Wednesday, February 24, 2016

I've heard the term elusive used to describe Buckeye Falls a lot over the years. The first research I did on it almost five years ago stated that the man that had found the base on that site had attempted it four times before being successful. Scrapping together bits and pieces of information from several sources, I made my first attempt to the base with my friend Kip four years ago. We passed the turn up the correct drainage before coming to a small cascade on Clark's Creek and turning back and finding the route up to the base. It was on this trip that I found out why so many people had failed on their quest to stand below the mighty Buckeye.
The birth of the love hate relationship with Buckeye Falls for John Lane. Just about 20 more to go.
Yeah...more trail shots.
Just a few feet apart, the elevation is so much higher.
But worth your work.

The hike starts out innocent enough following an old forest road that today serves as a horse trail. A few feet out of the truck requires an immediate crossing of Clark's Creek. I've hiked to the base four times now and can tell you, if the water isn't up over your shins or higher you're wasting your time if you want to see a good flow on Buckeye Falls. The trail continues on for over 3.5 miles and some 20 creek crossings before it eventually turns into a total creek wade near the drainage of the falls. The hike up the creek the falls is on gains around 600ft in elevation and the trail is the creek itself. If you haven't figured it out yet, the hike is hard and if you visit the falls under optimal conditions you will be wet and cold...for miles.
I can't tell you how hard and how steep that climb is.
This log is important. Please remember it for a later illustration.
We were really high on the waterfall when we realized we couldn't safely descend.
Rope to the rescue.
Down we go.

A few weeks ago, John Lane and I planned a day in the Smokies but when I woke up to a botched forecast and overcast skies I asked if he would like to hike to the base of the crown jewel of the Clark's Creek area. The week had been filled with rain and snow but a warm front had settled over the area driving temperatures into the low 60's and I saw a perfect window to creek wade despite it being late January. When we arrived at the dead end on Clark's Creek road, I quickly slipped on my waders and walked out into the creek with the water almost spilling over the top of them just below the knee! John was busy packing up his gear for the trip when I walked back to the truck with the good news. Unfortunately John doesn't own waders and instead was wearing his old sneakers. I felt bad that he was going to have cold feet and I was going to be dry so I changed into my old hiking shoes to join him in the cold feet club. I tossed him a pair of heated insoles for his shoes and we were off to Buckeye. The creek crossings were tough with swift currents and some of them hit John just below the groin but after a few hours we were hiking up the drainage to the base. At the base, I pointed out a fallen log that was wedged perfectly between two trees making a bench. We decided to climb up the far right side of the falls to enjoy a snack and admire the view. John had packed some extra bacon egg and cheese biscuits and as we ate a heavy fog swept up the valley swallowing us up. When it came time to hike down, we realized the rain had made the terrain too slick to climb down the grade without a rope. Luckily, John was prepared with a length of rope that got us far enough down the side of the falls that we were able to scoot back down to level ground without injury. The conditions that day started a Buckeye Falls fever of sorts and as we hiked out I talked about the possibility of seeing the whole waterfall from the left ridge and an even better view further away on Chigger Ridge.
Looking back at the falls now completely covered in fog.
New strategy, were gonna crab walk outta here.
Jason to the lead and continuing down "the trail."
Back on Clark's Creek the water had went up since we hiked in.

Fast forward to last Thursday and John took a vacation day for our attempt to find the viewpoint of Buckeye Falls on Chigger Ridge. I elected to hike up from Higgins Creek to Bearwallow Gap since I had hiked to the gap before without knowing really where I was going but merely stretching some miles with my buddy Steve a few years ago. I asked my friend Melissa about the route from Bearwallow Gap and looking back on her directions now they were flawless, but our execution was not. When John and I arrived at the trail head at the end of Lower Higgins Creek road the creek was raging and I was hoping my waders would keep me dry at the crossings since I had woke with a sore throat and fever. I wasn't about to cancel on John since he had used his vacation day and I figured a good sweat might make me feel better. It was immediately evident that my legs didn't agree with my logic and I lagged behind as we climbed up by the falls on Higgins. The higher we climbed we noticed a change in the weather as well. A very elevation dependent snow had blanketed the higher elevations the night before and as we neared Bearwallow Gap it became more and more of a winter wonderland. Snow and ice clinged to everything and John and I stopped to photo the postcard blue skies and snow covered landscape. The photo breaks helped me get some wind back in my lungs and helped me get back to a more normal pace as we passed the blue gate at Bearwallow Gap.
Before we reached Bearwallow Gap, the snow started to pile up on the hunt for Chigger Ridge.
I was dry for a few minutes.
John's feet on the logging road. You can see how low the laurel was down over the trail.

