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East Fork of Porters and its side valleys September 17, 2010

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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East Fork, April 1987

The photo above shows the East Fork of Porters Creek as it looked nearly three years following a massive washout that occurred July 1984. (If you click on the photo for the zoom, you’ll see the hikers descending it and get a better idea of the scale.) By sheer chance, the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club had descended the East Fork the day after the washout occurred, after climbing the Jumpoff via Lester Prong, and I was fortunate to be on that outing, as well as the one pictured above a few years later, when we came down after going up the USGS Bunion.

Yesterday I went up the East Fork. This is what it looks like now at a comparable elevation. I’m sorry the pictures are blurry. I have my new camera, but I obviously need to change the way I hold it when I take pictures! (Maybe something to do with it being a lot smaller than my old one.)

Looking down the East Fork 26 years later

The regenerative power of the Smokies is pretty amazing! You’ll notice the spindly trees that are growing in along the banks. The photo below, taken lower down, gives a better sense of the young tree growth.

Spindly young trees along the creek

But my main reason for exploring up the East Fork was to see if I could find a certain side valley that I’d mentioned in my hiking journal back in the 80s. In April 1985 the SMHC went up the stream to look at the washout, and my entry described a place where the washout forked and five people went to the left and the rest of the group went to the right. The five who went to the left were Matt Kelleher, Rob Hawk, Brian Worley, Andy Zenick, and myself. I’d described a very exciting climb up a steep rocky draw with some interesting scrambling. But when I looked at the map, I couldn’t figure it out at all. It looks like all the steep terrain is to the southeast, going up to the Sawteeth. The north side of the stream is a flank of Porters Mountain, not as steep—and no clear side valley is shown.

Map showing East Fork with side routes drawn in (the one I did is to the north, other interesting-looking ones to the south)

So I went up the Dry Sluice manway, following the famous cairns, and stayed to the east where the manway follows the South Fork of Porters.

Not all the cairns are as obvious as this one!

It’s been a long time since I’ve been up the manway past the Lester Prong junction, and I was struck by how much slower it is than it used to be in the 80s, partly because it is much more overgrown and partly because at many stream crossings you have to hunt around a bit to see where it goes. I remember it as having been nearly as easy to follow as a maintained trail.

I climbed up the draw, pushing through quite a bit of nettles, blackberry, and witch hobble. At around 4600′, I passed a side valley on the left that looked as though it might be the bottom of the route described in my journal.

Side valley leading northeast from East Fork

I wasn’t sure if that was it, so I continued on. I came to some blowdowns that presented serious obstructions.

This was lots of fun to get around

And this was even more fun!

And so I worked my way up to Porters Gap. I am thinking that this route is not quite so much of a bargain as it used to be as an alternative descent route to the Dry Sluice manway.

At any rate, I did not see any other side valleys that looked like possible candidates. So now that I know where it is, I plan to go back and climb up it. From the map above, you would think it would be a totally wimpy route. Here is how I described the upper section in my journal: “I climbed up the steep chute that must have been a turbulent watercourse during the flash flood. All around, I saw rocks in different sizes and shapes, no plants, nothing green. When I arrived at the top of this chute, I saw an ugly brown scar that fanned out above me. We were climbing up bare plates of exposed rock, inching our way upward like flies on a wall. I found myself on a massive slab tilted at an uncomfortably vertical angle…” And so we climbed to the ridgecrest, which was actually the upper ridge of Porters Mountain, reaching it close to the A.T.

But still, I find myself gazing curiously at the extremely rugged terrain of the Sawteeth. I think the first ridge on the right after the forking of Porters looks doable, and maybe some of the draws further east—I saw yesterday where that valley comes in at around 4200 (it forks further up). The valley below the “BM” on the map looks too steep, but the others look not too bad, or maybe you could escape to one of the neighboring ridges if it got too steep (as the easternmost one does at the top). Something to think about!

So many places to explore…

Cardinal flower (red lobelia) seen on lower Porters Creek trail