Thursday, August 28, 2014

Amber hates hiking. She tells me this every time I ask her to join me. It's always too hot or too cold, too steep or too dangerous, too far or most times, just simply, "NO!" Despite her hatred for the trails, she's a really good hiker. It always starts out the same, arguing the entire way to the trail, followed by cursing me on the hike in, loving the moment when she arrives at the destination, then back to cursing me on the hike out. On the drive home she raves about how wonderful it was and it wasn't nearly as bad as she thought it would be, but she will never, EVER, do it again!

Enter Alabama.

My college roommate and good friend, Ben Ezell moved to Alabama with his wife Carrie and their collection of animals to reside in one of the finest lake houses I've ever laid eyes on. When Amber and I planned our vacation I suggested we visit The Ezell's for some late summer fun on the water and of course the slightest chance of a tiny, short, easy, smooth hike. After confirming with Ben and Carrie, we were on our way to Bama for a week of relaxation.

On the drive into Alabama we took a lazy stretch of four lane known as Highway 72. I spotted a brown forest service sign indicating a point of interest and in bold print was "WALLS OF JERICHO 25 Miles." I first heard of the Walls of Jericho on a road side in North Carolina. I met author Mark Morrision who is from Georgia and said it was a must see if I ever found myself in Alabama. He cautioned us to visit the walls in times of good rain preferably the spring or fall since the creeks in the gorge can dry up easily. As fate would have it, as we passed the forest service sign it was also raining as hard as I can ever remember! I told Amber that it was a sign that God wants us to see the Walls of Jericho. A quick "NO" and we scooted on down the road to the intersection with Interstate 65. Soon we were meeting Ben outside of Cullman, Alabama and on our way to the lake house. The rain was relentless, it continued the entire drive and well after we were in the comfort of our residence for the next few days. God was giving me the water I needed to see the Walls of Jericho.

Further compounding my chances of seeing a trail on my vacation was the fact that it was also our three year wedding anniversary, Wednesday to be exact, the only day that Ben could possibly join me on a hike. Late Tuesday night after a long day of lake fun, I made a final plea to Amber, and miraculously, she agreed we could hike on our anniversary!
Amber and Ben starting down the trail.
The footbridge across the creek.
Climbing through the gorge.
The drainage from the main falls leaving a cave.

The next morning Amber, Ben, and I made the two hour drive back to the Walls of Jericho near the Tennessee border. We arrived at the trail head around 10am and started hiking the 2.5 miles to the main waterfall in the gorge. The hike really is easy going in, traveling downhill the majority of the way and Amber stayed in good spirits well into the first mile before realizing we had to return the same route. Switch backs lowered us further into the gorge and we began passing some sink holes. I began hearing water and could see a creek further down and we hiked along it's banks reaching a long wooden foot bridge. The trail turned muddy and it was challenging trying to keep our feet clean. Ben and Amber got along really well and we all stayed together as we crossed the creek near a cemetery for the final half mile of the hike. The trail continues upstream and with every weed laid over for about a 25ft stretch on either side of the creek, Monday's rain had caused some serious flash flooding. The flow had backed down a lot but was still a little cloudy, without that rain the creek would have been completely dry! I was first to see the lower falls in the gorge and thought is this all there is? Amber was behind me and said, "Is this ALL it is?" There were two other hikers swimming in the bright green water hole and I asked how much further to the main falls and was a little surprised when they told me only a couple hundred yards. The walls of the gorge were gray rock cliffs with water springing from seemingly ever crack and crevice. We climbed over the ledges finding deep stagnant pools and small waterfalls leaving from caves. Amber took the lead and I helped over a steep ledge continuing to climb upstream. Before I could join her, she returned to the edge and said, "Jason, there's nothing up here but more rock!" I felt like I would possibly die on my anniversary if there was nothing else to see, so I jumped up and climbed over another ledge and there in a large hole worn out by water was a beautiful 35ft high waterfall. Truthfully, I've seen better waterfalls but with the overall scene was fantastic! Amber and Ben joined me on the brink of the gorge and Ben and I climbed down the piles of rock to reach the base of the falls. The waterfall doesn't flow away like it would on most creeks but instead pools deeply and drains through underground caves reemerging downstream above the lower waterfall. Eventually I coaxed Amber down to join us and it was a great feeling having my wife with me at such a wonderful place at the exact time she was walking down the aisle three years earlier!
Ben and Amber on the edge of the gorge.
Main waterfall at the Walls of Jericho.
Wide angle shot of the waterfall taken with my Gopro.
Ben and Amber on the cliff above the waterfall. This helps with telling the size of the waterfall. Ben is 6'9".
HAPPY ANNIVERSARY! It's around 2:10pm in this picture, exactly three years later from Amber walking down the aisle to me!
Amber and I under the Walls of Jericho and on our way out!
Ben and I cooling off for the hike out in 52 degree cave fed creek water!

The conversation on the hike out can't be put in print here, but Amber struggled. We took several breaks and around an hour and half later were making the final approach to the car. To her credit, Amber handled it well considering the heat was above 90 degrees and the humidity was equally brutal. The two hour drive back to Ben's went by quick and we still were spared with enough time to play in the lake. I even got to watch the sun set over the water from the comfort of a jet ski. To me, our anniversary was perfect. Having Amber with me was all I wanted and for her to be willing to do it showed a lot of love on her part. She even has started speaking to me again, and something tells me I will soon have a hefty bill from her favorite cake decorating supply store. Until next time, happy trails!