From the gap, the trail becomes an old logging road. The road starts out easy and John and I were in high spirits knowing we were marching toward Chigger Ridge and a snowy Buckeye Falls scene. My excitement, as many times before, was short lived. Mountain Laurel lined the trail and the weight of the snow had the limbs doubled over blocking the trail. I spent long stretches of the three miles out the road bent over getting doused with cold wet snow. John once again was wearing his trusty tennis shoes so I tried to stay out front so he could at least have some boot prints to step in and keep the snow off his feet. By the time we reached the very obvious turn down Longarm Branch that Melissa had blazed years ago, I was soaked from all the snow. Occasionally the trail would open up and I would have a break from the awkward hiking and waterboarding to get some great views down the Clark's Creek valley and you could see as far as Greeneville, TN. Near the end of the road it takes a hairpin turn to the left and straight uphill. The trail was fairly open for us and when it leveled off it made a turn to the right and into some serious deadfall. Negotiating all of it was burning up my energy and when we escaped the tangle we turned up a small stream for a few feet that I determined to be Chigger Branch.
Ice covered trees.
This branch held a lot of snow to be so little.
"Hey John, someone has been this way for something."

Here's where the heartbreak began for John and I that day. The snow had weighed down the branches of the laurel hiding the creek crossing we should have took to our right and forcing us upstream to a faded piece of flagging tape in the middle of the branch. The trail was gone. It was as if it dead ended in the creek. Not a cut branch, piece of tape, nothing was visible on either side of the ridge. I told John I would hike on upstream to look for anything and suddenly way up on the right side of the ridge I saw some pink tape on a broken tree limb. I called back to John and we climbed up the steep ridge just picking our way up the most open route we could to meet the ridge line. When we popped out on level ground, we were surrounded by laurel and nothing as far as a view was concerned. A faint animal path appeared to go both ways on the spine of the ridge. To our right was downhill grade and uphill on our left. Knowing what I know now, we were only about a hundred yards or more Above what is the lookout on Chigger Ridge. We had hiked up the Larry Jarrett/Randy Tarpley/Black Bear route shortcut. I couldn't see the surrounding landscape for the laurel so I took us higher and started seeing cut branches as we picked our way through a hell of a maze. A piece of checkerboard flagging tape here and there started building my confidence again and we climbed higher until we mercifully were freed of the laurel and found ourselves on a wide level ridge that started curving to the right. I could see off the mountain and I told John that I thought we might be a little higher than we should be and we possibly were hiking toward Wilson Knob. The flagging tape continued on and so did we, climbing higher and higher and I was trudging instead of hiking by this point when I noticed something off to my left in the woods. A wooden shelter appeared with a old stove and several barrels inside of it. I was amazed that someone had came all this way to build a shelter and from the newer looking tarp and fresh ashes under the stove, it was obvious someone had recently used it. We took time to take a break and John fished his phone out to check signal and his GPS. When we were able to get enough signal, we saw that we were tracking above the falls toward the summit of Wilson Knob. I decided we needed to start our hike back since it was already past 3pm and we had over five hard miles of hiking between us and safety, but not before we knocked back a delicious craft brew he had brought to celebrate our hike.
Looking down the ridge. It was so steep and this was our view for a long way.
Deep snow and a broken giant hiking on.
Although we weren't looking for it, this shelter had a roof and dry firewood. If I had been off the next day, I would have stayed.

John took the failure of not finding Buckeye Falls that day better than me and I tried hard to disguise my disappointment pointing out all of the beauty we had seen along the way. After settling in for the evening and reviewing maps, GPS, and consulting with Melissa, it was even more agonizing that I had missed my target. I thought about it when I went to sleep at night and when I woke up in the morning. I had to go back and redeem myself, it would drive me crazy until I did.
Soaked and disappointed, I hiked out to regroup.

