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Wrestling with Balsam Ridge manway March 31, 2013

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, nature, plants, Smoky Mountains.
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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.

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Ridges of Upper Bradley Fork February 25, 2013

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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Bradley east half

These are the names I’ve given these places. I don’t know of anyone who’s explored here.

Upper Blindside. What an amazing place!

Blindside Ridge. What an amazing place!

Yesterday I set out to circle the entire Bradley Fork watershed. My goal: to see if I could get a good look at the ridges among the upper realms of the three major headwater streams: Chasm Prong, Frowning Rock Prong, and Gulf Prong.

The hike’s dimensions were 24.6 miles and somewhere around 5,000 total vertical feet. (I’d estimated 4,400 beforehand but the cumulative gain function on my altimeter said 5,260 vertical feet. This route has a lot of small ups and downs.)  I started at Smokemont campground, took the Bradley Fork trail to Hughes Ridge to Pecks Corner, followed the A.T. across to what the Park calls the Dry Sluice Gap trail (former Richland Mountain trail), and down that to Bradley Fork to complete my circle.

The light was dim when I started hiking at 6:30, but just light enough that I didn’t need to use my headlamp. Because access to most of the campground was gated off, I had to walk its length to get to the Bradley trailhead. And once I reached the trail, there was no avoiding the tedium of its first four miles, as I slogged along a wide, flat gravel road beside the stream.

The saving grace is that most of the way I had views of one of the lovely big streams of the Smokies.

Lower Bradley Fork

Lower Bradley Fork

Four miles of slogging.

Four miles of slogging. Ho, hum.

But keep in mind that the long, tedious approach is part of why the upper part of the watershed is so wild. People don’t want to go through all that to get there. And apparently Champion Fibre didn’t get up into the headwaters back in the logging days, either. Maps of old-growth forest at the time of the Park’s creation indicate that logging did not take place above the confluence of Chasm and Gulf Prongs, below which is given the Bradley Fork name. In the lower area, of course, Champion had a gigantic timbering operation that fed its mill in Canton.

Even after the Bradley Fork trail leaves the lower valley to climb up to Hughes Ridge, it uses a wide logging grade that only narrows to a footpath about halfway up. Everywhere, I saw evidence of the January floods. Water had scoured leaves, twigs, and topsoil from the trails, leaving rubble with debris piled up behind the stones.

Evidence of flooding.

Evidence of flooding.

In places, the floods had deposited fine silt almost the consistency of quicksand, where a boot could sink in three or four inches deep.

Once on Hughes Ridge, I had good views across the upper Enloe Creek valley to Katalska Ridge, which miraculously avoided the trailbuilding of its neighbors on either side, Hughes and Hyatt. It is covered with red spruce from top to bottom, and I would like to explore there.

I began to encounter snow and ice. Pecks Corner looked wintry, and I put on my microspikes there for traction where snow packed down by footprints had turned icy.

Shelter at Peck's Corner.

Shelter at Peck’s Corner.

I kept the spikes on for eight miles. I ran into bare ground in sunny places, but the ice always returned. In most places things were crispy and crunchy—not much melting going on.

After I turned west on the A.T., I came to my first view of the upper ridges. Although I had been on this trail section once before, it was on a rainy day with zero visibility. Therefore everything that I could see off to the sides was new to me. But I’d been looking at it on maps for a long time.

Nice, but nothing too exciting until you start looking closer.

Nice, but nothing too exciting until you start looking closer.

I could see landslides and rocky ridges.

I could see landslides and rocky ridges.

I continued along the trail, passing big icicles.

Icicles along the trail.

Icicles along the trail.

I came to an old landslide. The Anakeesta rock and the whole aspect reminded me of slides on the Boulevard and Alum Cave trails on LeConte.

Landslide on Gulf Prong headwaters.

Landslide on Gulf Prong headwaters.

I soon came to Bradley’s View, which I’d been looking forward to. I spent a long time here, checking the features I saw against my map, using my compass to match things up. The hard part was that the map had no names that I could refer to for any of the ridges. So I gave them my own names.

Looking straight down from Bradley's View.

Looking straight down from Bradley’s View.

Gulf Prong makes a great sweeping curve around a ridge, the top of which is rocky and impossible to see from most places. I called it Hidden Ridge. The reverse-question-mark shape of the stream reminds me of Raven Fork as it swoops around Breakneck Ridge. And certain patterns repeat in the ridges as well as the streams.