Amber shortly before her mood deteriorated.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

**Part Two** Panthertown Valley Camping Trip. Please see previous entry for full story!

With just over an hour to spare before dark we arrived at the Cold Mountain Access to Panthertown Valley. My hopes of finding a decent camp site were dashed when we found the parking lot jammed with cars. Sleeping in the truck wouldn't be possible so we gathered our packs from the bed of the truck and started down the Schoolhouse Falls Trail. The trail is easy and the waterfall is one of the most visited in the valley. Surprisingly, we didn't pass anyone on the hike in and were greeted with music from the Cannan Land property adjacent to the trail. I mistakenly took one of Carlton McNeil's twisting winding trails that led us through a tangle of laurel and by the top of the waterfall and it seemed our packs snagged on every branch we passed by! Carlton was a pioneer in the valley and blazed many of the present day trails recognized on forest service maps, he even has his own waterfall named for him there, Carlton Falls.
Ready for day two! Photo by John Forbes.

As we passed the base of Schoolhouse Falls the first campsite across the creek was already taken by another group of hikers. The trail widens again downstream at another camp site. Thankfully this one was empty, and in a prime location too. Pine needles softened the ground and a slight trail led down the creek bank giving us a water source. Shane and John suggested we find enough firewood to last through the night and we started scavenging the area dragging dead logs and twigs we found back to our site. As we had left the truck (now over a mile away) Shane noticed a small black bag in the bed and asked if it was mine. I didn't recognize it and John had already started down the trail ahead of us so I assumed it was something he decided he didn't need for later. After we gathered our firewood, John started working on getting the fire going while Shane assembled his tent. I laid on my sleep pad and rested my tired feet staring up at the night sky. John suggested I start unpacking my tent he had let me borrow while he made dinner. I asked him where it was and the look on his face made it obvious what was in that small black bag in Shane's truck, my tent! It was now dark so I grabbed my headlamp and started back to the truck. The hike went by fast and was surprisingly peaceful. I grabbed some water and my tent and set off back to camp. I stumped my toe on the hike back on a sharp stick that knocked the hide off below my big toe but with all the other cuts I had from earlier it did very little to slow me. I arrived back at camp to find John preparing dinner and Shane returning from a bath in the creek. Shane's refreshed look inspired me so I too took off to the creek for a dip. I shed my clothes on the bank and used a extra sock I had packed for a wash cloth. Getting all the dirt and debris from my cuts made me feel a lot better and I rejoined camp just in time for my own hot pot of Ramen Noodles. After dinner we sat around telling stories and reliving our crazy experience on the cliffs. Shortly after 11pm, we all retired to our tents for the night and an early morning appointment with more trails.

Day Two.

With a thin mat and sore body, I slept in thirty minute spurts through the night. While tossing in my sleeping bag, I discovered a new injury to my foot. Apparently the stick I stumped my toe on had slipped under my foot and punctured the ball of my foot, I rubbed my hand over the wound and found it wet with blood. I awoke for the final time around 6am and exited my tent finding that I was the first one up. John began groaning complaining of a headache and asked if I had any Tylenol. Shane started rummaging around his tent and found some medicine for John in his first aid kit. We decided the best plan of action was to hit some of the more popular falls early that morning avoiding the crowds and breaking camp later in the afternoon. Our first stop was just upstream at Schoolhouse Falls. With a deep pool in front of the falls and the ability to photograph it from all sides, including behind it, it's easy to see why it's one of the most popular falls in Panthertown Valley.
John and Shane behind Schoolhouse Falls.
John in the pot hole at Warden's Falls.
Jawbone Falls.
Shane and I inside the pot hole at Riding Ford Falls.

Shane and John were impressed and circled the falls clicking away with their cameras. I took their pictures behind the falls and made a short video of my own walk behind the waterfall. We had a lot to see so we set off on the trail traveling back through camp and on to the trail intersection for the Devil's Elbow. The Devil's Elbow Trail passes by five waterfalls and I had brought Burt Kornegay's Panthertown map with me to keep us on course. The first stop on the trail was at Warden's Falls. I had visited this waterfall last fall and really liked it so I kept quiet and let John and Shane soak it in for themselves. The trail crosses the top of the falls and a slight scramble gets you to the base. Both John and Shane were impressed and Shane was in the water playing on it's natural water slide in no time. I poked around downstream and found a deep pot hole which was the perfect fit for John. He jumped in and I took some pictures with the waterfall as a back drop. Satisfied with our first falls we were off to find Jawbone Falls. We climbed back up the ridge meeting the Devil's Elbow and followed it down to the next spur trail that once again emptied us above the waterfall. It was the first time for me seeing this falls and I was impressed with it's wide slide and massive deep pool below the falls. We worked down the bedrock and John was first to it's base. He decided to climb out to a rock in the pool for a better view and forgot to take his electronic cigarette from his pocket and ruined it for any use the rest of the day. I was afraid it would ruin the day for him but he kept his spirits high as we continued downstream and crossed over to a sandy beach which I thought was the best view of Jawbone Falls. Just around the bend was our next waterfall, Riding Ford Falls. Riding Ford was more of a long cascade but with a large collection of boulders at the base and yet another cool looking pot hole I found it to be very photogenic. Both Shane and John were already wet and with a little convincing, I was taking the plunge in the pot hole inside of the waterfall. It was in two sections with one being too deep for me to touch but the other compartment I could stand up in and lean back letting the water cascade over me. I seriously could have spent the rest of the day here. John and Shane climbed on one of the large boulders and eventually took turns joining me in the pot hole for photo ops. After we all had cooled off, we set off to find Elbow Falls further downstream. I was excited to see this one it reminded me of a smaller Turtle Back Falls but it was even smaller than what I could depict from photographs I'd seen, only being about 10ft high. Although it's small, it forms a deep channel and sharp "elbow" bend as it continues on down the valley. The trees along the banks here were the most photogenic being covered in curtains of thick moss and two of the largest dead trees had washed in on the bed rock below the falls indicating that this place sees some serious flooding. Our final stop on the Devil's Elbow was at Red Butt Falls. We climbed out of the gorge and found the trail again, as we hiked toward the spur trail we noticed some flagging tape lined on either side of the main trail. Thankfully, John saw some writing on the tape and we stopped to look. Someone had took time to warn other hikers of a yellow jackets nest right next to the trail! I spotted it in the leaves and we snuck by trying not to alarm them. So to whoever did this, I thank you! The trail to Red Butt is overgrown indicating not many people get down in the valley that far. When we arrived at the falls we were at the top and it was very similar to Riding Ford Falls with a large cliff looming over it's base. Shane examined the rock and found a perfect slide to test out. As he zipped down the rock laughing wildly, I knew I had to try it for myself. The footing is a little tough but once I was on my rear the water pushed me down to a small pool at the end of the slide. I was in love, as quick as I would land I would scramble back up for another ride! Eventually both Shane and I "raced" each other down the plunge, pushing and shoving trying to be the first to reach the pool. I think Shane summed up the Devil's Elbow hike the best when he said, "we made each of those waterfalls our own."
Elbow Falls.
The old trees surrounding Elbow Falls.
Shane preparing for launch at Red Butt Falls.

