balsam Mountain area to hike with a friend and took the opportunity on my way back home to explore up the fisherman’s path along Straight Fork that I discovered at the end of the outing described here. I shouldn’t really say “discovered” as if I’d found something new, as fishermen and other folks familiar with the area have always known about it. It is a very clear path, easy to follow. I went as far as the junction with Table Rock Branch and saw that it kept going. So that would definitely make the route up Straight Fork more manageable.

I will only be in the Smokies one more week. I decided that I must try to go take a look at something I have been curious about. And this, I knew, would be an adventure.

I did not succeed in setting foot on the gashed-out area depicted above. But I got pretty close, and I still had an adventure. I hope that the following information about my experience will help others who are interested in exploring the area.

In the last week of July, 2011, a massive flash flood occurred in the drainage of Straight Fork, a stream that flows from the heights of the Balsam Mountains down into the Cherokee Reservation. It nearly destroyed the tribal fish hatchery, which is a major part of the economy on the reservation. Whenever you order trout at a local restaurant, or catch an oversized trout on lower Raven Fork or the Oconaluftee within the reservation, chances are it originated at the hatchery.

The flood created an enormous landslide in its upper section. After looking at images of the slide on Balsam Corner Creek, a tributary of Straight Fork, I thought this might very well be the largest landslide that has occurred in recent memory in these mountains. Larger by far than any of the dramatic Anakeesta Ridge slides, larger than the Trout Branch slides, larger than the ones we know in the Lester Prong/Porters Creek drainage or the Bradley Fork drainage.

Why do bushwhackers love landslides? Because they often provide steep and spectacular routes through the dense vegetation of the Smokies.

Overview of the area.

Overview of the area.

The map above gives a general idea of the lay of the land. From the Big Cove Road in the reservation, you go right at that important junction of Raven Fork and Straight Fork. That puts you on Straight Fork Road. You go past the fish hatchery and cross from the reservation to the national park, following beside the stream. Where the yellow line starts in the map above is where Straight Fork passes underneath the so-called “Million Dollar Bridge” that was constructed to replace a ford of the stream.

My friend Don Casada generously sent me several images of the Balsam Corner/ Straight Fork area. An oddity of the Balsam Corner Creek valley became clear: an old railroad grade from the pre-Park logging days reached its terminus very close to the head of the landslide area. You see the railroad grade in pink in the map above, ending a short distance east of the “X” that marks the dramatic scoured-out area shown in the top image.

In the past couple of weeks, as I have been preparing for my move to Northern Vermont, I have been fixated on getting in one last expedition—despite the bum knee, despite the fact that I’ve allowed myself to get somewhat out of shape. I hope this doesn’t sound too personal: I absolutely believe it is the right thing to do to move to New England, mainly because I can be of assistance to my sister. At the same time, I have struggled with my loss of the Smokies. I have been dealing with depression, and have not kept up my regular exercise routine as well as I could. Not that I’ve turned into a total couch potato, but I find myself weighing five pounds more than I should, and I seem to be hiking more slowly on the exercise hikes that I still manage to do.

I decided I would do this trip by myself. Some of my very best adventures have been solo ones. There is a lovely, core element of self-reliance in these experiences. Also, much as companionship can be enjoyable, there is an equally valuable experience of being completely absorbed in the surroundings without any socializing going on.

The self-reliance means: you make decisions on your own. That gives the decisions a kind of iron-edged quality—to use a somewhat peculiar metaphor.

So: I figured I’d either go up the streams themselves, or I would use the Beech Gap trail to reach the start of the railroad grade, then follow that to the top of the slide. Either way, I’d climb from the head of the slide up to the Balsam Mountain trail and follow that and Beech Gap back down to my car.

I liked the idea of following Straight Fork and then turning onto Balsam Corner Creek, seeing ever-increasing signs of the flood, like the giant logjams. But that would be pretty difficult. Over the past couple of weeks I watched the weather and waited for a long dry spell that would make that easier.

So today was predicted to be the final day of the recent dry spell. I got up and drove to the Million Dollar Bridge. There I would make my decision, depending on what Straight Fork looked like. Well, I drove there, and it looked impossible even in low water conditions. Straight Fork is a large stream. Perhaps it would be easier in fisherman’s felt-soled boots. There is no way of rockhopping it at that point (certainly possible higher up). It would be a wade. I saw a fast-moving stream plunging over stairsteps of boulders. No way I could go up that for a mile and a half or two miles, then go another couple of miles up Balsam Corner!