Look at the narrow rocky spine that goes across, a wide ridge close and just behind it, Hughes Ridge in the background.

Hidden Ridge: look at the narrow rocky spine that goes across, another ridge close behind it, Hughes Ridge in the background.

Location of Hidden Ridge.

Location of Hidden Ridge.

The Castle is the blocky heath-covered point across from Hidden Ridge.

The Castle is what I call the blocky heath-covered point that rises from Gulf Prong near the Frowning Rock junction.

To the west, Fortress Ridge divides Chasm Prong and Frowning Rock Prong.

Fortress Ridge is the long bumpy ridge below Richland Mountain.

Fortress Ridge is the long bumpy divide between Chasm and Frowning Rock, shown here below Richland Mountain.

Blindside Ridge, Fishtail Ridge behind it.

Blindside Ridge, Fishtail Ridge behind it.

I called the second ridge over to the west Fishtail because of the way it terminates in two points. My view of it from this angle was partially obstructed, but the ridge beyond that—Frowning Rock Ridge—could not be seen at all. On the map at the top of this post, you’ll see its very strange-looking contours, coming to a pronounced spine with impressively vertical sides. As it turned out, I could not get a good view of Frowning Rock Ridge from any point near the trail. It would have to be seen from Fishtail Ridge or Fortress Ridge.

At last I left Bradley’s View and continued west. Looking back beyond Peck’s, I could see Eagle Rocks, which I hope to visit (via Eagle Rocks Prong) later this year.

Telephoto view of Eagle Rocks.

Telephoto view of Eagle Rocks.

View down from close to Blindside - A.T. junction.

View down from close to Blindside – A.T. junction.

I followed the A.T. where it wends around the north side of Laurel Top. The only other time I’ve been here was on the famous October 2009 backpack up and over Woolly Tops, when we ended up exiting the Eagle Rocks drainage to Laurel Top because of heavy rains.

Junction of Laurel/Woolly ridge with A.T.

Junction of Laurel/Woolly ridge with A.T.

Laurel Top 2009.

Same place, 2009.

Before yesterday, I’d never been on the stretch of A.T. from Laurel Top west to Porters Gap. You might think that’s an odd gap in my trail experience—no side trails join the A.T. at those two points. Yes, those are the odd sorts of things that happen with bushwhackers.

As I came around the west side of Laurel Top to join the main ridge again, I had a view of the upper west flank of Fishtail.

Upper West Fishtail.

Upper West Fishtail.

I explored off the south side of the trail to see if I could get a good view of Frowning Rock Ridge, which joins the A.T. very close to this point. I could see the topmost spruce-covered portion but not the interesting portion of bare rock.

Spruce-covered top portion of Frowning Rock Ridge.

Spruce-covered top portion of Frowning Rock Ridge.

I’d hoped to do a downclimb of the ridge just far enough to reach the rocky section, but given the time, I decided this was too much to add on to my trail marathon.

I continued along the A.T., passing False Gap and Porters Gap. Along the way I met two separate thru-hikers (early birds!), trail maintainer Pete Berntsen with the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club, out with his hand saw (dedicated!), and two other guys backpacking.

Glancing down the familiar top chute of Dry Sluice manway, I turned off on the Dry Sluice trail. I wonder if the Park calls it by that name so that people will stop talking about and using the manway of the same name? But I have to admit the former “Richland Mountain” name was confusing too, as the current trail leaves the old CCC Richland trail to drop into the Bradley valley along Tennessee Branch.

I still had nine miles to go, and I officially entered Death March mode at this point, checking my watch, estimating my arrival time for each junction. When I reached Bradley Fork, I made an effort to admire the stream as I retraced those long four miles along it. And it was beautiful, but I was too glazed over to appreciate it.

I’ve been talking to people over the past weeks about the Bradley Fork headwaters. It’s interesting that despite my picking the brains of various victims and reaching out to old-timer bushwacking types who’ve explored on the North Carolina side, I haven’t come up with a single person so far who’s journeyed up those streams, climbed up those ridges, ventured into that mysterious region. Let me know if you have.

The Bradley headwaters could be reached by going out the A.T. from Newfound and dropping down, or going up and over from False Gap Prong and/or Kalanu Prong in the Greenbrier, but the “righteous” way is to go up Bradley. That probably means camping at the Cabin Flats backcountry site, up at that four-mile point. Maybe with a fishing rod or a deck of cards, that wouldn’t be so bad…

Snow on the A.T.

Snow on the A.T.