Thrilled with our morning of adventure and play time we hiked back to camp energized by six quality waterfalls under our belts. We packed our gear and our new found energy burned quickly with the midday sun and tired legs from the day before. We arrived at the truck and  made the short drive to the end of the Cold Mountain Access for a trip to see our final three waterfalls, Greenland Creek, Halfway Falls, and Carlton Falls. We all were starting to get hungry and our insults and arguing only intensified as we wound toward Greenland Creek. As Shane and John stepped out on the rocks below the waterfall, their stunned looks made me almost forgive them for their ridicule on the hike in! Greenland Creek Falls is nice and big around 70ft high. To continue on to the other falls we had to climb the steep trail next to its' drop. My legs and energy were shot but I made it to the top first and found a little path that led me down to the top of the falls. I wouldn't recommend hanging out here, a stiff breeze or a slip would certainly mean your death. John and Shane joined me and we decided that we had a great trip but it was time for some food! I didn't argue with them either, I was starved, and our hungry served as our motivation on the hike out, soon we were in the truck on the way to the Twin Dragons Buffet.

Cooling off at Red Butt Falls.

Greenland Creek Falls.
John and Shane leaving camp.

My shredded legs.
It's been over a week since our Panthertown Trip and as I type this up tonight I have had a smile on my face the whole time. The challenges we pushed through on day one helped us savor the fun we got to experience on day two. Although Thomas couldn't find his infamous trail, he was a lot of fun to hike with and we've already talked of taking an even more epic trip in the bowels of Panthertown Valley in the near future. Finally, I would like to recognize all the new readers I've gained from my friends through the various social media sites that help promote my blog. I appreciate all of you and look forward to bringing you many more trip reports in the years to come. Stay tuned, and happy trails!

Monday, August 25, 2014

Most of the photos in this blog entry are from my friend John Forbes, he was the only one crazy enough to let go long enough to take a picture that day. This is our story...

Tired, sore, and still bleeding from a few wounds, I limped into Twin Dragons Chinese Buffet near Brevard bringing with me two more beat down hikers looking for a hot meal. As I worked my way around the bar, the nicely dressed Sunday afternoon customers raised a few eyebrows, but I didn't care, I was just happy to be alive and to see the won ton soup bowl was nearly full. I settled in on my second plate talking to Shane when a soft elderly woman's voice said, "what have you done?" I looked up from my plate long enough to see her shocked look as she stared down at my legs which were covered in bloody gashes, but in order to fully understand those wounds I have to take you back to the beginning of our weekend camping trip.
We were so excited! Photo by Thomas Mabry.
The drop into the gorge of Flat Creek Falls.
Approaching the upper falls. Photo by John Forbes.
Thomas "on the trail" photo by John Forbes.
You really had to hold onto your hats on this well as other body parts. Photo by John Forbes.

Shane Estep has hiked with me several times in the past and when he mentioned a hiking/camping trip, I felt the pressure of picking the perfect spot and making sure it lives up to our recent run of epic journeys. John Forbes has become one of my "go to" hiking partners and recruited him for the trip as well. Settling on a location for a camping trip came surprisingly easy to me. I hiked in the Panthertown Valley last fall and loved the trails and many camp sites would put us in prime territory to see a lot of waterfalls in one day. The Valley lies just outside of Lake Toxaway, North Carolina and, in my opinion, is overlooked as one of the premier hiking destinations in the mountains. While doing the prep work for our trip, I became a member of Friends of Panthertown Valley to scope out some possible sites we wanted to see and as I perused their page I kept seeing posts from a member named Thomas Mabry. As fate would have it, Thomas sent me a friend request on Facebook and I poured through his pictures, impressed with some of the more difficult hikes he had completed. Thomas and I exchanged several messages and I told him we would be coming into the area for some hiking and I asked if he would join us as a guide in the rugged Flat Creek Falls gorge.
Shane and I coming down the cliffs. Photo by John Forbes.
This wasn't a photo op, I was actually hiking here. Notice the thorns on the right. I had over 100 cuts when we reached the base of the waterfall. Photo by John Forbes.
Down and down and down. Photo by John Forbes.
Shane and I had to laugh so we wouldn't cry. Photo by John Forbes.