My opinion might conceivably have changed if at that point I’d been aware of a fisherman’s trail that went along the right side of the stream—something I observed when I came back down the Beech Gap trail at the end of my outing. (But I hear it doesn’t continue very long.) I also noticed, then, that Straight Fork in low water has considerably wide shoulders of dry rocks.

But it didn’t look that way from the bridge early in the morning. I studied the black-looking pools (their darkness accentuated by a sky overcast at that point in the morning), and I made the decision pretty quickly to do the railroad grade route.

So I headed up the Beech Gap trail. I was soon rewarded by abundant laurel in bloom.

Beautiful laurel.

Beautiful laurel.

I like the buds as much as the blossoms. Everything is in multiples of five—I like to think of plants as having a mathematical identity.

Laurel buds are unique in the way they develop in these sharp-pointed shapes.

Laurel buds are unique in the way they develop in these sharp-pointed shapes.

I even saw a pink ladyslipper.

Always a delight.

Always a delight.

After 2.5 miles and 2000′ elevation gain, I reached the junction with the Balsam Mountain trail. There I easily made out where the railroad grade started. The interesting thing is that the grade continues from the same point over into the next valley, but that is harder to see.

You see where the RR grade starts beyond the sign, right? (Ha, ha!)

You see where the RR grade starts beyond the sign, right? (Ha, ha!)

All along, of course, I had wondered what the conditions would be on the RR grade. Would it be blockaded by constant blowdowns? Would it be full of rhodo? This was actually kind of interesting because not only was I doing this by myself, but I don’t know anyone who has done it (though I am sure some folks have).

At first it was lovely, open and grassy.

Ah, if only it would stay like this!

Ah, if only it would stay like this!

I passed below a large sandstone bluff. There must have been a trestle below it to get the logging trains across a steep, bouldery slope.

Bluff above, boulderfield below---there must have been a trestle.

Bluff above, boulderfield below—there must have been a trestle.

I started to notice game paths along the wide grade. The interesting thing was that these were not bear paths. I have followed bear paths many times. These paths were made by larger, heavier creatures who broke off branches higher than the height of a bear. I am certain this grade is used by elk. I have seen elk prints on the other part of the Beech Gap trail (that goes to Hyatt Ridge), and I know there is a migration between the Cataloochee area and the Oconoluftee area.

The elk were very helpful for me, because when I started running into rhododendron patches, they made a path on the outside edge of the grade, sometimes going slightly downslope (which was always steep) and then returning to the grade.

I could tell, on these downslope detours, that I was not dealing with bear tracks. The elk, with their relatively heavy weight, stepped down and made strong imprints in the slope which were then followed and reinforced by other elk. Bears do not make those kinds of imprints. With their soft paws, they go up and down slopes, and leave a mark of their passage, but they don’t make this indented stairstep pattern.

Well, could I have been following footsteps of other humans? While, as I said, I imagine a few other folks have been here (I did see a pruning cut in one place), there was something about the breakage of branches and the heavy hoof marks that convinced me this is an elk passageway.

After a while I came to the first of several tributary landslides that I saw. This one started immediately below the RR grade. The photo makes it look nearly flat, but in reality it was quite steep.

It drops off below.

It drops off below.

Now, this was really interesting to me. This meant that the whole Balsam Corner Creek valley was subjected to incredibly heavy rainfall, creating these tributary landslides that ran into the main stream valley below. And yet, within that general event—pretty severe as it was—there was a micro-event that was even more devastating.

At this point along the RR grade I was running into rhodo patches at regular intervals, but it always seemed as though there was a way not too horrible to pass through or around, thanks partly to my friends the elk. I also saw remains of the logging activity.

In many places I saw cables coiling across the RR grade.

In many places I saw cables coiling across the RR grade.

I found another artifact.

I have no idea what this is.

I have no idea what this is.

I came to another tributary slide. This one was much larger, and it started way above the grade, came down and obliterated it, and continued down to the stream valley.

In this photo, I am looking directly across to where the grade was erased by the slide. I was able to pick it up on the other side.

In this photo, I am looking directly across to where the grade was erased by the slide. I was able to pick it up on the other side.

This is looking up the slide from where it covered the grade.

This is looking up the slide from where it covered the grade.

Something important here that I want to share with folks who might want to explore this valley. Note the absence of visible bedrock in this slide. It is a mix of loose dirt and rubble. People who are looking for something like the Trout Branch slide or some of the Anakeesta slides may be in for an unpleasant surprise. This stuff could easily be the “two steps forward, one step back” kind of situation. I don’t know. I didn’t climb up it. I was still trying to follow the grade.