Yesterday, I was off and there was only one hiking destination on my mind. I only told Amber where I was going and told her if I hadn't contacted her by dark to call John Lane, he would know where I was. I've been on good behavior with solo hiking since my Linville disaster trip but Buckeye wouldn't let me rest until I got it off my mind. I packed my overnight pack with extra clothes, food, and a way to build a fire, and dug my rusty machete out of retirement for an equalizer against the laurel. I arrived at the trail head around 11:13am and found another hiker arriving to hike up to the falls on Higgins Creek. Speaking of Higgins, the creek was even higher from two straight days of heavy rains but I was so determined to go to Chigger Ridge wet feet were the least of my concerns. Surprisingly, I made incredible timing arriving at Bearwallow Gap in less than an hour and my legs were solid having shaken my cold symptoms from a few days earlier. The biggest surprise of all was the condition of the old logling road. The laurel were free of snow and had lifted so much that I didn't have to duck at all or use my machete. It was a literal stroll to Chigger Branch. Larry Jarrett had messaged me saying I had went the exact route he takes to Chigger on my previous trip but Melissa had pointed out a longer route that could possibly be more defined. I crossed the branch picking up a faint but obvious path to the right winding around the ridge. I could see the cut branches and depended on those to find the way more than flagging tape as I noticed some of it had fell to the ground. When I reached the opposite side of the ridge I found an opening up a saddle between two ridges but no distinguishable signs of a trail. I decided to head up to the ridge and knocked a piece of bark of an old tree as a marker to find my way back. When I got to the top of the ridge I didn't see Buckeye and my heart sunk a little but luckily my ears didn't fail me. To my left and uphill I could hear water coming from a distant ridge. The ridge line was easy to follow and I passed by a large oak with a yellow piece of metal stuck in the tree. I WAS GOING THE RIGHT WAY! I remember Melissa telling me that there was a yellow marker on a tree near the viewpoint. A short distance later the ridge leveled off completely and to my right through the trees, I could see Buckeye Falls. I stayed on the ridge for maybe fifty more yards when I noticed a flurry of flagging tape, pink and blue led me downhill to a jaw-dropping open view of the falls. Believe me when I tell you this, words do not do the scene justice. I flopped down on the ground and dropped my pack from my shoulders and just sat there for a few minutes before doing anything.
Good sign for attempt two at Chigger Ridge. Higgins Creek was pumping!
Upper Higgins Creek Falls was a nice side trip.
The opening on the ridge...could this be it?
Looking back down the saddle, see the trail don't ya?
I could have kissed that yellow diamond.
At last! Buckeye Falls from Chigger Ridge. Ready for the serious photos.

When I came back from my trance, I carefully unpacked my camera and checked the lens for any smudges before setting up my tripod to capture the falls. I had to use my only zoom lens and was pleased with the images I was seeing on the playback. I spent well over an hour on the ridge and ate my lunch, recorded a few videos, and eventually had to add some layers of clothes because of the increasing wind. Buckeye had a perfect flow and the cloud that blew in just as I arrived over the sun made for perfect photo conditions. Truly, redemption has never felt better. I couldn't help but think of John and the torturous snow hike I had put him through a few days earlier but I was encouraged that I could lead him back so he could appreciate the wonder of a full view of Buckeye Falls for himself.
Buckeye Falls from the Canon Rebel.
Closer look of the falls and some ice still lingering at the base.
One of my favorites from the day.
Different filter on the lens doesn't matter, Buckeye is still impressive.
Now remember the log? In the image to the left it's circled. Whether it's the highest waterfall east of the Rockies or not, there's no denying it's a monster.

Buckeye Falls is one of my favorite hikes for a number of reasons. The sense of accomplishment each time I reached the base of the falls had never diminished. I've seen it completely dried up on a brutally humid summer day and frozen over with large chunks of ice in the winter. The flow from a trickle, to a full force waterfall that can be heard for over half a mile away on the adjacent ridge, and through it all, I always find myself ready to go back. Until next time, happy trails!

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Just a few hours remain in the year 2015 and I can't think of a better way than wrapping it up than to tell a hiking story. Tonight's entry actually was a year in the making and the culmination of a goal I set on this day in 2014. In that year, I hiked 386 miles and decided that I surely could manage 400 miles in 2015 but after wrestling with it in my mind, I rounded it up to 500. I made a Facebook page to mark my progress and headed out for a night of darts and drinks with friends to ring in the new year.
Charlie's Bunion. New Year's Day 2015.
Shows up an hour early. Shovels out two parking places for hiking in knee deep snow.

The following morning I was up early and on the road to the Smokies for a hike to Charlie's Bunion with a group of friends, and after one day I had eight miles. I hiked again on January 4th and netted four miles, and again on the 7th, and slowly the miles started to pile up. At the end of January I had already hiked 70 miles and felt like my goal was well in hand but February had other plans. The weather took a turn for the worse and I worked the majority of the month limiting my production. A slip at Buckeye Falls resulted in a torn ligament in my ankle and suddenly I was behind of the pace needed to meet my goal. With the arrival of March came better weather and a healing ankle helping me get back on pace and exceed the 44 miles needed to stay on pace for the month. The April showers did little to dampen my spirits and more miles piled up and I spotted my first ever bobcat in the wild and fished a drowning friend out of the Devil's Bathtub.  In May, I marveled at the wildflowers and the little things along the way and I started seeing a change from my frantic pace to truly savoring the experience, but another mishap caused me to break my toe while solo hiking at Monkeyhead Rocks in Erwin. The diagnosis was to take four weeks off to allow it to heal, as I write the blog tonight, It's more crooked than ever and still sore.