Not more than a week earlier, Thomas had joined author Todd Ransom in an epic bushwhack down the cliffs next to the 200ft waterfall to it's base. When I saw that it could be done, I had to go myself. So I told Shane and John we were in for adventure on the grandest of scales, but we ended up getting far more than we bargained for.
The tree obstacle course on another section of cliff. Photo by John Forbes.
The helicopter entering the gorge. Photo by John Forbes.
Thomas the Honey Badger blazing the trail. Photo by John Forbes.
and we're right behind him. Photo by Thomas Mabry.

We left the Tri Cities early Saturday morning and the two hour drive down into the North Carolina Mountains went quickly with Shane driving his powerful Chevy pickup truck (sarcasm) The road to Flat Creek Falls trail head dead ends at a large camp site and when we arrived, albeit a few minutes late, Thomas was standing next to his car ready to hit the trail. We all took a few minutes getting acquainted and were soon across the creek and winding down the old rail bed that serves as the first part of the trail. For me hiking through the thick low lying Laurel was a pain, I had to stay bent over for most of the hike and when we met the jeep road intersection I finally could rest my back. Thomas was quite the hiker, keeping pace and telling stories of his recent surge in hiking activity. Shane stayed quiet for long stretches seemingly absorbing all he could from the surrounding forests, while John was almost jogging he was so excited to see the falls in person. In less than an hour we had blazed through the woods to the top of the waterfall. I cautioned John and Shane that the trail drops steeply off and down to the creek on some exposed bed rock and that a slip into the creek would mean a ride over the waterfall and eventually the morgue. Thomas took the lead and showed us a steep but manageable grade down to a small falls that empties into a deep pool. I opted to use my butt to slide down the ledge and was the last to reach the base. I noticed the moss on the opposite side of the pool was so thick it was hanging down like curtains, a sign that not many, if any, other people get down to this vantage point. From the pool the waterfall really begins in earnest, cascading wildly as it roars toward a vertical drop of over 100ft in the vast gorge below. We all took pictures looking downstream and I could feel my heart beating a little faster as I knew things were going to get even more difficult. Thomas seemed to have trouble finding the route that he used on his previous trip with Todd but settled on swinging downstream on the sloped rock face heading toward the main drop. We followed each other single file as there were several places along the route that was foot in front of foot walking. Adding to the difficulty was the loose pine needles, dry flaky moss, and small pebbles and sticks that had rolled down onto the rock face over time. IT WAS INTENSE HIKING! Soon we were grouped on a narrow ledge with seemingly no way to continue, Thomas decided that he had took a half butt slide/control fall here to a lower ledge that was frighteningly narrow and about 10ft or so from a sheer cliff that lines the gorge. John was quick to follow and turned to coax me down. I could see the soft ground beneath his feet rock and I was afraid if I jumped with all my weight I would slide on to my death. Shane stayed close behind me and I suggested we should find another way but Thomas and John insisted I could do it and so I slid down onto the ledge using the remnants of a dead tree to steady my landing. I found it easier to turn away from looking off the cliff and I scooted over as far as I could to let Shane make his way down with us. The narrow ledge led us further along the cliff rim but thick shrubs cut us off. Thomas lived up to his social media description as a honey badger and vanished into the mess with John close on his heels. I had to get down on my hands and knees to continue and soon I was tangled in thick briers digging into both legs. It really hurt but I wasn't going to let go and risk sliding down the grade and each crawl became more painful. Shane had claimed to be afraid of heights but he seemed to be calmer than anyone and helped me by showing me foot holds and cautioning me of approaching brier scrambles. When I caught up to Thomas and John I found them trying to find a way down a even steeper ledge. A large tree was turned over our heads and we were able to wrap our arms around it's trunk working down the ledge to a point where two trees grow closely to the drop. John's height worked against him for the first time in the little man's paradise but he was able to ride the tree down only having to make a semi dangerous jump. I got down the cliff rather easily and temporarily regained a little bit of my dignity. Thomas continued to lead us down into the gorge but I could see that we were still extremely high and warned John not to stray too far down that he might not be able to come back up the grade. As we crawled and thrashed along the cliffs, I still remained confident that we would soon find a gap in the rock walls to give us access to lower trails and a way to the base. I didn't expect it to be easy but I certainly had counted on being further along than we were. We reached an exposed section of the cliffs and I heard a thundering noise coming from over the ridge. A helicopter came over the tree line and into the gorge below the falls. It was literally hovering right beside of us! The first thought I had was that someone had went missing and they were looking for them but as the copter turned I could tell they were photographing the waterfall! It was a real manly feeling that someone paid a pilot to take them there and here we were hanging on for dear life on the cliffs hiking down to it's base. Soon the helicopter lifted out of the canyon and was gone, a part of me wanted to be on it and heading to safety but I pushed on. Thomas checked his GPS and noticed that we were about 20 yards off course. Above me was a solid rock wall and below me was a drop that we couldn't get down, it was at this point that I started thinking we might be in serious trouble. I couldn't imagine climbing back up the route we had descended but now that seemed like a real possibility. John is one of the most positive people I've ever met and I could see the doubt in his face as well. Thomas soon came scrambling back up to join us saying he had been cut off by yet another drop. I could tell he was upset he couldn't find the way he had took before but I knew we would get to the base one way or the other and I was just happy no one was seriously hurt yet. For the next thirty minutes or so, John, Shane, and Thomas took turns wading down the gorge in different directions using trees to steady their legs on the extremely steep terrain. I found a spot to rest and serve as a coordinator to tell the others of each person's location. Eventually all of the group reconvened with me and shared the grim news, we couldn't get down and were now going to have to try to climb out to find another way. For a moment, my heart sunk, I wasn't sure how or if it was even possible for me to get back up some of the ledges I had to jump down, but I certainly didn't want to stay there either. I took the lead and made it up to the tree that gave John problems but I was able to once again scramble up it with ease. I had to twist my body a little funny to get under the fallen tree but it was one less obstacle to overcome. I entered the low lying brush with the plan of staying as high as I could on the ridge above the main cliff face. I knew the general direction I needed to take and so I slithered on my belly through the briers for more cuts and pain therapy. I could see Shane, John, and Thomas about twenty yards below me also fighting through the tangles. I reached a large rounded rock with no way to climb over and was forced to go downhill to join them. We found ourselves at the narrow soft ledge and the vertical climb up the rock face. Thomas and John could used the dead tree to climb over it and were soon on their way back to the main splash pool. Shane was ahead of me and struggled slightly climbing up and warned me not to use the dead tree which was now dangerously loose. My first attempt up the rock ended in failure with me sliding down it's face on my left forearm leaving some skin behind. The second try the grip I had on Shane's hiking stick failed and I once again stumbled back down to the ledge. Shane called for John to help us but he couldn't hear us because he was already at the waterfall washing off from the climb out! After I rested a moment, Shane braced himself and again lowered his hiking stick down for me to have something to grip until I could find any kind of traction, I used the dead tree just enough to pull up and land on my knees on the narrow landing above. I was so relieved but still had a treacherous scoot over a rock face down to the upper falls and the deep pool to be with everyone else. When I arrived at the pool, I almost made another fatal mistake, I walked dangerously close to the slick stream bed and John called me back to use a small side pool to wash off instead. My body was beat up but I was alive and happy that we would still find a way to the base. Thomas was down on himself but once I had my breath I told him, that what we had experienced would make for a great story for the blog and not to worry about it!
Ginseng near Flat Creek Falls.
FINALLY! Flat Creek Falls. Look at John and Shane to the left of the picture, they are tiny compared to this giant waterfall.
The lower drop of the falls is nearly 100ft high. Photo by John Forbes.
John Forbes making the leap of faith. A fall here would have been fatal. Photo by Shane Estep.
Shane sliding down the rock below the falls. Photo by John Forbes.
This picture really illustrates the massive size of Flat Creek Falls. I'm tiny compared to the lower portion of the cascade. Photo by John Forbes.
Thomas Mabry is inducted into the Shameless Selfie Crew.
A little out of sequence but this is when we finally made the top of the falls and found a new route to the base. I was beyond exhausted and only halfway through. the hike. Photo by John Forbes.