Well, finally I met my nemesis—a giant rhodo hell. When I got to the front of it, I faithfully followed the elk hoofprints down the slope to get around this mess. This time they went down a lot further than before. I crossed a small draw and knew I had to climb up again to return to the grade. I climbed up—did not see a grade—kept going, going, looking. I never found it. This was a miserable tangle of rhodo.

Was it possible that I had reached the end of the grade? I’m pretty sure not. I believe based on my compass direction, and also based on where I eventually climbed out, that I was a little bit short of Laurel Gap Branch.

So—why not drop down to the stream itself, to Balsam Corner Creek, and then follow that up? Because everything below me was a rhodo jungle, and I was now at a point pretty far east of the main stream. That meant it could have taken an hour of crawling to get down to the stream. If I had been able to stay with the grade, it would have trended back west and gotten close to that upper scar. But I could not find the grade.

Finally I decided to go up and hit the Balsam Mountain trail. Then, I thought, I might walk up the trail to the closest point above the giant “X”, drop down to it, and then just climb back up.

I started making my way up toward the trail. It took me half an hour to go 200 vertical feet.

Rhodo hell.

Rhodo hell.

If I’d known how bad it was going to be, I would have done whatever it took to return to the big slide pictured above and go up that. But you know how these things go—after a while you’re committed.

With a great amount of relief I finally entered a relatively open spruce forest, though with snarly arms of rhodo still reaching through in many places. I always love the moss in these kinds of places.

We are in the Enchanted Forest.

The moss just seems to be lusher up here. (This is about 5500′.)

In the Enchanted Forest.

In the Enchanted Forest.

It turned out I was crossing the northeastern slope of Balsam High Top. Fortunately, from studying my compass and the map, I realized that’s what was happening. I had gone in a more southerly direction that I’d planned, but that was because I was following the path of least resistance through the rhodo.

So I wasn’t unduly alarmed when I reached the crest of the ridge and found no trail. As it turned out, I hit the ridge at just about its furthest point from the trail. I must admit that as I crossed over the ridge and started descending, I was really hoping I would find the trail soon. And before long I did.

I sat down beside the trail and had some food and water. Soon a young couple came along, asking if they were headed toward the Balsam Mountain Road (they were). I think proper bushwhacker etiquette demands that you never tell trail hikers what you have just done (a form of boasting, I think). But in reality it doesn’t matter because they never understand anyway. I happened to have my map out, and I pointed to the RR grade and said I’d gotten into a rhodo thicket and had just come out on the trail.

They nodded politely and went on.

Now—was I really going to continue north on the Balsam Mountain trail to the closest point to the giant “X”?

All of a sudden I started wondering if the whole slope above the “X” was another rhodo hell. I’d have to go down it, and then back up. It didn’t take me long to decide to wimp out and go back to my car.

I saw some nice bluets along the trail.

Cheerful little blue flowers.

Cheerful little blue flowers.

After a while I got back to the Balsam Mountain/ Beech Gap junction, turned down there, and eventually returned to the trailhead. This time I noticed there was a trail that led next to Straight Fork.

Beautiful laurel next to beautiful stream.

Beautiful laurel next to beautiful stream.

This section of Straight Fork, not very far above the bridge, did look easier to deal with. But still, I think it would take a strong, athletic person to go up the stream to Balsam Corner Creek and then all the way up that. I must say that I do not think I am strong enough to do that right now, though I hope to regain my psychological equilibrium and be able to do things like that again.

After all, I have to climb the Ravine of Raymond Cataract and the abandoned Adams Slide trail in the northern Presidential Range of New Hampshire.

Straight Fork.

Straight Fork.

 

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Bent Arm Manway on a showery day April 27, 2015

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, nature, Smoky Mountains.
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8 comments
Snowy fields of fringed phacelia along the manway.

Snowy fields of fringed phacelia along the manway.

The forecast kept changing. Showers all day—rain in the morning followed by clearing—low probability of precipitation, or high—at any rate, I suspect the uncertainty kept some folks from joining our outing.

We had nine in our group, and it was a wonderful hike. We shared an enthusiasm for the remarkable plant life that thrived all along our route, and for the bird songs, the trees, and the history of this part of the Smokies.

As it turned out, we had intermittent showers throughout the day, but the temperature remained comfortable. And what is better on an April day than to observe swarms of wildflowers gleaming with shimmering raindrops?

As I drove over to Elkmont from the North Carolina side of the mountains, I enjoyed dramatic changes in the skies. Sometimes I drove through dense fog, and other times I observed a spotlight effect of sunlight coming through the clouds.

