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Valley of the Duck Hawks March 2, 2014

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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21 comments
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.

Briers.

Briers.

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.

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The 1000-foot scar November 8, 2012

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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5 comments

James gazes up the scar toward sandstone bluffs exposed by the landslide

James Locke and I had set Wednesday as the day for a hike, and Wednesday it would be, regardless of the weather. When we met up at the starting point, a mixed precipitation was drizzling down, just on the edge between rain and snow. Up at Newfound Gap it was all snow, and the crew at LeConte Lodge were getting yet more new accumulation to offset partial melting that had occurred since last week’s big dump.

I’d been wanting to check out a huge new landslide scar route off Trout Branch that was pioneered by Greg Harrell. He didn’t just happen to notice it, he went out deliberately looking for new scars soon after hearing that LeConte had received six inches of rain in a day, early in August. Looking across from the Chimneys, he saw a brand-new jagged opening that extends all the way down from the 5200′ point on Alum Cave trail where it slabs around Peregrine Peak, down past Big Duck Hawk ridge and on to Trout Branch. Since then, he’s been up a couple times with other people. He and Chris Sass did a trip in late September, and Chris got some really nice photos that you can see here.

I especially recommend Chris’s photos because I had an embarrassing mishap with my camera as James and I climbed up the slide. After switching to heavier gloves, I accidentally set the camera in video mode, and it stayed that way the whole way up the interesting section. Duh!!! I ended up with a set of short, wobbly, substandard videos from each time I turned the camera on. The frame capture shown at top is the best I can offer. My apologies!

When we started up Trout Branch, we found patchy snow conditions in the surrounding woods and moderately high water.

Lower Trout Branch

At 4000′, we reached a distinctive tabletop boulder that marks the spot a couple of small stream basins join the main stem of Trout Branch. This is the place where the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club turned to climb up to Big Duck Hawk in July 2011.

The tabletop boulder at 4000′.

But things have gotten rearranged since then. You don’t really need to watch for the tabletop boulder, because just to your right is a giant pile of debris left from the landslide, trees heaped on top of each other, the bark peeled right off many of them. The force evidenced by this is simpy astounding.

You can make out the debris pile past where James is standing.

Awe-inspiring force is represented by this debris.

We climbed up the scar, reaching the interesting band of sandstone shown at top. Everything was stripped down to bare rock as high as 25 or 30′ up on both sides. It must have been a cataclysm.

In a couple of places we took to the woods on either side and found the amount of slushy snow deepening as we climbed, but nowhere above about knee deep. In the scar itself, the snow had mostly been washed away or melted. We crossed the geological boundary line to Anakeesta and found it to be a certain variety with lots of spiky textures that helped gaining a foothold but no clear strata as you find sometimes with this type of rock.

The way grew steeper in that classic progression of Smokies slopes, and up at the very top we had some tough scrabbling to get up an unstable slope of gravelly soil and loose rock. We came out on the Alum Cave trail just as a hiker passed by. The steepness was such that I had my hands on the edge of the trail right next to his feet starting to pull myself up, and he politely asked if I wanted a hand!

In the chilly, snowy conditions, we opted to hike down the trail rather than descending via Big Duck Hawk or some variation off of it. The fog was so thick that you could hardly see Alum Cave even when right underneath it, and Inspiration Point featured whiteness of an inspiring intensity. And so a short but fascinating hike ended.

Big Duck Hawk Ridge July 24, 2011

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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Along Big Duck Hawk

I’ve been on Big Duck Hawk before, but I had never approached it via the route that Greg Hoover and Craig Hutto led it yesterday for the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club. We rockhopped up Trout Branch about a half mile to a small tributary and followed it up to a goodsized landslide scar and scrambled up that to the top of the ridge, coming out on its most interesting section. Then we went back down the same way. Total mileage was not even quite two miles. It took us six hours.

The Park Service does not have a ban on BDH, but they do on Little Duck Hawk, its narrower ridge companion. LDH is also known as Hole-in-Rock Mountain, and it is easily viewed from Alum Cave Bluff. I have traveled on it in the days before the ban.

LDH as viewed from BDH

Trout Branch was flowing fast and high, which made wading necessary much of the time. None of my stream pictures came out very well. For some excellent shots, go to this page on Dave Landreth’s Griztrax site. He is a great photographer. But just to give you a feel, here are a few shots.

Hikers along the stream

Ed Fleming prepares to cross the stream

Greg Hoover watches over his flock

Our group takes a break at the junction with the tributary

When we turned onto the tributary, we encountered a series of cascades. I think Greg Harrell was the only one who attempted to climb up them—an awful lot of water was flowing over them. I was too busy negotiating my way around the edges to take pictures on this stretch. Eventually we reached the slide, which featured the classic loose, brittle Anakeesta that you find in areas that haven’t had long enough exposure to weathering processes to turn them into the fine rock staircases you encounter on the Chimney Tops, Charlies Bunion, and the crests of the two Duck Hawk ridges.

Looking up the slide

It was steep, but it had enough footholds to make it climbable except at the very top, where we had to head over to some brush on the side in order to have something to hold onto.

Popping out on the top of the ridge

We had lunch and explored up and down the ridge a little ways. Clouds hovered overhead—a welcome shelter from the sweltering sun we’ve all been suffering through the past week.

You feel as though you are up in the sky

On the way down, the wetness of the slide made it harder to keep solid footing, which meant that the faster members of the group paid the price of having the others shower down loose rock upon them. Fortunately, no one was injured.

By the time we got back to Trout Branch, I was so wet and dirty that I welcomed its cool, refreshing waters. In fact, when we reached the bridge, I removed my pack and immersed myself in the water! Then I dripped my way back to the car, where I had a dry change of clothes. A fine outing of eleven adventurous souls.