We rested there by the stream and soon we all were recovered enough to make another assault on finding the base of the mighty waterfall. Thomas took off through the forest finding renewed strength and we took a more gently sloping approach through the forest eventually finding a slight trail from that led us down into the gorge and downstream from the waterfall. The trail hugged the creek and as I was watching the ground for snakes I found one of the nicest ginseng plants I've ever seen. I didn't dig it since it wasn't in season and the berries weren't ripe, it was obvious other people had passed by without noticing it. We arrived at the base of the waterfall a few minutes later and I found a rock to rest on while John and Shane made the insanely slick climb around the left side of the falls and eventually vanished out of sight. Thomas joined me on the rock and seemed to be in better spirits since we had made our goal of being at the base. I was happy everyone was safe and to have a new trail contact in one of my favorite hiking areas. As we hiked out of the gorge everyone relived the challenges of the day and I'll have to admit seeing Shane's truck at the trail head was one of the greatest sights I'll ever seen, even with the University of Kentucky sticker. Thomas bid us farewell and we were on the road in search of a campsite near Panthertown Valley for day two of our trip....


Saturday, August 9, 2014

On Sunday, I spent the night in the woods with two men I met on the Internet.

I can't help but laugh when I read this, but it's the truth. In what has been a year that will be tough to top, I prepared for what would be my first overnight camping trip with two of the administrators of The Waterfalls of Tennessee Facebook page. Ronnie Phipps and Barry Cole have the arduous task of monitoring a collection of unruly yayhoos and lollygaggers as they fight over anything from photoshop techniques to tree branch relocation programs. I've been a member of the page since it's meager beginnings to it's recent surge of new members and eager hikers. I've always enjoyed the playful banter and how upset some people get over Barry's never ending quest to collect dues. Through it all, it's brought a great joy to my life and my wife can always tell when I'm on the page because I'm usually laughing and typing a clever response of my own. When Ronnie first mentioned that they would be interested in doing a northeast Tennessee trip and asked if I would join them I jumped at the opportunity. I was honored they would ask me, and excited to see if they were as fun to be around in the real world.
Off trail adventure. Photo courtesy of Ronnie Phipps.

The guys at Lilybeth Falls. Photo courtesy of Ronnie Phipps.