Josiah Falls with Amy and (not pictured) Mike Castle.

Behind an off trail waterfall in Jefferson National Forest with Shane and Halley.

Hanging with the girl scouts behind Little Stony Falls.

and Fund Raising for JDRF on the Sand Cave hike.
Warmer weather and the month of June had me craving the water and I gave up several hiking opportunities to float the river instead. However, I did pass the halfway point of my goal at mile 250 with Amber in the Grayson Highlands and a play date with the wild ponies. Bouncing from town to town on work assignment I spent many evenings hiking alone but as the calendar flipped to July, I reunited with one of my former coworkers on a memorable race against dark hike in the hills of Appalachia and then at the end of the month I even got Mike Castle out on the trail for a hike with Halley and I to Devil's Creek and a refreshing swim at dusk to celebrate mile 300.
All smiles at Devil's Creek.
Amber decided it was this pony's birthday.
Refreshing and recharging. Mile 300 at Devil's Creek Falls.

Feeling confident in my efforts and mileage, I eased into August with a more relaxed pace......just kidding. Having reconnected with my childhood nemesis Amy Hall, I discovered her love for long hikes and marched her through the Roan Highlands and a fifteen mile day in the sweltering heat of dog days. To celebrate my anniversary I revisited Chimney Tops with Amber and Jeff Forrester since he was the one who led us to that awful climb over four years ago.  As August faded and September arrived I entered the month knowing mile 400 was well within my grasp and my overconfidence about put me in the ground. In the Linville Gorge while hiking alone, I ran out of water, fainted, and later encountered bears at dusk. It made for a great story but also served as a harsh lesson and it was my last long mileage solo hike of the year.
South Carolina waterfall huntin'
So that's how the Roan Highlands keep their balds.

Shane peeled away from work and Chattanooga long enough to take one of the best hikes of the year from Low Gap to Damascus and the craft beer at the end of the day never tasted better. Back in Virginia, I spent an evening hiking with Henry, Becky, and Jon to the Killing Rock near Pound, Virginia and nearly laughed myself to death when Henry realized he parked in human feces. Near the end of the month I marked the 400 mile mark with my Godchild on a trip to Laurel Falls near Hampton, Tennessee.
Poor Josh. Hiked straight up a mountain in work clothes and boots that weigh more than me.
Baize and I were excited to see mile 400 fall in the Laurel Fork Gorge.

October is by far my favorite month to hike and I did plenty of it with a vacation purposely scheduled to coincide with peak leaf season. A visit to the Talus Fields with Halley, a hike to Buzzard Rock with Amy, and a special father and son day in the Unaka Mountains helped me reel in the dream of mile 500. As the leaves faded and the calendar turned to my least favorite month of the year I was only a few miles shy of my goal. I couldn't think of a better person to let choose the finale than Shane Estep. Shane had hiked with me as much as anyone throughout the year and when he suggested the Pinnacle in Abingdon I happily agreed.
Dad climbing to Pinnacle Tower.
The mighty Talus Fields and my favorite four legged hiker, Sallie Gator.

The Pinnacle is a really short hike at a little over a mile round trip, so I took a few short hikes to get to mile 499 and the celebration hike with some of my friends. On a crisp Sunday morning, I met with eight of my friends in Abingdon for the short ride over to the trail head to the Pinnacle. It was a perfect collection of hikers with Amber, Shane, Halley, Kinlee, Amy, Steve, and John braving the chill to spend a day playing among the unique boulders in the shadow of Brumley Mountain. The hike may be short but it's a leg burner and we all gasped for air throughout the climb. When we mercifully reached the top, we shared hugs and laughs as everyone spread out to explore. Sitting here thinking about it now, all I can do is smile.
Window of opportunity from Buzzard Rock.
Mile 500! Pinnacle Rock, Abingdon, Va.

Having achieved my goal, I can now look back on one of the better years of my life. As the year progressed, I learned that it was less about the miles and the goal as it was the friendships formed along the way. Shane and Halley stuck with me through tough terrain and all kinds of weather while Amy and John may have arrived late to the party, but piled on some long days of rough hiking with me while laughing the entire way. Finally I would be foolish not to mention how much Amber's patience and understanding played in helping me achieve my goal. She wasn't always as excited to go hiking with me but always willing to listen to my story when I got home. I couldn't have done this without her. Until next time...happy trails
Mission Accomplished...