On my drive over---dramatic sky near Newfound Gap.

On my drive over—dramatic sky near Newfound Gap.

Beams of sunlight near Anakeesta Ridge.

Beams of sunlight near Anakeesta Ridge.

As soon as we started on our way up the Jakes Creek trail, we were luxuriating in the lush cushions of wildflowers all around us.

Dwarf iris.

Dwarf iris.

Showy orchis.

Showy orchis.

Painted trillium.

Painted trillium.

When we reached the Miry Ridge trail and climbed up to the distinctive open heath area, we debated whether to make that our lunch spot. It is an interesting place, full of laurel and galax and reindeer moss, but the fog had closed in and we had no views. We opted to continue to the backcountry campsite. Just as we stopped for lunch, it started to rain fairly heavily. I took a few photos that were blurred by the dampness.

Jim and Ken talk things over in the rain.

Jim and Ken talk things over in the rain.

Hiram and Jean in their rain gear.

Hiram and Jean in their rain gear.

Michael Ray had a more sensible way of dealing with the rain.

Michael Ray had a more sensible way of dealing with the rain.

We continued along, and I started looking for the manway where the trail reaches the crest of the ridge. But Michael, who has been on the manway six times, spotted the junction before I did. I had a momentary thought: “They’re going to think I don’t know how to follow the manway.” In reality, it all worked out perfectly. There are places where you can either stay on the ridgecrest or contour along the side. At times some of us went one way and some another, but our routes were always within sight or at most calling distance of each other. The general direction remained clear.

I found that the pathway was easier to follow at this time of year than when Ken and I scouted it. At that time, the forest floor was uniformly brown, covered with fallen leaves. But yesterday, the path was often clearly marked by the relative absence of vegetation on the path. Well, at least that was true in the grassy areas, where the grass does not grow in the path. When we came to the fringed phacelia, it grew exuberantly all across the footway.

Once you reach the sharp turn to the left where you see some CCC rockwork, the old trail becomes very clear and nearly impossible to lose. It’s just that you encounter considerable rhodo and doghobble in this section.

Eventually we reached a notable spot where a quartz rock is embedded in a tree. Members of the group had different theories about this. Some thought it was a boundary marker, while others thought it was the doing of the CCC folks.

Quartz embedded in tree.

Quartz embedded in tree.

It was a truly enjoyable outing with a great group of hikers who are all seriously interested in the marvelous natural offerings of the Smokies. I will soon have to leave this area, but I will be back for visits as often as I can.

We saw this somewhere along our journey---I won't say when or where.

We saw this somewhere along our journey—I won’t say when or where.

 

Smith Branch manway April 17, 2015

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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7 comments
There were way too many of these.

There were way too many of these.

Every year the unmaintained trails of the Smokies get harder to follow. Many of them are old CCC trails constructed in the 30s and 40s. For various reasons the Park Service has let them go. The Smith Branch trail connected the big CCC camp at Kephart Prong with the former Richland Mountain trail. The latter no longer exists, except for the upper section above the Grassy Branch junction which the Park Service has redesignated as the so-called Dry Sluice trail.

Just in the past two years, this manway has become harder to follow. I have created a very rough map to show the routes I discuss below.

Smith Branch routes.

Smith Branch routes.

As you all know, I don’t use a GPS, so the routes above are hand-drawn based on my noting of various landmarks with compass and altimeter along the way. I’ve put in a question mark at a particularly dubious area. The map above is the current USGS map, which does not show the Smith Branch manway. The 1949 map below does show what was then a trail, but it is so lacking in detail as to be practically useless.

Not a whole lot of help.

Not a whole lot of help.

Two years ago Cindy McJunkin and I went up the manway to scout a route suggested by Al Watson. The idea was to go up Smith Branch and follow the Richland Mountain crest to another manway at Will Branch, and take that back down to the Luftee. We ended up coming down Shell Bark Branch instead of Will Branch, but that’s another story.

Cindy and I successfully followed the manway to point “V” on the upper map, where there is a sharp switchback to the left hidden by rhodo. We missed the switchback and continued straight up the stream along a faint path with pruning cuts that indicated others had been that way as well. (Route shown in red on upper map.) The path gradually faded out and we realized we’d strayed off the manway, but we just continued upward through open woods and arrived without any trouble exactly where we needed to be, the col between Point 4891 and Point 4768. Then we continued southeast along the Richland crest.