I made an event link on the page and Facebook decided to take care of the invites for me. Suprisingly I received immediate responses from two other hikers who also happen to be coworkers. Ken "LOL" Woody was first to respond and has took to hiking like a duck to water. He also has one of the more miraculous stories as well, losing half his original body weight by following a strict diet and becoming a mall walking maniac. He's now so skinny when he met us at the trail head Sunday, you would swear he was there having his wish granted through the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Justin "Tennessee" Hopkins was next with southeren drawl and love for all things hunting and fishing. Justin and I have hiked together in the past and his pace is similiar to my own making him a welcome member to the party. During the week leading up to our trip, another waterfall page member asked to join our clan and I gladly accepeted. I've always followed Joshua Rhea's work through the site and have been anticipating meeting him on a trail. He had to bargain with his pregnant wife to get final permission and the night before we were to meet up, he said she had signed off on all the waivers!
Another angle of Lilybeth Falls. Photo courtesy of Barry Cole.
Joshua Rhea with "The Brick". Photo courtesy of Barry Cole.

The final member of my Northeast Tennessee clan was John Forbes, an all go, no quit, up for anything hiker. I've become good friends with John this year and had invited him prior to creating the invites, his enthusiasm and knowledge add so much to any trip and having him along, in my opinion, was a must.

I met Ronnie and Barry at the Gray exit off of Interstate 26 early Sunday morning. Justin joined me there as well and we had breakfast before they made it into town. When they arrived, I was at eating on the tailgate of my truck. Barry was quick to jump out to greet me and Ronnie followed behind. I had told myself I was going to be on my best behavior on the trip considering Ronnie was the pastor at his church...but the day was young.

After a 30 minute ride to Erwin, we were turning on Clark's Creek Road heading into the Cherokee National Forest. There are campsites along the road as it winds into the mountain and lucky for us, I found one just a short curve from the Longarm Branch Trail. I had Ronnie park his truck and claim our spot while I rode up to retrieve the rest of our crew at the trail. John, Ken, and Josh were standing there ready to hike when I rolled in and after Forbes gave me a little grief for being late, everyone was excited and already getting along. I had scouted the area on Thursday for conditions and had already warned them the water would be low, but no one seemed to care, we were in the woods and on our way to certain adventure.

Hiking up Longarm is a short trip before Devil's Fork enters on the left side of the trail and soon we were at the base of Pine Ridge Falls, our first waterfall of the trip. Pine Ridge is a beautiful waterfall despite the lack of water and to see all the photographers spread out looking for just the right angle brought a smile to my face. I perched myself on a large rock downstream and it was nice not having to lug a lot of camera gear and getting to watch everyone else take in what I have seen many times. After a few minutes of dancing around trading locations we were ready to climb over the waterfall and follow the creek upstream to two of the lesser visited waterfalls in the area. Everyone handled the tricky climb and we were on our way to Josiah Falls. The trail is faint and overgrown and Friday's snake encounter was fresh in my mind. I kept my feet on the ground and led the pack through some hidden "ninja trails" (thanks, Randy) to a steep slide down to a creek crossing. As we wound through large boulders covered in mushrooms, I could see the trickle that was the waterfall. I've liked Josiah from the time I laid eyes on it and with the way everyone was rushing to set up tripods it appeared that everyone else did too. It was here that I got my first glimpse of "the brick" which is Josh Rhea's 1960ish film camera. It looks similar to one of those large pay for view binocular contraptions you see at tourist attractions on a smaller scale. Josh seemed happy I took notice and offered to let me look through the lens. The image appears reversed and I would be lost if I even attempted to shoot with it! Everyone's spirits remained high and smiles were everywhere, at least until I pointed out the trail to Lilybeth It's a straight up scramble with nothing to hold onto. Barry let out a sadistic laugh and was first to start up the bank, I followed close behind pointing out the best route to swing around the rock cliffs that surround Josiah. The group labored up steep grade and we all took a rest near the fork in the creek and the small falls we named Rat Falls in honor of local waterfall legend, Randy Tarpley. The trail is slightly more tame here and Barry let his guard down long enough to take a pretty hilarious fall. He was quick to his feet and proclaimed, "Hey, that was slick!" Another bear crawl, cliff scramble, log avoiding route later, and we emerged at Lilybeth Falls. The flow seemed better than what I saw at Josiah although I know it couldn't be and I felt a big relief that we hadn't encountered any snakes. As the photographers were doing their thing, John, Justin, and I set off to a large pine tree on a cliff high above the falls. I've always told myself I would climb up there and today was the day. John was first since he's part billy goat. He makes climbing look easy and Justin and me kind of lumbered up the cliff breaking any branch that got in our way. Soon we were perched high above the others even dangling our feet off the sloped cliff edge. We took a few pictures with the gopro before climbing down to be with the rest of the group. Everyone was stoked to have three quality waterfalls under our belts early in the day and we started down the trail buzzing with conversation. At a steep section on the return, I was behind Justin who was trying to use laurel to safely get down. Over my shoulder, I heard Ronnie say, "this looks fun" and before I could fully turn Ronnie shot by me riding on his butt with his hands in the air. Poor Justin was so startled he almost fell getting out of the way thinking I was barreling down on him! Ronnie jumped to his feet laughing and with a large stain on the behind of his gray hiking shorts that would be there through the rest of our trip. Conversation wasn't the only thing buzzing on our way out, as Barry and I were hiking together above Pine Ridge Falls I heard a distant scream followed by another! I turned to see Justin barreling through the woods right for us, Barry had a puzzled look but I knew what was happening and was determined to put some trail between me and whatever was stinging Justin. Before I knew it, I was way ahead of the group and Justin had stopped to inspect his wounds. He got a sting on the back and leg from yellow jackets and there was some immediate swelling. He claimed to be allergic so I stepped my pace up and kept the others moving in case Justin started feeling worse. When we arrived back at camp, Ronnie had some benadryl and Barry gave him some after bite insect wipes and he seemed to improve a little before we loaded up for the commute to Greene County and Margarette Falls.
John Forbes takes the high ground for this shot of Margarette Falls. Photo courtesy of John Forbes.

When I say the parking lot at Margarette Falls was packed, I mean IT WAS PACKED! I counted 19 cars and as we started up the trail I was already dreading what we would find when we got to the waterfall. Along the hike, we passed several groups hiking out, and also caught several groups hiking in. My pace reeled in slower hikers and I was expecting them to show some courtesy and step aside. One lady in particular drew my ire, hiking with two dogs she refused to budge and slowed my pace to a crawl. I asked her if she minded if I passed and she gave me a death glare I've received from many women before her. Unfazed I hiked on catching yet another group of Sunday hikers. I don't know if the old man couldn't hear me or didn't care but I stayed on his heels the final half mile to the base of Margarette Falls.At the falls, the crowd wasn't as bad as I had anticipated but there were still plenty of challenges, among them was my friend, the dog lady. She emerged just in time to play fetch with her dogs in front of where Ronnie had set up his tripod. Ronnie is truly a man of God, simply shrugging it off and moved over to another angle of the falls. John took off straight for the top and the solitude it provided. I could tell he was annoyed with the crowd as well and he stayed hidden in the bush along the falls. After some patience and some cloud cover, again I think Ronnie had a hand in, we had the falls to ourselves. Everyone got the pictures they wanted and we started the tough climb up and around to Bailey Falls. The trail meets a rock wall roughly 12ft high and although there are cracks in it and a few roots to grab it's not the sort of thing to be taken lightly. Each of us took turns climbing over and we stopped to make sure the next person didn't need help, it was a real team effort getting everyone safely over but we did it. The trails stays level and zig zags back and forth across the creek. Near a crossing with a dead stump I felt a burning in my ankle I looked down to see a hornet latched on. I jumped the creek and warned the others to be looking for a nest. Most of the group dropped down to the creek to avoid the trail and wade upstream to keep from getting stung. We entered the canyon that contains both Bailey Falls. There are plenty of places to turn an ankle or break a leg and some large boulders have to be negotiated before seeing the waterfall. I could tell by the newbies reactions, Bailey was a hit. Josh in particular was thrilled. The brick was out and in action in no time. He had labored hard to get there and at last he had good lighting and no one to photo bomb his images. Barry and Josh stayed together at the lower falls with Ken while Justin, Ronnie, John and myself took the steep rock trail above to the upper falls. The upper waterfall is my favorite in Northeast Tennessee and Ronnie agreed with me. Almost in a trance, he waded over close to the falls staring with his mouth open. The walls are lined with green moss and within minutes he had the best picture I've ever seen from there. Ronnie's playful side once again showed itself, and he climbed the slick ledge above the falls and was gone from sight. He reemerged on the ledge at the drop of the falls and posed for pictures since I've never seen anyone up there! Justin had recovered enough from his dizziness from the sting to rejoin our conversation and decided he would take the dip by laying in the waterfall. It was good to see him feeling good again and from the shrill screams he let out, the water must have been cold. John and I wedged ourselves against the canyon walls taking pictures with my gopro and Ronnie had to have my help getting down from the upper ledge, as I bear hugged him down to safety, I was surprised at how much he smelled like grape bubble gum (inside joke) We all rejoined the others and began the hike out with growling stomachs. As we approached the hornets nest I saw Ken closing in on the creek crossing right before the stump. I yelled to get his attention and told him to stay in the creek and wade downstream. He stared at me blankly before climbing the bank by the stump, getting stung, and dropping his hiking stick and standing there! I once again, was forced to run to avoid the angry swarm. Apparently losing a lot of weight, can affect your hearing as well! When we got back to our vehicles at the trail head. Josh decided he needed to head home to his wife. We all said goodbye and by the smile on his face as he pulled away, I would say he will join us again.
Josh's haul of film shots from the great waterfall hunt of 2014. Photo courtesy of Joshua Rhea.
Lower Bailey Falls. Photo courtesy of Barry Cole.
A top view from Bailey Falls with my Gopro.
Upper Bailey Falls. Photo courtesy of Ronnie Phipps.