I went back on my own a couple of months after that to see if I could correctly follow the manway. I made exactly the same mistake going up—missed the switchback and continued up the creek. But this time, instead of heading down Richland Mountain, I followed the Smith manway back down from the col so that I could see exactly where it went. It’s easy to find where it hits the ridgetop, and the upper section is hard to lose, though you have blowdowns and rhodo to deal with. I managed to follow the manway all the way down to point “V” and finally saw where the switchback comes in.

So this month I invited Ken Wise to join me to go up the Smith manway and come back down the same way. I didn’t anticipate any serious problems. But… we did have problems!

The Oconaluftee running high.

The Oconaluftee running high.

We’ve been getting a lot of rain the past few days, and the Luftee was running high where we crossed it on the Kephart Prong bridge. We passed a group of hikers going up the trail, and they must have been startled to see us suddenly veer off the trail and head into the woods. We picked up the manway without any trouble near a hog trap and followed it around into the Smith Branch valley.

Here I made a dumb mistake. I knew we had to look out for a switchback before long, but I started looking too soon, and when I saw a herd path heading up to the left I thought it must be people shortcutting to the higher trail section. Wrong! After wandering a bit, we corrected our course and continued past some large new blowdowns until we reached this first switchback.

We continued along with just a few moments of hesitation to point “V”, which I easily recognized this time. The path was clear until we came to a big conglomeration of blowdowns—about the same scale as the one shown in the top photo—and there we lost the manway.

Shouldn’t be that hard, right? These old CCC trails don’t meander around aimlessly. They keep along the same course until they make a switchback, then continue along steadily in the new direction.

But we could not find it. Ken went down, I went up, we went backwards and forwards, and finally I suggested we just follow a nearby ridge up to the Richland crest. Point “W” on the map is where we lost the manway, and point “X” shows the ridge we followed. After a steep push to get onto the ridge, it was fairly easy going except for patches of briers. We followed a bear path and found something really strange—a beer can that had been punctured by bear teeth. Had the bear carried the beer in its jaws from some other point? Had someone brought the beer up there and left it on this obscure side ridge? A mystery.

Rock tripe on boulder along the side ridge.

Rock tripe on boulder along the side ridge.

Finally we reached the magnificent summit of Point 4891. You can see its breathtaking alpine characteristics.

Mighty summit of 4891.

Mighty summit of 4891.

From there it is an easy walk down to the col, provided you go in the correct direction. I was glad I took a compass bearing from the map, because it’s easy to get turned around up there.

It started raining as we had lunch. We layered up and eventually headed down the upper manway. We passed the large blowdown shown at top.

Ken on upper manway.

Ken on upper manway.

The going was easy enough that I could stop and enjoy the wildflowers.

Dutchman's breeches.

Dutchman’s breeches.

Mayapple unfurling like an umbrella against the rain.

Mayapple unfurling like an umbrella against the
rain.

Endless variety of leaf shapes.

Endless variety of leaf shapes.

Forest floor becomes carpeted with green.

Forest floor becomes carpeted with green.

We encountered the usual blowdowns but made good progress for a while.

Typical stretch of upper manway.

Typical stretch of upper manway.

Then we got into rhodo, and we lost the manway again. Same deal: Ken went up and I went down, we went back and forth looking for it, and couldn’t find it. For lack of a better alternative, we kept heading in the same direction. We made a detour into a terrible brier thicket. It was about this time that Ken started joking that the sawbriers were making fun of us. Ha, ha!

(He later spoke in an email of “out-stretched welcoming arms of hundreds of over-friendly Smoky Mountain sawbriers.” Yes, that about sums it up.)

Eventually we headed straight down through a patch of open woods. We knew that if worst came to worst, we could just go down to Smith Branch and pick up the manway there. It’s this stretch on the map that has a question mark next to it, because I don’t know exactly the route we took.

After dropping down a few hundred feet, what d’you know, we found the manway again. Followed it onto a ridge, lost it, found it again. Now we were angling southwest and crossed a tributary of Smith.

A big grapevine overhangs the Smith Branch tributary.

A big grapevine overhangs the Smith Branch tributary.

Streamside trillium.

Streamside trillium.

Eventually we came to a trail section just below point “W” and made our way down to point “V.” From here on out the going was pretty straightforward… just a lot of work dealing with the continuous blowdowns and overhanging rhodo. That sort of thing gets kinda old when you’ve been doing it all day.

We reached the CCC camp just as a heavy rain began to fall. An interesting excursion. I swear there’s a Bermuda triangle in there somewhere.

Stone structure from old CCC camp.

Stone structure from old CCC camp.