Our next stop was for refueling purposes, everyone was hungry, tired, wet, and injured in some way, other than Ronnie. Clarence's Drive-In in downtown Erwin is one of the finest dining secrets in the area. If you are a fan of country fried steak and macaroni and cheese bites, go there! My wife had decided to meet us there to eat and when we pulled in, I was surprised to find out my mom and dad were also there eating. Our rowdy group brought a lot of life to the quiet diner and our waitress kept Barry's personal pitcher of sweet tea filled through out dinner. I went over and visited with my parents and they even noted how happy all of us were. I was still feeling frisky and after dinner suggested visiting Red Fork Falls since it was so close. Everyone agreed and we rode over 107 to the parking off Unaka Mountain Road. When we got close to the top of the waterfall I warned everyone to tread lightly since several people have fell to their deaths. Ken chose to stay up top already feeling some knee pain from the earlier hikes. The rest of us scrambled down to the base using the trail that hugs the side of the falls. Barry and Ronnie LOVED the view and were both blurs shooting wildly. Ronnie wanted to shoot a small chute of water below the waterfall and Amber, Justin, John, and I hiked down the slick trail with him. We continued on down the trail to a nice 30ft lower falls and I led the way. There's a large sloped rock that you climb out on to cross the creek here, and it's covered in spray and a thin layer of algae. I could feel my foot slide and warned the others to watch their step when I heard a strange "whoooooooop" noise. When I turned Justin was already airborne in a horizontal position. (imagine laying on a couch, without the couch) He remained in this same position as his body slammed the rock causing a groan that made me even flinch. He began writhing in pain on the rock and I was afraid he was seriously hurt, before he finally squeezed out the words "I'm ok" I joined Amber, Ronnie, and John on the other side of the creek and kept an eye on Justin rocking back and forth on the rock. By the time Ronnie finished shooting, Justin was to his feet and only complaining of a hurt wrist and some knee pain. We hiked up to Barry still shooting the upper falls. Justin began telling Barry of his fall when a sudden surprised look went across his face. It's a look I'll never forget, and then he said, "Oh my God, my tooth is gone!" Somehow during his fall, a tooth had blew out of his head! The bizarre look made me erupt with laughter. I doubled over having to let the others hike on without me. I felt bad for him but his expression and the weirdness of it all was too much for me. John made me laugh harder by saying, "you could tell the exact moment when something you've had for your whole life is gone" Justin, I'm sure, didn't find it as amusing as us but he was a good sport and a tough dude for being able to continue on despite several setbacks throughout the day.
Red Fork Falls. Photo courtesy of Barry Cole.
The chute below Red Fork Falls. Photo courtesy of Barry Cole.
Selfie time! Photo courtesy of Barry Cole.

By the time we made it back to camp, I had almost stopped laughing and it was already dark. John was busy unrolling tents and Ken was gathering firewood. Amber came back to camp delivering us some cookies and cupcakes and to hear our many crazy stories as we gathered around a warm fire. I didn't own a tent so John brought me one and a sleep mat. Several hours and laughs went by before we all retreated to our tents for the night. I was a little snug inside of mine but I was tired and after letting the pressure off of some Clarence's leftover's I was fast asleep...for about five minutes. Justin opted to sleep in his truck and when he was attempting to get comfortable he laid on the horn for a lengthy and startling blow. After my heart reentered my chest, I dozed off only waking up occasionally to get comfortable again. Around 6am I heard a tent unzip and decided to get up myself. John and Ken were wandering around camp and beginning to brew coffee and Ken's trademark green tea. John shared with me one of the stiffest cups of coffee I've ever had but it hit the spot and got me going for day two of our trip. Justin had vowed to get up early and catch our breakfast fishing but as 7am passed he finally emerged from his truck to join us around the fire. He walked like a man who had fell on a hard rock the day before and soon the call of the wild was striking each of our stomachs. One by one we took turns behind various trees creating a virtual minefield. As Justin vanished over the creek bank to file his paperwork, another visitor approached camp from the opposite direction. A mother bear and two cubs were coming through the forest on the other side of the creek. I saw them and said, "hey there's a bear" but John and Ronnie thought I was kidding and kept talking, again I said "A BEAR!" She was within 50 yards of camp when they both leaped to their feet grabbing for cameras. I ran to my tent and circled over to the road knowing she was crossing with them there. I got a few pics of them before they disappeared into the woods once again! It was an exciting start to our second day and made breaking down and packing up a little easier.
Base Camp with Amber, Jon, Ronnie, and Barry. Photo courtesy of Barry Cole.
My cell phone shot of the fleeing bears.

Our first stop of day two was Sill Branch Falls which is just down the road. Normally a beautiful 60ft waterfall it was slowed to a trickle and we spent very little time with photography there. The most striking part of the morning was how well everyone got along. It seemed that each person took turns hiking together and we all were talking non stop. Unless I didn't hear it, I don't think anyone exchanged an angry word the whole trip. After a few pit stops, we were on our way to the Blue Hole in Elizabethton. The Blue Hole is a series of four waterfalls and a deep swimming hole and we were lucky enough to get there early enough to have some time to ourselves there. Ken, Justin, and John took the scenic route missing the turn and heading all the way to the Johnson County line 10 miles away. As we were leaving, they caught up to us and we caravaned over to Laurel Falls in Denis Cove and our final stop of the trip. Justin said his farewells as the itch to fish was more than he could bear and he took off to Watagua Lake.  Laurel Falls is really popular as well and the trail head was already jammed with cars. Everyone was aware this was our final stop and we really savored hiking in taking our time and telling stories. The large rock staircase that lowers into the gorge had both Ronnie and Barry a little intimidated but they handled it like men when it came time to hike out.
Ronnie and I at the Blue Hole. Photo courtesy of Barry Cole.
Parting shot from Laurel Falls. Photo courtesy of Ronnie Phipps.

When we reached the parking lot, I felt a little sadness that our trip was coming to an end. Ronnie and Barry took turns saying goodbye to each of us and we started talking about dates later in the year for another group outing. I wished them the best and vowed to join them in future hikes and I was on the road home for a date with a hot shower and long nap. My first ever camping trip and guiding gig had been successful. No one was seriously injured in the two days we were in the wilderness, but if you happen to be hiking along the trail at Red Fork Falls and see a tooth laying amongst the forest floor, could you please return it, Justin would like to have it back. Until next time, happy trails!